I went to London again this past weekend; the short trips seem to be the most fun. However, I always seem to return with odd injuries, as though I’ve been beaten by an invisible hand on the way in or out. This time, I came home to find a tremendous bruise on my left leg, just below and slightly behind my knee. Add that to my black and blue finger (managed to slam it in the iron basement door—ouch!), and the intense pain in my left arm from my allergy shot, and I’m just a mess this morning. Fortunately, this has not dampened my mood at all.
Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
But I digress. I have no classes to teach this semester, so I figured I was home free on really long commutes for the next few months. Now I have a digital project at our university's other campus that necessitates my driving to Hackensack multiple days during the week. Hackensack is 65 miles away. Sigh. So much for saving wear and tear on the car.
Months of driving all over New Jersey have prompted me to rethink the old jokes about New Jersey driving. While it is not true that New Jersey is just an endless loop of exits, I have been thinking that our highways may be a version of Hell a la Dante. Various highways represent different "circles" of Hell, using more modern categories. For example:
Ring of Hell: the Hopelessly Stupid.
Highway: Route 4
Route 4 runs through Bergen County, ending at Fort Lee. Not only was this highway designed by idiots, it attracts other idiots like a magnet. Specifically, idiots who clearly paid someone off to get their drivers' licenses. Have you ever been driving, see a car waiting to pull out, and imagine them doing something really stupid--and then think, "Nah, nobody could be THAT stupid." Well, on Route 4, they do all those things you could imagine. Large slow trucks pulling out across 3 lanes of cars doing 50 miles per hour. People weaving back and forth across lanes like drunks, because they are "confused" about where they need to be to get onto the Parkway. People stopping in the middle of interchanges because they clearly aren't sure where they want to go. It all happens on Route 4 daily.
To be fair, the Garden State Parkway/Route 17 interchange on Route 4 is a real act of stupidity, and if you don't already know where you need to be, you are bound to be confused. I think the engineers who set that up WANTED to see accidents. I can imagine a hidden camera on the interchange, and the joy in their faces when a pile-up stops traffic on 4, 17, AND the Parkway. These people should have their own circle of Hell.
Ring of Hell: the Relentlessly Selfish
Highway: The New Jersey Turnpike
Aside from the infamous stench that lingers in the Jersey City area, the New Jersey Turnpike has some kind of detrimental effect on your brain. All major highways leading into New York City eventually end up at the Turnpike, which also has an Extension, designed to trip up the brazen tourist who would dare to drive through this area, and punish them by landing them squarely in the center of Newark. (Driving tip: do not drive the Extension unless you are going to the Statue of Liberty, Bayonne, Hoboken, or Jersey City).
Why do I say the Turnpike attracts the selfish? Consider the following true story. An acquaintance of mine had been driving over one of the bridges on the Turnpike closer to the City, and ended up in a car accident. The accident was so bad, the emergency crews needed the jaws of life to get her out of her car. As she was being pulled out and put on a stretcher, passing motorists honked their horns, gave her the finger, and shouted, "Thanks a lot you f**king b*tch." To which she responded in her best Jersey accent, "I'm so sawry!" with the accompanying sarcastic look. Are New Jersey drivers the only ones this selfish? Massachusetts is probably neck in neck...
The Southern end of the Turnpike is less crowded, but the average driving speed is about 125 miles per hour. Everyone does it--I'm pretty sure I've done it, too. Something happens to your brain in South Jersey. It's like a Twilight Zone episode.
Ring of Hell: the Perpetually Lost
Highway: Route 80
Route 80 is very long--it actually runs from Bogota, New Jersey to San Francisco, California. (Bogota is where 80 turns into Interstate 95, and the good ol' Turnpike). 80 itself is straightforward enough; however, its exits lead to lots of little traps. Paterson, for instance. It is very easy to get to downtown Paterson. (Why anyone would willingly go there is another question, but let's not get off topic). I actually have had to go to Paterson, mainly for events at PCCC related to my job. While getting in is easy, getting out is not so easy. It took me about 5 minutes to get to my destination--it took over an hour to get out later. Paterson is like a huge maze, designed to trip you up. Newark is another such place off of Route 80 (and several other major highways as well). Newark is like something out of that Mark Danielewski novel, "House of Leaves". Even people who live there get so lost, as one way streets suddenly change direction, streets that used to take you places are suddenly closed, and no other road takes you back in the direction you need to go--you just drift farther and farther into the heart of Newark, or into the Newark Bay, whichever comes first.
