Thursday, December 27, 2012

Grown-up Christmas

Christmas can be a little tricky when you're an adult, especially if you're single. This is true even if you know the mythology behind it and understand it as a holiday celebrating light in the darkness, even if you can expound on the marriage of Christian and older traditions, on Mithras, Saturnalia, the solstice, and Sol Invictus, until you're blue in the face. No matter. If you grew up celebrating Christmas, it's bound to be fraught throughout life with emotions tied up with family, home, traditions, memories, and what you think you ought to feel and do.

I'll be honest: grown-up Christmas rarely matches up with memories of Christmas past. The last Christmas that really seemed full-on to me occurred when I was nine, so I've had many more holidays that didn't measure up than I've had of those that did. What was it about those vanished Christmases that made them beautiful? Quite simply, it was the belief in magic. I remember a special sheen glinting from the surfaces of holiday decorations, Christmas carols that resonated with mystery and joy and still seemed new, and the ease with which I could believe in multiple department store Santas at once (ha! most of them were Santa's elves).

Furthermore, Christmas was a shared experience. Everything you did was with other people, whether you were singing in your nightgown as part of the angels' chorus in the play, shopping with your siblings at the mall, going to midnight Mass, or opening presents under the tree (oh, the enchantment of a pile of wrapped gifts).

As more of the Christmas glitter wore away year by year, I gradually adopted a less-is-more attitude. This basically means resisting any pressure, real or imagined, to throw myself full-throttle into things like decorating, socializing, shopping, listening to Christmas music, or watching holiday specials, unless I really want to. Pursuing the spirit of Christmas too assiduously is the surest way to lose it; it's a delicate, elusive thing, prone to disappearing completely if you put too much effort in. In my experience, it finds you, often when you're not looking.

Last year I decorated, shopped, baked, entertained, and enjoyed it all. This year, I did most of those things on a smaller scale. I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas, baked gingerbread in the shape of stars and stockings and trees, and spun the Christmas CDs a few times. I bought presents for my nephews and wandered around the toy department. True to form, I made plans to go to midnight Mass and changed them when push came to shove. It was just too cold out, and I was sitting in the living room late in the evening entranced by my Christmas lights; my tree brightens a normally dark corner.

A holiday surfeit often sets in for me on Christmas Day; last year, I played bossa nova on the stereo while washing dishes in an effort to conjure up summer. Today, it was good to get out, see other people on the streets, and do a little non-holiday reading by the picture window in the library. Coming home, I noticed how cheerful people's holiday yard displays looked in the gathering dusk but still had the feeling of wanting to move forward, to carry on with things and get ready for a new year.

Actually, a few memories of grown-up Christmas do come to mind, nearly ready to be boxed away with the ornaments but suitable for one more airing before then: the first Christmas in a new apartment, made special by a chocolate box; driving around, singing carols, and looking at yard displays with college friends; making gift bags with offbeat stocking stuffers for a party; a weekend in L.A. to see a band; a climbing cat, a teetering Christmas tree, and a furry face peering out between branches; a Christmas parade with dancing elves in a coastal town; a black velvet shirt with pink satin trim; a red rose purchased in an airport; watching The Lake House multiple times, tucked up on the couch, while Christmas lights shed a soft glow; finding the perfect Christmas nightlight in a bookstore; standing up for the opening bars of the Hallelujah chorus.

They may not duplicate the privileged enchantment of childhood Christmas, but here and there, now and then, a little bit of magic stills shines through.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Hobbit, Not an Elf

I went to see The Hobbit on Saturday; along with most everybody else, I had been looking forward to it for a while. Normally, I don't read a book shortly before seeing the movie, but as it happens I did re-read the book quite recently, detachable cover and all (I got it as part of a boxed set for Christmas when I was a senior in high school). The story is so familiar to me that even without having it fresh in my mind, I would have noticed the places where Peter Jackson inserted material.

