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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

new books and personal identity

Snow fell through the night. There is still a wet layer of white, turning to translucent slush, outside. Snowmelt drips from deck and rhododendron.

A book arrived yesterday in the post, and two today. Yesterday's was Beyond the Essene Hypothesis by Gabriele Boccaccini; today's are Identity: Youth and Crisis by Erik H. Erikson and The Challenge of Youth, edited by Erikson. I have wiped down the covers of these used books with a damp cloth, entered them in my Excel book inventory, and inscribed my name, along with the month and year, in them. (The Erikson books, paperbacks from the 1960s, had their previous owners' names inscribed in them still: Roger King and Jane Boyle, respectively.) My library is augmented.

Boccaccini's book was mentioned in Uriel's Machine by Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas, which I've got about half read. Knight and Lomas's book is about the astronomy of the Book of Enoch, which in turn was a core text for the Qumran community. Boccaccini's book is subtitled The Parting of the Ways between Qumran and Enochic Judaism, and apparently argues that the Essene community at Qumran was in fact the offspring of something he calls the Enochic party, which, he claims, contributed to the birth of the parties led by John the Baptist and Jesus. I felt I could not afford to overlook this book.

The Erikson books came out of my quest earlier this month into my own life and its development, its story. Erikson is the preeminent psychologist of personal identity and its development. In astrology, the identity is represented by the Sun in the birth chart. In my case this identity, and its realization, are conflicted by the situation of Neptune in what's known as a square aspect to the Sun. The tension is heightened by the Sun's placement in my 4th house of the inner world and domestic situation, suggesting a life focused on self-discovery and the arrangement of my own inner world, and by Neptune's placement in my 1st house of contact with my environment. The arrangement points to someone who, by life calling, is searching for his own identity (Sun in the 4th) while at the same time is inclined to mirror back other people's wants and wishes (Neptune in the 1st)--to be what others want him to be. Not hard to see the possible difficulties posed here.

So: Erik Erikson. Of the three books that have just arrived, I think I'll start with his major work Identity. It relates not only to my own life, but to my work, where I see the issue of identity as an important theme. Maybe I can see how it all fits together, and how the art is more intimately related to my life than I thought.

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Sunday, November 27, 2005

search for the controlling idea

What is the status of my project, my novel? I have certainly lost compression this past month, gripped by feelings of self-criticism and worry about my life-choices, and examining these to the best of my ability, in writing. I believe it was Nietzsche who said that someone who has a why to live can put up with almost any how. I feel similarly about writing: I need to know, in some sense, why I'm doing what I'm doing in order to maintain my motivation. So I'm wondering, what do I know, anyway? What have I got to offer?

Lately I've been letting my mind run. Like deep-sea fishing: a marlin takes the hook and you have to let it run; the fish is just too big and powerful to control at first. The line pays out at ferocious speed, whizzing off the great spool. In my case, my thoughts have turned from the astrological examination of my current situation, seeing this stage as part of my life story, to investigating the theme of my life story itself: what is its controlling idea to date? The term is from Robert McKee. He defines it thus in Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting:

A controlling idea may be expressed in a single sentence describing how and why life undergoes change from one condition of existence at the beginning to another at the end.

An important strand, maybe the main strand, of my life is itself a search for meaning in the form of clear beliefs to hold and live by. This is the same as mythology, in Joseph Campbell's view. Put simply: a search for truth. And my life has gone through distinct stages, or "acts" in story terms, in the unfoldment of this search.

But what are my beliefs right now? And what is my stance toward the material I'm writing about--the world of belief as it existed in 48 BC, and as it set the agenda for belief over the coming 2,000 years? To some extent I simply trust the material of the story, trust that my creative and technical work in devising characters and events will reveal what needs to be revealed: that the meaning of the work is already latent within it, I just need to keep writing and letting stuff happen.

On the other hand, I don't feel that's quite so. I can't simply park my conscious mind, my reasoning mind, or assign it only to the technical task of executing my story; I must reach for the stars with my rational self too. I must do my utmost to become conscious of the meaning of what I'm doing, and not simply wait for that to come to me. In short, I must work at it.