Exits aside, people drive on Route 80 in this area like they've never seen a major highway before. You can see them huddled over the steering wheel in a pose that suggests that they either cannot see where they are going, or are frantically looking for signage. I am always, always, behind someone doing 25 miles an hour on a ramp entering the highway. Note to these drivers: they don't call them "pick up ramps" because you can meet men/women there. (You can't). You are entering a 65 mile per hour highway with big trucks and scary potholes, and had better be doing more than 25 if you value your life.
Ring of Hell: the Enraged and Impatient
Highway: Route 18
When I was an MLS student, I had a professor who described Route 18 thusly: "It's the only highway designed to make you go from 0 to 60 in 2 seconds". Couple that with the massive flooding of 18 every time it rains, the traffic circles, and the construction, and you have a recipe for an Anger Management Situation. Route 18 runs right through the heart of Rutgers University (or perhaps puts a dagger through it).
I have never seen 18 in a finished state. It is ALWAYS under construction right around the Douglass Campus area and points South. Occasionally I am forced to drive down to Commercial Ave. to visit the Rutgers transportation folks, and for every driver creeping along there are several others dodging in and out of cars, jumping over large potholes, and losing their shock absorbers to raised manholes and uneven pavement. It is certainly a frustrating ride, not the only one in the state, but people really seem to get worked up here. No matter how you drive through this area, it's wrong. You will piss off somebody.
I've only named a few of the hellish highways in the Garden State--I haven't even started on Route 78, Route 31 ("improved" to include snarling traffic merges), Route 280, Route 46 or Route 1. Or the Garden State Parkway. I'm sure if you live here or drive through here you can think of others. It would take a book to cover them all.
In the meantime--good night to all, as I need to prepare for tomorrow's sojourn into driving Hell.
Monday, February 09, 2009
I now meditate daily at 4:30am, which often helps me with clarity and focus during the day. Today is not one of those days.
But, as I’ve said before, life does not happen in nice, neat straight lines. It’s messy. All this does is underscore that point. I hate the fact that life is messy. I would like to be able to plan and execute with some predictability, to always be in control of my environment. On the other hand, life isn’t terribly interesting without some messiness. Messiness also increases possibilities. Literally anything is possible. I think I prefer that to the alternative.
Wednesday, February 04, 2009
We had more snow in the Garden State last night—4 more inches to be exact. As I was shoveling my driveway and cleaning off my car at 5:50 this morning, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that 4-6 inches of snow brought London to its knees last week. One of my London friends told me that the city of London does indeed have such facilities as rock salt/sand that can be used in such cases. They choose not to use it for some reason. I wondered what this reason was as I pulled out of my driveway at 6:30, unhindered by the white stuff. I could see a foot or more of snow in an urban area that isn’t well equipped for snow creating havoc. But 4 inches? No wonder Europe is viewing it as an “embarrassment” this week.
The highways were clear and dry this morning, and I was stunned at how gorgeous Route 287 looked. Driving north, the sun was rising, and the sky was that pink/purple/orange color. The temperature was cold, about 17 degrees Farenheit (about -9 Celsius), so the snow still decorated the trees a silvery white. The sun is out fully now, and the snow is melting off the trees, so it can no longer be seen. Seeing it is one of the advantages of driving to work at an ungodly hour of the morning.
At work, I’ve been ordering books, something I don’t get to do all that often, due to my digital project commitments. A recent title from Harvard University Press caught my eye—it’s called “Burning to Read: English fundamentalism and its Reformation opponents”. I’m looking forward to reading this one. The book discusses the dissemination of the Bible in the vulgate via the printing press. While this has always been hailed as a great democratization, a tool for the ignorant masses at the mercy of a sometimes corrupt priesthood, it also represents the birth of fundamentalism. This is not difficult to see—fundamentalist thinking comes from the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, which is a literal reading of the Bible. Uneducated folk who are not schooled in recognizing literary devices such as metaphor and allegory, and unaware of the historical context of the texts, would certainly read the Bible and take it at face value. What interests me about this book is the notion that there was opposition to this type of Biblical inerrancy at the time of the Reformation by other Protestants. I’ll write about it once I’ve had a chance to read it.
