Sunday, June 27, 2010

Escaping the Jaws of Saturn

I've been watching a DVD of a seminar James Hillman gave earlier this spring on the archetypes of the senex and the puer. I hadn't considered it before, but while listening to him speak, it occurred to me that they have a lot to do with the process of writing.

Hillman describes the puer as the spirit of spontaneity, creativity, and risk. The puer is a youthful figure, light on his feet and quick-moving. He has a certain heedlessness about him, maybe even a recklessness. He might be personified by Hermes, the stealer of Apollo's cattle, who manages to talk his way out trouble, charm the other gods, and invent the lyre all in one go.

The senex, on the other hand, is a somber figure associated with age and experience. He is steady, deliberate, rational, authoritative, and concerned with measuring and ordering things. His personification is Apollo, or -- according to Hillman -- Saturn, a somewhat cold and gloomy god, whose heaviness is in sharp contrast to the light-heartedness of the puer. (Saturn is also noteworthy for eating his children.)

Puer and senex characteristics are present in both men and women, at all times of life. They are more like patterns or types of energy than rigid representations of stages of life, though it is possible to see certain correspondences between puer and senex and the respective concerns of youth and old age. I'm wondering if they can also be related to the differences between right-brain and left-brain thinking.

Writing is a skill that requires the use of both sides of the brain, though not necessarily at the same time. When I write, the part I really like is playing with the words and ideas until they come out right. I might have a hunch about something that isn't substantial at all until I write it down, so I'm actually writing to figure out what I think. Writing itself is the way of discovery.

The other aspect of writing is editing, tidying up, and citation-checking, the part where you run the spell-checker and hunt for unmatched quotation marks. I am actually very good at this; I once worked as a copy editor and often had other people wanting me to proofread their work -- but I dislike it. I consider it the necessary finishing stage in writing and am meticulous about doing it but do not consider it fun.

I never thought of myself as a puer, but now I realize that that is exactly what I am when I'm engaged in the creative, exploratory part of writing. This is all risk-taking and not knowing if something's going to fly or not; it requires looseness and willingness to leap without seeing a net. The senex comes in later with the careful, deliberate editing, the consultations with the MLA style book, and the attention to structure and the length of paragraphs, things that usually don't occur to me until the end.

The puer-senex dimension actually explains a lot of things, not just writing. If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have said that I had more senex in me. I was usually the careful, reasonable, responsible one, always double-checking my work and being thoughtful about the way I approached things. I am still like that. But there was a whole other side of me trying to get out, which explains why I was always scribbling poetry at Starbucks, daydreaming, and driving around without knowing where I wanted to go. I was restless, but I tried to think I wasn't. What was really happening was that my senex was sitting on my puer and trying to eat him. My puer finally fought back and took such a flying leap that he landed on the other side of the country in graduate school.

I'm thinking about the wistful little boy from my dream, the one I wrote about in my first blog post in January. I think he's important on a lot of different levels, and I'm just now recognizing him as an infant puer. He showed up in another dream later on but was bigger and stronger and didn't seem quite so in need of protection. I didn't know I had him in me, but he did.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Practical Jokes from the Universe

Yesterday was really pretty nice. I woke up to the sound of rain and distant thunder, and it felt so cozy that I stayed in bed listening until I fell asleep again and woke up rested an hour or so later. The rest was a typical Saturday: yoga, lunch, writing, and shopping for chocolate and groceries. I even got a pedicure at the little nail spa run by that nice family and emerged with shiny toenails in a lovely shade that one of the little girls picked out for me. I was feeling pretty good after all that.

So I have no explanation for what happened today. I was planning to get some things done at home and then go to a movie, but it didn't turn out like that. It all started when I decided to wash a couple of loads of laundry. I had taken one load to the laundry room and was on my way back for the second one when I put out my hand to type in the security code on the front door and suddenly could not remember it. I have been typing this code in every day for 10 years, usually without thinking about it, but suddenly it was just gone. I could remember the first digit and the last but not the middle part.

This had happened once or twice before but not in a long time. I thought at first that it would come back to me if I waited a minute or so, but it didn't. I typed in what I thought was the right code several times, to no avail. Then I became convinced that I was just off by a single digit, so I tried various combinations without getting anywhere. Fifteen minutes went by and I was still locked out, so I decided to go back to the laundry room, wait for the washer to stop, and put the clothes in the dryer. Not thinking about it for a few minutes would almost certainly make the code come back to me, or so I thought.