So that's what I've been doing. Or, at least, that's what I've been telling myself that's what I'm doing. As I say, I have been letting my mind free-run, and whether its course is project-related or not I can't really tell. I have been making notes, thinking, checking books.

This morning the chase took me to my copy of The Myth of the Eternal Return by Mircea Eliade, a text I bought in May 1982, just after returning from my solo trip to Europe, Israel, and Africa. I was still on the track of trying to get to the ideas underlying my novel project of the time, More Things to Come, which, as I have mentioned before, was built around the beliefs of a fictitious millenarian cult. Fascinated by apocalypse, I wanted to understand the ideas--the belief-system of one who believes in a destination for history. The subtitle of Eliade's book, Cosmos and History, suggest more of what it's about, and it seemed right up my alley.

Indeed it was--and still is, for my current work, The Age of Pisces, is really about the same thing: the conflict between the ideas of the "eternal return"--the notion that all is cyclic, and there is nothing truly new under the sun--and history: the notion that there is actual change, novelty, in the world. This topic is even deeper than it appears. I must be closer to understanding it than I was in 1982, but I don't feel that way.

In broad terms, I suspect that the conflict, the dialogue, between the "cyclic world" (which always resolves back to its timeless truths, timeless gods) and the "historical world" (which tumbles forward painfully and possibly meaninglessly) amounts to the conflict between the ossified order of the "found truth"--the freezing of society that occurs when those in power want to keep a good thing going--and the spirit of adventure: the hero questing for the means to redeem himself and his society, to heal it of its sickness.

The two depend on each other. If the world does not languish ill, the hero has no task, no function. On the other hand, if there is no hero to redeem society, then that society continues to harden into a mask of itself, an inflexible shell, like Brocq's disease, in which one's skin turns into hard, barklike plates, so that eventually one cannot move at all without shattering and bleeding.

Anyway, this morning I was keying from The Myth of the Eternal Return, rereading the book again while I typed the highlighted portions, excited by the depth and perceptiveness of Eliade's observations. Among my source authors, only Campbell himself do I rate more highly. The titles of its four chapters give an idea of the content: "Archetypes and Repetition", "The Regeneration of Time", "Misfortune and History", and "The Terror of History".

Everyone in the world bases his or her actions on beliefs about how the world is. In general, these beliefs are vague, unconscious, or mistaken. The implications of this are enormous, beyond imagining. But if one is aware of the problem, and wants to address it, what does one do? Where does one turn? Whom does one ask? According to Campbell, the hero goes forth armed with trust in himself and his own experience of value. Seek, and ye shall find.

I'm seeking. I have found a lot, but I am not at a place of rest, of insight into my own message, the controlling idea of my work. I know I can't simply down tools while hunting for the ultimate answer for everything--and yet now is a time for reflection and search, and to allow the results of this to percolate into the work. The part of me that wants results--a big part--feels pain at the slowdown.

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Friday, November 25, 2005

the symbol without meaning

Another day, and what can I tell you.

Yesterday morning I opened up yet another new document to make, what, philosophical? personal? notes in. I took another Joseph Campbell text, his essay "The Symbol Without Meaning" from his The Flight of the Wild Gander, the highlights of which I keyed into Word sometime last year. It is yet another approach to the question of the mythology of our own modern age--and a profound and fascinating one, written later than his Masks of God series. I'm connected with this somehow, my work is connected with it, but how? how? Instead of merely reading and thinking, this notes document gives me the chance to read, think, and make notes right in the text: my own thoughts, my own insights.

In the course of this one short essay Campbell covers the whole sweep of mythological development, from the Paleolithic Age to the present, in terms of an abiding contest between two archetypal mediators of mythology to society: the shaman and the priest. The shaman is the older: he existed in the age of the hunting cultures of the Old Stone Age, the individual who, through vocation from the dream-world, the realm of the spirits and gods, was chosen to a spiritual life. He journeyed to the spirit-world and met and battled its denizens. The visions he saw were his own, as were his means of expression to the group--if any. For being a shaman was not a job: he might be considered a dangerous or outcast figure as much as a medicine man or soothsayer. The shaman lives on in the few hunting societies left on earth.