I've read that most of the added scenes can be traced to material in the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. It seems reasonable of Mr. Jackson to tie this movie (and the rest of the trilogy) to his prior work. The Hobbit (as a book) has an entirely different flavor, a lighter and more humorous tone, than the somber Lord of the Rings; I remember having to adjust to the change in atmosphere when I first read the books. The Hobbit is a caper, but LOTR is an epic. Mr. Jackson has emphasized the aspects of the story that place The Hobbit more firmly within the sequence of events leading up to the cataclysmic episodes in the later books.

So seeing the movie is both like and unlike reading the book; it is a little jarring if you go to the theater expecting absolute faithfulness to Tolkien's story as originally written. I agree with those who think some of the scenes were a bit long. (I thought we'd never get out of the Orcs' tunnels, but I felt the same way when I read the book. And the scenes with Radagast in the forest seemed misplaced, almost as if they been transplanted from a Disney movie.)

All of that aside, any combination of Tolkien and Peter Jackson is bound to have its share of magic, and it was fun to see The Hobbit on the big screen. One thing Mr. Jackson has always emphasized is the heroic nature of the quest; in LOTR he poignantly addressed the characters' struggles to live up to the enterprise and the ways in which their adventures changed (and scarred) them. The fellowship of the ring came together to accomplish something more important than individual ambition; in serving something larger, all of its members (even the weak ones) grew. In The Hobbit, Mr. Jackson seems intent on bringing out in a similar way the noble aspects of Bilbo and his companions. Not merely disgruntled treasure-seekers, the dwarves are in search of a home and a legacy that has been violently taken from them. No longer simply their bewildered "burglar," Bilbo becomes sympathetic to their loss and their real emotional need to reclaim their inheritance.

If any young person happens to be reading this, you may not have had the experience of a book (or a movie) somehow becoming different as you come back to it over time. It's happened to me with books I didn't like the first time around (like Moby-Dick, now in my dissertation, if you can imagine) and with books I've always loved. The first time I read The Hobbit, it was simply a very enjoyable, highly imaginative fantasy. It stayed that way for a long time, but when I started studying mythology, I was able to see it and LOTR in the light of a hero's journey and to understand intellectually the story's appeal. Then a little more time went by, and wow, the stories and characters took on an even more vivid hue as I started to recognize myself and other people I know in them.

In the introductory pages of my edition of the The Hobbit are the words of a commentator, Peter S. Beagle, who states, "Lovers of Middle-Earth want to go there. I would myself, like a shot." Imagine your surprise when you finally figure out that you don't have to go there because you're there already. Tolkien's world is really just a mirror, showing us ourselves, in costume, dropped into an imaginary setting, as myths tend to do. I just recently realized how completely familiar Bilbo's conflicted nature, the respectable, tea-cake loving Baggins side, and the wildly adventurous Took side, were to me. I also share his love of meals and the comforts of home. (I had always wanted to be an elf, but it turns out I'm more of a hobbit. You can't always get what you want.)

At the movie's end, Thorin and company are standing on the eagles' rock, looking eagerly toward the Lonely Mountain, with Bilbo declaring, "I do believe the worst is behind us" (of course it isn't -- there are two more movies to go). I don't know about you, but my reaction to that was a wry and painful sympathy. They haven't even gotten to the spiders yet, much less Smaug! This is where Bilbo and I part company: if it had been me, considering all the Orcs, wargs, and trolls I had already bested, I would have been demanding that someone take me back to Rivendell, poste-haste, for some R & R, river views, and a permanent hiatus. Of course, then there wouldn't have been a story.

Thank goodness for heroes!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

That's What You Get for Being You

What with baking gingerbread cookies, making the local arts scene, and doing what writers do, I've barely had time to wash clothes and go to the grocery store. Somehow, though, I still have time to think about things I'd like to write but haven't yet. I have so much material, between one thing and another, that I'm not sure how my head even holds it all. (People keep saying to me, "I bet you have a lot to write about." That's true, but how do they know?)

Take this thing about researching my family history . . . have I mentioned that? My mother had some questions about her origins that I think deserve to be answered. In between an Irish family tree I couldn't make heads or tails of and some memories that troubled my mother throughout her life, I think I'm more than justified. I don't mind an Unsolved Mystery on TV, but when it comes to my own life, I'm a regular Sherlock Holmes.

