Kintsugi

kintsugi

 

The Japanese have an artistic tradition of mending broken ceramics, specifically those used in the Tea Ceremony, with gold.  It is called “kintsugi” and the concept and the reality enchant me.  A quote from a Smithsonian exhibition including examples of kintsugi from (I believe) 2009 follows:

One shallow stoneware tea bowl in the exhibit dates from early-16th century Japan. For centuries, its owners spooned powdered green tea into this bowl, added hot water and swirled the contents with a bamboo whisk before passing the steaming beverage to an honored guest. Someone also dropped the bowl—more than once. Tracks of precious gold snake up its side, highlighting fissures in the ceramic where broken pieces of the bowl have been rejoined.

“It’s been repaired a number of times,” Freer Curator of Ceramics Louise Cort observes of the antique. Artisans who mended the bowl used lacquer—derived from the sap of a plant related to poison ivy—to glue the pieces back in place.

Finely powdered gold was then sprinkled onto the sticky lacquer seams, a purely Japanese technique known as kintsugi, or golden joinery, illuminating the repairs.

Tea-ceremony aesthetics often focused on the beauty in imperfection, Cort explains. “Even in tea bowls that were not repaired, people came to look for the slight idiosyncrasies, even flaws, in the glaze that made one bowl more interesting than another. The context of tea drinking created a moment of awareness of transiency, of the way in which all objects, like all human beings, exist in a fleeting way and are decaying.”

Tea ceremony before Kamogawa Odori.

Tea ceremony before Kamogawa Odori. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The tea ceremony is a celebration of much that is valuable to the human spirit and to the world.  Of course, it is a celebration of the gift of tea.  All tea (not including herbal teas, which are more precisely referred to as tisanes) comes from a relative of the Camellia plant, a bush that can reach up to 15 feet in height, has glossy leaves and, in some varieties, truly gorgeous blooms.  Just as no-one knows exactly where and how humans figured out the unwinding of the silkworm’s cocoon to make that most glorious of threads, no-one is quite sure how our species came up with the complex process that turns a glossy green leaf into a delicious drink.  But we have drunk tea for thousands of years.  The leaves of the Camellia, when dried and steeped, provide us with one of the nectars of the Gods.  To celebrate the gift that is tea, the Japanese created the tea ceremony.  The ceremony uses powdered green tea, made of tea leaves from the freshest shoots of the bush.  The leaves are dried and pounded to a powder but not fermented (black and oolong teas, while from the same kind of bush, are fermented and dried differently from green teas).  The tea ceremony, while to western eyes formal to the point of ritual, is considered to be an informal entertainment in Japan.  I refer you to Wikipedia (thank heavens for them) for a detailed description of the ceremony itself.  My concerns here are with the spiritual and aesthetic meanings, at least for me, of the tea ceremony and of the implements used in it, many of which are so fragile that they become, over time, treasured objects called kintsugi.

Camellia

Camellia (Photo credit: Sunchild57 Photography)

In Japanese aesthetics, the transitory and fragile nature of an object, whether created by the world, or by a human being, is an essential, integral, part of the object’s loveliness and value.  Kintsugi celebrates that fragility and transitory quality.  Just as cherry blossoms fade and fall from the tree, thus enhancing those brief moments of the Cherry Blossom Festival, the fact that ceramic objects break makes their beauty more heart-catching.  Kintsugi captures that breakability, the temporary nature of all we see, all we create, by repairing the ceramic object with lacquer and gold powder.  In western culture, we often say that we become “stronger in the broken places”.  In many ways that statement is more wishful thinking than reality, but it does have something to do with the acceptance we all must have of the fact that nothing lasts, that anything can be broken, that all will wear away.

Cherry Blossom Festival 2010

Cherry Blossom Festival 2010 (Photo credit: vpickering)

Kintsugi celebrates that.  The point is not that the object has been repaired, but that its brokenness is part of its beauty, a reminder that nothing in this world is perfect, and that the imperfections enhance our experience of the beauty of life.  Even a ceramic piece that has not (yet) been broken is considered, as it is in the tea ceremony, beautiful and precious for its fragility, its imperfections, the place near the rim where the glaze slipped, the wobbly bit on the base, the dip on one side that, with the best efforts in the world, the ceramicist was unable to make perfectly round.  Once the piece has been broken, and repaired with lacquer and gold, the imperfections of the piece become its beauty, as in the exquisite bowl depicted at the top of this essay.

We can approach perfection, as in the breeding and refining of various varieties of tea from the same simple bush, as in the disciplines and pleasures of the tea ceremony, as in the care with which we create a ceramic bowl.  We can not achieve it.  And that in itself is a gift. And so we appreciate the perfect imperfections of nature, as when we contemplate the cherry blossoms during their all too brief moment in spring.  As when we honor the bends and twists of natural growth by engaging in the slow sculpture, as Theodore Sturgeon called it, of bonsai.

Bonsai group planting at the "Foire du Va...

Bonsai group planting at the “Foire du Valais” (Martigny, Switzerland). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 We can, as many artists do, deliberately leave a spot unpainted because to do otherwise is to attempt to take for ourselves the prerogatives of  God.  We can and do honor the imperfections of living, of life, of love, of art.  But in kintsugi, we go even farther.  We celebrate as central, as transcendent, the brokenness of creation.  We make the broken places, if not stronger, certainly essential to the experience of art, of beauty. We revel in the accidental beauty of loss. We pay homage to the fact that all of life, even the mountains that look to us so permanent and lasting, are temporary.  And we transcend the brokenness by making the repair the primary part of the experience, just as the earth itself, after the water and wind wears away the mountains, builds new mountains in titanic upheavals.

Brokenness hurts and the experience of breaking, of loss, of wearing away, of endings, feels deeply sad.  And the upheavals, the things that begin out of the endings, often are violent, destructive, terrifying.  And yet — and yet — we can repair a ceramic bowl with gold and make of its shards more beauty than the bowl had before it broke.

あけましておめでとうございます_Mount. Fuji in rose pink

あけましておめでとうございます_Mount. Fuji in rose pink (Photo credit: midorisyu)

 

 

 

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Conundrum

th[1]Change desired does not just come, it must be asked.
Or life will transform in ways not desired.

Asking for change in itself invites other change.

Decide and the world will change.
Decide again and the world will change again.
Decide not and the world will still change.

Invite change or do not, change comes.
Invite it and guide it.
Do not invite it and it guides you.

Rain Clouds over Estes Park

Thoughts Upon a Solstice, Redux

I’m re-sending this out because a personal situation has so scattered my thoughts that writing a new blog for solstice is probably not going to happen.

Gail Writing Life

I published this blog originally for Winter Solstice (northern hemisphere version) in 2012, and I think it may be worth another look from any or all of you who follow my blog this year too.  So I’m republishing it . . . .

In any event, I wish anybody reading this (well, in reality I wish this for people who don’t read or follow my blog too) a truly happy holiday season and the best of new years.  And, remember, if you live in the southern hemisphere, just put this aside for six months and read it in June.  Be well.

Today is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere on our planet.  Among many things, today neo-Druids celebrate the returning of the sun at henges throughout the British Isles, but most particularly at Stonehenge; while others who may have listened too much to strange folk misinterpreting the Mayan…

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Be Careful What You Wish For

This blog was written, but not published, very soon after the flooding that affected about a quarter of the state of Colorado.  Now (December 16, 2013), according to observation and the latest news (I get updates on Facebook, Twitter and email from the Town of Estes Park and Larimer and Boulder Counties), we are returning to normal.  Virtually all the county, state and national roads are in some kind of repair and are usable, the FEMA office is closing, we’re back to “normal” status, whatever that is, regarding all emergency services and even Fish Creek Road is being repaired.  There are still some people who have lost their houses, some who can’t get to them (I think primarily in Little Valley and Glen Haven), some of the reason for which is that the roads in those places are private and the money for repair is quite limited.  It isn’t the normal we had, but we are reaching for a new normal that will be workable, we hope, for Colorado.  So what follows is, more than anything, the way it felt to me.  The way it still feels.  I’ve decided to put updates in italics and brackets throughout this blog if I have new information.

Flooded Creek - 34

Flooded Creek – 34 (Photo credit: Nikkayla Green)

Be careful what you wish for.  You see, last year, in 2012, Colorado was in a state of drought so terrible that we thought the entire state was going to burn down.  We had fires all over the place, ranging from a little baby fire that nevertheless destroyed over 20 homes and caused the evacuation of hundreds right here in Estes Park (including me), all the way up to fires that torched thousands of acres and hundreds of houses and other buildings.

So we all thought a little rain would be nice.  Wet things down and make it a bit harder for the pine trees to burn like fireworks.  So whether we prayed and prayed or hoped and hoped, or just wished for it (or as is more than likely, our individual and collective thoughts and prayers had nothing to do with it), this year we got it.  It rained.  And then it rained some more.  And then it really settled down and started raining.  Building an ark kind of rain, cats and dogs kind of rain.  Three weeks ago come Wednesday [this was first written on October 6, 2013], it started raining again and it rained all night and into the next day.  I remember going from window to window (apparently in the hope that I would find a window where it wasn’t raining outside) saying to myself and out loud “Oh, this isn’t good.  This is really bad.”  Having lived here for long periods at various times in my life, I already knew, as do we all who live here, two things:  First, that this was not normal Colorado late summer rain and second, that the Rocky Mountains are called that for a reason.  Underneath the three inches of gravel that we fondly call topsoil is rock.  Not a bunch of rock, but one big solid rock.  And rock is not really good at holding moisture.

This map shows the incorporated and unincorpor...

This map shows the incorporated and unincorporated areas in Larimer County, Colorado, highlighting Estes Park in red. It was created with a custom script with US Census Bureau data and modified with Inkscape. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Plus, Estes Park sits at the top of a series of canyons carved out by normally cheerful bubbling streams of water plashing over rocks and providing beauty and recreation and a fish or two thousand.  But there’s this little thing called gravity (according to physicists, it’s a “weak” force; I’m sure they have their reasons for calling it “weak”, but obviously they’ve never been downstream of a flash flood) and water is heavy.  So because the land can’t absorb it, and gravity pulls it to lower ground, there’s nowhere else for water to go except down those narrow canyons.  And if it really rains, water swells those sweetly flowing streams into raging torrents that climb up the canyon walls and take out anything lying around loose or even attached that isn’t actually bedrock.  Including, in both the primary canyons with the main roads coming up to Estes Park, the roads themselves.  Sometimes wall to wall.

Highway 34, from Loveland to Estes Park, is a scenic highway at the bottom of a steep canyon that usually runs side by side with the Big Thompson River.  It’s 22 miles from Loveland to Estes Park via this highway.  In one night of rain, 17 miles of that stretch of road were torn out by the Big Thompson River, either partially (one lane) or literally wall to wall.  The town of Drake was nearly wiped out and the residents of cabins and streamside houses from Estes Park to Drake were evacuated to Estes Park, while those below Drake were evacuated to Loveland.  The north fork of the Big Thompson, which runs through the tiny hamlet of Glen Haven, virtually removed Glen Haven from the map during the flood, took out the switchback road from Estes Park and tore out all the electric lines to Glen Haven and to a rural mountain community known as The Retreat.  [Highway 34 is now open, but from what I hear will still require up to as much as $48 billion in permanent repairs to guard against another such flood from destroying it again.  I believe that residents in the Big Thompson Canyon and in Drake have returned to their homes, those that weren’t destroyed, but many people in Glen Haven are dealing with private roads (as mentioned above) and are still not able to live in their homes, although power has been restored.  Also, just to be clear, I didn’t know any of this, none of the people up here knew any of this, until several days after it took place.]

Highway 36, from Lyons to Estes Park, is a bit longer, maybe 24, 25 miles.  It is a wider road, and designed for heavy-duty traffic, since it is Estes Park’s main supply line from Denver, Longmont and Boulder (the staging areas for mail, food for grocery stores and restaurants, FedEx, UPS and other deliveries).  The damage to Highway 36 was initially harder to determine, primarily because the little town of Lyons, at the base of the canyon road, seemed virtually destroyed by the flooding.  The St. Vrain river there cut a new channel, taking out the sanitation department, the lighting and power department, and natural gas lines.  So although, thank heavens, in the end only (ONLY!) 25% of the houses in Lyons were destroyed, it took weeks to be able to get Lyons up and running again.  [On November 20, I drove down the reopened Highway 36 to see flood plains where before there had been meadows and a much narrowed roadway where the river had taken out big chunks.  Lyons is now open for business, but it’s sad and brutal to see the smashed houses and the heaped up wreckage of cars still piled by the roadside.]  Bridges were washed out, cutting off the hamlet of Pinewood Springs, and several small earthen dams were destroyed in the neighborhood of Big Elk Meadows.  [Residents of Pinewood Springs are back in their homes now, with electricity restored, and their community is fully functional again. I have no information about Big Elk Meadows residents.]

