HIC SVNT DRACONES

Lennox Globe, by B.F.Da Costa
So Day One of Winter Break is probably not the best time to start planning next semester’s lessons, but I came across this poem by Rumi (it’s actually the beginning to a longer poem) and thought it might be a nice introduction to the selected readings for next semester since they involve worlds that are alternately mythic, old, and ineffably terrifying, (Homer, Shakespeare, Wiesel’s “Night”).

Wean yourself

Little by little, wean yourself.
This is the gist of what I have to say.
From an embryo, whose nourishment comes in the blood,
move to an infant drinking milk,
to a child on solid food,
to a searcher after wisdom,
to a hunter of more invisible game.

Think how it is to have a conversation with an embryo.
You might say ‘The world outside is vast and intricate.
There are wheatfields and mountain passes,
and orchards in bloom.

At night there are millions of galaxies, and in sunlight
the beauty of friends dancing at a wedding.’

You ask the embryo why he, or she, stays cooped up
in the dark with eyes closed.

Listen to the answer.

There is no ‘other world’
I only know what I have experienced.
You must be hallucinating.

[Emphasis mine]

I was recently staying with one of my closest friends, Daymon. He lives in Seattle and he and I have enjoyed (and endured) many journeys together. We have been friends for over twenty-five years and when I look back on the time when we met (different Los Angeles) and the time when we lived together (different New York) and the time we spend together now (different Duncan, different Daymon), I encounter the ways in which we have changed and grown but also how the terrain, physical terrain, of the world that we have traveled across has changed too.

Daymon’s guest room, well-appointed and comfortable like a sanctuary, has a giant map rising above the head board of the bed. He actually has maps in different points throughout his house and although we’ve never discussed it, I assume that cartography is something that fascinates him. (At least I hope so because I’ve sent him a small book, an atlas, as a Christmas present and token of gratitude for the love and care that descends from him whenever I visit.) I started thinking about maps when I was last with him, in the aforementioned room. Maps used to frustrate me. All the unfolding (and I could never refold them properly so they began to fluff up like an ill-used accordion over time), all the spacial coordination (“it says that where we need to go is in section ‘G4’ but I can’t find it!”) all the land that was labelled and useless for whatever purpose the map has been opened for in the first place.

Maps traditionally represent adventure, treasures maps, “Heart of Darkness,” but freedom is also achieved cinematically and metaphorically when some character screams with excitement, “let’s just throw the map away!” I have never been intentionally adventurous in this way.  I’m too much the planner, overly anxious about getting lost. Now, like most people, I just use electronic maps, smartphone-enabled apps, GPS devices, things that tell you the quickest route, the fastest way, the method that eliminates any and all territorial distractions. This is the “give and take” of modern technology. It gives you the convenience of surgical precision, but takes the remaining landscape away.

I’m about to embark on my third trip across the country by car. The last one was exactly thirty years ago, when I moved a friend from her home in Boston to my apartment building in LA. Now I’m moving my sister-in-law, from the home we currently share in LA, back to her childhood home in Philadelphia. She’s taking my nephew, her son, along with her. (He’s actually flying back east with my niece the day their mother and I hit the road with their collective belongings and two white hyenas dressed as dogs.) My nephew and I explored Alaska and Washington together along with my family, his cousins, our friends. I have taken him to soccer games and trips up the coast and we’ve jumped at more horror movies together than I can count. Since I’m sonless and he fatherless, our connection runs deeper than most uncles share with their nephews. Consequently, his departure will represent a considerable loss, one that I haven’t had the heart or the time to tally. It will represent new territory for me and I don’t have a map for that, physical, virtual, emotional.

“Life is a Journey!”

