Sunday, November 25, 2012

In Between

There are a strange collection of aromas this morning. There is the smell of food cooking somewhere, but I am not cooking any food. I open the door, and take in the scent of cold, wintery air before shutting and locking the door again. Complicating matters is the scent of the balsam fur candle I bought the other day, a rather pointless purchase when I consider that I'll be putting a live Christmas tree in my house next week.

I am always amazed by sunrises and sunsets. Currently I am looking at the silhouettes of Celtic crosses and other headstones, with the bones of forsythia bushes in the foreground, and a blazing blue, orange, and purple sky behind them. Summer sunrises are not like this, unless one is at the Shore.

This rather mundane ritual of getting up, making tea, and watching the sunrise with my writing in some ways encapsulates the joy of life for me. It is quiet--I am not distracted by loud music, or blaring television sets. There is the occasional mewl of the cat, and the hum of hot water moving through the baseboard pipes. Besides that, there is just silence, blue, and blazing orange. Eos has always been one of my favorite Titans, and I cannot help but think about being between two worlds, the shamanistic symbolism of the Argonauts and their boat.

Perhaps this is because I have just re-read the Argonautica for a lecture at the end of this week. But I tend to think of myself as always on the threshold of something, never quite here or there, not passing through the gate, but not prepared to go backwards, either. Since I am neither here nor there, I have no choice but to be in the present, which, if the Zen monks are to be believed, is the only place of peace.

Of course, being in-between leaves an empty space for opportunity and speculation. It is at these moments that I plan trips abroad in my mind, even when I have no money. While I am longing to go to Southern France next year, the idea of a week at a convent in Ireland (suggested by a friend recently) also sounds very appealing right about now. Or, even just a visit to the sisters at Mt. St. Mary's, for a weekend of silence on the hillside, curled up in the library window seats or downstairs with some cocoa in front of a roaring fire.

The in-between place can also be a beacon for every psychical disturbance that one experiences. Those quiet spaces get filled with voices of guilt and regret and despair for what could have been, and the exasperation of not knowing what will be. We have so many distractions--humorous TV shows, cat pictures on the Internet, long conversations with friends that steer us from unpleasant subjects. None of these are bad, in fact they are particularly welcome when one is anxious. But in the silence, it's just you and the huge monster that is your dilemma alone together in the room. The first impulse is to flee by turning on a radio or television, some device that will shut out the things that materialize when there are no distractions. One of my graduate school professors once said, "You can learn to be with anyone, but the hardest person to learn to be with is yourself."

Sometimes, during these early morning hours when I don't have to go to work, I will get an idea for a story. No, that's not quite true--the idea will have presented itself in that other in-between state, sleeping and waking. But lately, I have had an urge not for prose, but for poetry. I am not quite confident as a poet; there is the weight of the "literary" when one presents a poem, a sense that one is not "doing it quite right". It is not difficult to write literary prose. But it takes work to write literary poetry. Society often scorns it as a useless art or a distraction, but it is one of the greatest abilities of the human mind. Managing to find words that musically capture an image of something unimaginable requires experience as well as discipline. Some poets work on a single poem for years, just to get it right.

When I think of thresholds, the first poem I think of is Sylvia Plath's "The Moon and the Yew Tree", or even Tennyson's "In Memoriam" verse 96. There is a transition there, a sense of either descent or re-integration. Descent always brings the possibility of re-integration. In Plath's case, it did not--she completely self-destructed. Her line there is, "I simply cannot see where there is to get to". There has been the suggestion that at this point she produced, wittingly or not, a new mythology for women. She moved away from her more proper, academic forms to something more primal, the deep purging that characterizes the "Ariel" poems. Plath was no different from most smart women in that she wanted it all--to be "greater than Virginia Woolf" as a writer, and to be beautiful and admired in a goddess-like sense, and to have a wonderful family and be a wonderful mother. The Ariel poems tear all of that down, expose it for the nonsense that it is. The woman is as much Durga or Kali as she is sweet-faced Lakshmi or Saraswati, and she does not wish to be controlled or punished by male convention.