The priest was the product of an agricultural society that had become settled and diversified with a division of labor. Priesthood was a job, a social role, just as being a farmer or a soldier or a potter was a social role. It was a powerful role, because mythology, religion, was a powerful force, closely associated with the running of the state. Kings in the earliest days were gods, then priest-kings, and then the job-function became separated out to a separate clergy. Priests were part of the social order, and were charged with maintaining it. Priests we have with us still.

The basic tension between shaman and priest is that of personal mythology vs. collective mythology, personal vision vs. the voice of authority.

Fast-forward 4,000 years. Campbell chooses 1492, the year of Columbus's landfall in America, as the watershed when the ancient mythological order of the priestly state was broken. Columbus had expected to find Paradise in his travels; he had expected to find the confirmation of the mythological map of the world set down in the Bible. Instead he found the New World, seemingly a place no one associated with the Bible had ever been. The era of scientific exploration of the earth had begun; to learn the form of the world, people would no longer check a Bible, they would get in a ship and look for themselves.

The Scientific Age had begun (in fact had been in motion since the time of Roger Bacon and William of Occam); soon the Industrial Age would follow. As the world's mysteries were seen increasingly to be the product of mechanical and mathematical forces, man's mastery of it also grew, confirming the power and truth of that method of knowing. Lip-service continued to be paid to the ancient myths, to God and his heaven of angels and their omnipotence, but people invested their time, money, and effort in physics and chemistry and their products. Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud delivered the death-blows to the Judeo-Christian God for thinking people--at least as he had been worshipped for the previous millennia. Priests languish, preaching to aging, shrinking flocks.

Campbell thinks that the rise of science and technology is a resurgence of the spirit of the shaman, or of, as he puts it, the titans--those mythological individualists who would not bow down to the laws of the cosmos, as would the gods themselves. The truths of science are provisional: growing, changing. In Campbell's own words:

With the rise of modern science, the entire cosmological structure of the Bible and the Church has been destroyed and not the cosmological only but the historical as well. The gradual, irresistible, steady development of this new realization of the wonder of the world and of man'’s place and possibilities within it, against every instrument of resistance of the Church, has been, and continues to be, the fruit of the labors of a remarkably small number of men with the wit and courage to oppose authority with accurate observation.

And he closes the essay with these optimistic words:

[N]ot all are of that supine sort that must have their life values given them, cried at them from the pulpits and other mass media of the day. For there is, in fact, in quiet places, a great deal of deep spiritual quest and finding now in progress in this world, outside the sanctified social centers, in small groups, and more often, by ones and twos, there entering the forest at those points which they themselves have chosen, where they see it to be most dark, and there is no beaten way or path.

I feel I am one who has entered the forest where it is most dark, and there is no beaten way or path. My job is to record my discoveries here, in a sense. There is no companionship, and no reward; only the dark trees pressing in as night falls.

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Thursday, November 24, 2005

the writer shops for a novel

The dark days of the year are here. The fog has lifted, leaving everything dark and wet and still. I turned my errand of cash-fetching at an ATM into a short jog, and ran around Victoria Park. The dark clouds were trying to rain as I walked off my run, but they are still only pregnant with rain.

Kimmie's colonoscopy went well yesterday: the doctor gave her the all-clear, and so whatever was paining her in her abdomen is of still unknown cause. The doctor feels that it's within the bounds of normal experience and is not concerned. Meanwhile, Kimmie is assured for now that there is no sign of cancer, which struck down her brother Freddie.

While Kimmie was in the tender hands of the St. Paul's GI Clinic staff, I walked along Burrard and Robson, winding up again at Indigo Books. This time I determined to search for a novel. Fiction is on the third floor, so I rode the escalators up there and started looking. My first impulse was to look in the science-fiction section. Why? Probably because what I'm looking for is to leave this world: to see how other writers handle the depiction of an imagined other place. Partly this is defeatism, though, because I expect all novels to be disappointing, and so want to have some imaginative verve as compensation for putting up with a basically unenjoyable reading experience. Isn't that a negative stance?

Pushing aside my defeatism, I strode to the "fiction/literature" shelves: the large section of general fiction. Starting at the As, I worked my way along the book-spines and covers. I held my gloved hands behind my back, only looking. No touching unless something looked at least a little bit interesting. Margaret Atwood--nope. Peter Aykroyd--nope. Jilly Cooper--nope! On...