Of course, you know writers have a lot of imagination and a tendency to take even a tiny bit of material and run with it. Well, picture this: my mother was told (by her father) that her mother was not her mother, and she remembered being visited as a child by some wealthy people who singled her out for attention.

This suggests to me something like the following:

Child born out of wedlock in 1930s Ireland (or maybe England, and she was spirited to Ireland?). Wealthy, powerful father; poor, powerless mother (possibly a maid of some kind?). Maybe the father doesn't know about the pregnancy; maybe he insists on an abortion, but the mother refuses. She finds someone to take her baby in (a relative? a friend?). But somehow the father (or his people) find out about the baby.

Now, why would these people care? If the baby is raised in ignorance of her origins, no harm done -- right? But suppose there was a lot of money involved, and the father died without another heir. Or suppose the baby was his first-born, or the other heirs died, or joined nunneries, or were castaways on desert islands. (Note to self: investigate the laws of inheritance in Ireland and/or England.) Suppose -- suppose there was even a title involved. Now that's something people could really get worked up over.

So, the whole game becomes one of watching and making sure this baby never finds out the truth. But she's already wondering, because the people stupidly came and showed their hand. ("She doesn't look like the rest of them.") She'll never remember; she's a child! But she does; she does remember! Eventually, she marries an American serviceman and moves to America, where she has children and tries to forget the past. But it won't forget her, because, because -- (why not go for broke?) she's the daughter of a king! She's an actual princess (or a duchess, or something), starching shirts and changing diapers, in 1950s America.

Now, this won't do. She's already the heiress to a title, and now her line is flourishing. All those healthy babies. So attempts are made . . . that time with the gas jets, very, very strange. The car accident. The broken leg. All that interference with her marriage. Her life falls apart. A lot of trouble for this lady, but she keeps on ticking, and all of her children survive to adulthood.

It's years later, the lady is now elderly, and her children are scattered. She is feisty and difficult. While her daughter is away, she is hospitalized. The hospital uses the wrong telephone number to notify the daughter (Note: a similar plot device was used by Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, in which an all-important note, slipped under a door, goes under the rug by mistake). The children find out in time to rush to the hospital, but the lady dies, having barely regained consciousness.

Life goes on. But unbeknownst to the daughter, the forces that tried to bring her mother down are now marshaled against her and are even closer than she thinks. An unfortunate coincidence has placed an enemy in the very office she works in! (Gasp!) The siblings, engrossed in their own lives, are unaware of the danger that stalks their sister, and the sinister beings (disguised as ordinary folks) who have infiltrated her life will do anything for a buck. (I'm sorry to have to break it to you.)

Gradually, the daughter has to wonder: how long has this been going on? (How long has it been going on: plot point yet to be decided!) When the daughter calls in some surprising allies, things really get twisted: things half said, half unsaid; mysterious messages; people who look like other people (some of them dead); pretense; deceit, attempted murder. So the daughter decides to fight back with a little help from her friends and a little acting of her own.

Literally, a cast of thousands (by conservative estimate). Feigned madness, cross-country chases, mind games, stolen keys, identity theft, money changing hands, double agents, skinny dipping at 2 a.m., musical interludes, midnight rambles, Hollywood, the FBI, the CIA, foreign agents, garrulous cab drivers, incompetent bankers, jealousy, poison, trains, planes, automobiles, stolen guitars, politics, biological warfare, "accidents," veiled threats, unshakable loyalty, shakable loyalty, Democrats, Republicans, kings and queens, a MacBook, a possible love story (or several), some really bad disguises, traps, strange tapping noises, and a whole lot of people muttering "WTF!?" Somewhere in the book, someone has to shout, "Why are these Brits always in our face? We fought a war 200 years ago, and we're still not shed of them! I mean, I like scones as much as the next person, but still!" (That dialogue is non-negotiable.)

Sounds like a best-seller, doesn't it? I never thought espionage was my line, but life throws up some surprising material, and some of it may even be true.

