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Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Still Point of the Turning World

Is existence the opposite of time?

After some reflection, I arrived at this question today. It's New Year's Eve, the one day of the year when we seem to stop. Most of us, even the most appalling of cretins (and there are some), give some thought to where we've been and where we hope to go. We can't help ourselves.

In these still moments, we are alive to self. We are in that place T.S. Eliot called "the still point of the turning world":
   ...Neither flesh nor fleshless;
    Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
    But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
    Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
    Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
 So here we are today at the liquid center, within the heart between beats, placed in the awareness between one thought and the next. And towards what end? Peace? Clarity? Maybe, but recognizing and honoring this place, bringing it to mind every day, living outside of time is my resolution for the New Year. There is a lot of talk about "living in the moment" but this is different. This place, devoid of regrets or goals, triumphs or fears, those products of the ticking clock, is the only thing that is real. The past, imperfectly remembered, is gone. The future may never be. And this still place is all our existence has ever been, each moment following on the next. It is time, after all, that molds our perception that anything is passing away or approaching. And what is time but a human device to make us run fast?

In the play Our Town by Thornton Wilder, the character Emily dies in childbirth and is allowed to go back and relive a day with her family. She chooses her twelfth birthday and is shocked by the beauty and pathos of the small moments. She asks the ever-present Stage Manger, "Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?" He answers that most don't, except the “saints and poets, maybe.” 

This year I will be the same age as my mother when she died after a life of trying to keep all the plates spinning, all the pots boiling, and above all, hearing the clock tick forward while she glanced over her shoulder at the past. I wonder now if she ever gave herself these moments of quiet awareness. I hope so. This year, rather than a traditional resolution, I will give myself a gift and a charge: to live when I can at the still point and love what's there.

Happy New Year

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Do Sleeping Dogs Lie?

Silver waiting to read the comics.
It's the day after Christmas and, all through our house, not a creature is stirring except for our 178 lb. Irish Wolfhound. Silver is dreaming. He is a big dog and he has big dreams.

Like humans, dogs enter the REM/dream state about 20 minutes after falling asleep. Silver's paws twitch ferociously and he makes mewling sounds for about four to five minutes before he sinks into a more silent repose. I wonder what fills his dreams? On the surface, Silver seems to be enacting a sequence in which he is clearly chasing something-- or being chased. However, research suggests that, like humans, dreaming animals relive sequences of their waking moments. This is what confuses me. Silver is, as noted, a big dog. Nothing has ever chased him anywhere. As far as I know he has never chased anything. He never leaves the back yard where there is nothing to chase. Does he tap instead into deep ancestral memory? Some shared  recollection of pre-domestication? I don't think so. Like yours and mine, I think Silver's dreams are full of fears and wishes. Silver's subconscious is composing a fiction.

This conclusion may seem to be something of a leap, but there are several connections between point A (Silver is dreaming) and point F (Silver is composing fiction).  Anyone who lives with animals knows they can understand the outcomes of sequential actions (e.g., sit, beg, treat), but these are not always simple sequences. When Silver was a pup, I was attempting to train him not to sit on the furniture. Silver understood the sequence: I would let him in, he would walk into the living room and jump up on the couch. I would try to shame him by saying in a loud voice, "No, Silver. Bad dog!" while grasping his collar and pulling him onto the carpet. He repeated the sequence, but I became more watchful and blocked most of his attempts.

Too smart to continue in this way, Silver eventually combined his efforts with another sequence he had learned: the alarm bark sequence. Ever since he had caught his paw in some loose decking, Silver knew that I would come running if he sounded the alarm bark. One day Silver was outside and sounded the alarm. As he anticipated, I came running. This time, however, when I came outside he was not in sight. I had to go around the corner of the house where he was waiting. As soon as I was there, he side-stepped me, flew onto the deck, pushed open the door, ran into the house and jumped on the couch.

This sequence involved complex thinking beyond mere sequence. Silver had created a plot. He knew that I might be able (for a few more months at any rate) to run interference between him and  his couch. He also knew that he even if I saw through his ruse de guerre, I would never outrun him. He looked so pleased with himself I just let his stay there.

To some degree, fiction is the arrangement of sequences, which Silver demonstrated he understood. Further, by inventing a strategy to beat me at my own game, Silver had lied to me in his actions -- and what is fiction but a kind of lie? He also showed that he understood character --mine -- and introduced the critical ingredients of emotion and motivation -- his.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Little Match Girl Redux

 In 1845, Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson wrote a tearjerker called "The Little Match Girl," which tells of a poor child who must brave a freezing New Year's Eve selling matches to passersby and bring the money home to her abusive father. In the course of the evening, she lights each match for a little warmth and in their fleeting light visions of her deceased grandmother reveal scenes of beauty and hope. In the morning, the girl is found frozen dead.