I wanted to find historical fiction, if possible, to compare with my own work. At some point I'm going to have to compare my work to others', and I'll need to know what's out there. I find this thought tiresome. "What will your work remind me of?" "Picture the Shopaholic books, but written by Thomas Pynchon."

Shelf after shelf. Shelf after shelf. Here I am, people--I'm here to spend. Make me. C'mon...

Hmm...what's this? My first pickup: a big Penguin paperback called The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett. Say, this looks not bad. Nice cover. Hm, part of a series, I see--dangerous, but also potential (series to me suggest cranked-out, repetitive work--but I'm planning one myself so I'd better not carp!). Penguin: I still associate this imprint with quality, and indeed British writers I regard as over all better than American or Canadian. Slight problem: it's set in the 16th century, a period I don't have any particular fondness for. Flip it open, read the first paragraph, the first page.

I don't exactly remember the first paragraph (I didn't get the book), but I was a little leery of its suggestion that the main character (or the character being introduced) was a kind of swashbuckling rake, back in the country after unspecified adventures. It feels kind of standard. The writing itself, though, was good, far from the schlock that is usually dished up as historical fiction. Should I? It's a big book--but I like that (if it's good). Hmm. I flipped to a couple of passages in the middle. I settled on one: a rapid narrative of some kind of forest campaign, in which large actions were summarized in brief sentences. This put me off. Combined with the opener, which again was an overview rather than a specific action of one character (it was along the lines of, "When news of So-and-So's return started circulating through the country, people could hardly believe it..."), I felt I was getting too much summary and not enough drama. Nah, I thought--it's too risky. I put it back.

(Now that I've checked the Amazon.com listing for this series of books, I see that every one of them gets 5 stars or 4.5: the reviews are stellar. I'd better go back and read this after all!)

Listlessly I trailed among the shelves. Back, forth. Nope. Nope. Nope.

I went past another biggie: a novel called Shantaram by someone called Gregory David Roberts. It had an Asian-looking design on its gold cover. I picked this up too. The back cover contained reviews of praise, but no plot summary. Odd. The striking thing was Roberts's own story, which occupied the largest paragraph on the back, next to his photo:

Gregory David Roberts was born in Melbourne, Australia. Sentenced to nineteen years in prison for a series of armed robberies, he escaped and spent ten of his fugitive years in Bombay--where he established a free medical clinic for slum-dwellers, and worked as a counterfeiter, smuggler, gunrunner, and street soldier for a branch of the Bombay mafia. Recaptured, he served out his sentence, and established a successful multimedia company upon his release. Roberts is now a full-time writer and lives in Bombay.

Well. One thing's clear: I sure have a tame bio. I assessed the physical book. Hm, big trade paperback, 936 pages including two pages of acknowledgments at the back. The book appeared to be based closely on his life--that could be good. How does a junkie/robber/Bombay street soldier write? Let's find out. First-sentence test, chapter 1:

It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.

Hm--is it good? Or a "hey notice me!" grabber? I'll read on:

I realised, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them. It doesn't sound like much, I know. But in the flinch and bite of the chain, when it's all you've got, that freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.

Good. For one thing, this writer is not among the great majority who share the same dismal characteristic: they write as though life were a pointless waste of time. He sees life and experience as the arena of important things: values. That makes him my kind of guy up front. I was willing to read more:

In my case, it's a long story, and a crowded one. I was a revolutionary who lost his ideals in heroin, a philosopher who lost his integrity in crime, and a poet who lost his soul in a maximum-security prison.

Good. I could see why such emphasis was put on Roberts's bio; without it, these lines would raise huge credibility issues. With it, though, they command attention. I get the feeling that although I would never want to live Roberts's life, here in this book I have the opportunity to learn from it, because he has himself. I was mostly sold at this point.

But it was so big, and relatively expensive (trade paperback: $19.95), that I wanted more security. I flipped ahead to other passages. Here's the second paragraph of chapter 2, in which he's describing a Swiss girl named Karla whom he meets in Bombay:

And I did--I liked everything about her. I liked the Helvetian music of her Swiss-American English, and the way she pushed her hair back slowly with a thumb and forefinger when she was irritated by something. I liked the hard-edged cleverness of her conversation, and the easy, gentle way she touched people she liked when she walked past them or sat beside them. I liked the way she held my eyes until the precise moment when it stopped being comfortable, and then smiled, softening the assail, but never looked away.