I hate that cliche; it’s both mawkish and glib simultaneously. Life is a series of journeys, sure, right, check, but the overarching journey comes to a dead end, literally and even when it’s mapped out, it’s unpredictable and you seldom end up where you intend. Life is uncharted and any map always proves unreliable. Still, I suppose the best way to understand uncharted territory is to chart it, so that’s what I’ll do. I’ll start a series of posts, of impressions, of the stops along the way from LA to Philadelphia. I don’t know what there is to write about in Oklahoma–it’s “undiscovered country” for me, unreal, one of Rumi’s embryo’s hallucinations–but I’ll give it a shot and share it here. Maybe there will be pictures too. I need some practice because I’m doing all of this again when Miles, my partner, and I go to Italy this summer prior to our wedding. (Now that I’ve done before, but the map my ex-wife and I shared will be useless for my marriage to come for all sorts of reasons.) For the upcoming Italian voyage, I’ve been studying maps, real maps, and trying to figure out what they mean and why so often I always read them upside down. I suppose you just set off in the direction the maps tells you to go and hope that whomever made it is better at creating them than you are at reading them.

I just hope where ever we end up, there won’t be any dragons.

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Black Holes and White Lights

Last night, I watched “Captain Phillips” with my brother and his wife. At the end, when Phillips is saved and being treated for shock, something was jarred.

It “felt” exactly like my experience coming to at Cedars-Sinai when I was hit and killed in ’09.

The medical report gave an estimate of the time from when they believe my heart stopped to when the paramedics were able to jump-start it back into the land of the living. I tell my kids this story and they all ask about “the white light,” and I can see their disappointment when I explain that I didn’t see one.

“I’m not saying that there isn’t one,” I quickly qualify, “merely that it didn’t come for me. This may say much more about my fate and much less about the existence of the light than I care to ponder.”

(This normally provokes laughter from my students and some small, however not unsubstantial, bit of reflection for me.)

“Well what did you experience?,” they ask. “Nothing,” I respond honestly. “It was more like a black hole than a white light. Time, pain, everything just seemed to disappear in retrospect. I was just in one place at one point and then in another, only later.”

You can swim through the silence of the pause that typically comes after I mention that.

Once, a student asked, “Did you hear any music?” This may sound strange, particularly since I just mentioned the hole with nothing in it, but it makes sense to me. Nature abhors a vacuum and in the space of unknowing that I’m describing, my students probably reach into the only thing that they can access immediately and that’s television or movies.

In the movies, even death comes with a soundtrack.

I’ve thought about what my own brief flirtation with the undiscovered country might sound like. What would be playing on the radio in the brief moment when I went off the shoulder before I came to back on the road? My sister-in-law Deirdre sent me this song by James Blake to me this morning and I loved it so much, I think that this might be just the thing that would have, that could have, the maybe should have been playing when I died. I know that when it happens again, if I can, this will be what I request.

Out among the breakers.

Ithaca

In 1970, the enigmatic Tim Buckley wrote a sad song called “The Song of the Siren.” He actually performed it on the television show “The Monkees,” which gives it a peculiar organic quality of sincerity, even though The Monkees is one of the first real examples of suits trying their best to manufacture something cool.

The Buckleys, like the Kennedys, suffered from a family curse, which expressed itself through the male line.  Tim died at 28, drowned by heroin addiction. His musician son, Jeff, initially ignored by his father would prove equally as sensitive, an iconic musician’s musician that specialized in making sad songs even sadder. Jeff made it only an additional two years before joining his natural father at the age of 30, drowning, literally this time, in the dark eddies of the Mississippi.

Tim Buckley’s other son, Taylor, was adopted. Taylor’s name in Tim Buckley’s Wikipedia entry is dark, which is to say un-highlighted, and so Taylor being a Buckley in name only may have escaped blood curses and the scrutiny of history. Obscurity can be a form of salvation. “Les gens heureux n’ont pas l’histoire,” a French phrase that the late Spaulding Gray once translated as “Happy people don’t make history.” (Gray, coincidentally, also drowned, having thrown himself suicidally into the less mythic, but no less notorious eddies of Manhattan’s East River.)

So why these dark morning reveries about the wonderful, yet ill-fated Buckleys? Self-pity. That and a line from the elder Buckley’s song, mentioned above.

I am puzzled as the newborn child
I am troubled at the tide:
Should I stand amid the breakers?
Should I lie with death my bride?