For some reason, this little tragedy is a holiday favorite. Maybe it's the combination of snow, a child protagonist, and the opportunity for parents to share an "it could be worse" story. I have a feeling it will be especially popular this year. Hard times on Main Street almost guaranty it. After all, almost 21% of all children in the US live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level – $22,050 a year for a family of four. When you consider, however, that a family four actually needs an income of twice that much to meet basic expenses, about 42% can be considered low income.

And now it's the holidays, a time that should at the very least provide a small island of happiness in a sea of hard times. Not even close for many -- especially those who have been counting on a continuation of the payroll tax cut to afford a celebration.

Politics has me riled more than usual and it's difficult to write when I keep growling. Remember 2008 when the distress over a tottering Wall Street sent John McCain tearing off the campaign trail to vote for the bail out? Whether or not this action was necessary to recovery is debatable, but the recipient of this unprecedented largess is not. Today, politicians in Washington seem to have had so little experience in cooperation that they can't figure out how to pass legislation that they all seem to support. Why this prolonged bickering and reluctance to act? Is it because the beneficiaries of this tiny gesture are middle class workers and their families rather than Wall Street moguls?

I suspect the continuation of the payroll tax cut will pass before long -- perhaps in the next few hours it seems. We're coming up on an election year after all. But one little band aid does not a tourniquet make. Happiness is draining away in a land when families become poorer, hope becomes more faint and some political bullies are even suggesting that child labor laws are "stupid."

Many historians say the Victorians invented childhood as we know it, evidenced by the stories of Anderson, Burnett, and others. But will it emerge intact from the greed and shortsightedness of our era? Or like many other treats, will it only survive for the elite?

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Here in the Stag-Nation

This is just the dining room!
I have been trying to put my books into some semblance of order which always leads to trouble. However, all it takes is coming across one book I've been meaning to look at again, and off I go into another more engaging task. Mind you, we have been thinking about putting the books in order (and attempting to do so in a desultory manner) for the entire fifteen years we've lived in this house, but nothing ever comes of it. I have actually dusted them, sometimes with help, three or four times.

This time, the culprit book was Wickedary (A.K.A. Websters' First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language Conjured by Mary Daly in cahoots with Jane Caputi). This strange volume establishes once and for all that feminists -- even radical militant feminists -- do have a sense of humor. It also demonstrates that feminism is rooted in a way of thinking that suggests rather than prescribes behavior.

Wickedary, as the title suggests, is largely devoted to words (new, old, invented and deconstructed) and demonstrates their power to (re)form our thinking and (re)define self. Here are a few examples:

crabby adj : having the characteristics of a crab--active, pugnacious, tenacious, Self-sufficient, able to move in all directions. Example: Susan B. Anthony

goad-god n : the divine role model for the little goadfathers who goad, prick, spur, prod, and bore all natural creatures within their reach

methodolotry n : a common form of  academic idolatry: Glorification of the god Method; boxing of  knowledge into prefabricated fields, thereby hiding threads of connectedness, hindering New discoveries, preventing the raising of New questions, erasing answers that do not fit into Respectable Categories of Questions and Answers

phallocracy n rule by Godfather, Son and Company

stagnation n : 1 :  the eternally atrophied "Afterlife" of the Happy Dead Ones. 2 : nation governed by stag parties; the perpetually stagnant state
I love paging through this book and still being almost shocked by some of the entries, recognizing how many ideas have come closer to being held and honored by progressive mainstream thinkers (male and female), and being dazzled by Daly and Caputi's verbal cosmology. However, reading through Wickedary at the same time politicians are bullying their way through the airwaves is disconcerting. This is a book most of them would gladly burn, deeming it dangerous, evil, and destructive -- judgments that would surely provoke a hoot from its authors.

My problem with politicians is not so much that I disagree with them --  although I generally do -- but the degree to which they appear to resist real change and focus instead on solutions drawn from popular false dilemmas. We can either raise taxes or create jobs. We can attack Iran or invite destruction. Education can only be improved by raising standards or more testing. Like Methodolotrists politicians seem only arrive at solutions that sift  into prefabricated fields, thereby raveling the threads of connectedness, ensuring a return to old patterns of failure, turning a blind eye to painful realities, fleeing solutions that do not fit into Respectable Categories of How We Have Always Done Things here in the great Stagnation.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Mouse Parties and Tiaras : Language and Love

My husband, Jose, is Brazilian. He is well-educated, a brilliant engineer and inventor, and kind to animals, but I think I fell in love with him because of his charming way of speaking English. After our first date, for example, he sent me an email that said, 
"I want to apologize for being so impatient to hold you. I should have conversed more, so I could explore your curious mind. But I was too anxious, like a dog with a cracker!" 
The image is overwhelming. Who could resist that? Not I! 
Another time I was speculating about what I might do when I got profit-sharing from the company I worked for at the time. He said, "Better be careful, sweetie-pie. Do not count with the egg in the ass of the chicken." How could you not treasure that up in your heart?