On the other hand, I often find myself thinking of the lines in Elizabeth Bishop's poem, "The Moose":

"Yes..." that peculiar
affirmative. "Yes..."
A sharp, indrawn breath
half groan, half acceptance,
that means "Life's like that.
We know it (also death)."

The poem is about riding on a bus, and suddenly the driver stops when :

"A moose has come out of
the impenetrable wood
and stands there, looms, rather,
in the middle of the road.
It approaches ; it sniffs at
the bus's hot hood.

Towering, antlerless,
high as a church,
homely as a house
(or safe as houses)."

I think that about sums up the experience of the in-between. There is a moment in which everything stops, and Nature faces you, reminding you of its friendly, nurturing qualities, and perhaps invoking a nurturing sense in yourself, if you can stop being afraid of life. As Bishop says in subsequent lines, "Why do we feel (we all feel) this sweet sensation of joy?"

Thursday, November 22, 2012


Experiencing Thanksgiving morning with some green tea, an English muffin, and a blog posting for the first time in quite awhile. I started to pull out work for my lectures, and finally decided that I need a break from that. This is a holiday, I should spend more time at leisure. But the Latin word for leisure is "schola", and I never quite get away from the academics, even in my leisure time.

Of course, Shiva cat is determined to maintain a dialogue with me as I'm sitting here with my breakfast. Nearby the new humidifier hums, spiraling its mists towards the ceiling. The windows are a bit foggy, but I can see the rising sun on my left, and the pumpkin that I never carved into a jack o'lantern sitting underneath the huge maple tree in front of me. The squirrels have now broken into the pumpkin, and I frequently see one of the pair that live in the maple tree sitting on top of the pumpkin, scooping up the fruit and scooping out the seeds. At least some creature is getting the use of my otherwise wasted purchase.

Hurricane Sandy, or the "Frankenstorm", if you prefer, destroyed Halloween this year, just as the so-called "snowpocalypse" did last year. Sandy is the reason my pumpkin never became a jack o'lantern; I had to spend the weekend before the storm re-routing drains, moving debris, and otherwise stocking up on essentials, including gasoline and cash. What was odd about Sandy for my town was that it did far less damage than any previous hurricane, but its widespread affects were practically apocalyptic. I usually think storm preparations in this area are a joke, but I was very glad that I'd taken the time this year, as it left me better off than most.

I walked outside the morning after the storm. Everything was dripping, but it wasn't flooded. Many pieces of the pine tree in my yard were scattered about, but all the trees around me, and the power/utility lines, were intact. Down the street I found a huge tree branch blocking the road, and managed to move it to the appropriate yard. My power was out, but I was hoping that would be a short-term event.

The reality of the storm hit me a day later, when my neighbor and I went out together, in an attempt to find some breakfast. Driving up and down our local highway, everything was out, including the traffic lights. No one could open, no one had power. The few restaurants that somehow didn't lose power, or that had generators, were packed to the gills. Long lines were snaking down the highway for gasoline. Everywhere we went, it was so full, we'd be standing around for an hour minimum, and there was nowhere to park. Finally we returned home, not wanting to waste anymore gas. She asked me if I thought the gas station would take quarters, as all the cash machines were down, and it was all she had in cash. I told her to give me her quarters, I'd give her the equivalent cash. My neighbor's daughter brought her some breakfast, and I went to my parents' house, who thankfully never lost power. In the end, I packed up both cats, and stayed there for a week, only returning to vote on Election Day.

About 9 days after Sandy, a Nor'easter came through the area that was mild by comparison. Both storms were a disaster for the Shore towns, but up North, it was more like an apology, a pretty picture painted by Nature for those willing to get up early in the morning. My own employer had re-opened by then, and driving through my parents' snow-covered town framed by the intense blues, reds, and oranges of sunrise, was inspiring. The "village" that had lost so much of its character over the years, a former vacation-home area in the "country", now largely a collection of cheaply-made McMansions awkwardly placed on plots of land too small for them, looked like an enchanting place again under the glamor of snow.

