Category Archives: Journal

Mythological Online Dating

Once upon a time awhile ago, I downloaded the dating app Tinder and set about swiping through photos of Gentlemen and Neanderthals. The next day, one of my “matches” texted. He was more articulate than the knuckle-draggers out there, but it seemed we weren’t going to connect. I thought, Whatever, and I didn’t text him the following day. The day after that, he sent this:

“Dear Daphne, I want you to know that i understand you try to maintain a respectable distance, but remember what happens: ‘a heavy numbness seized her limbs, thin bark closed over her breasts, her hair turned into leaves, her arms into branches, her feet so swift a moment ago stuck fast in slow-growing roots, her face was lost in the canopy. Only her shining beauty was left’ your choice is to face my ardor or become arbor. Yours in hot pursuit, Apollo”

Well. I don’t receive texts like that every day, let me tell you. He made me laugh, that’s 10 points right there; he cited a book, that’s another 10 for a total of 20 so far; and the book he cited was Ovid’s Metamorphoses, for a cool 10,000 points, enough for him to sail past the threshold required for a return text, with even a few points to spare. It was like the old Olivia Newton John song: “Let’s get mythical, mythical, I wanna get mythica-a-a-l…”

So yes, let’s get mythical. Especially since “Apollo” typed only seven lines of a five-page story. What he left out is that, having just slain the Python, the Roman god Phoebus (Apollo to the Greeks) swaggers around with his bow and arrows and makes fun of Cupid’s arrows for merely being able to “spark a bit of love.” Cupid takes umbrage at the sun god behaving like such a jerk and shoots two arrows: a golden one at Phoebus to fill him with love for the nymph Daphne, and a lead one at Daphne that makes her reject love. Phoebus chases, Daphne runs, and just when he’s about to grab her, she prays to her father, a river-god, to change her shape. Dad turns her into a laurel tree, but Phoebus loves her still. He kisses the tree and claims it as his own, and declares that it shall never drop its leaves the way other trees do, but will always keep its loveliness.

Juicy stuff. But the story is not about humans, right? In the text, the characters are taller than mortals and more beautiful. Their skin glows and their eyes don’t just reflect light but actually shine. They represent deep energies at work in the psyche. They are inhabitants of the domain of soul, aka the imaginal realm.

In this place of larger-than-life and more-than-real, Cupid is the god of love, or, the energy of divine love. This energy operates from above — outside the scene of most of the action. And don’t powerful forces sometimes work on us from outside? Phoebus, meanwhile, is a god of light, shot by a golden arrow (bright, beautiful, incorruptible) which gives him a passion for connection. And yet he moves around on the ground, so he is an image of the divinity of earthly love. Daphne is a nymph, a nature spirit, and she is shot by a lead arrow (dull, heavy, toxic) which fills her with alarm at the thought of connection. She is an earth-dwelling ego driven by empty fears that slow her down and stop her in her tracks.

Those are the players. Here is their play: Cupid (divine love) sets in motion a scenario where Phoebus (earthly love) pushes Daphne’s (the ego’s) resistance to the breaking point. Phoebus won’t take no for an answer, because sometimes the soul doesn’t care about the ego’s fear. And what happens then? Transformation! Ego can handle only so much of its own nonsense before it’s ready to change.

So Daphne turns into a tree. A tree? Yes, a tree! In a forest, a tree’s leaves and roots mingle with those of the other trees all around, exchanging chemical messages and forming a network of connections. Trees also connect heaven and earth: they take sunlight from above, turn it into sugar, and send it down into their roots; they take water from the soil and send it up into the leaves, where it evaporates into the air. Trees are a profound image of connectedness, side to side and up and down. That’s what Daphne turns into: a connected being.

Where are we so far? Divine love makes earthly love push the ego into an experience of its own connectedness. And then, when the ego transforms, the eternal radiance of the soul remains — eternal not in the sense of a clock that will keep running forever, but eternal in the sense of timelessness, of This, Right Here, the boundless Now that is the Always and the Ever. It’s the space where trees are beautiful, and where we’re present enough to realize it. That’s where Phoebus sees Daphne’s real beauty.

Phoebus changes too. For one thing he will probably think twice before making fun of Cupid again, but also the golden arrow pushes him into a deeper experience of love. Initially he just wants a hot date, but at the end of the story he loves Daphne’s essence, and his love is now nourishing; it’s a feast of photons that feeds her leaves every day. Although we should note that it was shining on her all along, regardless of her ability to relax and enjoy it.