I did all this and came back, but I still couldn't remember. By now, I was feeling less and less certain I knew what it was. I thought of ringing a neighbor's doorbell and just saying I'd forgotten it, but aside from feeling silly I was also reluctant to disturb someone on Sunday morning. After another frustrating quarter hour or so, someone came by and I followed them in. I was now back in my apartment but still had no clue, so I felt almost as trapped inside as I had outside. I knew I had the code written on a piece of paper at one time, but after searching the kitchen drawer, I had to admit that the piece of paper was probably long gone.

I decided to wedge something in the side door so I could go out and come back, praying that no one would remove it before I had a chance to throw my second load in. I finally ate a late breakfast, then went over to put my load in the dryer. I was so rattled that I didn't realize until I closed the dryer door that I didn't know where my quarters were. I thought I had the little envelope in my hand when I went to the laundry room, but they were nowhere in sight. I went back to my apartment and looked all over.

Now I was missing the means to get into my building as well as the means to dry a sopping wet load of sheets and towels. It wasn't quite as bad as the Fellowship of the Ring trying to figure out the password to get into Moria (no sinister gurgling lake at my back or ravening wolves), but there is something disquieting about being locked out of your home. I started to feel strange hanging around the entrance, as if I shouldn't be there. The only bright spot was that I kept noticing my pedicure and thinking that at least my nails looked great. 

I went back to the laundry room to hunt around for those darn quarters. If I could at least get the dryer going, that would be something . . . and sure enough, this time, I started moving things in the dryer and found the folded envelope at the bottom. I had thrown it in along with the load.

Having solved that mystery, I thought I would feel better if I took a shower and changed clothes. After that, the last load was dry, so I brought everything back, made up the bed, and put everything else away. It was now mid-afternoon, and I was still codeless (and clueless), but I decided I wouldn't be a prisoner in my own apartment and would go about my business in the hope that the code would reappear in my memory by the time I got back. 

As it happened, a young man from my building was coming out as I was standing at the door, gazing at the lock as if it contained the mysteries of the universe. I asked him, "What is our code?" and he told me what it was, saying he hoped they hadn't changed it. I said "No, I'm just typing it in wrong" . . . and then I tried it, and it worked. Once he said it, it sounded right, but I'm not sure when I would have remembered it on my own. It was like I had gone on a trip and been away so long that I had forgotten where I left my key. Greatly relieved, I went out to the car to run my errands -- but not before writing the code down.

Perhaps Jung would say there are few accidents. I wouldn't say that everything that happens has a deeper meaning, but it's hard not to muse over such an odd occurrence. I was writing about mazes yesterday afternoon, and the sense of being lost; the experience of being locked out was a lot like ending up in a blind alley. I won't say that this was a case of unconsciously acting out a subject I've been preoccupied with, but that's one possibility. Stranger things have happened.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Deja Vu All Over Again

I attended a conference this weekend at my school. It was the first time I had stayed at Ladera, our second campus, since my first summer as a myth studies student. I drove up Thursday from L.A., met a friend for dinner in Carpinteria, and walked down to the beach for a stroll under the stars. We arrived at the campus in the dark, just like I did the first time I stayed there. I drove myself this time and was proud of being able to negotiate the winding, hilly lanes that had seemed so bewildering a few years ago.

By some quirk, my classmate had the same room in the residence hall that she had the first time through; I was still next door to her, but on the opposite side, which resulted in a very strange feeling of deja vu. It was one of those instances where time does a loop and carries you back, like a labyrinth that circles you around to the same spot from a different vantage point.

This circumstance invited a meditation on where we are now compared to where we were. I know that I listened to the conference presenters with a practiced ear, better able to evaluate both content and form, on the other side of doing multiple presentations of my own as a student. I talked to a filmmaker whose film I had seen years ago in my home town, never dreaming I would ever meet her, much less be able to talk to her seriously about my own interest in film. I played with graphite pencils, Play Doh, and crayons in the art loft, no longer so afraid of feeling silly and more willing to just see what would happen. I attended an early morning session in which people shared their nighttime dreams in what was called a Social Dreaming Matrix. (Hey, why not? -- this is California.)

