Monday, May 31, 2010

Esperance Me Guide

Writing a dissertation is strenuous, and you have to keep your strength up. Yesterday I had popcorn, a cherry Coke, ice cream, a brat, baked beans, lemonade, and potato chips, all in a six-hour period. A brownie, too -- I forgot about that. Getting your mind off your work is also important. I've somehow managed to watch six movies since last weekend, and all of them were frivolous. I have Kurosawa's Rashomon sitting on my living room table, and I guess I'm going to watch it . . . but really, I'd rather watch Letters to Juliet again.

This is all a counterweight to the reading I've been doing. I hit a rough patch with the scholarly tome on labyrinths I've been carrying around. It's an important book and thoroughly researched, but I realized the other day I was drowning in it. I had started to feel like a schoolgirl in pigtails in the face of the author's authoritative tone and profusion of notes. It finally dawned on me today -- this book has turned into a labyrinth! And the author is my Minotaur!

Before I admitted it was a monster, I just used delay tactics to avoid picking it up. This morning, I did a little reading before and after breakfast. That wasn't so bad. I had finally decided I wasn't obligated to study all the illustrations and read all the notes. But despite this concession, I still found myself in no hurry to pick it up again, even after taking a shower, checking my email, looking up the weather forecast, watching Old Spice commercials on YouTube (I'm serious), and paying bills.

After a bit of slow and labored reading, I found a reference in the book to a Bach composition called "Kleines Harmonisches Labyrinth" (I didn't know there was such a thing as musical labyrinths, but indeed there is). This composition is supposed to make you think of a labyrinth because of its unexpected chords, but I found it on YouTube, and it just sounded like Bach to me. I did discover by sniffing around that not everybody agrees with my author that this piece is Bach's -- a-ha! A chink in the armor! It came as a relief to find that this expert could be wrong about something . . . though I was disappointed that I couldn't hear the labyrinth in the music.

I decided to clear my head, so I went for a walk. Being on my own two feet seemed to get me oriented, and I got home 40 minutes later feeling better. I wrestled the book into the car and headed for Starbucks. In looking at the 50 pages remaining, I realized I could finish it today if I pushed, since a lot of it is illustrations. I sat by the window and concentrated; I'm sure my expression was terrifying. I read steadily, checking notes here and there, and an hour and a half later, I was finished, despite a headache.

I'm grateful to this author for providing much-needed clarity on the history of the labyrinth; I also appreciate the fact that he's clear on the difference between a labyrinth and a maze, a distinction that's important in my thesis but often ignored by others. All the same, it's nice to be on the other side of this particular labyrinth.

While fixing dinner tonight, I remembered to turn over the page on my calendar, something I always like doing because I look forward to seeing the next month's picture and philosophical quote. The theme of the calendar is The Path: Finding Your Way on Life's Journey. The picture for June shows an empty boardwalk, a study in shadow and light extending into the distance over a marsh or inlet; what appears to be the sea is a blue ribbon in the distance. The caption quotes Psalm 77 -- "Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known."

Monday, May 24, 2010

Bottom's Dream

I've been thinking about A Midsummer Night's Dream for several days. I don't know why I started thinking about it, except that maybe I was anticipating summer. I love spring, but in my mind's eye, paradise is summer. It smells like newly mown grass, with a dollop of suntan lotion, and it tastes like sweet iced tea and homemade ice cream. There might even be fairies, feuding lovers, and mischief afoot by moonlight.

It didn't feel like summer when I got up this morning. Thunderstorms cleared the air Friday night (and made for great sleeping weather), and yesterday was bright and pleasant . . . but a feeling of winter persisted. Certainly, we had a long winter here, of which most everyone complained, and it hung on for a long time. Maybe the cold and rainy weather earlier this week was too reminiscent of the gray season we had trouble shaking off.

This afternoon, I hauled my copy of Through the Labyrinth: Designs and Meanings over 5,000 Years down to the cafe, where I planned to finish the chapter I was struggling with yesterday. As soon as I walked outside, the warmth hit me -- no longer the balminess of spring, but a palpable, pleasant heat, like a day in June. I got in the car and searched for the right music. That's when the first good thing happened. I've been sad about the station I found recently that played such great music until they changed their format. By some miracle, it was back today to the way it had been . . . Percy Sledge was singing when I tuned in. Maybe things weren't so bad after all.