I do wonder about Cupid’s take on the whole thing. Does he look down with self-satisfaction? Does it play out the way he knew it would, or does the tree thing surprise even him? By watching the events unfold, does he participate in them through his imagination, the way we vicariously experience our fictions? The way we participate in the great powers through our mythologies?

And what does all of it have to do with “real”-world relations? Maybe nothing. Divine energies roil and churn through us, but we’re also just people, with all our flaws and beauties. Then again, to glimpse the events of the world through the filter of myth a) is so much fun! and b) can open up the possibility of revision. Myth is always subject to rewriting, and recognizing the pattern at play is the first step in trying something different, such as pulling out the lead arrow and soaking up a little sunshine. Who knows how the story might go then?

All of which brings us back to “Apollo.” I should have sent him the preceding paragraphs the minute his message showed up, all in one gigantic text. Believe it or not, that might have simplified things! Instead I thought, Hmph! He thinks he’s a god and I’m a nymph? And I’m going to turn into a tree if I don’t cavort? We will see about that! Which meant the game was on. We met for lunch.

My mythology fetish didn’t seem to frighten him, but then again I didn’t unleash it all at once. At this point, though, we can consider it unleashed. The key thing now is that I have the intel I’ve needed all along for world domination. If anyone out there has any idea how to program things that will work on phones, let me know. It’s time to build a Mythic Tinder.

This Side of the Veil, with Lipstick

My local library runs a program that matches people like me with senior citizens who want library books but can’t get out and about on their own, so I’ve been the book courier for a woman named Barbara since last year. I visit her in the nursing home every few weeks to pick-up and drop-off, and to sit and talk for awhile. Normally it’s a light, friendly, pleasant exchange, but last week when I stopped by, I think I visited a different plane of existence.

Barbara is all alone in the world, although you’d never know it from her cheery disposition. Her husband died years ago, her two children both died as young adults, and she has no other family left. I’m not sure how old she is; she’s mentioned being 92 and 94. She gets around with a walker, and she always wears three or four rings and bracelets. She never bothered trying to learn my name, and instead just calls me “honey.” She loves reading, but for the last few months I’ve watched age catch up with her. Her sentences often trail off into foggy distraction, and she’ll repeat herself a dozen times in one conversation. I just keep smiling and answering her same questions again and again: “Now, how have you been?” and “What are you working on?” One day almost all she could say was the title of the book I’d just brought her, And the Bridge Is Love, by Faye Moskowitz. “The bridge is love… the bridge is love… the bridge is love…”

I went to see her last Thursday. It was a day when things seemed to click and sizzle. My hair looked good, I was loving my new lipstick, and stoplights turned green as I approached. On a hunch, I decided not to take a new book with me, but just to drop by and see how she was doing with the previous title, Surprised by Joy, by C.S. Lewis. When I arrived, Barbara was sitting in her chair and reading. She looked up and beamed with delight, as though to say, “Oh, it’s you, whoever you are!” She seemed revivified, magically restored to something of her former self. In addition to her rings and bracelets, she wore a silver-spangled Fourth of July necklace, a yellow top and capris, and lovely cherry-red lipstick. My lipstick was more of a dark rose, but it was fun that we both looked sassy.

I sat down and asked how she liked the Lewis book. She said it was wonderful, just wonderful (huge smile), but she wasn’t going to want any more books because she was going on a trip. I knew perfectly well she was doing nothing of the kind, but I asked where she was going. “I’m going home,” she said, still beaming, even though we were sitting in her only home. She looked so beautiful that I couldn’t help smiling too, but the back of my neck tingled. I said, Oh, when? “Tomorrow,” she said, then she looked around the room, eyes sparkling. “I’ve loved it here, but it’s time to go.” My smile froze a little.

She said she loved life, she just loved it! She loved life, but she wasn’t going to hold onto it much longer. I asked what her favorite thing about life was. She said her favorite thing was that God is at the center. She looked around the room again and said she didn’t know what she’d do with her stuff, because she knew she couldn’t take it. Then the smile spread wide across her face and she said, “You just have to enjoy every day, every day! Well, some days you can’t enjoy, but still… Life is to be shared, shared! But people don’t spend enough time with themselves.” Then she looked right at me and said, “Do you spend time with yourself?” I nodded and said I did. She studied me for a few seconds, seeming to see me for the first time, and said, “Yes, I think you do.” Then she looked down, obviously alarmed. “What’s that blue thing on the floor?” I followed her gaze. “That’s my purse,” I said, and held it up so she could see it. “Oh!” She laughed and laughed and laughed, and kept on laughing until I laughed right along with her at the blameless blue purse I was still holding up. I’m sure the purse wondered what it had done that was so hilarious.