That clinched it. Here I was reading someone who's probably better than I am at characterization; I can learn from this guy. He deserves to have his book bought, and I'm happy to do it. I chose a pristine copy and headed for the till downstairs.

When I got home I read chapter 1 and very much enjoyed it. Now: chapter 2.

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Tuesday, November 22, 2005

purging in the fog

The city is still shrouded in fog--an unusual occurrence. My chiropractor, Terry Dickson, during my adjustment this afternoon, asked me whether I could remember any other such long-lasting fogs in Vancouver. I told him yes: there had been fogs in the fall of 1993. (I knew this because I had written a mystery/thriller called Observer set in Vancouver in that year, and my weather research had turned up a number of fogbound days during my story--I used the fog.) I could have added 1985, since I remember the fog lying over Surrey when Kimmie and I went to buy our first Toyota that December.

I'm sure there have been others. But, as I pointed out to Terry, fogs have been much less frequent in Vancouver since the 1950s and before, when many coal- and sawdust-burning furnaces and stoves were still in use.

Kimmie came home at lunchtime today, although not to have lunch, since she is fasting in preparation for a colonoscopy tomorrow. The prep involves drinking four liters of dissolved mineral salts that act as a purgative. She has just now finished drinking the last of it, and the cold water, plus lack of food, has chilled her to the core. She sits huddled in a blanket in front of the fire I've built for her. Poor thing: no food tonight, and worse, no wine.

Me? I actually lurched forward on chapter 19 again. There was that old familiar feeling: "All that angst and suffering for this? This is what came out after all that?" I shook my head.

Maybe there's a purgative for creative material. Just get it all to rush out at once, leaving one's imagination clean as a whistle.

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Monday, November 21, 2005

dialogue on the purpose of life

I rose with good intentions before 6:00 to get to work right away on continuing to draft chapter 19. Wet gray fog continued to swirl in the darkness outside. I opened my chapter documents, but couldn't resist also opening the file in which I'm investigating my own life: "The Hero with a Thousand Faces--annotated" file. In this I have been going through the turning-points of my own life, looking on it as a story: my myth.

Five years ago, under the influence of my mother who was embarking on writing a memoir, I bought a book called Your Life as Story by Tristine Rainer, a TV-writer-producer-turned-writing-teacher. This is a good book, and I was immediately excited by it. Rainer, like me, was a TV writer, but she specialized in made-for-TV movies, and particularly in those that told the life-stories of real people. She had learned to use her training as a scriptwriter to discover the dramatic structure of true stories, and when she branched out into teaching "lifewriting" to others, this was a large part of what she taught others--those who wanted to write about their own lives--to do.

I had a headstart, since I had already received similar training in creating dramatic structure, so I leaped in, doing the exercises in her book and inventorying the events of my life as dramatic turning-points. Excitedly I created Word files, listing events and arranging and rearranging them. I became passionate about learning more about my parents' lives, how their lives had led to mine and influenced it from before the time I was born. (I believe my enthusiasm for this infected my father and influenced him in a "roots" exploration of his own which eventually resulted in a memoir of his early life, from his birth in Riga, Latvia, in 1934, through his experiences in refugee camps with his mother in Germany during the war and in Red Cross "DP" camps afterward--a document which he shared with his children and which I treasure.)

I was excited by the idea of getting away from fiction-writing with its limitations (as I have written about before in this blog), and turning to nonfiction with its potentially greater inherent richness. The material was already there to be written; I just had to structure the events into a dramatic line.

I made several attempts. I wrote a number of vignettes of my earliest memories--looking for images, clues that might offer a ray of light into my story. I divided the events of my life into groups according to different storylines: the search for truth, my vocation as an artist, the search for love, and so on. But, as ever, I found the dramatic shaping of the events, even when the events were already given to me, as these were, difficult. If I were structuring a fictional work, I would be asking, "What is the main story? Which is the A-line?" Which was the A-line?