Saint Vrain Canyon

Saint Vrain Canyon (Photo credit: Ed Ogle)

This was a major disaster for those of us who live in Estes Park (as it is for everybody who lives in the watershed area of northeast Colorado), especially with the government shutdown [now thankfully over, at least for the moment], because of the only two roads that remained open and actually left the area to get somewhere else.  One of them is Trail Ridge Road, which is the highest continuous roadway in the United States and runs from Estes Park through the center of Rocky Mountain National Park to Grand Lake.  RMNP was closed during part of the shutdown and reopened using state funds before the shutdown ended.  Thus one of our two lifelines to the outside world was, just like that, closed.  Thank you, Congress.  [Please also note that by this time, December 16, 2013, Trail Ridge Road would be closed for the winter in any event and was, in fact, closed for the winter by the end of October.] The Governor of our state, John Hickenlooper, earned my vote in his re-election bid next year and my undying respect, by the way, for stating that Colorado would use Colorado emergency funds to keep the National Guard working on repairing the roads into and out of Estes Park and reopening Rocky Mountain National Park.

The other road we had, a combination of roads including Highway 7 to Allenspark, then switching to Highway 72 to and past Nederland, going all the way down to Central City and then getting on I-70 to Denver, or turning back on flatland roads to Boulder or Longmont, was, during the emergency, held together with spit and bailing wire by the constant efforts of CDOT (Colorado Department of Transportation).  This high mountain road was never designed for heavy traffic and for some time was our only means of getting in or out or getting supplies in or out.   Apart from anything else, the loss of Highway 36 until November 4th when it reopened ahead of schedule turned a pleasant 30- to 40-minute drive down to the front range cities of Colorado into a marathon that could take as many as five hours (one way).  After Highway 36 reopened, life (or at least travel and resupply) returned to something like normal in Estes Park, although it’s not exactly the same normal it used to be.  The trip takes longer than it used to because the road in places is narrower, with sharper curves, and there is still ongoing reconstruction, which often results in delays as they reduce the road to one lane in order to work on the other lane.  We’re still too grateful to complain, believe me!

Estes Park itself didn’t actually lose any houses and only a few business buildings were condemned, for which we are all deeply thankful, but our major rivers–Fall River, the Big Thompson River, the North Fork of the Big Thompson River, Fish Creek, and the St. Vrain River, which all come together in downtown Estes Park (except for Fish Creek, or as we not so fondly called it for weeks Fish Raging Torrent)–left devastation in their wake.  Most of the digging out and gathering debris is over by now and a lot of the shops are doing business (while for others clinging to hope, the floods were the last straw).  We have two sanitation districts up here and one of them, the Upper Thompson Sanitation District, had to work frantically for weeks to repair the huge breaks in their major sewer line (which followed the creekbed of Fish Creek), with residents on both sides of Fish Creek living in a “no flush” zone so that raw sewage would not go into the watershed.  Porta-potties became the new black up here, very fashionable, although like a skimpy little black dress, they quickly began to get real chilly, especially after dark.  One of the favored Halloween costumes for grown-ups at the Halloween festival Estes Park holds every year was something to do with living with Porta-potties.  [This, thankfully, is over with and all the sanitation facilities are working properly again.  Perhaps this helped the popularity of the slogan (printed on t-shirts and sweatshirts and bumper stickers) that we up here are “Mountain Strong.”  I got real sick of that phrase.  As one of my friends said, she’s a “mountain weenie”.  Well, so am I.] 

Porta Potties On South Beach For Winter Party 2011

Porta Potties On South Beach For Winter Party 2011, but Estes had lots more than that (Photo credit: Phillip Pessar)

Other than that, if there can be said to be an “other” to losing one of the basics of modern life, we’re doing a lot better than many communities downstream.  The town itself did not lose power (until after the flooding was over, when a transformer blew) or internet, although cellphone service and landline phone service were out for several days.  [Outlying areas, especially Glen Haven and parts of Fall River, if I remember correctly, did lose power and that was the first priority the Town of Estes Park made in terms of repair.]  In my part of town, several crawlspaces were flooded and had to be pumped out, although that did not happen to me.  Two sets of friends were in the “no-flush” zone, which ended up being more boring and inconvenient than anything, according to them.  Another couple had their basement flooded so severely that they spent days, even weeks, in the clean-up, trying to salvage possessions and furniture.  During the emergency days, and again I am grateful for this, that’s official, my own worst problem was not being able to find out any information about my friends and determine whether they were all right and if they needed any help I could offer (weak back, weak mind, but I can still carry stuff, and did).

The most remarkable circumstance up here in Estes was that unless you got as close to one of the rivers as the barriers would let you, it didn’t look much different.  The aspen turned gold, the effect against the blue sky was startling (now wind and snow have stripped the aspen for another year and we’re in deep winter, with the bears denned up, a huge snowstorm and the beginning of the wind that will be our constant, if not much-loved, companion until March or April).  The mountains stand as they always did, now with a frosting of snow that’s getting thicker and more beautiful with every storm.  It’s underneath and behind that you see the effects.  The edges of Lake Estes are piled with debris.  [Cleanup of this debris has been ongoing and is nearly finished now.]   (The town, in an excess of what can only be called highly creative common sense, scooped out a lot of the debris from the lake to use as crushed underlayment to fix the roads next to Fish Creek and going down to Glen Haven, thus lowering the burden on our then one frail highway supply line, not to mention the costs of rebuilding Fish Creek Road.)  Fish Creek is twice as wide as it used to be and is still flowing as if it were spring and not fall (the rock underlying this portion of the state, having absorbed more water than it can manage, then started percolating that water UP to the surface in the form of spontaneous springs (most of which seem to be situated under people’s houses), so the streams ran very high, quite near the tops of their banks).  [NOTE:  This was written in  November — because of the deep freeze we’re in now, the streams have drained back to their winter levels.]  We got mail service back after five days (because of a heroic convoy over Trail Ridge Road to pick up mail that had been piling up in the Grand Lake post office), FedEx and UPS were back so quickly, it seemed they were never gone.  We have new and beefed up cell towers, landlines have been fixed, Safeway (also heroically — can you imagine in a town meeting the biggest applause going to the Safeway manager?) kept us supplied with all normal foodstuffs, prescriptions and so forth.  Restaurants are open for business, and so is RMNP.  And certainly the elk are cooperating by spending their winter all over the place, especially, it seems, in my front yard.  However, we would love tourists to come up here and see for themselves, stay a few days, help us out by buying some Christmas presents or fall souvenirs here, have a nice dinner out.  Because economically Estes will be having problems for years.  Many businesses did not have (because they could not get) flood insurance and it turns out flood insurance does not pay for loss of business or inventory.  Convenient, right?  For the insurance companies, that is.  Also, in terms of businesses and homes, you don’t have to get it if you’re not on a flood plain, and to everybody’s surprise, some of the worst damage to homes were those definitely not on flood plains but on the sides of hills that could not absorb one more drop of rain.

All the above is just one small, not truly important except to us, story in this vast disaster.  The floodwaters, having scoured the canyons and picking up debris (everything from logs to pieces of highway to rocks to propane tanks), then hit the foothills cities, which were (of course) built next to the watersheds for water and sanitation.  From the northernmost (the Cache le Poudre River, the flooding of which was worsened by the fact that last year’s fire had already scoured the ground so there was nothing to hold the floodwaters back, going through Ft. Collins like a wet freight train off its tracks) to the middle portion (the Big Thompson took out ALL the bridges on north/south streets in Loveland and for several days even closed I-25 while the St. Vrain played with Lyons like a destructive child whose building blocks were actual buildings) to the more southern tier with Boulder Creek rising to a point where the University had to be closed because of flooding.  And there were lots of little tiny streams, most of which are usually dry this time of year, wreaking havoc with small settlements, backing up septic systems, eating away at narrow dirt roads, pulling down power lines, all through the foothills and mountains east of Highway 7.

North Platte River

North Platte River in normal times (Photo credit: J. Stephen Conn)

And then the waters really got going.  All the northern rivers in Colorado east of the Rockies pour themselves into the Platte, which is a major river system that eventually goes through Nebraska and feeds into the Missouri and then the Mississippi (south of Colorado Springs, mountain streams one the eastern side feed into the Arkansas which eventually itself feeds into the Mississippi).  The Platte, which is on a very flat flood plan and usually is a fairly wide, shallow river, crested at over 20 feet in places, a bulge of water that can only be compared to a large rodent being digested by a python.  Evans lost its sanitation system completely and so many houses were pushed off their foundations that I don’t think all of them have actually been counted even yet.  [I have no new information on that, although I suppose by this time they’ve gotten housing organized again.]  Weld County, watered by the Platte and irrigated, usually, from the Big Thompson, is the second most productive agricultural county in the United States (topped only by Fresno County in California).  I read that somewhere and having lived near Greeley as a child, I see no reason to doubt it.  It was about to go into harvest, vegetables, fruits, orchard fruits, so many delicious things.  I’m fairly certain the flood waters destroyed the entire crop for virtually all the farmers in Weld County.  Not just by drowning the growing things, but because by the time the waters got there, they were a really ugly soup of feces, sewage, chemicals, debris, all churned into the water and impossible to separate out.  I wonder how long it will take to clean up the soil in Weld County so that it isn’t toxic.  The flood waters also knocked oil and natural gas tanks off their foundations and that got added to the stew.  For a long while, quite a few agricultural towns remained cut off, their bridges out or their roads turned into asphalt kibble.  [Latest news I’ve heard is that all county roads in Larimer County have been repaired to some degree and are open, but I don’t know about Weld County.  All news is local news.]

But the waters weren’t finished yet.  Up they went, north with the Platte, to mess up Sterling’s sanitation plant and evacuate quite a few more homes and businesses.  Other news has taken over, of course, as it always does, but I would imagine that Nebraska did not enjoy its part of the Great Colorado flood.

Nearly one-fourth of the state was directly affected.  It was the greatest natural disaster in regional history, second only to the last time Yellowstone blew itself up with an earthquake and rearranged that portion of the geography of the west.  And, because of the news cycle and because of the even worse horror that the Philippines also underwent, it is already a more or less forgotten disaster to all but those of us affected by it.

Heavy Rain Shower

Heavy Rain Shower (Photo credit: AlmazUK)

And what will be the aftermath?  All of this has made me think a lot.  Part of that thought is that I’m not real fond of myself right now.  I wasn’t directly affected, my house was and is dry and kept all its services, both in and out, except that I lost cellphone for a while, and basic cable for a few days.  Oh, poor me, right?  So there’s survivor guilt.  And there’s the fact that for a long while I couldn’t get out of here.  I have a bladder disorder and the longer route had very few facilities along its length.  So I was basically going stir crazy.  There is nothing like not being able to get out of a place to make you want to get out of a place.  Desperately.  I was irritable and unable to concentrate and biting my own head off, not to mention having to be very careful about what I said to friends.  And (and I stress this)  I didn’t have any problems.  I was thinking it was just mostly me and that I was a selfish narcissistic bitch (old cartoon based on a combination of those fifties-style romance comic books and Andy Warhol–gorgeous blonde with a tear in one eye and the caption says “Nuclear war?  What about my career?”), which of course being an “artiste” I pretty much am–narcissistic, that is, although I do try to work on the “bitch” part.  But I’ve discovered there are a lot of us with this less than comely combination of irritability, survivor guilt and cabin fever up here.  In my case (and for so many this wasn’t possible), a trip to New York City to see friends and, well, just get out of town, helped immensely — ironically, of course, three days after I got back, I got snowed in, but thank heavens for the break; otherwise, the snowed-in week would have resulted in my cowering in a corner, gibbering nonsense and picking at my cuticles.

That whole internal reaction got me thinking, though, not just about my not being the saintly strong wise tough (but funny) person I’d like to pretend I am, but also about the fact that no matter how awful the disaster actually is, it stops feeling like a disaster, the critical right now crisis reaction stuff in your mind and heart, and starts being mostly a huge inconvenience.  And it doesn’t take long for this to change.  It apparently is a constant in human nature throughout history.  After 9/11, many pundits were saying that the spirit of cooperation, of help, of getting things done would mean a long-range change in the way people in the US behaved.  Uh, well, no, it didn’t.  The horror became yesterday’s news, none the less horrible and tragic, but not immediate any longer, the emergency energy that filled us and made us help and work and cooperate returned to our usual baselines.  We want normal.  I hate to say this, it seems so callous, it is so callous, but even when death comes into the picture (and Colorado’s flood left us incredibly lucky, comparatively), the desire for normal grows and the grieving, while it leaves holes that are never filled, has to become a background to living, and we have to go on.  We want normal.  The disaster recedes and becomes a monumental clean-up job, an inconvenience to our lives.

San Andreas Fault 1101

San Andreas Fault 1101 (Photo credit: DB’s travels)

I was in LA during the Northridge Earthquake, and it surprises me still to realize how quickly I went from terrified to worried about my friends and relatives, to helping out in the neighborhood, to getting really sick and tired of being in the house, to wanting things back to normal, even if the “new” normal was different than the old normal to, finally, annoyed at Caltrans for not getting the I-10 fixed faster.