Soon it became clear she was done talking, so I said I’d return the Lewis book to the library for her. I asked if she was sure she didn’t want another one, and she said, “No, because of the trip. I’m going home. I won’t be able to take anything.” I said ok, but I’d check back with her next week. She ignored that and said she’d walk out with me, so I helped her stand and get situated with her walker. We hugged in the hallway. Her arms felt as light as the wings of a four-and-a-half foot bird. We parted, me heading toward the elevator and she heading deeper into the nursing home. I heard a song of some kind, so I stopped and turned around. She was traipsing down the hall with small, rapid steps, humming a tune, bobbing her head back and forth to her own music.

Was she really about to start across that last great bridge? If so, what a way to go, looking good and feeling jaunty! Or was she having an age-induced delusion, a waking dream in which she had just chatted with her own personal book-delivery woman who wore rose-colored lipstick? Who’s to say I hadn’t just dreamed of her, too? In some sense, we all dream of each other in all our encounters. And what was her meaning of the word “God”? I’ve heard that God is a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. I’ve heard that God is love. If both definitions are right, then love is a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference is nowhere. Maybe Barbara was dreaming something like that. Maybe we can all dream that dream, any time of the day or night. In any case I meant it that I will check back in on her this week. I am keenly curious about what’s next for her, and I’ll take a book along, just in case.

Sisters, Strangers, and Serendipity

My sister Julie and I just got back from a week and a half in France and London. France was a whirl of beautiful abbeys, fabulous food, and the lilt of a lovely language. London was… something different.

Julie had to work in London, so I was on my own, and I had no agenda for my visit. Every day I got up, headed out in search of coffee, and listened for suggestions from the surroundings about what to do next. The sidewalk unrolled in front of my feet, and somehow coffee led to a museum, which led to a boat ride on the Thames, which led to the mythological marvel that is St. Paul’s, and so on, all day long.

My last day, last Saturday, was no exception. I went to my favorite coffee shop and squeezed into a seat at the communal table. I pulled out my copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, thinking I might get some homework done, but the book sparked a long and lively conversation with some retired locals at the table who had been at Oxford for English and history and philosophy. Not one of those wonderful people asked why I was studying myth, and for that I’ll love them forever. When our coffee was gone, someone said, You should go to the British Library. A chime rang in my head, the musical tone that tells me to sit up and pay attention: ting! Yes, I thought. I’ll go to the British Library.

It was a quick Tube ride; the train blinked three times and I was there. From the outside I wasn’t impressed. The building seemed boring and modern after the gorgeous piles of sculpted stone I’d grown accustomed to, but I went in anyway. The visitors’ pamphlet informed me that the Sir John Ritblat Gallery contained “some of the treasures of our world-class collection.” Manuscript treasures. Bookish treasures. I headed that way and paused at the threshold of a cool, dimly lit room.

Now, I need to tell you that once upon a time, when I was ten years old, I read a book that shaped my life. Actually my sister Jane tricked me into reading it, much against my will. She was twenty-four (therefore bigger than I), and one day she sat on me to keep me from escaping while she read the book out loud, starting with page one. I writhed and yelled and fought this fate with all my might for many pages, and only quieted down when I couldn’t struggle anymore. I lay there, spent and squished, and finally started listening because there was nothing else to do. Soon I was listening because I wanted to, and then because I was ensorcelled. The story felt so strange and so familiar, both at once. The rest of the world fell away until Jane reached the end of a chapter and said, casually, “That’s probably enough for now.” I caught the book as it fell from her hands. I ran away with it. I devoured it. I dreamed about it. I read it and re-read it, dozens of times. It’s the reason I studied literature, and a big reason I’m preoccupied with myth-making today.

So, back to the library. I stepped inside Sir John Ritblat’s room and my eyes adjusted to the low light. Everyone spoke in whispers if at all, shuffling from display case to display case to see the Magna Carta, Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, Shakespeare’s first folio, and original copies of literary works from long before typing. The pages themselves were the only things lit in the shadowy room, which gave them the effect of glowing. And sure enough, there it was, the book for which my sister sat on me, the keystone of my personal mythology, glowing brighter than everything else: the fair copy manuscript of Jane Eyre in Charlotte Brontë’s handwriting. The first one. The original. Over a hundred and fifty years ago, Brontë traveled into the land of imagination, and this was the grail she brought back. This was the artifact that would carry generations into imagination along with her.