Then, another miracle. I was driving down the street when suddenly it happened, just like that: Something about the intense blue of the sky and the angle of light, and boom, I passed through an invisible portal from winter to summer. Some combination of Motown, sunlight, my summer sandals, and the leisurely afternoon ahead, and I popped right out of Lapland and onto the beach.

At the cafe, I sat by the window and despite the distractions of the passing scene and the uptempo jazz they were playing, managed to concentrate on my book and get deeper into it than I've been able to for the last couple of weeks.

I then remembered that the summer movie series is getting ready to start downtown, so I swung by to get a calendar. This Wednesday, the season opener: Raiders of the Lost Ark, a summer movie if there ever was one. When I got home, I was feeling playful, so while the water was boiling for a pitcher of tea, I opened my Pelican Shakespeare to A Midsummer Night's Dream, flipped through the pages, and let my finger fall at random. When I opened my eyes, my finger was on this passage, a speech of Oberon's to Titania:

How canst thou thus, for shame, Titania,
Glance at my credit with Hippolyta, 
Knowing I know thy love to Theseus?
Didst thou not lead him through the glimmering night
From Perigenia, whom he ravished?
And make him with fair Aegles break his faith,
With Ariadne, and Antiopa?

I had forgotten all about the connection of the play to Theseus, whose impending marriage to Hippolyta is the springboard for the plot. Ariadne, the Minotaur, and the labyrinth are all mentioned in the notes. It was a nice bit of synchronicity to be reminded of all this, and it might even be important for my research.

This play is my favorite of Shakespeare's comedies, the lightest, dreamiest, most summery one of all. My imagination has been reaching for summer. When things veer too much toward Hamlet, it's time for some fun in the woods, where things come out all right in the end, and what seemed like tragedy is revealed by a sudden sleight of hand to be comedy instead. As for Puck, I think he's been hanging around for quite some time anyway.

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Celtic Fairy Tale

(Adapted from "The Corpse Watchers," as recorded by Patrick Kennedy, 1866)

Once upon a time, there was a woman who had three daughters. One by one they came to her and asked her blessing as each set out to seek her fortune. The first two were selfish and inconsiderate, and neither girl obtained their mother's blessing. Nor did they take advantage of opportunities that came their way. Both cursed an old woman on the road who begged for a crust of bread, and both failed at the task of sitting up with the body of a young man newly dead. Some failure of nerve can be forgiven here, since the young man, dead or not, had the nasty habit of sitting up in the middle of the night and addressing each girl with the remark, "All alone, fair maid." If they did not reply, he turned them into flagstones.

The youngest daughter, though, was made of different stuff. She made sure to obtain her mother's blessing before setting out, and she gladly shared her lunch with the old woman on the road (who was really a good fairy in disguise). She came upon the house with the grieving mother and her son and agreed to sit up with the body. The mistress of the house gave her apples and nuts to eat while she kept her vigil; the young lady considered the corpse while cracking nuts and thought it a pity that he had died, since dead or not, he was still pretty hot. 

OK, you know the rest: when it was late at night, he suddenly sprang up, as he had with the other two, and hit her with "All alone, fair maid," to which she replied:

All alone I am not
For I have little dog Douse, and Pussy, the cat
And apples to roast, and nuts to crack
And all alone I am not.

Seeing that she had spirit, the young man said to her, "Well, I can see you're gutsy -- but I bet you don't have enough guts to follow me where I need to go."

"Oh, I said I'd watch you, and watch you I will," she shot back.

"Ah, well, did I mention I'll be going by way of the poisonous bog, the burning forest, the cave of terror, the glass hill, and the Sea of the Dead? What do you say to that, missy?"

"After you," she replied.

Well, he wasn't just whistling Dixie. He jumped though the window, and she followed, until they came to the Green Hills and the edge of the poisonous bog. Since he was insubstantial, he was able to hop right across, but the girl was stymied until the good fairy appeared and touched her shoes with a wand, causing them to spread and grow flat. She was easily able to cross then with her new marsh-skimming shoes.

Next, they came to the burning forest, and once again, the good fairy intervened, spreading her thick cloak over the girl as she passed through the flames. The cave of terror was filled with the stuff of nightmares, snakes and slimy things, and there were terrible screams and yells, but the girl was prevented from hearing them because the good fairy stuffed her ears with wax. (I watch scary movies with the sound turned down, and I can vouch that it really does cut down on the scare factor.)

