Thursday, October 5, 2017

"The name--of it--is 'Autumn'--"


The name—of it—is "Autumn"—
The hue—of it—is Blood—
An Artery—upon the Hill—
A Vein—along the Road—

Great Globules—in the Alleys—
And Oh, the Shower of Stain—
When Winds—upset the Basin—
And spill the Scarlet Rain—

It sprinkles Bonnets—far below—
It gathers ruddy Pools—
Then—eddies like a Rose—away—
Upon Vermilion Wheels—

--Emily Dickinson




How many people do you know who would associate the spectacular red displays of fall color with blood?  The conventional view would be of nature in red apparel putting on a vivid show of beauty.

But Emily Dickinson did not see the world conventionally.  Her poems are more likely to disrupt and challenge our conventional views of reality.  (See blog posts September 2009)

“The hue of" Autumn “is Blood”; the tree line upon the hill is “an Artery”; and “along the Road” it is “a Vein.”  Fallen leaves “in the Alleys” are “Great Globules,” while falling leaves are a “shower of Stain” and “Scarlet Rain” (which, like blood, is spilled).  Is it the blood of violence and death?  Menstrual blood that sheds potential life? Is it the “stain” of human sin and guilt?

In the third stanza the imagery becomes more innocent, as leaf fall “sprinkles” ladies’ “Bonnets”; it “eddies like a Rose and whirls away “Upon Vermilion Wheels.”  But even here “It gathers ruddy Pools.”

Is this representation of fall an image of that ancient “fall” from innocence that recurs in nature and in every human life?  Is it a harbinger of the death of nature in winter yet to come?  Written in 1862, is it an image of bloody civil war?

Regardless, even the more playful images of leaves sprinkling bonnets and wheeling away on the wind, cannot save this poem from suggestions of the dark side of human experience—violence, death, evil.

Even if we interpret references to arteries and veins as images of life coursing through our bodies, this life leaves a stain when it is spilled in falling leaves.

What are we to make of this virtual riot of red?

It certainly seems to suggest that, just as Dickinson explored psychological pain as no other poet before her had done (see Sept. 19, 2009, blog post), she also explored the dark underbelly of nature’s beauty—nature red in tooth and claw, violence, death, the “fallen” side of creation (including human nature).

Another poem about Autumn, “These are the days when Birds come back,” treats Autumn as a “fraud” that can sometimes fool us into thinking summer is still with us.  She compares the reprise of summer warmth in Autumn to a “Sacrament of summer days” and a “Last Communion,” a remembrance of summer’s death, just as holy communion commemorates Christ’s sacrifice.

While Dickinson has many poems that celebrate nature, it seems the dark side was never far from her mind.

However spectacular the displays of fall color, she seems to have been ever cognizant of the coming winter.


Sunday, July 9, 2017

Dream Eater


Recently I saw the film Wonder Woman, which draws on ancient Greek mythology to depict an intersection of mortal and immortal dimensions in a World War I setting.  Like Wonder Woman, Koi, the main character of this 2017 novel by my daughter’s friend, K. Bird Lincoln, brings super-human powers into the human realm.  And they both pit female power against the male deities that would control them and the rest of humanity.

Unlike Wonder Woman, Koi, a Japanese American, has grown up in the human world of contemporary Portland, Oregon.  She is only partly aware of her paranormal/supernatural/mythological ancestry and lives in fear of human touch, which triggers her power to read people’s dreams. Also, while Wonder Woman invokes Western myth, Dream Eater draws on non-Western sources--Japanese, Middle Eastern and Native American. 