A small placard on the wall cleared its throat and mentioned that seeing a manuscript in the author’s hand could be an emotional experience. Leave it to the Brits to post a warning of impending emotion, but yes. Reading words formed with pen and ink makes the author’s voice almost audible. And the manuscript was open to the page where Jane (Eyre) says, “Excellent!–Now you are small–not one whit bigger than the end of my little finger.” Of course we’re going to get choked up there. Just think if it had been open to Chapter 23: “A splendid Midsummer shone over England: skies so pure, suns so radiant…” That might have been too much, even for me. (No, I could take it!) But the best part was a deletion Brontë had made, four or five lines crossed out with neat backward slashes. Reading the passage with and without that section, I felt like I was experiencing her thoughts and responses: the calm certainty that the text was stronger without those lines, a hiss of exasperation that they had made it to the page in the first place and had survived until so soon before publication.

As I walked away, a shiver ran through me. I’m a fan of libraries anyway, but wow, this one took it to a whole new level. The documents there have shaped all of us, and they were displayed like the sacred relics they are. London may lack the elegance and culinary grace of France, but I felt like I found a spiritual home there, a place of shared and celebrated values, thanks to the finely choreographed cooperation of sisters, coffee-drinking strangers, and Sir John Ritblat. I wonder if they operate in some sort of cabal. If so, might they be hiring would-be conspirators, entry-level shapers of serendipity? Not that they would ever tell, and not that it matters. I will go back someday, with or without the sponsorship of a secret society.

Goddesses and Southwest Airlines

I made it through the fall semester! My final papers had to be postmarked by December 27, a barbaric deadline about which I still harbor resentment. Because did I finish early so I could relax and enjoy the holidays? No. I was at the post office on the 27th with my three manila envelopes, and now the homework for winter semester has already begun. Before I get too busy, though, I want to tell you about an encounter I had with the goddess Kali.

First, some backstory. Last fall I studied several Hindu goddesses, including Kali, who is fearsome. Her skin is black, sometimes blue-black, and blood drips from her bared fangs. She has four arms. In one hand she brandishes a bloodied sword, and in the hand below that she holds a severed head. Another hand is raised in the “fear not” gesture, and another is extended, offering boons. They say she uses the sword to slay demons and to cut away whatever we don’t need, what holds us back, especially the ego nonsense symbolized by the severed head–all that thinky self-talk that paralyzes us. Kali is powerful and complex, and despite her alarming appearance, she is very much on our side.

Ok, so when I was in California for class last December, I thanked my Hindu Traditions professor for recommending one particular book about goddesses. He said, “I’m glad you like it. Which goddesses have you met so far?” I said, “Durga and Lakshmi, and I’m about to get acquainted with Kali.” A few days later, after the session was over, I boarded the plane from Los Angeles to Chicago. It was a Southwest flight, which meant open seating, and by some December miracle the flight wasn’t full. I took an aisle seat in a row with an empty middle seat, and an African-American woman sitting by the window. The woman wore a red and black tunic with a tribal-looking design. We said hello-hello, and isn’t it nice to have all this space? I offered her some of the cashews I was just opening. She said No thanks, she’d been eating almonds and was sick of them. I said, Well if you get hungry for cashews you know where they are. Then we left each other alone. I had some papers to read, and when I looked up, a few hours had gone by.

The woman and I started chatting again. She told me she was on her way home from Maui. She’d been on a pilgrimage to a healing site on top of a mountain, a place where a rainforest waterfall spilled down through seven successive pools, and the energy was electric. She’d also been to a small temple where a Hindu monk and his wife lived, and she’d participated in a ritual called Ho’oponopono. She taught me a little of it. She said, “Say, ‘I forgive myself, I accept myself, I love myself, I bless myself.'” So I said all that with her. She kept going, telling me about how she’d been swimming in the ocean with whales and how angry she was about the dolphins dying in Florida, until finally, when the flight was nearly over, I said, “What do you do? What’s your work?” She said she was a natural healer. I thought, Huh, how bout that. Then on an impulse I said, “My name’s Joanna. What’s your name?” She said, “Kali.”