It was either Lao-Tzu or one of his contemporaries who suggested that the “masses” should not be allowed to read law or sacred documents for this very reason. I’m not sure how I feel about this assertion, as I tend to believe in the freedom of human beings to expose themselves to whatever writings they wish to discover. But it is hard to evade the point that the misreading of certain texts can be harmful. Think of a conversation entered in medias res, when one of the participants is saying something bizarre or questionable. It would probably make sense in the full context of the conversation, but is nonsensical outside of it. A better example is the reading of abnormal psychology texts or the DSM outside of the context of psychological or psychiatric expertise. Poor Sylvia Plath reading through Freud’s “Abnormal Psychology” convinced that all of it applied to her when she was a teenager. Anyone would do that, if they were anxious enough. So, almost anyone reading the “word of God” without proper context is going to be caught in the same conundrum. The interest in the “soul” (psyche) and its state relative to the greater reality, whatever you call that, is what drives us to explore both religion and psychology.
On a less heavy topic, it appears that things will start to warm up here after tomorrow. Given that late Autumn last year felt more like Winter, I think we're owed a late Winter that feels like Spring...
On a less heavy topic, it appears that things will start to warm up here after tomorrow. Given that late Autumn last year felt more like Winter, I think we're owed a late Winter that feels like Spring...
Monday, February 02, 2009
I spent a lot of my formative years without much personal space. As I mentioned, I had 4 siblings (2 brothers, 2 sisters), and I was the youngest. All of us except for my oldest brother slept in the attic rooms upstairs. I shared a room with my 2 sisters, and it was not a big room. Frequently, being teenagers, they had their friends over, and did not really want their baby sister hanging around. I frequently complained to my mother, as their room was also my room, and I couldn't go there when I wanted. She would just tell me to go outside. I loved being outside, but these were not the times that I wanted to be outside. There was no other private space in the house. I swear that this is why I need so much space as an adult.
Over the years, this same spot, this same point in time, comes into my mind at different times. When I was at university as an undergraduate I had a dream about it. I was in the driveway of the corner house on my parents' street; a girl I went to school with called Christine lived there. I entered the house through the garage. I was looking for something in the house, and somewhat mindful that I might not be alone in the house. I was afraid of encountering anyone. Whatever I was looking for was mine, but I had a hard time finding it. As I made my way up through the house, I found myself climbing out a window and into her backyard. I took a few steps, and I was immediately back at that summer sunset--I recognized the scene immediately. I heard someone coming, and before me was something different, something not part of the original scene--it was a long rope hanging from a tree, the kind that you climb and swing on. I grabbed the rope, but instead of climbing, I was lowering myself. As it turns out, I was lowering myself back into my body in my bed, or at least that was how it seemed as I woke up at that moment.
My friend Phil told me about a Scarlet Imprint book he was reading called "Devoted". It was a collection of stories from worshippers of various deities. These were not the nice, peaceful deities--they were the tricksters, the destroyers. The story of a Loki worshipper made a particular impression on him. It raised the question of whether or not one could ever get out of worshipping these deities once they started. The answer, at least from that story, seemed to be "no".
I have been drawn to crones, hags, moon goddesses, and destroyers my whole life. I'm not entirely sure why. Hecate, Morrigan, Kali--all of them representing extremes. I was asked once by a Bengali man I knew about why I chose to be so intimately involved with Kali pujas. "Why must you choose the most extreme form of shakti?" It was a good question. Shakti is the name given to the underlying consciousness of the Universe. It can be perceived as gentle and motherly, but it can also be destructive and dangerous. Shakti is the force that runs through every person. When one's shakti operates at its peak, one is enlightened, saintly, a boon to society. Most of the time, our shakti is not at its peak, which leaves us insecure, depressed, hung up on certain phobias and ideas. But the shakti is no joke--those who try to "raise" their shakti without any guidance can fall into madness. I get nervous when I see books teaching people how to do kundalini yoga. One should never do that without guidance. Yet I always feel drawn to that extreme energy.