That question is tantamount to: what is your life about? What is the theme of your life? Or, starkly: Why were you born?

I thought I knew. Then I didn't know. Then I thought I knew again. Then I didn't again. I fiddled, I rearranged. I created new documents and rearranged the beads yet again, paring them down, relabeling them. I didn't feel I "had" it. My own story was eluding me.

I put it away. Or rather it drifted away from me, as things do: more days would stretch by without my working on it. I had made a few tries, written a number of pages about a couple of sections of my life (and my prelife), but these were only guesses. I didn't know what my story was, even though I knew all the events in it. A peculiar and in its way instructive experience.

Developing and sustaining the will to finish my current project, this book, is calling for all of my powers of concentration and commitment. The project itself is asking the question: What is your life about? Or: "You're burning up your life to write me, so I must be saying something that you very badly want to say."

This morning as I burrowed deeper into my investigative document I keyed some material from Liz Greene's excellent book The Astrological Neptune:

When Neptune aspects the Sun in the birth chart, the need for individual self-expression and the longing for the formlessness of prebirth are forced into dialogue. The subject of the conversation, conscious or unconscious, is the purpose of one's life.... Because the Sun symbolizes those values and goals which develop fully at midlife, forming the bedrock of the individual's sense of personal destiny, the Sun-Neptune individual needs to include the Neptunian world in his or her chosen path in life. Otherwise, nagging discontent, disillusionment, and apathy may undermine everything one tries to do.

Yes! For I am that Neptunian individual--in spades. Neptune in the 1st house, where it is inherently strong and dominant, and square my Sun: a strong, stressful aspect. There it is: the dialogue on the purpose of my life, and the advice that this purpose may clarify only at midlife--where I am now. The need to include "the Neptunian world" in my chosen path--the world of redemption.

Here's more:

Sun-Neptune may signify the musician, the actor, the composer, the playwright, the writer of poetry and fiction.... Neptune's empathy with human suffering and longing marks the Sun-Neptune individual's creative endeavors with a quality of universality. These forms of expression are solar as well as oceanic; they have body, although they are fluid; they necessitate conscious effort, dedication, individual choice, sensual contact and imagery. Neptune makes the Sun-ego porous, open to the waters of the unseen world.

And finally this:

Enormous imaginative and creative potential is reflected in Sun-Neptune contacts. But if one is to express that potential, one must build a strong vessel to contain the sacred wine.

As I reread this material, I started to feel better again about my project. It does indeed bear the theme of my life in some way, is the message I am bringing back from the mythological journey of my life so far.

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Saturday, November 19, 2005

interests shifting like the wind

I don't read books. I read parts of books.

Although I've long known this about myself, I never characterized it in this explicit way before today. Kimmie and I went out for breakfast to the Corner Cafe, then I led us on to Indigo Books on Marine Drive so I could look for a book on the psychology of identity--a topic that is buzzing in my mind with my recent probings into my own life.

I discovered that the psychology section at our local Indigo is minute: a few short shelves among dozens of shelves of "self-help", "relationships", "addiction", and so on. The psychology section was about a quarter the size of the section devoted to the Chicken Soup books. Looks like my fellow North Shore denizens are not very interested in psychology. I would have to keep looking elsewhere--namely online.

I perused the philosophy section in case there was something there, then went to the only section that seems to be able to hold my interest in that store, the science shelves (different bookstores have different strengths--I'm not sure why). I wound up buying two books: Acquiring Genomes by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan ($25.95), a book about their theory that the appearance of new species occurs not through gradual change of a species' genome, but through the sudden and symbiotic combining of two previously unrelated genomes through the incorporation of one organism by another (this is my understanding of their point based on a fast peruse of the book); and The Evolution of Useful Things by Henry Petroski ($21.00), an analysis of why everyday objects in our lives are designed the way they are--an intriguingly offbeat inquiry, and one that plays into my own curiosity about every facet of my environment.

How can I be buying more books? I thought, considering that I have recently bought so many, and have so many unfinished or even barely-begun ones stacked on our coffee-table. The answer lies in the opening paragraph of this post. I don't read books. I read parts of books. I might read most of a book, or a little of it. Sometimes I read all of a book, the part in that case being 100%.