Somebody from another planet would, I imagine, think of human beings as adrenalin junkies, always going after conflict and terror and excitement.  After all, it’s on the news each night (even if some of it feels manufactured), it’s the central tenet of all our entertainment, even the so called “reality” shows, it’s the primary topic in the newspapers and magazines.  We must live lives of incredible emotion, not just fear but terror, not just love but ecstasy, not just anger but rage.  All the time.  But most of us, let’s face it, want all that adrenalin to stay where it belongs, on the other side of the TV screen or movie screen.  Even the most naïve of us really do know that when the Gladiator dies so bravely at the end of the movie, the director yells “cut” and the actor gets up, grinning (we hope) to the plaudits of the other actors and crew for a job well done.  And goes back to his trailer and calls his sweetheart, or wife, or kids, or maybe agent (“hey, get me a gig where I don’t have to die, okay?”).  In other words, his normal life.  And ours.  We leave the theater, having felt all the Gladiator feels, our hearts bumping with terror and rage and ecstasy and loss and all those adrenalin-filled emotions, and then we go home, kind of wrung out if the movie was really good, and we’re very glad that our homes are working normally, that we are in our usual and normal state of health, that our families and friends are living what to that visitor from another planet would consider to be lives of amazing boredom.  We want normal.

But we never wish for normal, do we?  We wish for excitement, for drama, for love, for rain when it’s dry and clear skies when it rains and maybe we overdo the wishing part, not realizing that we don’t really want all that excitement, we want normal, with maybe just a hint of novelty and fun, but we’ll go to Disneyland or the movies for that if necessary.

So maybe we should think a little when we wish.  Maybe even wishing for normal is too much.  Because the world isn’t normal.  It is filled with all sorts of things, events and movements that are not normal.  I’m not suggesting that there is a clearing house up there or out there that listens to our wishes and gleefully or even absent-mindedly leaves the water running (“they want rain, we’ll give them rain”), although that’s how it feels lately in Colorado.  Just that I’m going to try to wish a little more carefully for a while.  You know, there is something called the law of unintended consequences.  You want something and you wish for it and you work for it, and you get it, hooray!  And instead of a lovely summer of no fires and plenty of wildflowers and growth, you get floods.  That happens in human transactions, too.  You can’t always see all the consequences.  But it may be a good thing to at least take a few of them into consideration when you’re wishing and hoping and praying and working for something or someone you want desperately.  Be careful what you wish for.

Estes Park Colorado

Film Gems, Part Deux

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in a romant...

Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

(The title of this blog is a very bad pun from a very bad movie, please ignore.)

In my previous blog about wonderful small films, I left out some of my favorites.  So here’s a few new ones for your delectation and delight.  I recommend them on rainy or snowy Sunday nights when they haven’t started the new Downtown Abbey season (let alone the new Sherlock season) and your significant other (should you be so fortunate as to have one) is snoring or screaming that his team (her team) should have so won that game and the score (45-3) does not at all reflect the team’s talents.  Put some popcorn in the microwave, pour yourself a favorite libation, and settle down on the sofa (or better still, in bed) and watch one or more of these (NOTE:  this essay is filled with spoilers, so if you haven’t seen any one of these (and why haven’t you by this time?), you may want to watch first and read later):

Dirty Dancing

Dirty Dancing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First, and because I just watched it again, is Dirty Dancing.  I can’t imagine how I came to forget this one in my previous blog about my favorite small films, because this one is just perfect.  Set in the sixties at a time when the old-fashioned summer resorts in the Adirondacks were beginning to disappear (the last of them left is the Mohonk Mountain House and if you haven’t gone there, turn out the sofa cushions for all your spare change and GO, it’s fabulous, even if real expensive), this is a film about coming of age and about figuring out what’s really important in making your life your own life.  It stars Patrick Swayze, perfectly cast as the pro dancer hired for the summer, Jennifer Grey (who really should not have had that nose job she later had and which she admits wasn’t her smartest career move), and Jerry Orbach, an actor/singer/dancer who never did a bad show.  The story is simple, a young girl goes on vacation (under protest) with her parents to a summer resort in the Catskills (North Carolina subbed in the actual filming, which you don’t really need to know) and discovers that the staff is having a great deal more fun than the guests, dirty dancing to the fantastic rock music of the era.  She discovers that Johnny Castle’s (the Patrick Swayze character) dancing partner has gotten “in trouble”.  Yes, that kind of in trouble.  So Baby (the character’s  nickname) borrows money from her dad so that the girl can get an abortion.  Unfortunately, the only time the abortion can happen is during a dance contest at a competing hotel that Castle has to take part in.  So Baby has to learn the mambo really fast.  They do the contest, but she can’t do the lift.  Just too scared.  Complications arise because the abortion was botched, Baby’s father (who is a doctor) helps the girl recover, but believes that Castle is the cause of the abortion being necessary (which he is not, it’s a nasty little weasel who’s working at the resort), and then Castle gets fired for robbery, at which point Baby has to admit right out loud that Castle could not have done that because they were together all night and nobody thinks they were dancing.  The final scene is what we’re all waiting for, the one where Castle says “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” and they dance to “I Had the Time of My Life” and she does the lift and everything works out perfectly, including the weasel getting what’s coming to him.  All that would be fine, it’s a great story, but what really fills your heart is the wonderful dance numbers, the montage sequence of Baby learning how to dance which is funny and charming, and the love story between the rootless man and the too rooted young woman.  If you don’t cry at the end of this one, you may want to check your pulse.

The other Patrick Swayze movie to watch is, of course, Ghost.  With Demi Moore being a dewily lovely and sad young widow and Whoopi Goldberg being a hysterically funny fake psychic who suddenly starts (to her considerable chagrin) channeling a real ghost– the ghost of Patrick Swayze, it’s about how hard it is to actually say I love you and how important it is.  Among other delights, this small movie has probably the only genuinely sexy scene in the movies in which the conceit is that she’s throwing a pot on a potter’s wheel at the time, all to the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody”.  Patrick Swayze died far too soon (as if there’s a good time for a person, whether or not he or she is a brilliant performer, to die), but these two movies show him at the top of his form as a tough man who could be and was incredibly tender.  And man, could he dance.

Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, in one of the m...

Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, in one of the most famous scenes from the movie “‘Ghost’ getting musical treatment”. Variety . . Retrieved 2010-11-08 . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While we’re on the subject of romantic movies, I didn’t include Casablanca in my earlier blog because it isn’t considered to be a “small” film, but instead plops itself in the top ten of any best movie list anybody cares to put together.  But Casablanca is simply my favorite film.  For others who love it, I would recommend getting the Aljean Harmetz book “The Usual Suspects” which details the making of the film while using those details to talk about wider implications of politics, filmmaking, refugees and the themes and memes of World War II.  Casablanca is a film based on an unproduced play called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s,” in which the themes of refugees, of a man who  “sticks his neck out for nobody” and a woman who broke his heart long ago were central.  In the film, they form the rock upon which is built an edifice of the self-sacrifice necessary to win the war (Casablanca was released in 1942, just in time for the Allied invasion of North Africa, a nice little marketing tie-in, I have to admit).  The triangle of Bogart-Bergman-Henreid is echoed by the huge triangle of war-love-sacrifice that a lot of people were wrestling with whether they, like the Americans at home to watch the film, were in the background and simply worrying about loved ones, or if they were on the front lines.  The film is filled with great lines that are still funny, poignant and fresh today:  “I’m shocked, shocked, I tell you, to discover that gambling is going on here.  Your winnings, sir.”  “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”  “Here’s looking at you kid.”  “I’m a drunkard.  And that makes Rick a citizen of the world.”  “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”  “Round up the usual suspects.”  And so many, many more.  I watch this once a year (more often would be too self-indulgent, and this is, after all, a movie about not giving in to self-indulgence) and I cry every time.  People need, I think, something larger than themselves to believe in and to work for, and this movie is, if it is anything, about those things that are worth fighting for and worth giving up something just as precious for.  Watch it and love it.

Cover of "3:10 to Yuma (Widescreen Editio...

Cover of 3:10 to Yuma (Widescreen Edition)

There always has to be a Russell Crowe film in any of my listings of favorite films.  This time I’m going out on a limb, just a bit, and suggesting 3:10 to Yuma in which he portrays with his usual genius a Very Bad Man (this is also this blog entry’s nod to the Western).  It’s a remake of a Glenn Ford film and the plot is that the Pinkertons finally capture Ben Wade, who is the Very Bad Man, and they have to get him to the train (the 3:10 to Yuma) to get him to prison and out of the way of his gang, who are bent on freeing him.  Into all this comes a young rancher, Dan Evans, veteran of the Civil War, who lost a leg in that war.  He is being forced out by the big bugs around his neighborhood and his elder son despises him for cowardice.  As played by Christian Bale, he is a man of conviction, morality, and desperation.  He HAS to come up with the money it will take to pay for water until the rains come.  The rest of the movie is the journey to Yuma.  Ben Wade is indeed a Very Bad Man, and yet he comes across as the least vengeful, spiteful and nasty person in the film, except for Dan Evans, whose nobility gets frayed as time goes forward.  By the end, the two actors provide a master acting class during several scenes in which they’re just talking about their lives and their beliefs (in Ben’s case, his more or less lack of any kind of belief).  The last scene has Evans’ son realizing what his father meant all along and he decides NOT to kill Ben Wade.  You can watch what this does to Ben Wade simply by looking at Russell Crowe’s remarkable eyes.  The movie is about morality, yes, but it makes its point obliquely.  The unswervingly moral man dies, but because of Dan Evans’ principles and his willingness to die for them, the Very Bad Man goes through a kind of redemption that is personal, that may not last, but that is completely real.  The only problem I had with the film is that at the end, Wade, in his jail cell on the 3:10 to Yuma, whistles for his horse and you know he’s going to get away.  This was, to me, superfluous — the point was already made earlier when Wade told Evans that he’d been jailed in Yuma before and gotten out with no trouble.  That quibble having been quibbled, it’s a wonderful Western with terrific acting (including the secondary characters, a panoply of great character actors which features Peter Fonda in a deliciously evil turn as the chief  Pinkerton man).

Cover of "1776  (Restored Director's Cut)...

Cover of 1776 (Restored Director’s Cut)

Speaking of Very Bad Men, let’s turn to a film about Very Good Men.  The story of the men (and a few of the women) who fought for or against the Declaration of Independence was made into a nifty Broadway musical before Warner Brothers made it into a movie called 1776.  The musical numbers fit the show so closely that there isn’t one that could be called a break-out, they’re just too specific to the plot.  But the lines, the wit, the sense you get of men who are fighting for philosophical principles at the same time they’re fighting for politics, economics and personal liberty, and the acting and singing, all are simply topnotch.  I cannot imagine this film being remade now because the actors that were hired for it fit their roles like their own skin.  In fact, most of the people who were in the Broadway show were hired to play the same roles in the movie and that does not happen very often.  William Daniels is of course superb as John Adams (“you’re obnoxious and disliked, you know that sir”), Ken Howard is dignified and tall as Thomas Jefferson, red-haired, calm and more interested in his new wife (Blythe Danner in a small role but oh so winsome) than in all of Congress’ shenanigans, Howard De Silva proves once again that sometimes one simply IS the role one plays with Franklin’s mellow wit and enjoyment of life’s pleasures (“not everybody’s from Boston, John”).  So many more.  And the moments:  the dispatches from George Washington with, always, a drum roll before the Congressional clerk reads his signatures, the song “Mama, Look Sharp” sung by a very young boy acting as a courier about his horrific experiences at Concord, and the brilliant and searing  “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” number by John Cullum which is a history lesson in brief about the slave trade:  “hail, Charleston, hail Boston, who stinketh the most?”.  There’s love, there’s mutual respect and affection (the scenes between John Adams and his wife Abigail (played by Virginia Vestoff who, sadly, died shortly after the film was finished) are taken almost without modification from the couple’s letters to each other over their long and loving marriage), there’s the tribute to the combatant who has lost his battle to remain with the mother country but whose respect for the men he fought is such that he promises to fight on the rebel side, there’s the huge and fateful compromise that allows the Declaration to be passed unanimously and there’s Franklin’s words, passed down to us from the time, that “if we do not hang together, we will most assuredly hang separately.”  A super film you’ll get lost in, and the factual changes to make it more dramatic are mere nitpicks — the great sense of this grand thing that had never been tried before comes through and one is awestricken that the United States actually got started and even more awestricken that it’s still stumbling along as well as it is.

And, finally, for this iteration of favorite films, another small gem from Britain:  Truly, Madly, Deeply, which is Alan Rickman at his wonderful best.  Another ghost story, this one of a woman, played by Juliet Stevenson, who simply cannot get her life back on track after the death of her lover.  In this film, Rickman portrays the dead lover who haunts her in a funny, charming and poignant manner, all for the express purpose of getting his love to start living again.  It truly is funny and you truly will cry.  And it is all about truly living and making the most of what you have left and using it to find what is coming up next for you.