My own siren’s song, the gift of teaching, continues to call to me, but I am stuck on shoals and troubled at the tide. My own private Ithaca waits for me at a high school in Southern California. It’s a temporary position–they all are at first–but a chance to teach English. My shoal is a background check, fingerprint analysis, which must be done in Washington, DC.  My clearance, the official print-out of my conscience, is bobbing somewhere in between here and there, lost at sea because a small group of small thinkers in my government decided to shut that government down.

I’ve lived through several of these things and never take them personally, although I confess that this time, I’m feeling it much more personally than ever before.

So until the halls of power flip the “on” switch, I’m grounded and the view I had more clearly is now obscured by fog and may never return. “Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.” (That’s a Sondheim quote. He’s neither dead, nor drowned.)

Still, it’s October and that’s the month for witchcraft, which, like curses, I believe in wholeheartedly.  (It’s belief in God I have trouble with.  If a distrust in God and a belief in witchcraft seems incompatible, I have some film of Germany in the 1930’s, Cambodia in the 1970’s, or modern-day Syria to show you.)

 

“We live two lives…”

Image

Scrymgeour, Duncan
Cheryll in Black Veil
Solarized photographic emulsion
Los Angeles, 1980

“We live two lives…the life we learn with and the life we live after that.”
— Bernard Malamud

When I was teaching Homer’s Odyssey to a group of ninth graders this year, I was struck by how many messages exist within that most central of texts. For the kids, Homer is a primer to the notion of the Classic Hero, the “sacred voyage,” the “monomyth” of selection, departure, trials and suffering, lessons learned, and the long journey home. “Sing to me of the man, Muse,” the Fagles translation begins, “the man of twists and turns.” The journey home is not only long, it is never straight. There are no maps; there is no GPS.

From Homer, I could draw fairly straight lines to my students’ own epic heroes, to Harry Potter, to Luke Skywalker, and Katniss Everdeen. From them, in turn, students began to imagine the magicians and wanderers and warriors who populate their own lives. Heroism only seems exalted and mythic at first, but my students learned, it is everywhere and often most easily found not by venturing out, but by simply looking back. After we finished the Odyssey, I asked them to prepare speeches praising their own heroes. Most of them claimed that they didn’t know any. “Look for them,” I told them, “you’ll find them,” and so they did, typically, waiting behind the very doors that closed behind them on their way to school. They found their heroes at home.

The speeches were journeys fraught with nervousness and index cards, frustrated stomping and the plea, “can I start over from the beginning?” My students spoke of their parents and their siblings, many of whom had gone off to real wars, or escaped them. My kids “sang” their odysseys often through tears, as they shared stories about their families and their hardships, their journeys, both geographic and metaphoric, about the people who loved them making sacrifices to find new homes and new lives.

As a new, freshly-minted teacher, one who has come to teaching after a career in healthcare and a lifetime of learning both hard and easy lessons, I almost missed the lesson in Homer that lay in wait for me. It didn’t involve heroism so much as humility. Even great heroes, Homer seems to be reminding us, crave second chances. Midlife crises, as we seem determined to call them, needn’t be something to lament, but to embrace. Leaping from one ship on to another passing in a different direction and, proverbially, frequently at night, now that’s a leap of faith and never seems to happen without frustration, indecision, and loss.

At my last corporate job, my department was eliminated after the functions were outsourced. I was given a career coach to help me land the next job with a desk and a plant and a water cooler. My coach looked over my resume and said, confused, “well you started out in management making a lot of money and well…that is, you started out big and now…” She smiled nervously. “And now things seem small?,” I asked. Her smile became fixed. “Well it does seem like you’re moving backward,” she confessed. That’s one way of looking at it, I suppose. But what if I’m not moving backward as much as I’m heading home? Maybe I paddled out too far, and now, wanted to search for the place that had the most meaning for me, back to the man who wanted to teach? Maybe it’s less about “big to small” and more about those “twists and turns” that Homer mentions? Perhaps my story begins with leaving the bigger battle, the place of prestige, and ends when I’ve returned to my own private Ithaca. If so, then I’ve found it. (Well. At least, I can see its shore.)