So far so good, until they came to the glass hill. The young man bounded ahead, but the girl remained at the bottom, wondering what to do, until the good fairy came back and once again touched her shoes with her wand until they grew sticky on the bottom, so that she was easily able to cling to the glass and scale it. At the top, the young man told her to go back and tell his mother how far she had come, then plunged into the Sea of the Dead. It's unclear whether she yelled, "Turn back? -- I don't think so!" or "Geronimo!" but in any event, she jumped in after him without giving it a second thought.

They both sank deeper and deeper, and everything was confused, and she couldn't breathe, but then she seemed to be in a beautiful meadow with a green sky above, resting against the young man's shoulder, half asleep. Then she thought she was asleep, and she was asleep, and then she was awake, once more in the young man's house, and the young man and his mother were sitting by the bedside, watching her.

Now the truth came out. The young man had been cursed with a deathlike condition by a witch who was resentful when he refused to marry her. The curse could only be broken by a girl brave enough to do what needed doing. At her request, the young man turned the sisters from flagstones back into girls, and he gave himself to her as her husband. And as the story says, if they didn't live happily ever after, at least may we.

I had to tell this story in a class a couple of years ago. I didn't psychoanalyze it at the time, but now that I've had a while to think about it, here's what I get out of it:

1. Try to start out with at least a blessing and lunch, because both will come in handy.
2. Try to help those you meet in life; someday, you will need help yourself. (Especially, never, ever forget to share your bread with withered, beggarly old women; these are almost always fairies.)
3. Just in case your fairy doesn't show up, try to have a variety of shoes suitable for all occasions. The same goes for outerwear and ear accessories. 
4. Learn to swim.
5. If you see a good thing, keep it in sight.
6. Be nice to your relatives, even if they're gold-diggers. It makes for nicer photos at the wedding, and your mother will appreciate it.
7. Not mentioned in the story, but I suggest a good foot massage and pedicure before starting any adventures. Your feet will do the walking, after all.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day

I went with some friends this week to see a movie called The Back-up Plan. I probably would never have seen this movie except that someone had free tickets, and it turned into a good excuse for a night out. In this movie, the main character, Zoe, gets tired of waiting for Mr. Right and turns to a sperm donor to get pregnant. Since it's a comedy, the first thing that happens when she leaves the doctor's office is that she meets Mr. Right, and complications naturally ensue.

The most memorable scene is the one in which Zoe and Mr. Right (Stan) find themselves reluctantly present at the childbirth of one of Zoe's Single Mothers' Support Group acquaintances. The scene involves a water-filled wading pool, drumming, lots of physical comedy, and some rather primal screaming. I told my friends afterwards that it left me feeling not so bad about not having any babies.

When I was 10, I had a crush on Charlton Heston. I had a fantasy about marrying him and having seven children (the result of a cross-pollination between Planet of the Apes and The Sound of Music that didn't seem at all odd at the time). That was a little girl fantasy that went along with my dolls, my play kitchen, and my Easy-Bake oven. In my teens and early 20s, I had a less ambitious but still naive vision of married life with two children. Though I experienced overt anxiety when this didn't happen, part of me was probably relieved. On some level, I knew I had things to do that couldn't happen if I had someone else to take care of. I had seen how heavily motherhood weighed on my grandmothers, both of whom had many children, and on my own mother, who would have lived a very different life if she hadn't become the mother of three.

In Greek mythology, it always seemed to me that the unattached goddesses, Athena and Artemis, had the most freedom (and the most fun). While it was too bad that they had to be stuck as maidens, they at least had a wide scope of action and independence. Athena was wise and strong, and Artemis got to run around in the woods at night. The predominant image of a mother goddess was Demeter, whose main attribute seemed to be terrible suffering when her daughter was taken from her. Her lot hardly seemed desirable.

Now I know that all of these roles are available, no matter what a person's outward status is. I'm thinking about one of the most maternal people I know, a friend who is a nun; though she's without biological children, she's been the nurturer of countless other people's children. I've done a little mothering, too, on a small scale. I once adopted two kittens and was astonished and pleased when I realized that they regarded me as their mom after the first time I fed them. When they died years later, I suffered terribly. My nephew told me a few years ago that when he was little, he thought I was Mary Poppins because I was always showing up to take him places. Mary Poppins is a form of the Great Mother disguised as a nanny: she's stern, powerful, and a little scary but underneath it ultimately nurturing.