Now it is Thanksgiving, it is sunny, cold, and dry, and I have a lot to be thankful for when I consider the last few weeks. I cannot imagine how it is for people with homes in the Rockaways, or Staten Island, or anywhere along the Shore. The photos of Seaside Heights were sickening. I know many people associate that area with the reality show Jersey Shore, perhaps one of the best examples of our culture as the nadir of Western civilization. But the Seaside I remember is the one I went to growing up, visiting the boardwalk as a child, going on the rides, playing games, and eating Kohr's ice cream and Three Brothers pizza. We would rent in Ocean Beach, and usually visited Seaside twice during our week vacation. I hear that all of that is decimated. I don't think I could bear to drive down there and see. Those who live there year-round have lost everything, and in some cases, there are retirees who lost more than one home at the same time.

I am very thankful that I suffered no damage--not even flooding, or large limbs on the roof. I am very fortunate that I had my parents' house to go to--food, shelter, heat, and working Internet, and much closer to all of my jobs. At the worst, I suffered inconveniences, and minor lifestyle adjustments. And I'm thankful I had the foresight to take out enough money and put enough gasoline in my car to get through the worst of the crisis--I only had to sit in line for gas once. I am grateful for Governor Chris Christie, for actually stepping up to the plate and handling the storm fallout without any partisan nonsense. And for once I am grateful for Fox News's Megyn Kelley, someone I usually want to punch in the face, for turning to a Karl Rove in denial about Obama's re-election votes, and saying "Now, is this math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better, or is this real?" As Jon Stewart accurately noted, this should be Fox's slogan instead of "Fair and balanced." With apologies to my Republican friends--Fox may represent the way you want things to be, but it's not a picture of how things really are. If you think MSNBC and CNN are biased the other way, try watching BBC or Al-Jazeera.

I'm not looking to wax political, but it's probably worth mentioning this myth of "entitlement" on Thanksgiving Day and the beginning of the holiday season, where we talk about sharing our bounty with others. The new take on Obama's re-election is that he's promised people "stuff". Having access to basic health care, being able to pay your education debts, and being able to put food on the table for your kids are not "gifts", or at least they shouldn't be. We live in the richest country in the world, and we still have a 19th century mentality about our resources. The term used at the end of the 19th century for what we now call the "1%" was "robber barons". They broke the backs of the masses so that they could be rich. They were not hard workers. They worked hard at exploiting others. And corporations would love to go back to that model; in fact, you might argue that they're well on their way already. People forget that the middle class was built--and America became economically strong--with lots of government intervention and financing. It can't be done any other way--no one else has the collective resources, and you pay TAXES for heaven's sake--they should benefit you. There may be people who take advantage of the system, but that's what government needs to fix, not to punish everyone in need on account of the manipulators of the system. Incidentally, the only difference between those manipulators at the top and those at the bottom is that those in the top are considered "business savvy" while the ones at the bottom are considered "thieves". We reward the criminals at the top, and punish the ones at the bottom severely. We should look at Iceland's model--throw the manipulators at the top in jail and forgive the debts of the masses. Their GDP was up 17% last time I checked, and they're in better shape than any country in Europe.

I think we have too much "stuff" in this country, but our economy is built on people buying stuff and using services. Everyone has to have money in order to spend it. When everyone can spend, then everyone benefits. There are more jobs, people live happier lives, because they can do what they want without the burden of crippling debt. I would suggest that we stop demonizing the poor as lazy freeloaders, and worry more about the big picture. When everyone has enough, then everyone wins.

And if there's one thing the storm should have taught us, it's that we're not as individualistic as we'd like to believe. The best part of the storm was people coming together to help each other, and to share what they had with those who didn't. It would have been a bigger disaster if people did not come together. It's not "socialism" in the pejorative sense, it's the best part of being human. Happy Thanksgiving.