Monday, April 26, 2010

The Freeway Method of Enlightenment

I've been in L.A. since Thursday for some events connected with the publication of Jung's Red Book, but it hasn't been all scholarly activity. I've spent a lot of time exploring: looking for places to eat, shopping, walking, driving, and just plain looking. Lots of walking, lots of driving. The thing about writing about labyrinths is that you start to notice them more and more, both the ones that are clearly marked and the ones that aren't.

Yesterday I drove down to Laguna Beach, chancing the freeways of Orange County. Laguna Beach, with its curving boardwalk and garden-like cliffside path, sparkled under a cloudless sky. I made time for a labyrinth at an Episcopal Church in Laguna Hills, finding it after only one wrong turn on a street named El Toro. This church is next to a busy road, with the freeway humming not far away, so the labyrinth is an oasis of calm in the midst of much activity.

I left that labyrinth only to enter a larger one, the freeway system of Southern California. Despite driving down from L.A. without a hitch, I missed my freeway entrance on the way back and ended up on the I-5 instead -- so the way in was not the way out. I was trying to get back to L.A. in time to stop by the Jung Center, where a colleague from school had offered to show me around if I was in the neighborhood, and I would have made it if not for taking that wrong turn (or was it the right turn?). I ended up seeing parts of L.A. that I wouldn't have seen otherwise but missed the Jung Center altogether.

Then things got really complicated this morning, after I had what seemed like a simple idea. I thought it might be nice to visit an old church I once discovered near Olvera Street in downtown L.A. Olvera Street is all I saw of L.A. the first time I visited years ago, so it's where all my explorations here began. I even gave up breakfast at my hotel to try to get to the church by 8 a.m., which is saying something considering how much I like those Urth Cafe danishes.

I knew I needed to get on the I-10 from Cloverfield, and even though I knew it, I turned onto Olympic instead and missed the entrance. I cut over to Pico and headed for what I knew was another entry to the I-10. I almost missed this one as well since it came up sooner than I expected, but I saw the sign at the last minute. I had memorized the series of moves I needed to make downtown and didn't consider it to be big deal since I had gone this way many times. But somehow the directions didn't work, and I found myself on a strange freeway, heading toward Santa Ana, with downtown fading into the distance and the sky turning a grim industrial gray that made me think of East Germany behind the Iron Curtain. According to my map, I was southeast of L.A., but I felt like I was in Mordor, or at least in one of Dante's lower circles. Sometimes the descent happens just that fast.

I figured the best thing to do was to stay on the freeway and wait until it connected with a road I knew. This happened eventually, but not until I had crossed all the way back to the 405 and then the I-10, retracing my route from earlier. I obviously wasn't going to make the Mass, but I could still visit the church, and this time, following my own hunch, I exited at the right place and found it. I addressed myself to Mary, Queen of the Angels, since she was the one I had come to see, put money in the poor box, and lit a candle. Then I walked over to Olvera Street and had breakfast.

I was supposed to meet friends at 11:30 at the Hammer Museum, and at that point I still had adequate time. Not wanting to risk getting lost again, I asked the parking lot attendant the best way to get back to I-10; either I misunderstood him or he had things a bit scrambled, because the way he told me to go ended at a dead end. Then I got on the freeway, but it was going the wrong way. I got off and traveled the surface roads until I saw a sign for I-10 West, and I was just congratulating myself on spotting one when I realized (right after getting on the freeway) that I was almost out of gas. After a quick exit and a panicked search for a gas station that refused to appear until I was almost running on fumes, I found one at the corner of Pico and Vermont, jumped back on the I-10, and sailed on, making it to my destination 45 minutes later than I had planned.

I was still early for the event but too far back in line to see my friends. I was silently berating myself for undertaking such a wild scheme that morning when a man who had joined me in line struck up a conversation. We ended up talking during much of the hour and 40-minute wait before the event started. He had a background in film and writing, and I was struck by the ways our stories were alike as well as the ways they differed. I had once wanted to be a psychologist; he actually was one. We had both written unpublished children's stories. I told him about the recent "big dream" I had about my grandmother, and he picked up on an aspect of it that I had overlooked. He talked about his wife helping to design the facility we were standing in. He had just joined the Hammer Museum as a member and kindly offered to let me enter as his guest so I would be sure of getting a seat in the auditorium instead of the overflow gallery.