I was looking this week at pictures of my goddaughter dressed up for her prom. I was both amazed that she is already so grown up and glamorous but also wistful thinking about how close she and her mother, my old college friend, seem to be. I admire my friends with kids and have come to appreciate realistically how much self-sacrifice is involved in being a mother. No doubt it's a good thing I didn't take this on when I was still trying to learn how to mother myself.

I told someone the other day that I rarely dream about my mother, who died three years ago. But just the other night, I dreamed that I was rearranging some of my belongings when I saw a pale woman, whom I knew to be very ill, sitting nearby. A friend brought her a gift, a small pin with a vibrant red rose on it, and the sick woman was happy. Her happiness, and the vivid color of the rose, are the main things I remember. This morning I realized the pin looked a lot like one my mother once gave me (which I still have).

I haven't finished thinking about this dream, but it occurs to me that while I was moving some things around, rearranging what I already had, someone else came along with a gift of life, a beautiful rose, which was exactly what the ailing woman (some part of myself?) needed. I'm not sure if it's a coincidence that this looked so much like the pin my mother gave me -- but probably not.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

I'm a Stranger Here Myself

It's a wet and stormy Sunday, and plans to see a movie with a friend were washed out by his flooded basement this afternoon. Instead, I decided to go out somewhere to sit with my book and a latte.

I ended up at a Starbucks I haven't been to in ages. A pleasant surprise: there was a roomy, comfortable seating area that I didn't remember from before. There were plenty of students with laptops, including a few who must have been in grad school since they were surrounded by big stacks of books, and people who looked like they had dropped in from the neighborhood. A nice mix. My inner antenna sent the message: you fit in here. I was able to get a seat in the quiet area facing the window, where I could look out on the watery world. The music was audible but not too loud for reading or thinking: Bonnie Raitt, Cat Stevens, Paul Simon.

The issue of "environment" has been a continuing one for me. Having a mother from another country and living in a different state for much of my childhood is responsible, I'm sure, for some of the strangeness I feel about where I live. Also, I'm single in a couples-oriented community. On top of that, I'm an INFP on the Myers-Briggs test, a rare personality type (Introverted Intuitive Feeling Perceiving, less than 5 percent -- some say 1 percent -- of the population).

The book I was reading in Starbucks is James Hollis's Creating a Life: Finding Your Individual Path, a book I picked up in L.A. last week. I bought one of Hollis's other books the first time I visited PGI when I was thinking of enrolling there, and it was a fateful encounter. That book was part of what cemented my decision to pursue myth studies.

I almost feel that rather than just reading this new book, I'm having a conversation with it. So many questions I've been thinking about, issues that have worried me lately, have come up in these pages that this book feels like a fateful encounter, too.

One of the things Hollis stresses is the unavoidability of suffering and the possibility of finding meaning in it. For Hollis, as for Jung, the second half of life is when things really start to get interesting. The conscious individual, having established a strong ego by building a more or less conventional life in the years of early adulthood, is in a position to turn inward in midlife. A person learns to recognize the patterns at work in his life, to accept himself as he (or she) is, to stop projecting so much onto others, and to read the messages sent from the unconscious in dreams, bodily symptoms, and the small occurrences of daily life. It boils down to becoming the co-creator of your own life rather than continuing to be driven by unconscious issues.

This is always a work in progress, never fully achieved, but when you're working with your inner nature, instead of against it, there's a feeling of flow. I have a friend who calls it "riding a wave." Surfing is a good analogy for individuation, because it acknowledges the depth and force of what buoys you up but recognizes that you can roll with it, ride it in your own unique way, and allow it to take you to shore.

While reading Hollis's book, I thought of something someone said to me recently. He said it was important to remember that wherever you are now (regardless of where you may go in the future) is where you are meant to be. That's the same thing Hollis is saying. The ego may or may not like what's happening at the time, but that's not necessarily the measure of the situation. If you're on a wave, ride it, instead of wishing you were on a mountaintop. Rather than spending too much time on questions that can't be answered immediately -- Where should I live? Will I ever get married? -- I can think instead about what I can, by living with integrity, bring to the situation I'm in.

It's good to be in a place where you feel understood and at ease, but I hear Hollis saying that it's sometimes more important to understand than to be understood. My capacity to bring something valuable to a situation or a place may outweigh my need for comfort, as much as I might wish it were otherwise.