In the early days of our marriage, Jose travelled a lot and was often gone for weeks at a time as he bounced from Munich to Singapore to Maryland. One time when he was out of town he called when my friends Jan and Jenny were over. 
"What is this noise? " he asked.  "A mouse party?"  
I asked him what he meant.
"When the cat's away, the mouse will have a party."
Don't you love translation? 
The interesting thing about language is that it so often creates our reality. Ever since, anytime we three convened it was a mouse party. What had been just friends getting together for the evening became an exclusive club. Jenny bought us tiaras and we wore them as we drank champagne, made "visioning" collages, and watched chick flicks. At this time of year we'd always watch "Love Actually" again. The film starts with a memorable voice over from Hugh Grant who plays England's Prime Minister:
Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion's starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don't see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it's not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it's always there - fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge - they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I've got a sneaking suspicion... love actually is all around.
Love springs from the strangest places -- English passed through Portuguese,  friends embraced princesshood, death reminded us that our job on this earth is not survival. Jenny and I and many others lost our friend Jan last night.  Jan was the sweetest and least demanding of souls, but also sassy and wise and brave. Brave enough to wear a tiara, speak the truth and travel the cancer road without becoming a victim. Even as the end came rushing toward her, we could raise a sparkle in her eyes and see the place our love for her sprang from.

Jan never wanted a fuss made over her, so there will be no funeral, just a gathering of friends in a few days. Jenny and I will drive together from my house. And we will be wearing tiaras.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Versatile Blogger Award

How nice is this? Fellow blogger and writer extraordinaire, J.D. Mader, has made me a recipient of the very distinguished Versatile Blogger Award. For a very good read, check his blog, Avoiding the Stairs. I can only say that I am humbled and would like to dedicate my award to Newt Gingerich, in hopes that he will pass along his lead in the Republican race to another more worthy than he (but still beatable) -- as I am doing in  accordance with the rules of this reward.

Yes, there are rules.

1. Thank the blogger who honored you and be sure to link to his or her blog, as I have above. Thank you, J.D. You are a gem.
2. Share seven things about yourself.
3. Pass the award on to five deserving bloggers.

So seven things... I am advised these ought to be witty, but will hope readers will settle for succinct.

1. I am currently reading Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. Next on the bedside table is Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James.
2. My favorite line from a movie: "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?"
3. It took me nine years to get a B.A. because I kept changing my major (classical studies, French, drama, folklore, English). 
4. I love opera. When I was twelve I sneaked backstage and got Joan Sutherland's autograph.
5. I also love Willie Nelson. He hugged me once in Augusta, Maine.
6. I believe in reincarnation.
7. Last time, I didn't.

And now, the next recipients of the Versatile Blogger Award are:
Helen Heubi  
Bill Woolum
Tish Jett
Tom Kepler
Peter Pappas 

So, newly honored writers, enjoy your moment in the sun. Speak only the truth. Go forth and enlighten.

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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Are we the roots that drive us?

In his most recent film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog explores and reflects on the oldest human artistic expression known, the 32,000 year old paintings in Chauvet Cave in France. Herzog's journey, highly restricted and specially authorized, takes us where we'll never be allowed.

The cave's treasures are not only highly sensitive to whatever bacteria and moisture that might accompany visitors, but the interior is choked with an invisible and poisonous combination of radon and carbon dioxide. No one can stay longer than three hours. Despite limitations on the number in  party (Herzog himself had to form part of the crew) and the relatively short time devoted to the shoot, the film is remarkable. Although a steel door guards the entrance to the cave and the fragile world inside, we are allowed   to touch minds with our ancestral past.

Filmed in 3D -- a first for Herzog -- we see the scattered jaws of cave bears and sabre-toothed cats lit by sparkling stalactites, and the grand  murals of strangely docile, even smiling, rhinos, lions and horses.

The depiction of these sweet-faced creatures speaks to our ancestors' relationship with the world. They devoted the cave, a space approximately the size of a football field, to images of predators and and prey. In fact, there is only one human image in the whole gallery: almost hidden, deep in the back is the mother goddess from whom all bounty flows.

Almost more remarkable is that this enormous cave was never inhabited. It was a place  of ceremony or inspiration perhaps, but never an abode. Probably the most prominent, valuable natural asset of these people was the dominion of artists who clearly held a place of high honor in the community.