Is it because of my compulsion to buy more books than I can read? It feels that way sometimes--I leave off the books I bought two weeks ago to read the ones I bought yesterday. But I believe that this is to confuse cause with effect. I buy more books because my mind has moved on. My interest has shifted like the wind, and I must follow where it goes, when it goes. I want to know what I want to know when I want to know it.

It's normal for me to go back to an unfinished book and pick it up again where I left off, often with a renewed feeling of excitement and zeal. "Why did I leave off reading this?" I wonder. I left off because my interest had shifted. The wind shifted back again, so I can resume that book, months or years after I last picked it up.

Do I do this with novels? I often leave them unfinished, but I rarely go back to finish them, unless they are ones I already know I like. Then, quite often, I will start reading them again, and leave those too unfinished. Thus I have read Ulysses all the way through twice, but have penetrated various distances into it a number of times.

It's expensive to read this way. But I want to know what I want to know when I want to know it.

Now: teatime, and I'll dip into these new texts. And I did just order online Erik Erikson's classics Identity: Youth and Crisis and Childhood and Society. Let's see if I'm still interested when they arrive a few weeks from now.

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Friday, November 18, 2005

life as adventure

It's a sunny day. I was just out running. The city was almost hidden in smoke-blue haze. The harbor water flared like white-hot metal beneath the low sun.

Last night, at teatime, I sat with my tea at the coffee-table, looking at the two stacks of books I've got on the go, and again did not feel like reading any of them. (I did spend a bit of time writing a review on Amazon.com for Peoples, Nations and Cultures; if you want to check out the link. My policy for writing Amazon reviews: I'll write one for any book I've read that doesn't already have a review, or if I disagree with the consensus of reviews. The main thing is to have a usable review there when someone looks for the book; I so appreciate that when I'm looking for one.) I came down again to pick up my copy of The Hero with a Thousand Faces and read a little more of that. This morning I opened my new document based on Campbell's text and tunneled further into the question of my life.

As ever, the material hit me hard. I reread this extract:

The unconscious sends all sorts of vapors, odd beings, terrors, and deluding images up into the mind; for the human kingdom, beneath the floor of the comparatively neat little dwelling that we call our consciousness, goes down into unsuspected Aladdin caves. There not only jewels but also dangerous jinn abide: the inconvenient or resisted psychological powers that we have not thought or dared to integrate into our lives. And they may remain unsuspected, or, on the other hand, some chance word, the smell of a landscape, the taste of a cup of tea, or the glance of an eye may touch a magic spring, and then dangerous messengers begin to appear in the brain. These are dangerous because they threaten the fabric of the security into which we have built ourselves and our family. But they are fiendishly fascinating too, for they carry keys that open the whole realm of the desired and feared adventure of the discovery of the self. Destruction of the world that we have built and in which we live, and of ourselves within it; but then a wonderful reconstruction, of the bolder, cleaner, more spacious, and fully human life--that is the lure, the promise and terror, of these disturbing night visitants from the mythological realm that we carry within.

I feel a cold clutching at my own heart. The "realm of the desired and feared adventure of the discovery of the self" is exactly where I want to go. Or is it? Am I merely a lollygagger in the foyer of life? Am I deluding myself about how cemented in habit I truly am? A cosmic sofa-spud, willing only to watch others' adventures? It is an anxiety-provoking line of thought.

I wrote these notes this morning under the above extract:

Life is a gamble. Campbell stresses the adventure quality of it as that which we seek and yearn for. "The desired and feared adventure of the discovery of the self": risk. Risk is about uncertainty, about the unknown quality of the future, and the recognition that life brings both pleasure and pain. We make choices, which is always a gamble, a speculation, an investment, in some sense. We're looking to make a return, to invest our time wisely.

For is this not what it's about? My recent thoughts have included ideas about how the finiteness of our lives has a fundamental effect on our thinking and behavior. Even in avoiding the thought of death, trying to deny it, we are giving it huge--even exaggerated--psychological importance. Time is the ultimate wealth, the ultimate currency. We exchange the minutes and hours of our lives for...what? That is our basic decision. What's the best way to spend our time?

