Sunday, September 19, 2010

Taking a Break

"Wordplay" is on temporary hiatus while I concentrate on my dissertation proposal. Thanks for visiting my blog!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Threshold Guardians

I'm at the point where I have read and absorbed pages and pages of words and have a whole forest of ideas in my head. I have culled arguments from papers I've written, taken notes on Virgil and Pliny, drunk chai lattes and mocha frappuccinos, stared into space, daydreamed, listened to the blues, considered buying a new mascara, and mopped my kitchen floor.

I have passed through the much scarier (and prolonged) period of just standing at the edge of the woods, staring at what appeared to be an impenetrable tangle. You start to push your way in, and you see that what appeared to be solid actually opens up a little, showing a passage where there didn't seem to be one.

It's like that instant in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when pushing through an ordinary wardrobe full of coats with a seemingly solid back suddenly leads to another world, or in Through the Looking Glass, when Alice climbs through the mirror and finds herself in another country. You could also compare it to that moment in the Harry Potter books when, in order to get to Hogwarts, the kids have to run as hard as they can with a luggage trolley at a seemingly solid wall. Writing is like that.

No matter how long I write, or what kind of writing I do, I usually feel inadequate at the beginning. I've found that (solvitur ambulando) it's best to keep putting one foot in front of the other; progress is progress, including mistakes, and things start to take on a rhythm of their own if you just move. What seems like stumbling turns into something more graceful and patterned as long as you keep going. Think you're going to sound like Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg address? Forget it, at this stage. You have let go of your dignity and just scramble.

I recognize my delay tactics -- a sudden need to look at the Soft Surroundings web site, to check prices on silk comforters, and to watch a video of the cat that adopted a baby squirrel -- for what they are. They all express a reluctance to take a run at that hard place in case this time there really isn't a way through and I end up with bruises and scratches on my face. Or, more likely, there is a way, but it requires a lot of hard digging. Other people have explored writing (and reading) as processes of initiation, but this is actually my first time to realize that it applies to me, too.

Crossing the threshold is a liminal moment in any adventure, the signal that you've committed yourself. Fears are like the demons in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Wrathful guardians, hungry ghosts, and hell beings may be just the projections of your own mind, but they still have flaming mouths and talons like razors. The minute you show them you mean business, though, they will simmer down and let you by -- they might even turn into a bouquet of flowers or an angel bearing that pale green sweater from Soft Surroundings. They are actually on your side, even if they do have ten heads.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Mythology in Aisle 12

I don't know what's up with the yogurt case at Kroger lately, but they have definitely been bringing in some new stock. I bought some Greek yogurt, a new item at my store, and tried the pomegranate variety a few days ago. I had never tasted yogurt made with pomegranates, and the myth student in me was charmed because of the association of pomegranates with Persephone. It seemed an uncommon flavor but a very appropriate one for Greek yogurt.

I got more than I was expecting when I bit into the fruit and encountered something hard. Thinking I had gotten a stem or pit left in accidentally, I threw it away. With the next spoonful came a realization: these hard bits were pomegranate seeds, they were supposed to be in there, and I was swallowing them.

In the myth, it's the eating of the pomegranate seeds that ensures Persephone will have to stay part of the year in the Underworld with Hades. When she is reunited with her mother, Demeter, she is told she will have to stay in the Underworld for one month out of the year for every seed she ate (the number usually given is six). Persephone's descent to the Underworld in the autumn and her return to the upper world each spring correspond with the cycle of the growing season.

I was always affected by the pathos of this story and thought it terribly sad until I wrote a paper about it a few years ago and had to look at it from various angles. One thing I hadn't considered was that the myth could be read not as a tragedy but as a story of maturation. Persephone, after all, is a queen in the Underworld and rules there independently of her mother. If they hadn't been separated, she would never have come into a kingdom of her own. From this angle, the myth describes a natural process of growing up, which sometimes happens willingly, and sometimes doesn't. I had never considered what Persephone might be like if she had never left home.

I was going to get some more yogurt, but when I went to the store yesterday, the shelves of that brand, advertised at $.99 a carton, had been emptied. I was hunting for a substitute when I found another brand called (I'm serious) "The Greek Gods Traditional Greek Yogurt." Well, I knew I had to try it, so even though it only came in big 24-ounce cartons, I bought one. I looked at it just now and noticed that there is a picture of Hermes on the lid. Hermes is the god who entered the Underworld to bring Persephone back to her mother; he is a messenger, able to come and go between all the realms as he pleases, and is also something of a shapeshifter.

This yogurt didn't come in a pomegranate flavor, but they did have honey, and that's what I got. Now the plot thickens. Bees were associated with the Goddess, and Demeter is one form in which she appeared. Honey is connected with the labyrinth, too, in some mysterious way. I have been reading lately about the inscription on a clay tablet, found in ancient Knossos, dating from around 1400 BCE. The inscription reads something like, "One jar of honey to all the gods, one jar of honey to the Mistress of the ? Labyrinth." Ariadne was probably a goddess early on, so this inscription may refer to her.

I don't know what any of this means, unless Hermes is now the buyer for Kroger's dairy department. But I am going to eat a spoonful of the honey yogurt before I go to bed, just to see if it will give me sweet dreams.