Reproduction movie poster for Truly, Madly, De...

Reproduction movie poster for Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So here’s a loverly weekend for you, filled with some of the sexiest men and best actors you could possibly want (and quite a few really good actresses if you, dear reader, are more inclined in that direction), with stories about love, sacrifice and redemption, great, lasting and sometimes funny lines and with themes that actually matter.  Leave the strange new comedies that seem to be mostly about boys not growing up for another time.  Go ahead, get lost in love and adventure with a really good movie, of which the above are merely suggestions.

Romantic Movie Stories (June 1936)  Carole Lom...

Romantic Movie Stories (June 1936) Carole Lombard – UNGUARDED HOUR … Superwoman is Dead (June 16, 2011 / 14 Sivan 5771) … (Photo credit: marsmet541)

What’s In A Category?

Gail Willwerth Upp, actress, writer, editor, director, lover of the mountains and lover of life.

Gail Willwerth Upp, actress, writer, editor, director, lover of the mountains and lover of life.

 

In all my social media accounts, I am asked to categorize myself.  What is it I think I am, what do I do, how do I wish to present myself to the thousands (all right, tens) of people who want to read what I have to say?  In all of them, I say, more or less in this order, that I am an actress, a writer, an editor, a director, and (to be totally soppy about the whole thing), a resident of a mountain paradise (more or less, but don’t ask me what I think of it in January) and a lover of life.  What in the world do I mean?  It’s not like there aren’t whole scads of people out there using some of the same appellations about themselves on their Twitter, Facebook and blog accounts.  So this (rather self-serving) blog is about what I do mean when I characterize myself by those terms.

Let’s look at them one by one:

Actress.  First, this usage is deliberate.  I know it is considered politically correct these days to call a female who acts for a living a “female actor”.  This drives me wild.  There is nothing wrong with the term actress.  As people are divided into two sexes (and many more preferences), so are the casts of plays, movies, television shows and videos.  Calling those who portray female characters who are themselves female (this is getting complicated in today’s world, isn’t it?) “female actors” is like calling a wife a “female husband”.  Actors come in two genders because the work they do comes in two genders, so let’s stop being weird about this and go back to using the perfectly understandable and respectable term “actress,” okay?

English: Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet.

Portrait of Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet — not my role of choice but she was quite an actress. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That said, why do I consider myself an actress?  I am, as we all are to some extent, what I do.  What I spend my time doing I’ll get to later, but it’s not acting.  So how can I call myself an actress when there have been few times in my life when I was actively pursuing acting as either a profession or an avocation?  (Of course, let’s realize this, that for most actresses and actors, they are not spending most of their time acting, they are spending their time trying to get acting work while doing other things to keep body and soul in calling distance of each other.)  And yet, I’m an actress.  So, for me, it must be a state of mind, a way of looking at the world, a way of defining myself.

And so it is.  Acting is central, in my judgment, to the experience of being human.  One of the ways we learn our culture, how to be human in our world, is through watching actors (and dancers and singers, of course, but to a lesser extent because those are more stylized art forms) show us human beings going through human disasters and triumphs, solving problems, reaching (sometimes) epiphanies, or simply getting the guy (or girl).  As a minor example, random research on my part indicates that most of us learned how to kiss from watching actors kiss in the movies or onstage.  When I got my master’s degree in theatre, I was asked in my final written exams to explain the purpose of theatre.  I remember very little of that horrible day, but I do remember the central thesis of my answer:  theatre is life with the irrelevancies taken out, a mirror held up to us so we can see ourselves with meaning.  It isn’t just entertainment, like a circus, a way of passing the time in laughter instead of drudgery for a moment.  Acting can be that, and there is nothing wrong with it.  But acting, at its finest, helps us learn, helps us understand, can even help us adjust our behavior, our insights and our goals in a way that is more useful to others and more fulfilling to ourselves.  Acting–whether in movies or plays or TV shows–doesn’t often reach that halcyon height, but it does so aspire.

And so I am an actress, because I believe, with Victor Hugo, that if one must steal bread to survive, steal two loaves and sell one to buy hyacinths for the soul.  To me, the theatre (in whatever media it comes) and the people who create plays, movies, TV shows, and all their wonders, are the hyacinths for the human soul and even if I am a very junior colleague in so exalted a group, I am deeply proud to be of their company.

The photo of me at the top of this essay is my new headshot, by the way.  I didn’t really plan on it being quite this size, but computers and I have some little issues and inserting photographs into my blogs is definitely one of them.

Writer.  This is what I genuinely do.  I sit down at the computer ostensibly to look at my emails and see if any of those I’m following on Twitter have anything interesting to say (Russell Crowe always does, even if I don’t understand most of what he’s talking about) and wondering what my Facebook friends are up to, just a few minutes, tops, and the next thing I know, it’s three hours later and I’ve started a blog (that’s how this one came to be) or edited one, or opened my novel to the  “start here” place and worked on dialogue or a new chapter.  Writers write.  That probably ought to come first on my category list and yet it doesn’t.  You see, I have acted, I have felt that magic touch me and reach out sometimes, if not often enough, to touch the audience.  But I have not sold anything I’ve written beyond one story that became a television movie (called “Bluffing It”, a movie about adult illiteracy).  So for some weird reason that has no logic whatsoever, I am an actress even though I have never in my life been paid for acting but not yet a writer because I have not been published and earned royalties.  And yet I write all the time.  I have spent over 40 minutes polishing a Tweet (I really hate that term, as my reader knows from prior blogs) so it will say exactly what I mean it to say within the 140 character allotment and I have five (count ’em folks, five, followers (persons of discernment, each and every one)).  I spend time I really don’t have trying to come up with something funny or pointed or at least on topic to comment on Facebook friends’ postings.  And it can take me weeks to get one of these blogs to a place where I’m willing to have anyone read it.  You might notice that not one of these activities can be said to be remunerative, but they sure are writing and I write, even emails to friends (or perhaps especially emails to friends) as if for publication, as if these scribblings, no matter how ephemeral they are, will be in some sense my legacy to this world.

The cover of the first edition of The Great Ga...

The cover of the first edition of The Great Gatsby (1925) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And so I am a writer, even if I say it tentatively, as if it were presumptuous of me to try to edge into the great consortium of writers in the world.  How can I possibly ever consider myself to be a peer of my most admired writers?  I am all too aware that nothing I could ever write would approach my favorite “good” novel, The Great Gatsby.  Worse, I am just as aware that I’m not likely to write something as good as any one of Dick Francis‘ thrillers (I’m currently re-reading Under Orders and it’s just as terrific as I remembered it).  Of course, on the other hand, I have read or tried to read books which I cannot believe have actually been published, they are simply so bad.  How do the authors (using the term quite loosely in this context) manage to combine turgid, boring plots, uninteresting characters that all seem like the same person, and poor grammar all at the same time?  But then, they’re published and I’m not, so maybe I shouldn’t be so sniffy about them.

The novel I’m re-writing now is entitled Crawfish Blues.  I am deep within the second act, miring my heroine in mud up to her lavish hips (since she lives in the Louisiana Delta, this is not entirely metaphorical), re-structuring her problems to make them, I fondly hope, more cogent, deeper, and more interesting to the eventual reader, should such there ever be.  When I am working on Crawfish I’ll realize that all of a sudden, I’m hungry and it’s time (past time, probably) for a shower, and five hours will have passed without my noticing except for the increasing ache in my upper shoulders from crouching over the keyboard.  Oh well, if I wrote as Jane Austen did with quill and parchment, I would have writer’s cramp.  Writing is, for something one does sitting down, quite physically taxing.

So I am a writer, no matter how tentative.

Editor.  This category is a little more complex, because when I worked in the film/TV industry, I did so as either a picture or sound editor or as a teacher/trainer of picture or sound editors.  Leave it to me to manage a way to remain obscure in this most flamboyantly public of industries.  But you find your niche, sometimes.  Film editing is a vitally important craft to the creation of films whether feature or TV, narrative or documentary.  In fact, in many ways a lot of films are created, not just finished, in the editing room.  And nowadays, with digital cameras giving filmmakers virtually no limit on the amount of footage they can shoot, even on low-budget projects, the editor is vital to organizing and making sense of the footage, carving out a story from all that, well, stuff.  For me, editing is like writing or acting:  it is something into which I lose myself and all track of time.  Some part of my psyche loves the intricacy, the puzzle-like quality of editing film footage, the ability you have as an editor to create the timing for a comic moment that the director (evil grin here) totally missed or the chance to build an almost unbearable tension out of quite simple, ordinary elements.

Director.  I directed plays at various schools in which I taught and worked, I directed plays for summer theaters (and also produced), I directed plays for community and small professional theatre.  Directing led me away from acting.  I went to film school to be a film director.  Unfortunately, I discovered that the job of film director is different in both quality and quantity from that of play director–it almost never has to do with the fun part of play directing, working with actors, and it mostly seems to consist of not having enough time or money but having way too many questions that need to be answered right this goddamned minute.  It also has a lot to do with pleasing people who have no understanding of the craft of filmmaking whatsoever, they only have money.  I also discovered that if I didn’t suck at film directing, I was only about two steps up from that nadir.  That’s when I became a film editor, which I got pretty good at.  (The other reason I moved away from film directing is that work on a film set is only slightly less tedious than watching paint dry.  I have been on movie sets where watching a board warp was almost intolerable excitement.  An editing suite is a carnival ride in comparison.)

The Music Man

The Music Man (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, I was a director, but now I’m not and I’m okay with that.  At least for a while.  One of the problems that comes with ever having directed a play or even a student film is that it is almost impossible to watch somebody else’s work onstage or at the movies without wanting to do this most complex of tasks once again.  I went to a concert in Estes Park a little while ago, two choirs of locals put together to sing some of the more well-known songs from Broadway musicals.  They did a good job with a medley from “The Music Man” and by the time they had finished Lida Rose, I had cast the whole musical from local talent, figured out who would do the choreography and music direction, and designed the basic set.   By the time I was applauding their efforts, I had figured out how and from where to get the musical instruments and how I’d do the big march at the end (winding through the auditorium).  It gets in the blood, directing.

But then I remember all the things that go with directing a play, especially in a small town where everyone is a volunteer with other demands on their time:  finding the personnel, getting the costumes sorted out, building the set, searching thrift shops for props, forcing busy people to rehearse.  Often it comes down to one person and that person is you (well, in this case, me).  Plus, to direct anything in a small town, you are also the business manager, the publicist, the seller of advertising, the sweet-talker getting donations, the saleswoman finding sponsors or even a spare bit of window where they’ll let you hang your poster (first, design your poster and sweet-talk the printer into giving you a huge discount).

You may have noticed reading this essay (and my social media headers) that nowhere do I consider myself to be anything having to do with selling, marketing, publicity, or shilling of any kind.  Which is probably the most important reason I’m not actively an actress, or a published writer or a working editor or, for that matter, a director.  The part of the job that can be the most important part is getting the job, forcing yourself past the wall surrounding all these professions to reach the inside where the casting directors are, the agents, the publishers, the producers, the directors, the people who make decisions about which actress, which writer, which editor and which director they will hire.  And if I sucked at film directing, let me tell you I really sucked at selling.  When I was a little child, my mother would end up buying all my boxes of Girl Scout cookies because I could not, just really could not, bring myself to go from door to door actually asking people to buy them, no matter how good a cause.  I found it humiliating and I still do.  No, I have postponed necessary phone calls and mailings to get auditions, meetings, whatnot in Los Angeles, New York and here in Colorado for reasons that reach from the sublime (must take a drive around the national park RIGHT THIS MINUTE) to what even I recognize is the ridiculous (I really have to clean the escutcheons behind the doorknobs because they have fingerprints on them–seriously?).  I hate this part of the business of show business with a genuine passion, as much as I love the acting, writing, editing and directing parts of it.  That work I can do.  Selling?  Not so much.

Long's Peak

Long’s Peak

Lover of the Mountains.  This one isn’t, of course, a profession, although many of my friends up here in Estes Park have made it a profession by working for the national park or being a tour guide or hiking instructor.  Me?  I like to look at mountains, not get them all untidy with hiking trails and footprints and litter.   For me, being a lover of the mountains has more to do with the fact that I was born within sight of the Rocky Mountains and that I don’t like flat places and I’m not madly in love with oceans or jungles or humidity than that I want to be out there putting my stamp (literally) on a mountainside.  I’ll walk around a mountain lake and I’ll do some hiking during total eclipses of the sun (that’s a metaphor, folks, er, folk), but mostly I just like to look at the mountains, specifically and mostly Long’s Peak, and feel the peace of wildness enter my soul.

Lover of Life.  Okay, this one is sentimental tosh and I know it.  But it’s true.  I’m one of those who gets a huge kick out of just the simple things, eating and drinking good wine (and better gin) and laughing with friends (I had a dinner party this week during which I forgot to put the oven on to bake the potatoes so we had microwaved potatoes for dessert, which thankfully my guests seemed to find funny) and seeing blue sky and dreaming my (still adolescent and proud of it) dreams and knowing I’m still around and wondering what’s coming next and hoping we all survive it.  I still think in my heart of hearts that this death thing is optional.