I gasped, and I’m sure my face showed my shock. Evidently in reply, she said, “Yeah, like the goddess.” Then I managed to speak, and out it all babbled, about how I was studying Hindu goddesses and was just about to read about Kali. The woman nodded, entirely unsurprised, and said, “I wondered if there wasn’t something going on when you sat down and were so friendly.” I spluttered something else, still staring in open astonishment at her Kali-esque skin and the Kali colors of her tunic, and she said, “Yeah, and it’s extra weird, because I was named after my great-grandmother Kali, who was a slave, and delivered me, and there wasn’t even a k-sound in her tribal language.” I spluttered further, and she said, “You know what, I’m going to put your name in the ocean.” At that I finally put a sentence together and said, “I’m going to hold your name in my heart!”

Then the flight was over. When I got home I opened the book about goddesses, and sure enough, I had stopped reading on the first page of the Kali chapter, the page with those four letters blazoned across the top, K-A-L-I. Kali, the goddess who was a woman who was a goddess. She sat next to me for four hours. She’s a healer. She put my name in the ocean. I’ll bet anything she’d do the same for you. All you have to do is ask.

Uncle!

I’ve been meaning to post something here for a month and a half now, but homework and everything else have left me no mental space for blogging. Nor are things apt to improve anytime soon. I leave for Europe later this week, and I’m not even taking my computer with me! How’s that for rotten blogging practice? So I’m waving the white flag and surrendering all blog aspirations for the rest of the year. Check back in January, and in the meantime I hope to post things on Facebook once in awhile. Maybe I’ll see you over there.

Ah, California

Today I called my school in Santa Barbara to pay tuition–yay!–and had a lovely chat with David in the Student Accounts office:

David: I see you’re in Rochester.
JoJo: That’s right.
David: How’s the weather there?
JoJo: Oh, it’s gorgeous. This whole month has been beautiful.
David: Really? I thought you had that stuff, what do you call it… snow?

Wow. I think I’m about to cross some kind of inter-dimensional threshold. I think I’m about to like it.

Autumn Taking Shape

Things have been quiet around here. I’ve been puttering in the garden, organizing my office, that kind of thing. I wish I could say I chilled out and really enjoyed the downtime, but I did do some pacing around and staring at the clock, eager for things to get underway again. No more of that nonsense, though. Things are officially underway.

Yesterday the syllabi for the fall’s classes arrived: Greek & Roman Mythology, Hindu Traditions, Approaches to the Study of Myth. Seriously! And the reading lists are even more fabulous than I’d hoped. So that’s all great. However, I thought school began in September, but the first assignments are due in September. Homework starts pronto! Also I’m about to get the manuscript of my novel back from a trusted reviewer, so the next round of revisions is imminent. I’ll be working double-time in August.

School, by the way, is a low-residency graduate program based in Santa Barbara. That means I’ll fly out for three days of classes once a month, then come home and dig into fiendish amounts of homework. Also, due to an enormous stroke of good fortune, I am traveling to Europe this fall, from mid-October through November, when the fiendish homework will happen in assorted cafes in Paris and Rome. Seriously!

I’m on the precipice of being swamped with work I love and travel I love. So what’s going to happen with this blog? I’m not sure yet. I’ll be busy, yes, but how could I help posting an occasional morsel about mythology? Or photos from California and Europe? It reminds me of the lyric from that Bob Dylan song “Mississippi”: Stick with me, baby, stick with me anyhow, Things should start to get interesting right about now.

The Unreal Made Real

I’ve been an absentee internet citizen for the last month, neglecting this blog and Facebook and all the rest of it. I’ve been busy revising my novel all the way through, and now it finally feels like a real thing. For two and a half years, I sensed it floating out there in the ether, and wondered just how delusional I was to sense something that did not exist. Well, I’m not delusional anymore. It wafted down and landed on a stack of paper, right here on this very tabletop, in the realm of consensual reality.

It happens all the time. You think, I’ll make a cup of tea, and then there’s a mug full of the good stuff where there wasn’t one five minutes earlier. Or you say, How about a garden?, and before you know it the plants are throwing tomatoes and cucumbers at you faster than you can chop them into gazpacho. I’ve heard it called manifesting. I’ve heard it called creativity. It’s the same procedure on large and small scales: 1) idea, 2) execution. Bigger scales just require proportionately more faith, a greater willingness to say, I have no clue how this might come about, but I’m doing it anyway. And then you feel proportionately more grateful and relieved when it actually happens.

Not that I’m done with the novel. I need to revise again, and again after that, and probably a few more times too. But none of that will happen right now. My brain feels like spaghetti noodles, overcooked and left to congeal in the colander. Today’s procedure goes more like this: 1) iced mocha, 2) long walk. After that, who knows? Whatever wants to manifest next will float down out of the ether precisely when it’s time.