Evildoers: All I can say is, never, ever put material like this in the hands of a writer. (And one who happens to be a librarian? Are you mad? They can look stuff up!) You've been warned -- and if it's already too late for you, well, that's what you get for being you. Maybe Jack Nicholson will play you in the movie, or Glenn Close, but as for my money, you ain't gettin' none of it. I've got student loans to pay.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Dream Trains, With Horses

I had a very striking dream a few nights ago, one that seems worth recording. In the dream, I had somehow walked into an area between two separate train tracks. I was standing near the track on my right when a loud train approached, moving very fast. The noise and power of the train were almost overwhelming, not to mention the fact that the train itself was outsized (as were all the other objects in the dream). In fact, the entire feeling of this dream was a lot like stepping into the pages of a book by Chris Van Allsburg (Jumanji, say, or The Mysteries of Harris Burdick), in which objects out of context behave peculiarly and take on a charged but veiled significance.

One train was bad enough, but there were two. Right after the first train, another came blasting toward me on the other track; they were almost simultaneous. The second one, too, was enormous, loud, and aggressively fast. Right after that, an oversize cart drawn by horses came bearing down on me between the tracks, but the cart was so large that it went right over me. I was shaken by the speed and the size of these moving objects, but I was not hurt.

The feeling of overstimulation due to noise and motion reminds me of the time I went to see Escape From L.A. with a friend at the midnight movie. This wasn't something I would have picked on my own, since action movies aren't my forte (or didn't used to be); my friend picked it out. Imagine someone accustomed to sedate Merchant Ivory productions and quiet character-driven dramas sitting in a big-screen cinema, way past her bedtime, being pounded by Dolby sound at a teeth-jarring level and assaulted by image after image of mayhem and doom, all conducted at warp speed. I don't remember the plot, just the nauseating feeling of sensory overload and a wish to bolt from the theater.

My dream was a little like that, except that it was in my head, so bolting wasn't an option.

For a Jungian, a situation like this calls for explication, amplification, and active imagination. I will assume, first off, that the two trains and the horse-driven cart are what they seem to be, objects of transportation. From my point of view, everything else was in motion, and I was stuck in a dangerous spot. I wanted to be moving, but no opportunity presented itself. On closer inspection, I saw a chasm in front of me, over which the trains were jumping without benefit of tracks. They continued to repeat this maneuver, and as much as I wanted to be on one of them and on my way, I couldn't help noticing how dangerous it was for the trains to keep making this leap. Disaster seemed to be in the offing.

When I think about trains, many things come to mind. I've traveled by train several times and often found myself driving alongside trains on my recent trip out west. I live not far from a railroad track and was nearly stopped by a train the other night after running an errand. I recently told someone about a memory or dream I have of traveling in a Pullman car once when I was very young. These associations are both positive and negative.

On an archetypal level, trains are synonymous with power, with the ambitions of the Industrial Age, and with the expansion, in our country, to the west. Trains traveling from two directions met to celebrate the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. Interesting that the term "Iron Horse" was once applied to locomotives, since oversized horses dragging a giant cart also appeared in my dream.

Power. Ambition. Industry. Expansion. Transportation. Speed. And also, perhaps, from a certain point of view, a kind of ruthlessness or unheeding momentum.

In active imagination, you try to start a conversation with the people or objects in your dream. When I think about trying to talk to either the trains or the horse and cart, I feel at a bit of a loss. The very speed and force of their motion almost seems designed to preclude speech. And yet, standing still, in a seemingly precarious spot, I saw something that none of them seemed to notice: the width of the chasm and the danger it represented. Though eager to be on my way, I still saw that getting on one of the trains (never mind the cart) was not a safe proposition. Other than the discomfort of being where I was, I was safer on the ground.

At the end of my dream, the chasm loomed as the most important image. I started to think of how to get across it but wasn't able to figure it out. If I now address the chasm, and say, "Hello, what are you doing in my dream? And how do I get across?" The chasm might say, "You're right not to trust these lunatics." And, "Are you sure you need to cross? If you're meant to be on the other side, there's bound to be a bridge somewhere. Think about where you want to be. In the meantime, get away from these idiot trains . . . you've had enough drama. Go get a cup of tea or something. And those horses? And that stupid cart? Don't even get me started . . . "