As a final word, it seems to me looking back on this essay that apart from the great delight of talking about myself exclusively, what I’m really saying is that I’m a storyteller.  I come by this honestly.  My father never met a story he couldn’t improve upon and I never heard the same version of one of his stories twice.  He also, come to think of it, directed all the plays at whatever high school he was principal of at the moment (which is amazingly true–he had a temper and a definite sense of values that didn’t usually match the conventional wisdom of the time which usually ended up trumping keeping his job, so there would come a time where he got on the wrong side of the school board and we would leave town just ahead of the tar and feathers–luckily this was in Colorado, where there was always another small town that needed a high school principal too desperately to listen very hard to the complaints of the prior school board and that is one of the longest parenthetical phrases I’ve managed to include in this set of blogs so far).  At the end of this essay is a photograph of him from long before I was born or even thought of.  He died far too young and I miss him still.

I am, like him, a storyteller.  I don’t consider, ahem, modifying a story of my youth (or for that matter, my last week) to make it funnier or more interesting or create a bigger point lying, I consider it enhancing, eliding the irrelevancies, just like theatre.  Storytelling is how we became human long, long ago and how we change and get a little better (very very very slowly unfortunately) as humans now and how we will always do so.  A while ago, okay a long while ago, there was a Star Trek episode in which the plot centered around the Enterprise taking a traveling acting troupe from one outpost to another.  I loved that episode and found myself thinking that, should there be such a thing as reincarnation, that’s what I’d like to come back as–a member of a travelling troupe of players being ferried around the galaxy on a starship.

All I ever wanted to be or ever hope to be in this life or in any other I  may be fortunate enough to live is one of the hyacinths for the soul that we poor players are and all we can be.  Well, I’d also love to share such a life with the love of my life (this life or any life I’m given), once I meet him.  But as a profession, make mine storytelling, whether it’s writing it, directing it, acting it or (if in some lifetime I’m given the gift of a singing voice) singing it.  Just don’t make me have to sell it.

Arthur Charles Willwerth, my father

Film Gems

Cover of "The Girl in the Cafe"

Cover of The Girl in the Cafe

A recent post by Merry Farmer (merryfarmer.net) about a small and wonderful picture called “The Girl in the Cafe” led me to ponder those small films that just are gems, the ones you think you and your friends and family alone have discovered and that you buy on DVD or Blu-Ray and watch over and over again, much more often, when you come to think about it, than the big blockbusters like “Lord of the Rings”.  So this essay is going to be about just a few favorites among my film discoveries over the years.

To go back in time a bit, let’s first talk about “Mindwalk”.  This was a film made in 1990, written and directed by Bernt Capra, starring Sam Waterston, Liv Ullman and John Heard.  The movie  is subtitled “A Film for Passionate Thinkers,” and was based on a book by the same writer named “The Turning Point”.  Mr. Capra had an epiphany about how the universe and our world really work.  The entire movie is comprised of a conversation among three people who meet at Mont St. Michelle on a chilly spring day.  Nothing much happens except talk, there are very few exciting or weird camera angles or cutting styles, mostly the director just lets the camera run and the actors walk and talk or sit and talk.  And the film is riveting, absolutely mesmerizing.  It discusses time and atomic decay in ways that help a non-physicist finally understand some of what is really going on underneath what we see.  But more than that, the film works to place us, human beings, within the context of what the universe is really about.  A treasure.  “Whatever this movie’s dramatic shortcomings, it’s nonetheless engrossing to let your mind experience this barrage of ideas — that there are worlds within worlds, organisms within organisms, systems within systems; that everything is connected; that few of us think that way; and that, as far as human survival goes, a fully articulated, macro-sensitive world vision is essential.”  (Review in The Washington Post by Desson Howe.)

Mindwalk

Mindwalk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For another film from long ago (1968, in fact), let’s look at “The Lion in Winter.”  Not really a “small” gem, but a true jewel nonetheless, the movie is based on, practically word for word, James Goldman’s play of the same name.  When I was a mere slip of a girl, a director’s casting choice had me portraying the sixty-ish Eleanor of Aquitaine, my favorite role.  Now that I’m more the, ahem, right age, I would give a great deal to portray her again.  The movie starred Peter O’Toole and Katherine Hepburn, with Anthony Hopkins as Richard, Jane Merrow as Alais, Nigel Stock as William Marshall, Nigel Terry (later to be seen in “Excalibur,” to be discussed in a bit) as John, John Castle as Geoffrey, and Timothy Dalton as Philip II.  For Dalton and Hopkins, this film gave them their first major roles.  For the gentleman named Peter O’Toole, it was his second superb take on Henry II (his first was in “Becket” which won all sorts of awards for Richard Burton in the eponymous role and for O’Toole, but which is not a favorite film of mine).  Here the pleasure is the acting and the impossibly witty and cogent dialogue.  The film imagines a Christmas court in Henry II’s 57th year (when, as he put it, “I’m the oldest man I know, hell, I’ve got a decade on the Pope”).  He brings his wife, Eleanor, out of jail (where he’s kept her for years because she keeps mounting revolts against him), to Chinon Castle, his favorite winter residence.  And he insists his three living sons attend upon him there.  Oh, and then there’s Alais, the beautiful “ward” who is Henry’s mistress but who is (technically) betrothed to Henry’s son Richard (the Lionheart, of course), who is more interested in Philip of France, the young king, and so round and round we go.  The plot has to do with naming Henry’s heir, and all the plotting and planning goes beautifully wrong since the young men have ideas of their own.  The most interesting thing about this film (or play) is that in reality nothing happens.  It’s like a rondo where everybody ends up where they began, but oh the fun they have stabbing each other in the back or in the front with beautiful daggers of words along the way.  Peter O’Toole was born to play Henry II and Katherine Hepburn crowned her career with a well-deserved Oscar for her performance as Eleanor. Until I do get another chance to play the richest, most powerful and most intelligent woman in the world (up until Hillary Clinton, I suppose), I will continue to enjoy the movie, the very funny words, the bitter irony that lives within the characters, the extraordinary archaic music, and the sense that living in winter in a French castle was slightly south of cozy.

As I said, now it is the turn of “Excalibur.”  John Boorman wrote, directed, produced and practically willed this film into being, finding young and older British stars to inhabit the most iconic characters in all of myth.  The Matter of Britain, it’s called, the story of the Once and Future King, Arthur.  Nigel Terry (see above for his great turn as John Lackland, son of Henry II) plays Arthur, Nicol Williamson plays Merlin, Helen Mirren is beautifully distracting and deliciously wicked as Morgan le Fey and we get one of our first chances to drool at Liam Neeson, towering over everybody as Galahad.  It’s a huge cast, the costumes seem somehow as rough and ready as they would have to have been, and the story is fairly close to La Morte D’Arthur, with a few modern incursions (Igraine’s seductive dance to her husband’s friend and her own seducer Uther Pendragon is not to be missed).  Boorman uses the Carmina Burana as the basis for his soundtrack and it works beautifully, sounding quite strange and medieval and untamed.

The Illusionist (2006 film)

The Illusionist (2006 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let’s move up in time a bit to “The Illusionist“.  This film, starring Edward Norton, Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell and Paul Giamatti, is set in late 19th Century Vienna and is a story about a magician, the duchess he loves and can’t have, the (wicked and really deliciously bad) heir to the Empire, and the Police Commissioner who, in his words is “no, not entirely corrupt.”  The love story is between the magician and the duchess.  The other two are working with clever might and main to make sure the love story doesn’t happen.  All to the music of Philip Glass and with magician’s illusions that were mostly done on camera.  Edward Norton is always interesting to watch and never plays the same kind of role twice.  Here he is totally romantic as the illusionist who always loved magic and who lost the girl when he was still a boy, then wandered the world to find real magic but found only illusion and never got over the girl.  He comes back to Vienna as a brilliant illusionist who always states that he does tricks, there is no real magic, and he finds his duchess again, about to be married to the Emperor’s evil son.  How he and Jessica Biel (who has never been lovelier or better) trick the bad guys right under the nose of the Police Commissioner is delightful, surprising, inevitable and, yes, magical.  One of the best and most lyrically filmed love/sex scenes I’ve seen in a long time, too.  The movie is beautiful, intimate, charming, and romantic without being in the least soppy.  Just a great time at the movies!

Of course one of Russell Crowe’s films must be a part of this listing.  So the one that I’ll choose for this essay is “A Good Year”, partially because he shows such sweet and passionate romance, but also because he demonstrates a real flair for slapstick that most of his roles don’t let him show.  The swimming pool scene is an especial joy, and how they made a tennis match between him and his vintner both exciting and funny I only know resulted from great acting, good directing and superb editing.  He stars in it with Marion Cotillard, and it’s a story of redemption and love and of finding yourself after not even realizing you were lost.  Freddy Highmore plays his younger self and this is an actor with a major future.  Albert Finney, who as an actor had a major past and is still stealing all scenes he’s in, plays the expansive uncle, who taught Max how to live.  Max (Crowe’s character) has to rediscover the true value of life.  Of course, it’s a lot easier when you’re a rich stockbroker and then you inherit a vineyard and a villa in Provence, but he still has a hard time of it.  It’s funny, truly funny, and sweetly romantic, and Crowe does his usual brilliant job of simply being the person he’s playing and not letting it show.  You can’t catch this man acting.  Take a special look at him stepping in as a waiter at Cotillard’s restaurant on a day where everything’s going wrong, briskly doing his job and getting lots of tips.  (Her response after the end of a long day?  “Here are your tips.  You’re fired.”)  And their first date is charming, managing to show the awkwardness of any first date along with the real chemistry growing between them.  A subplot about his uncle’s possible (probable?) illegitimate daughter (played delightfully by Abbie Cornish) adds to the fun.

Cover of "A Good Year (Widescreen Edition...

Cover of A Good Year (Widescreen Edition)

Now let’s go far back in time, at least movie time.  One of my favorite  40’s films is “Laura.”  A woman is killed and the detective who is assigned to the case falls in love with her from her portrait, her beautiful apartment, and the things he’s told about her by her friends and enemies.  Then it turns out it wasn’t her that was killed.  From there it gets really interesting.  Gene Tierney is gorgeous, of course, but the movie seems to display a mystery about her that entices and fascinates all of the other people in the movie, from the Walter Winchell-esque journalist who brings her into prominence to the southern playboy who supposedly loves her to the detective who becomes obsessed with her.  You really won’t figure out whodunit until the end and you’ll love the music and the delicious black and white photography.  Trust me on this, but don’t trust anybody in the movie.

There has to be a western in this cavalcade and my choice for all-time favorite, best-ever western is a tie.  Ooops, but I’m going to concentrate on “The Magnificent Seven” (the other one in the running is “Shane.”)  “The Magnificent Seven” is a remake of “The Seventh Samurai” and tells the story of a gunfighter hired by the people of a Mexican village to free them of a pest — said pest played with over-the-stop scenery chewing fun by Eli Wallach.  The gunfighter, Yul Brynner, gathers a collection of other gunfighters and misfits, including Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn and others.  Each of them have private agendas that play out during the film, but they call come together in a gorgeously choreographed battle for the sake of the villagers, to Eli Wallach’s vast surprise.  (As the McQueen character says, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”)  The music, by Elmer Bernstein, is beyond glorious and is still used to convey the feeling of the Great American West.  There’s a good deal of humor, but the subthemes of the changing of the West from lawlessness to commerce and law, the ending of the era of the gunfighter, and the haplessness of ordinary people when faced with evil are all deeply moving.  If you haven’t seen it (how could you not have seen it by this time?) please make it a point.

Cover of "Rebecca"

Cover of Rebecca

Moving right along to Hitchcock, let’s talk about “Rebecca”.  “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again” is one of film’s most intriguing opening lines (it was the opening line to the novel by Daphne de Maurier), and the nameless heroine, played by Joan Fontaine, makes you feel her awkwardness in attempting to step into the designer shoes of the evil and memorable Rebecca.  Laurence Olivier plays Maxim de Winter, and Judith Anderson plays the terrifying housekeeper.  If you haven’t seen it before, you’ll go nuts trying to figure it out.  The twist in this film is not only the reason for all the fear and strangeness at Manderley (you really won’t guess it, at least I didn’t), but also the emotional twist that leads to the happy(?) (the question mark is intended) ending comes directly out of Rebecca’s own character.  Enjoy the experience.

Another twisty Hitchcock thriller, this time with a comic bend to the corkscrew:  “North by Northwest” stars an impossibly lovely and cool Eva Marie Saint and an equally impossibly suave Cary Grant in a thriller taking them from New York City on the 20th Century Limited to Chicago.  After that come two of the classic set pieces in film, the chase in the cornfield and the one on Mr. Rushmore.  Too much fun not to see over and over.  Very funny lines, one of James Mason’s best villains, and a classic (i.e., ultimately meaningless) McGuffin (a name apparently invented by Hitchcock to explain, presumably, what everybody’s after).  Tres sophisticated, filled with gorgeous late fifties, early sixties clothes and Ms. Saint’s hair is more perfect than any head of blond hair has ever been or ever will be.

