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?"

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