Because of her fear of human touch, Koi has isolated herself, even from her family.  In an effort to build a normal life, despite the continual flashes of other people’s dreams, she begins working toward an accounting degree at Portland Community College.  One day she crosses paths with a Japanese Kitsune (fox) shape-shifter, who, she later learns is on a mission from the mythic “Council” to retrieve her father.  At about the same time, Koi bumps into a professor and reads his dreams of murder.  Later, the professor enlists Koi’s help in translating her family’s obscure Japanese dialect.  Meanwhile, Koi’s sister, Marlin, who has a real job, calls on Koi to take over temporary care of their father, who apparently suffers from Alzheimer’s, so she can get some work done.  It seems the Kitsune, Ken, has experience with elder care, so he offers to help, not revealing his ulterior motive. 

From this point on the narrative resembles an action adventure, which is played out as much in Koi’s body as in external reality.  Her proximity to Ken stirs erotic sensations while the professor arouses fear and horror.  When the professor kidnaps Marlin, Koi and Ken, with Dad in tow, are off on an adventure involving rescue, encounters with such mythological powers as the Middle Eastern Ullikemi and Native American Thunderbird, deception, multiple battles, and eventually Koi’s discovery of her own superhuman powers.  Throughout it all, we vicariously experience Koi’s psychic drama, as well as the physical action.  There is constant turmoil, made all the more chaotic by the ambiguity of just who is good and who is evil, who is the ultimate power and who is the surrogate.

Allegorically speaking, this urban fantasy can be read as a coming of age narrative, in which Koi, innocent of her full power, encounters the evil in the world, discovers her true identity and learns that she can not only read dreams but eat them, that is, take their power into herself, and, if the dreams are evil, she can use that power to fight evil.  In other words, she discovers, not only the evil in the world, but also her own capacity for evil.  The moral allegory is thus no simple tale of good vs. evil, but a complicated interrogation of power, in which good must know evil in order to defeat it. 

The novel is also a budding love story, as, parallel to the action adventure, Koi also battles her increasing attraction to and attachment to Ken.  Her journey of self-discovery becomes a sexual awakening, as well as a lesson in the power of relationships and interdependence, thus overcoming her initial isolation.  And it is not only the relationship with Ken that ultimately breaks through Koi’s isolation, for her primary motive in the action adventure is to rescue her sister and protect her father.  Thus, as her relationship with Ken develops, her family relationships are restored.  She is able to honor both her Japanese Baku (dream eater) father and her human Hawaiian mother, and thus her own hybrid nature.

What is most striking about the novel, besides the blending of non-Western mythological traditions, is, as noted earlier, the way in which so much of the action takes place in Koi’s body and psyche.  Her sensations, including physical cravings for coffee and dark chocolate; distinctive smells, especially spices; powerful images and sounds; erotic attraction; emotional turmoil; and the non-human sensations of dream fragments, dream-eating, and ultimately the wielding of dream power.  Dream-eating is paralleled by human hunger for pizza, burritos, and her father's Bi Bim Bap. All this is conveyed in a language that juxtaposes contemporary vernacular with ancient traditions, just as Koi’s human self is juxtaposed with her mythic self.

At one point Ken makes specific reference to Joseph Campbell and his book The Power of Myth, based on the PBS documentary with Bill Moyers, and its theory of universal patterns that cross the boundaries of culture and society.  Thus, Japanese Baku are paralleled by Morpheus in Western myth, Ojibwe dream catchers, Slavic Nocnitsa, and medieval succubi.  Campbell would argue that universal cross-cultural images and narratives reflect shared human experience and a common human nature. 

With the rise of postmodernism in the later 20th century, Campbell’s theories fell out of favor.  Postmodernists highlighted difference in human experience, culture, and society, even going so far in some cases as to deny human nature.  Human belief and behavior is individual, arising out of culturally specific influences, distinct social environments, and unique individual experience. 

Rather than reducing this debate to an either-or choice, I prefer a both-and approach.  While cultural, social, and individual differences are significant, they are not necessarily definitive, and it is our shared humanity that enables cross-cultural communication and understanding.  While we are always mired, to some extent, in our own history, experience, and culture, we are capable of transcending, to some extent, those limitations in order, not only to co-exist, but also to participate in a shared human community.