Jumping around a bit, there’s one of my best guilty pleasures, “Gosford Park”.  In this one, it helps to have the captioning on, because everybody’s talking at once, usually.  This is Bob Balaban and Robert Altman at their finest, using their upside down and inside out talents to re-envision the Agatha Christie-type country house mystery.  It’s filled with a lot of the best actors in Britain, of which they don’t come any better, with Helen Mirren as the sinister housekeeper, Michael Gambon as the crude rich man who married up, Kristin Scott-Thomas as the Earl’s daughter who’s married to a man she can’t stand and who sleeps with visiting male servants, Emily Watson as the upstairs maid sleeping with the boss, Clive Owen as the mysterious valet and Maggie Smith stealing every scene she’s in just the way she always does.  The plot is simple.  Who is going to kill the master of the house?  And hurry up about it because he’s horrible!  And then we find out it isn’t so simple after all.  They’re all brilliant, the camera never stops moving, the sets are gorgeous (makes you want to even work in such a house, let alone own it) and I watch over and over again just to be with them in the place and time once more.  By the way, the set design is spectacular and try to notice the floral arrangements the next time you watch it.  Amazing!  The theme of the ending of the era of servants and country houses lies underneath and shores up the whole thing, making it a worthwhile look at snobbery and a group of people who perhaps needed to be made redundant.  But oh how beautifully (and boringly, when push comes to shove) they lived and usually didn’t get a chance to actually love.  As the Balaban character (an American film producer there scouting locations) says to the guy playing Ivor Novello (an actual historical character):  “How do you stand these people?”  His answer.  “I make my living impersonating them.”

“The Girl in the Cafe” is best talked about by Merry Farmer, so I refer you to her at merryfarmer.net, but I must add for myself that Bill Nighy and Kelly MacDonald make their fumbling attempts to reach each other so poignant, so real that they break my heart.

“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is one of my favorite films this year.  And it has my favorite line in several movie years:  “It will all be all right in the end.  So if it is not all right, it is not the end.”  My new mantra for my own life, believe me.  And if only I could age like Judi Dench, funny and brilliant and so so so pretty and loving and warm.  In any event, a group of “the elderly and beautiful” in England realize or think they realize that they can get more for their retirement dollars moving to Jaipur to a “luxury hotel”, which turns out, of course, to be anything but.  Each of them has a different agenda, different hopes and plans, and they go about them with gusto.  The film shows off the brilliant, brightly colored, hot and damp vibrancy and chaos of Jaipur and it shows the reactions, whether positive or negative or simply bewildered, of these babes in this particular wood.  One utterly favorite and beautiful moment:  One of the characters, played by Tom Wilkinson, has come to make a pilgrimage to his youth.  He dies after completing said pilgrimage and there is a continuing misty shot of a great white heron (I think) taking off and flying into the golden light which may seem, in the telling, to be incredibly clichéd, and yet it is absolutely not.  A beautiful moment.  And the whole movie does, indeed, come out all right in the end.

Sense and Sensibility (film)

Sense and Sensibility (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you would like to see Jane Austen done absolutely right, rent (or preferably buy for future viewings) “Sense and Sensibility”.  Emma Thompson wrote the screenplay.  One of the little extras on the DVD is watching her give her acceptance speech for best screenplay at the Golden Globes, which she does in the form of a letter from Jane Austen to her sister, discussing Hollywood, the film, and modern life.  Hysterical.  The film itself is filled with the best of British actors, one of the most gorgeous men ever (whom Emma, no fool, later married in real life), named Greg Wise, and Alan Rickman, who makes me drool when he plays Snape and so you can imagine my reaction when he plays a Jane Austen hero.  Also, Hugh Grant, just to keep the ladies interested, and Kate Winslet in one of her first roles being impossibly beautiful, willful and brilliant as Marianne.  This is an Ang Lee film, and it’s just one step along the way to his fully earned Oscar this last year for “Life of Pi”.  Brilliant filmmaker and wonderful film, capturing the essence of Austen’s novel and making it sing.  It was shot mostly on location, too, in some of those old, exquisite British country houses.  Last and by no means least, it’s quite funny.

Sandra Bullock is always terrific and, while a lot of us could watch “Miss Congeniality” over and over again, my favorite of her films is “While You Were Sleeping”.  In this film, she plays a very lonesome young woman who wants to have a family.  She has a crush on a man she knows she’ll never meet who comes by her booth (where she works for the transportation authority taking in tokens for those traveling on the El).  When he’s mugged and lands on the tracks on Christmas day, she saves his life and then is mistaken for his fiancée.  And then she falls in love with his quirky and funny and warm family.  And then she falls in love with his brother.  By the time the first guy wakes up, she’s in total trouble, but the whole family is enamored of her and convince the coma guy that she is indeed his fiancée even though he remembers her not at all.  The way she works it out is true and genuine and funny, but it’s her relationships with all her costars that are the gem here, from the guy in her building, Joe Junior (played with gusto by Michael Rispoli), who has a veneer of total and stupid self-confidence overlaid over lonesomeness and need, her boss who finds her dilemma aggravating and impossible to understand, the family friend who promises to help her straighten out her dilemma and just gets her deeper in (her response?  “You’re fired”) and the family itself, with whom she simply falls in love.  Bullock conveys this just by watching them cavort around and it’s heartbreaking.  A lovely, lovely film to watch during the holiday season.

The film that kickstarted Sandra Oh’s career, “Sideways”,  also restarted Virginia Madsen’s and Thomas Hayden Church’s careers and it certainly added to the admiration Paul Giamatti so richly deserves.  A little film about a last getaway to the Solvang wine region before Church’s character gets married, it’s funny, poignant and very real.  Giamatti plays a man who has written a very very very long novel he can’t get published and who is a junior high teacher.  Church plays a somehow totally likeable but absolute jerk who wants to have a last fling before he marries and can’t fling his southern brain around any longer.  Sandra Oh plays one of those people who serve the wine at wine tastings who wants a real boyfriend and Madsen plays Maya, a waitress at a good restaurant who truly loves wine and who finds the magic in it and in Paul Giamatti.  There is a scene when Sandra discovers Church’s real agenda that is such a hoot I will always remember it.  Things get very complicated primarily because the Church character is such a damned fool, but it feels real, for all that, not artificially stirred up the way so many comedies these days seem to be.  And the romance with wine that all the characters have is lyrical.  (I happen to love Pinot Noir the best of all wines, too, so it was especially poignant to me.)

“Office Space” is very funny little cult movie that in an indirect fashion probably led to the British and American TV series, “The Office.”  One of its supporting actors is a very good friend of mine, Joe Bays, and he is beyond terrific, but it’s got even more gems of performance and comedy than that.  It stars Jennifer Anniston and Ron Livingston.  In the Initech office, the insecure Peter Gibbons hates his job and the abusive Division VP Bill Lumbergh who has just hired two consultants to downsize the company. Peter’s best friends are the software engineers Michael Bolton and Samir Nagheenanajar  (they also hate Initech), and his next door neighbor Lawrence.  In an attempt to get around the consultants, Peter’s life deteriorates, what with hypnotists and a scheme to embezzle fractions of cents from each company account which goes just a little awry.  For anyone who’s ever worked in cubicle hell, this film is a kind of medicine.  You’ll swear you’ve met the characters in your own working life, and you know the ones I mean, the ones you have to keep smiling at no matter what.

“Starbuck” is the newest film on my hit parade.  We went to see it as a final treat while I was in LA on vacation early this spring.  It’s a French-Canadian film with subtitles about a schlub (played with sweet brilliance by Patrick Huard) who does everything wrong and gets everything right.  It’s not a spoiler to tell you that he has a very very very very bad day, culminating (and the word is used deliberately) in the discovery that the sperm donation he engaged in when he was twenty has resulted in him fathering (biologically, that is) 533 children, most  of whom are now in their late teens and early twenties.  His life, which had fallen apart before he finds this out, gets even more complicated, but he manages, in his schlubby but loving way, to make it all come out right.  A charming, loving, happy film.  And very funny.

So, with this to perhaps kickstart some new favorites of your own, see you at the movies!

A Night at the Movies (film)

A Night at the Movies (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Maps

United States Map 1853

United States Map 1853

I follow Russell Crowe‘s Twitter feed.  He uses his Tweets (I truly loathe that term, by the way) to publicize his work and to express opinions and comments about his life that seem good to him to write about.  I enjoy this glimpse he allows his followers (of which he has many) into his life and work.  Several of his recent Tweets (there’s that stupid word again) have to do with maps.  He enjoys them, apparently, finds them fascinating, and often gets out maps and looks at them to, in his words (more or less, he’s taken down this particular set of Tweets (grrrrh), I think, and I can’t find the quote), plan adventures.

While there are perhaps not too many personality traits a major movie star who lives in Australia and a somewhat obscure, at least so far, writer temporarily in LA but living in Colorado have in common, I too look at maps and plan adventures.  And sometimes dream about the lines on the maps becoming a real journey.

Once I’d read his ‘comments’ (I’m simply not going to use that damned Twitter term again) about  maps, I got down my huge atlas and leafed through the pages, which led directly to my road trip (I drove) from Colorado to southern California.  So thanks for that, Mr. Crowe.  You inspired this essay, but also a real journey following a road map that led me 1300 miles from Estes Park, Colorado to Los Angeles, California.  I guess I won’t thank you for the snowstorm that included itself in my trip, you couldn’t possibly have known, but it did add to the adventure, after all, and that’s what dreamily looking at maps is all about.

Map of the United States Including Western Ter...

Map of the United States Including Western Territories, 12/1848 (Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives)

When it comes to less likely adventure planning, the topographic maps are difficult for me to decipher, so I best like the maps that have highways on them, and cities and towns and parks and cultural activities and historical markers and battlefields and whatnot.  I trace the highways and wonder about the cities, and plan how I would drive from, say, Sienna to Rome, and whether there would be time for a side trip to Naples.  (Italy is one of my favorite maps.)  I look at the railroad lines and markers and think about taking a journey by rail all the way across India (I think it’s still possible to do that; certainly, the map has the little cross-hatched lines that indicate railroads), and what that would be like.  I’ve read novels set in the Raj where the author describes rail cars in which the porter puts a huge block of ice into a pail in the middle of the car so that the passengers will not literally expire from the heat.  I don’t love heat, particularly humid heat, and I wonder whether that would be an adventure or merely an ordeal.

But then, while we can plan adventures by tracing the lines on a map, we can’t really know just from the map whether the journey will be a wonder or an ordeal. One of the nice things about looking at maps and dreaming our adventures is that we can take the journey in imagination and not actually have to get cholera shots or miss connections at the airport or find that the only bathroom is down the hall and always occupied or sit in a railroad car with a block of ice to provide the only air conditioning.  And while there is only so much time (and money) a person can spend traveling, whether in luxury or in intentional (or, as happens more often with travel than we like to think, unintentional) squalor, one can travel anywhere and everywhere in one’s mind.  As long as we have maps.

The ruins of an ancient Chinese watchtower fro...

The ruins of an ancient Chinese watchtower from the Han Dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD), located along what was the old line of rammed-earth fortifications in Dunhuang, Gansu province, China, that once stretched from the Hexi Corridor (in Gansu) to the Tarim Basin (in modern Xinjiang). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Quite a while ago, while waiting for a travel agent to finish with the prior customer, I browsed through the brochures displayed.  One of them, an oversized booklet, was for a company (I’m sure long since defunct) that did ‘adventure’ travel.  Very expensive, as I recall, completely out of my reach.  But one trip I particularly remember was the Silk Road Adventure.  This was before travel was easy or comfortable in the People’s Republic of China and while (I think) the Russians were the current Afghani opponent of choice (not their choice).  So the trip in the brochure consisted of jets (to get to Peking as it was then called), then trains (to follow the China portion of the Silk Road), then a genuine camel caravan (still used then and undoubtedly now to transport goods over the roof of the world), then (I think I recall) hiking with sherpas, and finally a grand finish in Samarkand (still one of the most beautiful place names in the world), after which the traveler, a good deal lighter in the wallet and probably in weight, presumably rejoined the 20th Century.  The maps for the excursion were done in a 19th century style, on a sand-colored background, hand-drawn with tiny pictures of camels and horses and people in burnooses and I traced the route and imagined being part of a caravan on the Silk Road and felt an amazing sense of romance.

I asked for a copy of the brochure and kept it for years, long past its expiration date, and I wish I still had it.  I don’t know whether and how much I would have enjoyed (in the sense that one enjoys the beach at Lahaina, say) the trip, but I wanted to do something that adventurous, that crazy, that really dangerous, and in some part of me, I still do.  So the next place I looked in my atlas after the inspiration provided by Mr. Crowe’s Twitter comment was the Silk Road.  It fills me still with wonder.  People have been moving themselves and their goods back and forth on this trail from the middle East to China for now thousands of years.  It’s rather a boggle to the mind to think of, isn’t it?  Even the words evoke excitement:  camels and howdahs and caravanserai, silks and spices and gold, Persia and Arabia and China.  And it’s all there, right there, on the map as you trace the path.