I also noticed that the old Jesuit residence hall didn't seem quite as sinister at night, that the mountains are still stunning, whether viewed sharp-edged against the light or enshrouded in Arthurian mists, and that the walk up to the pretty little Vedanta temple is as steep as it ever was.

I thought the highlight of the weekend would be the pre-conference workshop on myth and the movies, until I was astounded by a lecture yesterday morning on Jung, imagination, and social consciousness. The presenter, Mary Watkins, explained the importance of bringing individuation into the wider world. A truly individuated person, she said, is an advocate for human rights and the need to heal divisions between people and countries. I flashed back to the first presentations I heard as a prospective student and remembered how exciting it was to hear someone talk about the ways depth psychology could help make a better world. Maybe that will give me a touchstone to steer by as I find my way through the labyrinth of my own research.

It's never too late to be surprised. I was heading down the hill yesterday, on my way back to L.A., with the satellite radio station cranked up in my rental car and '50s music rocking, when I realized, for the first time in four years, that the name of the road I was on -- Toro Canyon Road -- means "Canyon of the Bull." I have seen the minotaur in many places but overlooked his presence on this road until now. Of course, now I know that not only can you find him everywhere, but that he's more complicated than I used to think he was.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Adventures with Hestia

This morning I planned to do some housework that I thought would take about an hour. Instead, it turned into a marathon cleaning session lasting about three hours. Even though it threw a wrench into other plans I had for the day, it was great to get so much done. It didn't sound like a lot -- dusting, mopping the floors, cleaning the bathroom -- but it somehow turned into a cleaning odyssey.

It started yesterday when I threw away the carpet in my hallway that I've had since moving in here. It was hard to keep clean and had gotten a lot of wear and tear, and I finally decided to let it go. It was so nice to see the hardwood floor afterwards, and the hall seemed so much more spacious, that it encouraged me to start cleaning and clearing on a wider scale. This morning, I decided to dust the furniture before breakfast, and I ended up clearing away some long-term clutter from my bookshelves right off the bat.

I was moving things out of the way before mopping the kitchen and decided to tackle the accordion file containing some of my mother's papers. This was kind of a big deal because I've had it since before she died, and it's been in the kitchen for several years. I felt much the same way about it that I did about the papers, clippings, photos, and memorabilia my father gave me before he died. It was a long time before I had the stamina to go through any of it. Today, once I started going through the file, I saw that it was going to be much easier than I thought. It contained mostly monthly statements for utilities, credit cards, and insurance payments and was pretty dry as far as contents go. An object that had assumed a heaviness out of all proportion to its size was dispatched in under 20 minutes.

When I was dust-mopping my room, I encountered a flat box that's been under the chest of drawers for years. Now I was really in the mood to jettison things, so I hauled it out and looked inside: it was mostly paperwork and manuals for a computer I don't even own anymore. I also found a dream journal I was keeping a few years ago and a couple of other items worth saving, so I took those out and made another trip to the dumpster. It felt so good to be getting rid of things that I was tempted to start going through my closet. But since it was getting on toward mid-afternoon by then, I decided that could wait for another day.

After finishing the floors, I scrubbed the bathtub and the sink. Then I jumped in the shower to wash all the dust off and was surprised how much lighter and more relaxed I felt when I got out. Instead of feeling annoyed that the housework had taken so long and prevented me from getting into the shower until after 2 o'clock, I felt like I had just had a spa treatment.

I had planned to do some writing, but by the time I got dressed and ate lunch, it seemed better to go out. It was beautiful outside; rain earlier in the day had washed the air clean, and there was a pleasant breeze. I don't know if it was feeling virtuous from all the housework, the fact that I was wearing my denim shorts, the brilliant green of the summer lawns in the light, or just what it was, but I felt unencumbered, the way I remember feeling when I was about nine. It seemed impossible that I could actually be an adult with responsibilities; it felt like school had just let out.

The cleaning and clearing ritual must have jarred something loose and created more space; I seem to have swept something else out the door besides dust and cobwebs. Hestia is an unassuming goddess, but a goddess is still a goddess. It's never wise to underestimate even a modest goddess.