I wouldn't have met this man and had this conversation if I hadn't been lost and running late. So was I really lost and late, or did I arrive just when I was supposed to? Perhaps there was something he said that I needed to hear. One of the things he told me was that in his own life he was trying to listen to the universe, trust it, and live in the flow. That is a Jungian idea, and I agree with it, but as I said to him, it's hard to know sometimes just how to do that. He agreed that it is a challenge.

While we were waiting, I saw my friend from the Jung Center at a distance, and we waved at each other across a sea of people. One connection missed . . . but another one made. I found the friends I came to meet, and we decided to get together in the courtyard afterwards. The talk itself, a conversation between James Hillman and Sonu Shamdasani, editor of the Red Book, was rich and fascinating, but it was only one of several remarkable things that happened on this trip.

After the talk, the Red Book exhibit, and a visit with my friends, I drove toward the ocean, feeling pensive. I went for a walk in the canyon neighborhood that I somehow think of as mine, though I don't own an inch of property there. A bit of melancholy had hung over this trip, retreating and returning at intervals, and it came back now as I faced my last evening here. After the walk, I drove down to the Pacific Coast Highway, thinking of having dinner downtown. Instead, I found myself in a lane that only turned right, once again forced in a direction contrary to my intention. I sat at that long light feeling both annoyed and tired, though there was nothing to do but go with the traffic.

When the light changed, and I turned onto the highway, I saw what I could not see before -- the rays of the setting sun streaming down from behind a bank of clouds, forming a shining path on the ocean and the land in a spectacular interplay of light, sky, water, and earth that I would have had my back to had I gone the way I intended.

I've walked so many of these labyrinths, always considering it a conscious choice, something for research, the path to my dissertation -- meaningful, of course -- but really my own doing. But right now I'm beginning to wonder: Am I walking them, or are they walking me? Both, maybe?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Like a Bolt Out of the Blue

Yesterday I was on my way to Cincinnati to hear a lecture on Jung and alchemy when I had an unexpected visitation. I had just started down the big hill on the slow glide into Cincinnati when I heard a loud bang coming from somewhere very close. I knew I hadn't hit anything, and after a few suspenseful seconds I could tell the car was running normally . . . but something had definitely happened.

There was a vehicle several car lengths behind me, and a truck with a tarp about 50 feet ahead, but no one near me. It was a seriously scary and sudden bang, and so mysterious that I was completely bewildered; I was even more perturbed a minute or so later when I spotted a semicircular crack in almost the exact center of my windshield.

I got to the church where the lecture was being held still in a little bit of shock. I literally didn't know what had hit me and was now facing a windshield repair, so I was feeling pretty cross -- not to mention rattled -- when I left my car and walked down the street. Once I got inside and sat down (safe for the time being from falling objects), I felt a little calmer and better able to reflect. It seemed highly coincidental to have such an experience on the way to a talk about Jung, who said so much about synchronicity and the way outer events sometimes reflect inner reality.

Jung once defined God as "the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions and change the course of my life for better or worse." Whatever cracked my windshield certainly had some of those qualities.

Our speaker, Richard Sweeney, talked about Jung's research into medieval alchemy and his interest in the way its processes mirrored the psychological processes of individuation. There are fancy names for these stages, including calcinatio (burning), coagulatio (hardening), and separatio (separating). Of all the processes, the one that seemed to resonate most for me was coagulatio, which has to do with getting down to earth and solidifying what has been overly conceptual or ephemeral. This stage evokes images of rocks, stones, and other solid things, such as mysterious objects that might smash into your windshield while you're driving.

According to Dr. Sweeney, coagulatio eventually leads to another stage, mortificatio (killing or destroying), in which the ego or one of its attitudes is defeated by the Self, which always persists in pushing us in the direction we need to go. The idea is that something that's holding us back, an attitude or belief that we cling to, may have to die before we can move ahead. I'm sure there are many ways in which this is true for me, and maybe the weeks and months ahead will reveal why I needed to be brained by falling rocks to realize it.