Which brings me to another point in time, or type of point in time. Spring and summer thunderstorms. I know I am recalling a point in time when the weather is warm outside, the clouds gather ominously, the rain comes down like daggers, and the wind is fierce. The lightning cracks the sky, and the thunder shakes the ground. At such points in time, I find myself going outside, preferably barefoot if I'm in the country. I don't get too concerned about getting hit by lightning. I just love running through the rain in my bare feet--a very primal feeling is recreated for me at these moments. It's as though I'm part of the storm.
My colleagues over the years have generally regarded me as a grounded person. I don't like to waste time when it comes to large projects, I like to break things down, organize them, and get to work as soon as possible, regardless of how I personally feel about the project. Some days I am very focused, and can work very efficiently. But sometimes everything just seems to shimmer away like a mirage, and I find myself in one of these other places. I may not literally see that place in my mind; I may just hear a sound or have a feeling that I associate with it. When I do, it's impossible for me to sit down and do anything practical. No matter how simple the task is before me, I can't focus on it, and I have a drive to get out--to go for a long walk, to go down to the river and run barefoot along its banks, to sit in the back of a quiet, old pub and allow my mind to wander. And it does wander. Sometimes I can write stories in this space, if I can discipline myself to do so. This is fine if there aren't major deadlines looming, or other restrictions. But the feeling can last for days. Sometimes it ends in a high fever, and then I'm committed to bed for a couple of days.
A third type of space that I gravitate towards at times is monastery space. I love walking through the echoing halls of a convent or monastery, I love hearing the singing of the monks or nuns. I grew up in a modernized, "folky" Catholic Church that I never liked as much as the old one--the Latin recitations and chants, the magnificent cathedrals that were grossly misunderstood by Protestant reformers. Nature has its own architecture, but some man-made attempts to create the Divine atmosphere are very impressive. The mind works in metaphors. That's the only way to approach this tremendous shakti, this terrifying thing we call "existence". Words do not describe it, so we can only wrap our minds around it by saying what it is "like" in words, or using visual or audial metaphors in art, architecture, and music. Cathedrals are full of symbols--they are everywhere that you look. And they are not simply "Christian" symbols--many are very universal, reminding you of your own connection to everything else.
We are so caught up in our mundane lives, and we get comfortable that way. I am just as guilty of this as anyone else. When I go away to a silent retreat, or some very quiet space to meditate and remember my connection, it is sometimes hard to readjust. It really should not be difficult--if one is really centered in their own stillness, what is going on externally shouldn't make a whit of difference. We draw lines where there aren't any.
While I was working as a system administrator, I had another dream. I was in the library where I was based, walking through the main atrium. It looked like a war zone. The floors had huge holes in them, as though a mine shaft had caved in, or something underneath forced its way out. The place was shaking and falling down. I picked my way through the debris and explosions, trying to find stable pieces of the floor. Underneath I heard a tremendous crunching sound, like a chewing and swallowing. I knew it was inevitable that I would fall to that thing underneath.
You might think that I would wake up terrified from such a dream. Instead, I was relieved. It was a dream of an aspect of the Goddess Kali called the Great Devourer (mahagrasa in the Sanskrit). Mahagrasa appears in myth on the field of battle against the demons of the ego. As they attack, she picks them up and devours them. This is metaphorical for the stripping away of the habits and beliefs that restrain us and make us miserable. For the devouring goddess to act in my life, I had a chance of getting rid of those restrictions and eliminating that suffering.
When I reflect on the different events, spaces, and my response to them, I realize that it's as though I'm always teetering between two worlds. One is scholarly, organized, and academic. The other is chaotic, dreamy, disturbing, and somewhere on the edge. Really, the two worlds are not separate--I separate them in my mind, but they are part of the same complex reality. Which is why choosing one over the other is inappropriate--they need to be integrated. Integration is a challenge, but I seem to gain more and more ground with that task every year.
I am always curious as to what effect this has on others.