Imagine for a moment: if the most honored in our society were to create images that described our relationship with the world,. what would we see? I have my own ideas as you will have yours. But as you imagine, consider as I do the question: has evolution only been physical? Will we ever, as a society, equal those who came before us?

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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Pomegranate: Fruit for a Dark Season

Winter, if judged by temperature, came to Oregon about two weeks early this year. In the garden, everything stopped. The jays, generally willing to share the peanuts I set out for them, have become increasingly belligerent. The warning pangs of arthritis sing me awake in the morning. There is a saving grace, however, and I don't mean the upcoming holidays. This is the only time of year I can buy pomegranates.

I love the taste. I even love the difficulty of getting to the fruit, mining the seeds like garnets. (It should be difficult to reach the payload. After all, mythology warns us that a mere six pomegranate seeds sentenced Persephone to her annual six months in Hell.) But there is much more. I love the rounded weight in my hand, the tough red rind (which yields more than double the antioxidants of the fruit), and the hat-like peak of the flower end. Inside, the seed arrangements are so complex that any angle you slice reveals a different pattern, from star to Rorschach.

I am obsessed, but so have many others been. The pomegranate appears both in Homer's works and the book of Exodus. As one of the seven species of fruit that blessed the land of Israel, it is a symbol of abundance and new beginnings, and the motif  brightens Judaic art.

Pomegranates embroidered on a tallit

Pomegranates flank an inscription from the Song of Solomon
Look anywhere in the art of the Middle East, the Mediterranean or countries that benefited from their trade routes, and you with find evidence of the pomegranate's importance in civilization's shared consciousness.

  Madonna of the Pomegranate by  Botticelli, 1487

Persian "Pomegranate Orchard" carpet

Coronation of Henry VIII  and Catherine of Aragon  under the Tudor rose and a pomegranate

And who could be surprised that Salvador Dali produced his 1944 work, One Second Before Awakening from a Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate?

I can imagine Dali at his easel, the juice of a pomegranate dripping from the tips of his grand moustache, his mind joined with the ancient fruit and all its odd associations. Fertility, danger, beauty beneath a harsh surface.The opulent weds the impossible.

On the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, my engineer husband indulges one Brazilian superstition: we must  have pomegranates in the house.We each take six seeds, bite the fruit pulp from them, and place the tissue-wrapped seeds in our wallets to ensure prosperity in the year to come. It's  everyday magic--and the mythic promise that the months of cold, damp Hell will give way to spring. In the meantime I'll eat pomegranates.

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Thursday, December 1, 2011

What's in a name?

The last time I wrote here about my composing process, an unplanned character had just sauntered onto the page of my new book and addressed the protagonist, Liz Venables, as "monkey girl."  As of that writing, I didn't know who this was, what he or she was doing in the novel or what was going to become of the story I thought I was going to write. According to my synopsis, The Ghost Doll was supposed to be a much darker book than Fool's Journey, but here comes this clownish character changing the sultry tone of Chapter 1.

Many writers admit that their plot has been interrupted by the entrance of a new character. Often, too, the characters reveal their names. I've ended up with some odd names for characters --Hippolyta, for example-- and if you don't let them have their own way, they will fight you throughout the novel. This new interloper in The Ghost Doll says his name is Oscar. Fine, but not just Oscar: his name is Oscar Maier. Accepting though I might be of auto-creationism in fiction, I could only shudder. Sure, the surname was spelled differently than the commercial product, but a character named Oscar Maier is necessarily a weenie.  And why would there be a weenie in my lovely, dark ghost story? Unless the story had changed itself when I wasn't looking. It wanted a little humor perhaps? It didn't want to take itself so seriously.

In a way it was a relief. Spending the next year or so writing a dark book didn't sound like much fun -- and clearly the book agreed. Once I let Oscar into the story, it flowed. better. Suddenly there was banter instead of all that tedious introspection. I discovered that Oscar  was Liz Venables' half-brother. Admittedly, he a weenie, but good-natured, not too bright, dangerously inept, generous, spacy and gay. Liz needed someone like Oscar in her life to keep her spirits up  in order to confront everything I plan to send her way.

Many writers attest to experiencing this phenomenon, this point when the manuscript assumes a life of its own. Perhaps it explains how Shakespeare came up with Romeo Montague -- a Scotsman in Verona?
 Och! Whit leam kithen thro' yonder windae? (But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?)
It's a good sign, though. When writers have to chase after characters, it must mean their books are alive, and their stories are playing out almost independent of governing hands. Weenie or not, Oscar tells me I've tapped into the source and I'd better stand back and let it flow. Knowing that writer may have little more control over the story than the reader keeps me humble, and reminds me to honor the Muse, whatever she may send my way.

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