Whatever the real explanation for the incident, there's definitely a lot the imagination (my imagination, anyway) can do with a bolt from the blue. Debris from the road that somehow bounced up and smacked my glass? Possibly, but kind of boring. A tiny chunk of ice from a passing plane? Oww! The hammer of the gods? OK, they have my attention. Dust from a falling star that I once wished on, finally come to earth to find me? I like that one, but I have to say I somehow imagined stardust to be a little lighter and more delicate.

I'm just glad I don't have a sunroof.

When You Wish Upon a Star (Louis Armstrong version)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Thin Places

I've been thinking about an article I read yesterday by Jungian analyst Jerry Wright called "Thin Places and Thin Times." The title refers to the Celtic belief that there is but a curtain separating the everyday world from the world of faerie. The otherworld is the realm of the Tuatha De Danann, the magical people of legend in Ireland. Although Celtic spirituality holds that the everyday world is interpenetrated with spirit, some slight separation occurs, largely for practical reasons. It's said that because mortals found the constant mingling of the visible and invisible worlds distressing, the curtain was created long ago to separate them.

This curtain is really an illusion, since the two worlds always coexist, but the division reduced stress among the mortal folk, who must have been a little bedazzled by constantly bumping into mythic personages in the pre-curtain days. They wanted someplace a little more solid in which to carry on their everyday affairs, and they got it.

Still, there are certain places where the curtain is especially sheer and the passage between worlds is particularly easy. Certain wells, shrines, or crossroads, certain "fairy mounds" in the woods, are known to be "thin places" in Ireland. (There are also "thin times," like Samhain, which we call Halloween.) All kinds of wonderful things can happen in and around these thin places and times; one is apt to go for a walk and encounter a god sitting on a stile or be kidnapped by the faerie people and end up living for years in the otherworld.

Although the faerie people are often benign, they can be dangerous, especially if not given their due. In Jungian terms, the otherworld corresponds to the unconscious, so a particularly fluid connection to the unconscious corresponds to a Celtic thin place.

It might have been thinking about thin places that made me restless this weekend. I was walking through the neighborhood yesterday, enjoying the weather and the flowers and the blue sky, when I had the urge to go somewhere. I was a little frustrated when I couldn't think of a place that seemed right. I thought of driving to the Abbey at Gethsemani, where I have sometimes gone to sit and think, but in the end, it seemed too far to go.

Without putting a lot of thought into it, I ended up at the cemetery, which sounds like an odd place to be on a pretty April weekend, except that the cemetery here is beautiful in early spring. It's like an arboretum, with ponds, geese, tulips, flowering trees, and birdsong. A cemetery certainly is a borderland between life and death and would be considered "thin" by any standard -- not that I encountered anything there except sunshine and mild breezes.

Sometimes you can walk into a thin place without knowing it. I visited a bookstore last week, on a little street where Santa Monica and Venice come together, a few blocks from the sea. I had been there two years ago, when I bought a used copy of a novel by Kate Mosse called Labyrinth, Jorge Luis Borges' collection of writings called Labyrinths, and an anthology on Jung in literature. I liked the coziness of the small, crowded space and the kind, low-key manner of the proprietor, who exuded a sort of counterculture faerie king persona with his flowing hair and sage manner.

Last Saturday, when I walked in, the proprietor was sitting in the same place as before, and he greeted me in the same calm way. As I drifted toward the poetry section, I was startled to hear the opening chords of a moderately obscure pop song from the 1960s that carries a special weight for me. At the cash register, when the proprietor pointed out that one of the books I was buying was signed, I opened it to the inscription and saw my own name: "For Mary, wishing you bliss." The book, which I bought largely on the strength of the title, is called Bliss, Danger & Gods: Quotes of Risk & Passion, and it was signed more than 20 years ago.