Silk Road Original text from original uploader...

Silk Road Original text from original uploader: “Extent of Silk Route/Silk Road. Red is land route and the blue is the sea/water route.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I was following the ageless track of the Silk road in the atlas and wondering a bit about which map Mr. Crowe was devouring, I found myself thinking about semantics.  A non sequitur and yet not really.  Semantics is the study of the intersection (or lack of same) between the real world and the words humans use to describe it.  One of the scientific giants in the field was Alfred Korzybski (not a name that one thinks of often, is it?)  He once said (probably more than once, knowing scientific giants):  “The map is not the territory.”  For somebody who loves maps, this is a good thing to remember.  But it’s also a good thing to remember about living life anyway.  You see, you can plan but then the real thing will happen and it usually doesn’t much resemble the plan.  We all make proposed maps of our lives.  And we all find out over and over again that the same thing happens:  we create our carefully planned map, take the first step according to the plan, and then all hell breaks loose.  The road is closed in the only direction we want to go.  Under construction. Isn’t it always?  So we take a detour, and remake the plan to get back to the main road as quickly as possible.  Sometimes the detour works out better for us than the main road.  But other times, not so much.  Because the only bridge on the detour is washed out.  And the towns the detour goes through are nothing like the Paris you just knew you would visit because it was on your map or the New York City you knew you would live in because that was in the plan.  And the people aren’t what you had in mind, either.  Better possibly, more helpful, sometimes not a whole lot of fun.  Probably a lot more interesting.  But not the ones marked on your map.

And all these metaphors for life (John Lennon:  Life is what

English: Alfred Korzybski, Polish philosopher ...

English: Alfred Korzybski, Polish philosopher and scientist. Polski: Alfred Korzybski, inżynier, filozof, matematyk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

happens while you were making other plans) reflect back to Korzybski’s great metaphor that the map is not the territory.  That the life you find yourself living is not the pretty map you laid out in your teen years or early twenties.  Happens to us all.  So when you’re planning your next trip and drooling over your internal maps showing the historical markers (graduation with the medical degree, say, or a June wedding to the investment banker or, for that matter, the blues musician), and the gorgeous views (that beach in Lahaina, the Eiffel Tower), and the lovely long easy journey over well-marked roads into a happy twilight filled with blissful memories, you might want to remember, just occasionally, that some of the historical markers will have been torn down or never erected, that some views (try the trip from JFK through Queens to Manhattan, sometime) are not gorgeous, and your trip might end abruptly (ouch) or even worse in a long unhappy slog through our medical system.  (Abruptly sounds better, doesn’t it?)  Your real adventure will be in some ways better than your plan because it will be real, but it may not be nearly as beautiful or even as adventurous.  All you can know for sure is that it will be different.  The map is not the territory.

But then again, if maps are not territories, sometimes that’s a really good thing.  Let’s ponder, for a moment, shall we, map edges.  What happens and what do you find between the edge of one map and the beginning of another?  That might be the best place, the biggest adventure, of them all.  In all the old maps, toward the edges where nobody knew what anybody would find because nobody (at least nobody who talked to the mapmakers) knew what was out there, you’ll find enchanting and scary drawings of monsters and the legend “beyond here be dragons.”   And you know what, even if all the places in the map have been filled up with ‘real’ information, there are still dragons out beyond the edge.  All who have ever gone adventuring have their own definitions of what a dragon is before the start of their journeys and a probably much different knowledge of those dragons when (or if) they return.

And if there weren’t dragons, what would be the point of looking at the map, planning or engaging in the adventure?  We look at a map, whether of Africa or Asia or, perhaps, our lives, and we want dragons, we want some enchantment.  (At least while we’re looking at the map.  When we make it real and we’re in New Mexico and tired out, and it’s getting dark and starting to snow, and the dragon turns out to be a luxury hotel that somehow has transmogrified itself into the local no-tell motel, it doesn’t seem quite so enchanting.)  Come to think of it, ‘enchantment is a strange word.  In our modern world it doesn’t mean much more than glitter and a fancy dinner and a long walk by the ocean, I suppose, but to be ‘enchanted’ throughout most of human history was to be under the spell of magic and out of one’s own control.  It usually ended all right in the stories, but it was a hard thing to go through.  Sometimes, maybe, just bad water and not enough food, but not all journeys are about getting from one place to another and you can find some major dragons out there, the kind with very bad breath and extremely sharp teeth.

Regarding old maps with dragons at the edges, it isn’t true that early shipfarers thought they’d fall off the edge of the world as if the world were merely a map, but there were points beyond which they couldn’t and wouldn’t go for many long centuries because of some real problems.  Maps are useless on the ocean.  They call it the trackless sea for a reason.  In order to get from one place to another in a ship when you can’t see any land, you can’t use maps, you have to use something called celestial navigation.  In the long, long ago, that was not easy.  It took a while for navigators to figure out the principle of the compass (at least a compass lets you know in what direction you’re lost) and even longer to find out ways to figure out how far north (or south) you are (I think that’s what an astrolabe is for, or maybe a sextant).  During the day, if there’s no cloud cover, or not too much, you can figure out if you’re going east or west by where the sun is, so long as you have some idea of what time it is.  And at night there are stars (again, cloud cover really messes this up) that from experience you know are in certain apparent directions.  But that doesn’t really help you figure out exactly where east or west (or north or south) is.  And those damned oceans are really damned big.  You can figure (and you’d be right) that if you keep going west, you’re bound to run into something, but look at what happened to Columbus.  And finding land of any kind can take longer than you have food or water.  Oooops.

Map of the Galapagos Archipelago (Best Viewed ...

Map of the Galapagos Archipelago (Best Viewed in “Original” Size) (Photo credit: A.Davey)

All of this circles back to Mr. Crowe because he portrayed (and quite well, too) a ship’s captain in “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”  So he probably knows much more, still, about how those tiny ships navigated those huge oceans than I do or ever will (or want to, because that would mean having to deal with arithmetic).  He knows, I’m sure, that ship navigators did (and do) use maps of a sort, which they call charts, because on them they chart their current position from the last known place using the compass, sextant, astrolabe and other instruments of navigation.  Thus, they could chart (more or less, usually less, exactly) where they were at any given moment.  GPS is a lot easier, but where’s the adventure in that?  After all, while you may fall off the edge of the world or get eaten by dragons, at least insofar as the world you left behind would know, you also might find a magical new place that up to now only its inhabitants knew existed.  For a long time, Tahiti was just a myth and that’s how the sailors wanted to keep it.

Another thing about maps.  They provide not only a picture of a place, but a moment in time. There is a romance to old maps that GPS or any other kind of modern navigational aid simply does not have.  Among the fascinations of the early United States map I have (the picture is at the top of the essay and I apologize for the light bloom from the flash) is that its primary inset map is of the Gold Fields in California!  A statement about what was important when the map was published.  In 1853, people were still pouring into northern California by the thousands to look for riches, fighting all the dragons in their way.

Map of Middle-Earth (hi-res)

Map of Middle-Earth (hi-res) (Photo credit: NightRStar)

Finally, there are the imaginary maps created to help us trace the journeys of our heroes in their fantastic worlds:  Middle Earth, Fionavar, Erewhon, the map of London showing 221B Baker Street, the map of Odysseus’ travels, even the nine circles of hell mapped in the Divine Comedy (so-called because it had a happy ending).  Now there’s a map filled with dragons!  When I was little (or littler, at least), I used to make up maps, creating islands and seas and rivers, places to find my adventure and fight my dragons.  Now, of course, the map of the real world seems to have more than enough dragons, and charting a course through the mystical maps of my plans and dreams truly the adventure of a lifetime.

NSRW Map of Australia

NSRW Map of Australia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what maps am I looking at to plan adventures now?  Well, as I said, I’m a follower of Russell Crowe, so I am learning about Australia by, among other things, looking at maps and planning adventures.  Sydney is way more south than I thought it was.  That’s one thing I’ve learned about it.  And it’s bigger.  The harbour (that’s how it’s spelled) is beautiful.  Everybody has seen the pictures of the Sydney Opera House at the edge of the water there.  Gorgeous!  There are other big cities on the east coast, Brisbane and Melbourne being two of them.  Australia does have mountains, which I found surprising.  By the way, they call lakes lagoons.  And they call their back country  the bush. (For a long time, I visualized this as a kind of great plains as I would know them in Colorado, with bushes about six feet high dotted about, but that’s not what they mean when they say ‘the bush’.  They mean what Coloradans do when we talk about the woods or the high country or the boonies–it’s simply the Australian term for empty as opposed to developed land.) They’ve got a lot of bush:  the major portion of Australia still looks, according to the maps, like the Great American Desert in maps of the United States in the 19th Century.   They apparently call this GABA, which means “Great Australian Bugger All.”  Hmmmnh.  Adventure?  Or just a hot ordeal?  Well, I can plan all the adventures Australia can offer but still not know what it’s like to be there from a page in an atlas.  And after all, because Mr. Crowe is looking at his own maps and planning his own adventures, he might not be willing to be my tour guide on an adventure (or an ordeal) in Australia.  That could be scary, because he could help.  After all, there might be dragons.

Old map

Old map (Photo credit: Photoshop Roadmap)

Itch

itch

itch (Photo credit: brontosaurus)

One of my favorite writers, Connie Willis, in her funny and insightful “Bellwether“, coined the term ‘itch’, as in “I feel itch.”  And it means just how it sounds:  when something is coming, when something is going, when something is changing, but you’re not quite sure what it is or what to do about it.  Kind of like being “restless as a willow in a windstorm”, which is from some song or other.  (And no, I’m not going to look it up.)

Bellwether (novel)

Bellwether (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That’s where I am these days.

There’s an aspect to itch that might be called boredom.  There’s an aspect, for me, that is particularly Estes Park.  This time of year (winter, that is) is very hard to cope with up here (gee, like it’s easy in Minnesota).  We used to call it ‘cabin fever’, which is a lot like ‘itch’, except that cabin fever can result in some pretty spectacular responses.  Just like the Santa Anas in Southern California.  There’s a quote in Raymond Chandler: “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. . . . Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.”  Here in Colorado we call such winds ‘Chinooks’ and they’re a proximate cause of cabin fever.  You feel like if you’re cooped up with whomever or whatever for ONE MORE MINUTE, something really awful is going to happen.  And you can’t get out.  Not until spring.  What with cable and Internet and DVDs and better cars, we don’t see so much cabin fever these days, but itch?  Oh my yes.  I think you’d call it situational itch.  You’re going nuts within your own four walls and you want to be anywhere else.  Anywhere.  Else.  Even Arizona.

But there are other aspects to situational itch, too.  Some of it, I suppose, is the new year.  January was so promising, wasn’t it?  After all that holiday excess and celebration, we were all going to lose that weight, get in shape, de-clutter our houses.  And, of course, figure out what our lives are supposed to be about and go out and DO things.  And here it is February already, and how many of those wonderful promises have we kept?  One-twelfth of our chance to become The Best Person We Can Be is gone for another year.

Everybody goes through these times and, yes, they’re good for you if not very much fun.  It isn’t that your life has turned upside down because you won the lottery or lost your best friend.  It’s just that something within you needs to change.  You feel kind of stale.  You know that anything you think of to do–isn’t it time you folded the laundry?–is displacement activity, yet you can’t just turn into a mushroom growing out of your most comfortable chair.  Even retail therapy doesn’t work because you’ve tried to ‘fix’ whatever is going on by buying something, and it turns out when you analyze it that what you were trying to do was to fix your life.  And now you have to let the well refill before you can buy something else to distract you from itch.  And by ‘you’, of course, I mean ‘me’.

When it gets down to it, itch is about something deeper.  It is about finding your purpose in life, your reason for being.  It’s about engagement, not distraction.  This is existential itch.  Whether purpose is something we create for ourselves or comes from Somewhere Else, our deepest minds and hearts always search for it.  If you’re fresh out of purpose, that’s your itch.

Have you ever listened to a lecturer who is in love with his subject?  I remember one in particular, who taught the history of Ancient Egypt.  This man is absolutely in love with ancient Egypt.  For him, this is not a job, or even a life’s work, it’s fun, it’s a lot more fun than working.  Find something you like that much and you’ll never work another day in your life (that is, if you can figure out how to get paid for it).  So that’s one way to deal with existential itch.  Find that something.  Whew, that was easy.

Except, of course, it’s not.  Because if you’ve figured out, hooray and hallelujah, that what you want is a glorious job or a glorious partner or a world cruise, that’s wonderful, I’m happy for you, but there’s one little hiccup.  You still feel itch.  If you know what you want, then itch comes from not knowing how to get from here to there.    I guess we could call that procedural itch.