Whatever cultural limitations define Wonder Woman and Dream Eater, they both serve as images, not only of female power, but also of the intersection between the human realm and that of imagination, of history and myth, of time and infinity, society and vision.  They both participate in Joseph Campbell’s universal hero myth of trial and quest.  And they both interrogate, not only female power, but all power, using power-from-within and power-with to defeat power-over.

Dreams, like myth, exist in a borderland between human reality and mysteries beyond human comprehension.  In Dream Eater dreams are the gateway to self-discovery, empowerment, connectedness, and higher consciousness.  Eating becomes a trope for fully participating in both worlds.  As Koi says in the end, "That's what people did, wasn't it?  Eat evil, battle dragons, and then go home and make sushi."  So, as K. Bird says, “Dream without fear…”  And, when back in reality, “…drink coffee without limit."

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Faith Bass Darling's Last Garage Sale


Last April we moved my 93-year-old Mom to a retirement community and put her house up for sale.  We spent all of last September cleaning it out for the buyers, going through drawers and closets, giving things away to relatives and neighbors, donating to Good Will, selling some things, filling up a large refuse container, and claiming a few items for ourselves. Back home, when I reported on this experience, a Buddhist friend recommended this 2012 novel by Lynda Rutledge.  “I learned a lot about attachment and detachment from reading this novel,” my friend said. 

Faith Bass Darling is a wealthy widow in Bass, Texas, who is suffering early symptoms of Alzheimer’s.  At midnight on December 31, 1999, she awakes to a what she thinks is the voice of God telling her to sell all the accumulated possessions in the mansion she has lived in all her life, the valuable antiques and art works, precious heirlooms, and family memorabilia.  The next morning she begins pulling as much as she can out onto the lawn and selling her “goods” for whatever few dollars and cents anyone who stopped by would offer her.

The local antique dealer is appalled, tries to salvage what she can and calls Faith’s daughter to come immediately from where she lives a hundred miles away.  The local sheriff’s deputy and the local Episcopal priest also get involved.  All of these folks have a history with the Darling family, and just as Faith battles her memories, so do they. 

My Mom has the usual garden-variety age-related memory issues, but no dementia.  We spent hours going through her possessions, trying to be patient with her reminiscing as each newly discovered item triggered a chain of memories.  She struggled with detachment, as she had limited room in her one-bedroom apartment.  Children and grandchildren, likewise, had limited space.  She had to learn how to let go, to detach.

Faith Bass Darling’s memories come and go.  Sometimes she remembers her family’s past, her husband’s abuse, her son’s death, her daughter’s estrangement, and her husband’s death.  Sometimes not.  Sometimes she associates certain memories with her possessions, sometimes not.  She seems to always know she is on a mission to cleanse her home, her past, her very self from the burdens they carry. 

Similarly, the daughter, Claudia, who at one time considered herself a Buddhist, must cleanse herself of her unhappy family memories: the resentments, the grief, the pain and suffering of absence and loss, not to mention the burden of her own life failures and mistakes.

John Jasper, the deputy sheriff, had been the best friend of Claudia’s brother, Mike, and bears responsibility for his untimely death.  Not only is John Jasper burdened by that guilty memory, but also by the memory of Mike’s father, Claude, verbally abusing both his son and John Jasper himself. 

Bobbie, the antique dealer, Claudia’s best friend growing up, had admired the treasures in the Darling house from childhood.  She knows the full material value of Faith’s possessions, but may not fully appreciate the emotional and psychological cost of those “goods,” the extent to which one can be “possessed” by possessions and the memories associated with them.  Bobbie is focused on resale value, and, like the calls that come in on her lost cell phone, she misses Faith’s need to exorcise her painful memories.