Synchronicity, a little slippage between the visible and invisible in a liminal place, the curtain blown aside by a slight breeze from the sea? Or mere coincidence, a little trick of the mind to pass the time? The Irish say that when you have a numinous experience, a visitation from the gods, the appropriate thing to do is bow. So here is my bow, acknowledging a bit of bookstore magic on a sunny afternoon by the sea.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

I Am Your Labyrinth

I visited the Descanso Gardens this morning to celebrate Easter. It's a little off the beaten track, requiring the negotiation of several freeways and a stomach for wild driving. It was a windy, cool day, with the sun and clouds chasing each other and people shivering a little in their Easter finery. I had brought a wide-brimmed hat that I don't wear at home, since it never seems appropriate anywhere, but it was perfect today with my silky rose cardigan, floaty white blouse, and movie-star sunglasses. It's nice when the wardrobe gods smile. (That must be chiefly Athena, whose department included weaving and textiles.)

I've sometimes wondered why I bought that hat, which has been languishing in my room for several years, looking a little superfluous. This proves there was never anything wrong with the hat -- it just lacked the right setting.

Anyway, there we all were at Descanso, zooming around amid the blooms in our spring attire, looking a little bit like flowers ourselves. Naturally, I couldn't help thinking about what the philosopher Slavoj Zizek said about flowers. I was introduced to his work by my ex-boyfriend, and although I find some of his thinking hard to penetrate, I always remember what he said about the true purpose of flowers and the reason for their showiness. He remarked (tongue in cheek, I think) that flowers are inappropriate for children. There were many children of all ages in the garden today, excited about the Easter Egg hunt that was underway, oblivious of philosophers and their subversive ideas . . . but Zizek is right about one thing. Spring is about Eros.

Descanso is less manicured than my long-time favorite, the Huntington Gardens, a bit wilder and more rustic. Over the course of a two-hour ramble, I encountered such sights as a long, gorgeous bed of tulips in every spring hue imaginable; trails leading into wooded areas with views of the surrounding hills; native wildflowers; delicate roses; camellias of all kinds; blossoming cherry trees; a Japanese garden with a curved orange bridge; and a one-acre lilac garden. Also, a couple of surprises: the children's garden had a small hedge maze, and there was even a labyrinth of sorts. The research just won't leave me alone.

I wasn't looking for labyrinths today, but this one found me. Looking down into a clearing amid tall trees in the camellia garden, I saw what looked like a collection of small stone piers. When I went down to investigate, I found a plaque explaining the importance of the spiral in nature and the Fibonacci sequence, the numeral description of the spiral's shape. I had been standing in the center of the spiral for several minutes, looking around, when a little boy came by with his grandmother. She was trying to read the plaque and explain the math part of it, but his first instinct was to run into the middle of the spiral, yelling.

Watching him reminded me of how much I loved curving paths when I was little. When I was six or seven, my parents used to sometimes have business at an office building with a small enclosed courtyard. A walkway spiraled sinuously through the center of this courtyard, and I used to amuse myself by following it in and out, over and over, while my parents were inside. It was something about the shape of the path, so much more magical than a straight line, that drew me in, like the flowers draw in the bees. I imagined I was following the Yellow Brick Road.

To me, the labyrinth resembles a flower, a rose or a camellia, with its ever-tightening whorls protecting a mysterious center. A maze is another story, something more of a wild card and a puzzle than the regular and predictable unicursal labyrinth. I think they represent two different things, or maybe two different ways of thinking about the same thing. The children flinging themselves at them today treated them both like games, and maybe that's what they are. The labyrinth seems tamer, since there's only one way in and one way out (usually). But that simplicity, like Zizek's flowers, might mask a great secret. It's probably never good to underestimate what seems simple. Labyrinths can surprise you.

For instance: I was amazed to learn a few days ago that the Huntington Gardens has a labyrinth. What! Are you sure? I love the Huntington and have been there several times, but I have never heard of this labyrinth. It's a turf one, so it's even possible that I, the great labyrinth investigator, walked right over it. I would have said I had been all over those grounds, but I didn't have a clue this labyrinth existed. Hidden in plain sight . . . there's a lesson there.

So, another labyrinth for another day.