Procedural itch lets you know that your tactics and strategy are off, not your target.  Let’s say you want to star on Broadway and you’re doing everything you should be except you’re doing it in Michigan.  You may have to face up to several years of waiting tables in Brooklyn.  Or maybe you want something internal like wisdom.  Then your strategy must be more indirect.  You need to treat an abstract inner itch as if you were trying to catch a butterfly.  Crush it in your hands and it is gone, all its luster lost.  But if you hold your hand out, open, perhaps it will land, so lightly that unless you look carefully you can’t even be sure it has touched down.

Butterflies seduction.

Butterflies seduction. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And then there’s a simple fact.  Itch keeps on itching when we think we know what we want because we often fool ourselves about what we need.  Aesop was a wise old Greek when even Greece was young.  He told the story of the fox who wanted the grapes growing at the top of the arbor.  But no matter how the fox leaped and snapped and tried to climb, the grapes stayed out of his reach.  Finally, disgusted, the fox said that the grapes were undoubtedly sour and he didn’t want them anyway.  We all have a tendency to give up, to say the grapes are sour, not worth having.  And that’s probably not what the itch was trying to tell us.  You see, sometimes the grapes that are out of our reach aren’t sour, particularly, it’s just that if we reach them, actually get them, we find out in the process that what we really wanted was an orange, not grapes at all.

English: My own Work کار شخصی

Itch can be about holding on, even to a fixation that all around believe to be foolish or even crazy (we look at Steve Jobs‘ success, and we don’t remember how long everybody called him that crazy geek with the weird ideas), and yet itch can be about letting go of the grapes we didn’t want after all, and finding the orange we did.  But what itch is never about is giving up.  The real world may slap you down, may force you to face that this one particular thing, a starring role in a particular play on Broadway, a best-selling novel, the one person whom you just know would fulfill all your deepest needs (which doesn’t happen, no one person can do that and it is unfair to ask it), a teaching job at a university, is not going to happen.  Just not.  What do you do then?

That’s where itch is your friend, your subconscious working to bring you home and give you what you really want, way down deep, which is what you really need.  Itch will keep you discontented until you find your own distinctive path, and itch will push you, pull you, down that path.

If you are fixated on the one person you can’t have, then itch will let you know what you can do about it–if anything.  Victor Hugo once said, “Loving another person is to touch the face of God.”  Sometimes that has to be enough.  Eventually you may realize that your love embodies what you need in a partner, and by accepting your love of the unattainable (the grapes) you may open yourself to the attainable love that is waiting out there for you (your orange).

Sicilian oranges

Sicilian oranges (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And itch will keep on itching until you find your life’s work, or until it finds you.  Then your job is to notice that your itch has gone away and you are content.  Or something odd that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with what you think you want will happen and only by looking back will you realize that your itch helped you find what you’re really supposed to do and now you’re doing it.  Blessings.  And a tiny bit of advice.  Even as much as love, you need work to do, your real life’s work, so don’t ever give up on finding it, no matter how far away it may seem.

Or you may just have to get used to itch.  I am coming to the disconcerting conclusion that while discontent is uncomfortable, it is a much more normal state of mind for me than content.  I keep looking for a life that will make me content and since I have some (small) financial resources and good friends and a few smarts, I have been able to create that life time and again, and each and every time I do, I become discontented by that life or I screw it up.  Recognizing that I am basically discontented and that I need to be so was a big revelation to me. A good deal has happened in my soul this past year, and I feel that I have woken up in several ways.  Portions of my life that I thought I had successfully and rightly shut down are awake and itching again. But I hold onto the hope that this time I’ll find the wisdom not to engage in displacement, or distraction, or excessive retail therapy.  (Let’s be realistic here, after all.)  This time, I hope I won’t exclude the oranges in a fruitless (pun intended) quest for grapes.

There’s a tarot card called The Moon and it’s a tough card to get in a reading, because it usually means inner work, a pathway to understanding that is going to be a hard climb.  I’m on that pathway, itching all the way.  And nothing I can do will get me off that pathway until I reach the top and find what it means for me.  If itch is filling your thoughts and feelings, my only suggestion is that while doing laundry is a good thing in itself, if you’re folding the clothes only so you won’t think about what is bothering you, maybe you should stop and sit down and really ponder your itch.  See if it will let you know what it is and what it wants for you, and let it give you what you need.  And may you find your orange.

Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck, al...

Tarot card from the Rider-Waite tarot deck, also known as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thoughts Upon a Solstice, Redux

Henge_1

Henge_1 (Photo credit: tracko_aus)

I published this blog originally for Winter Solstice (northern hemisphere version) in 2012, and I think it may be worth another look from any or all of you who follow my blog this year too.  So I’m republishing it . . . .

In any event, I wish anybody reading this (well, in reality I wish this for people who don’t read or follow my blog too) a truly happy holiday season and the best of new years.  And, remember, if you live in the southern hemisphere, just put this aside for six months and read it in June.  Be well.

Today is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere on our planet.  Among many things, today neo-Druids celebrate the returning of the sun at henges throughout the British Isles, but most particularly at Stonehenge; while others who may have listened too much to strange folk misinterpreting the Mayan long-count calendar are in their various ways and for their various reasons relieved or disappointed that the world still seems to be somehow wobbling along.  Perhaps some of them, neo-Druidic or neo-Mayan or whatnot, arose from frantic prayer this morning with the feeling that they saved the world from oblivion.  [Remember, I wrote this in a year when some folk were convinced that the Mayan long-count calendar was coming to an end.  It wasn’t.  It didn’t.]

12-12-12 * Calendario Circular

12-12-12 * Calendario Circular (Photo credit: jacilluch)

Which is what the Winter Solstice has always been about.  When we were first getting started as a species, perhaps it didn’t matter.  Perhaps the immediate, the now, of life was all that could matter.  Can we run down that gazelle?  Are these roots edible, not poisonous, let alone palatable?  Is that fruit ripe yet and have the birds and the chimpanzees left us enough?  Is that highly smelly (and they are) lion we know is napping on the other side of the hillside going to wake up hungry or can we stay here for another sleep?   But after many thousands of years, we began to grow things on our own instead of merely finding them.  We began to raise the sweeter-natured (and dumber) babies of various kinds of useful animals to have a portable pantry instead of always having to go out and find something to eat.  And we began to notice that during the autumn of the year, the sun spent less time every day shining down on us.  More, the farther north we wandered, the shorter the day, the longer the night during the fall.  (Not to ignore the Southern Hemisphere–anyone reading this in Australia just would change the time of year by about six months and the direction from north to south to be in the same situation.  I am, unfortunately having never visited Australia or, for that matter, anywhere below the Equator, a bit Northern Hemisphere-centric.)

And, worst of all, at some time during a period of time that came to be known as a month (meaning then and now the circuit of the moon around the earth), the name of which month came to be known as December (much, much, much, much later), the sun seemed as if it was going to disappear completely, that it was going to keep on spending less time above the horizon and more below until it never came back.  Never. Came. Back.  Imagine that, if you can or will.  The people (not the Celts or the Druids by the way) who raised the henges, the priests whose job it was to bless crops and domestic animals, the populations wandering ever northward as the ice sheets receded, were pretty good jack-leg, practical astronomers, but they had no way of knowing that the sun appeared and disappeared simply because the earth rotated on an axis and revolved around that sun.  The didn’t know that the sun wasn’t doing the dancing, the disappearing and reappearing act, their own solid earth was.  In growing panic, they would watch the sun shine less and less each day.  All the Gods help us, it might at some point, perhaps because of the sinfulness of human beings (that has never changed), not come back at all.  And they were definitely smart enough to realize that without the sun nothing on earth could survive.

We mustn’t think that because the sun always came back no matter what that these tribes of human beings were silly or stupid.  After all, in this 21st century there were quite a few people who believed the world would come to an end when the particular long-count calendar the so-called experts were interpreting ended (ah, that would be this morning about 4:00 a.m.) [again, I wrote this in 2012] and we’re, after all, 21st century humans living in a highly technological civilization.  And we must remember, too, that life was usually short and a generation was considered (and still is for that matter) to be about 25 years.  Even with bards and priests and all those trained to remember the history of the tribe and the knowledge that had been gleaned over many generations, the memory faded of the days when there were no priests praying throughout the longest night so the sun would peep over the horizon again.  The priests had always prayed, always danced, always sung, begging the sun to come back, and it would always be necessary.  (This was a fairly handy situation for the priests, in my cynical (realistic?) eyes, since it certainly meant for job security.)

Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on th...

Sunrise between the stones at Stonehenge on the Winter Solstice in the mid 1980s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We don’t actually know what the huge stone circles were for.  The tribes who made them are long gone and their function and structure changed over time as new tribes came in and took them over.  But there are many human-made monuments, monoliths, and cut-outs in certain hills (called, I think, granges in Celtic Ireland) all over the world (except in many cases, for reasons that shall be left as an exercise for the class, immediately around the equator where the monuments seem to our eyes to be designed more for the measuring of star movement) whose function makes no sense to us until we watch the moment of sunrise on the day after the Solstice and see a beam of light hitting one particular spot in the monument.  The moment the sun comes back.  The moment of relief, of success, of validation of nights of prayer, of dance, of songs of praise.  It is really a several-day vigil, for the Solstice itself is the longest night and shortest day.  And the monuments are, if not designed so, definitely able to show the incremental increase in daylight after the Solstice each day.  After perhaps a week, the priests would be able to announce, in perfect truth, that the sun was coming back and that in a few cycles of the moon it would be time to plant once more.  They would also, of course, announce that their prayers and the sacrifices of the tribe were the reason for this bounty.  The great god behind the sun was pleased.

Newgrange

Newgrange (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of these days, one of these millenia, we hope many millenia from now, the sun may change from a beneficent god who makes life possible on our whirling ball of water and earth into something different.  It may explode.  It may become red and colder, making the earth unfit for habitation unless (and this too is possible) we have changed to fit the new circumstances (we have done so before).  It may wink out one day.  Stars do that, and our sun is merely a star among the billions of stars in our galaxy, amidst the billions of galaxies in our universe.  But until that day, the Winter Solstice will happen in the Northern Hemisphere every year, just as it does six months later in the Southern Hemisphere every year, and the sun will come back to make spring possible, to make food possible, to make life possible.  And the winter will be gone, one more time.

So this day is a marker of hope, still and forever while we live only here on this planet and are as we are, utterly dependent on the sun for everything.  Everything.  And we should, I think, even in our sophistication, give a prayer of thanks that this be so.  Religions throughout the history of the world have done so.  Almost all of them have called the celebration of the Winter Solstice a feast of light in one way or the other.  In Jewish tradition, there is Hanukkah, a celebration of a time when the perpetual lamp in the Inner Temple could have gone out but did not because of a miracle.  In Christianity, there are many references to light and the returning of light.  The Christmas tree began as a way of celebrating Christ’s eternal power and meaning.  The evergreen does not lose its leaves in the winter and the lights we put on it symbolize “the light of the world.” Christ, who was born, or so say the priests, on a day less than a week after the Solstice when it could be and was proved that the sun was coming back for another year has always been associated with light.  (That Jesus was probably born in the spring because the shepherds were out with their flocks, thus, at lambing time, is merely a more likely supposition and has very little to do with the symbolism of the timing of his birth.  Many religious scholars and historians say that the Christian Church moved the feast of Christ’s birth to Solstice in order to pre-empt the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, which was yet another religious feast day celebrating the Solstice.)  Other religions have similar feasts.  And our old friend the Mayan long-count calendar begins and ends on the Winter Solstice.

candlelit Christmas tree

candlelit Christmas tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(Just to be clear, the Mayans, who were apparently brilliant astronomers, had many calendars that counted different cycles, some as short as a few months, some as long as millions of years.  The long-count calendar that got some people in such an uproar  measured a kind of medium-long cycle.  Some of these different measurings of time began and ended on the Winter Solstice.  I don’t know if all do, and at least one source I’ve read said the ending of each calendar was for symmetry’s sake and the beginning of each calendar’s measuring period would be a Solstice primarily for convenience because this is a date easy to pin down. I know very little about the reasons for these differently-counted calendars of theirs, and anthropologists, while learning more all the time, are still more or less at the beginning of figuring this out.  I recommend anyone interested to click on the link “Mayan long-count calendar” in this essay for more information.)

For the time being (and I recommend without stint W.H. Auden’s long poem “For the Time Being” about what happens to each of us during and because of Christmas, which is my own tradition of celebrating the return of light to the world), the Solstice is happening once more.  The sun will come back after this shortest night of the year.  The world will rumble on and most of us will try to make the best of it and some of us, sadly, will still try to make the worst of it.   In honor of the Solstice, in honor of all the people throughout the history of our species who have prayed and danced and sung the sun back above the horizon, this year I will try to see past the Christmas tree and the presents and the special foods and the candles and twinkly sparkly lights all over the place to a calmer center point where the grand dance of our home bringing back the sun to warm us and nurture us continues.  And I will give praise and thanks.