Father George A. Fallow is struggling with his faith at a time when Faith most needs him.  She needs him to affirm her mission from God and to actually perform an exorcism on her house.  Like the rich young man who asks Jesus how he can get to heaven and is told to go and sell all he owns, Faith wants to know that she too is following a divine command that will save her soul.

At a crucial moment Father George finds the right words for Faith:  “The problem isn’t ‘things.” It’s the thing.  Everybody has one big, blinding thing that’s in the way.”  For Faith it is the memory of her husband, Claude, and the role she had played in his death.  When she returns to the scene of that memory, both in physical space and in her mind, she is able to free herself.

For Claudia it is the family heirloom ring, which her mother thinks she has stolen.  When Claudia recovers the lost ring, she redeems herself.  For John Jasper, of course it is the memory of his role in Mike’s death.  When he finally brings himself to revisit the scene of that tragedy, he is finally able to unburden himself.  For Bobbie it is her lifetime envy of the Darling wealth and the memory of having broken a valuable item while visiting in the home, all of which has contributed to her own career in antiques.  Her role in salvaging some of the Darling “goods,” and especially the elephant clock, is her redemption.  Father George has lost his faith, not only in religion, but also in the power of words, including the Word of God, by which he has made his living.  When he finds the right words for Faith, his faith in himself and the power of words is restored.

Alzheimer’s could be considered a form of exorcism, a purging of all the memories we might want to erase, but it also purges the good memories, not to mention one’s identity.  A quote by Milan Kundera serves as a headnote to the novel: “What is this self? It is the sum of everything we remember.”

As Faith loses her memory, her possessions, and herself, she seems to find a new freedom.  At the same time, she becomes the catalyst by which the other characters transcend the past and renew themselves.  Fittingly, the action of the novel takes place on December 31, 1999, the end of one century and the beginning of the next, Y2K, the new millennium.  At the stroke of midnight, 2000, an explosion occurs, a destructive force that is also a cleansing.  One life ends and others begin anew.

As my Mom struggled with the process of detachment, I found myself, not only reliving family memories with her, but also reflecting on my own accumulation of possessions.  Back home at our house, we made a pact to throw away at least one item a week from the basement, the garage, a closet, or other storage area.  This cleansing, this stripping away of that which weighs us down has become a weekly ritual.  As these material traces of the past disappear, I am reminded of the need to revisit the past, especially the dark times that have been hidden away in the closets and drawers of the mind, to clear them out in order to make room for new life.

At another level, the novel speaks, not only to memory, but also to history.  The American South, and the American nation, also have that “one big, blinding thing that’s in the way.”  And that thing is race.  John Jasper is an African American whose friendship with Mike Darling has been forged on the high school football field.  They have transcended, at least on the personal level, the racist divide.  Mike’s father, however, cannot even let John Jasper sit in the front seat of his truck, and when the abuse he inflicts on both boys boils over into racist epithets, an explosion occurs, an explosion that kills Mike and nearly cripples John Jasper, an explosion that destroys the budding attraction between John Jasper and Claudia, as well as the Darling family ties.   The new millennium occurs as Claudia has reconciled with her mother and renewed her relationship with John Jasper, offering hope of healing, not only in their personal lives, but in the future of the South and the nation.

It is said that “elephants never forget”; thus it is fitting that an antique elephant clock dating back to the eighteenth century, one of the most valuable pieces of property in the Darling mansion plays its own role in the novel.  That clock has marked time in Claudia’s bedroom as long as she can remember.  The clock becomes a symbol of memory, as Faith loses hers, and the other characters revisit theirs.  Bobbie salvages the clock before it is sold in the garage sale and sends it to an appraiser in Houston.  As she and Claudia and John Jasper are finally released from the past, they travel together to reclaim that clock, a possession worth keeping for the memories it represents as much, perhaps more, than its material value.

And that is the other side of cleansing and detaching, for as we cleaned out my mother’s house, she and I had to decide what we could let go and what we could keep, not for any material value, but for the meaning and memories worth keeping.