We trade in each minute of our limited, nonrenewable stock of time for what? Right now I sit typing this blog post. In less than an hour I will drive Kimmie up to her after-work hair appointment. Thus I spend the currency called life.

The hero by definition is he who crosses the threshold of adventure--the adventure of the discovery of the self. And what is an adventure? My Webster's, once again:

1 a: an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks

There are levels of danger. As Campbell puts it later in his own book:

Typically, the hero of the fairy tale achieves a domestic, microcosmic triumph, and the hero of myth a world-historical, macrocosmic triumph. Whereas the former--the youngest or despised child who becomes the master of extraordinary powers--prevails over his personal oppressors, the latter brings back from his adventure the means for the regeneration of his society as a whole. Tribal or local heroes commit their boons to a single folk; universal heroes--Mohammed, Jesus, Gautama Buddha--bring a message for the entire world.

Later on, in his Masks of God series, Campbell goes on to say that the primary myth-makers now are not priests, theologians, or philosophers, but artists: the writers, dramatists, and filmmakers who are able to command our attention and move our hearts. That includes me. How I live and understand my own life makes all the difference in the kind of work I can produce, and its value for my fellow beings.

Peering down into the Aladdin caves...what is there?

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Thursday, November 17, 2005

myth and suffering

Awake at about 2:45, and lay roiled in energetic thoughts till the alarm went off at 5:30. I think I dozed for a few minutes before 6:00, when Kimmie was up and the radio went on. (It was news. The song that launched me from bed: "The One I Love" by REM.)

Robin had the early shift, starting at 7:00. She belatedly stumbled down the stairs to the basement to put on her runners, with a travel-mug of my freshly made coffee. I saw her out the door to the garage so she wouldn't have to use time locking it with her key.

"Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise," I said. "What it does for women I'm not sure."

Robin did laugh.

"It makes them grumpy," she said.

For my part, I was working not on my research notes, for which I had no stomach, but on a document I created last night: an annotated file of Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces. I simply saved my existing typed compressed version (which runs 38 pages in Word) under a new name, and started reading through it, typing in any thoughts that came to me as I read.

It started last night at teatime--time to push on with my research reading, which I have been enjoying very much lately: works such as A History of Warfare and entries in Peoples, Nations and Cultures. But last night I felt distracted, uninterested. I thirsted for something else--something to remind me that there are deeper, more important truths. So I turned where I usually turn now for inspiration: to Joseph Campbell. My vague plan: to apply his insights to my own current life-problems, questions. Here is paragraph 2 of chapter 1:

Throughout the inhabited world, in all times and under every circumstance, the myths of man have flourished; and they have been the living inspiration of whatever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind.... [M]yth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth.

Consider the boldness of what he's saying: what he's calling myth is antecedent to everything we call knowledge, art, or culture. I next wanted to remind myself: apart from metaphor, what is myth? Webster's gives this:

1a: a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon

Fairly pedestrian. I turned next to S. H. Hooke's Middle Eastern Mythology, where, I remembered, he has a useful analysis of myths by way of introducing his subject.

First, the Greek word mythos itself comes from temple rituals, which had both a physical-action part and a spoken part. Mythos referred to the spoken part of a temple ritual.

Hooke stresses that myth is above all intended to do something, and therefore the right question to ask of it is not "Is it true?" but "What is it intended to do?" With this functional definition in mind, he sorts myths into five categories: the ritual myth, the myth of origin, the cult myth, the prestige myth, and the eschatological myth.

Interesting, but really only taxonomic, rather than cutting to the heart of the question. For this, I turned back to Campbell himself, this time Creative Mythology, volume 4 of The Masks of God series. Yes: this was what I was looking for. He introduces his topic with a recap of what mythologies are (this is my own compressed version):

Mythological symbols touch and exhilarate centers of life beyond the reach of vocabularies of reason and coercion.

The first function of a mythology is to reconcile waking consciousness to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of this universe as it is: the second being to render an interpretive total image of the same, as known to contemporary consciousness. It is the revelation to waking consciousness of the powers of its own sustaining source.

Those three sentences could easily be the basis of a lifetime of contemplation--as they are the product of a lifetime of study and reflection on myths.

Campbell goes on to describe the third function of a mythology as the enforcement of a moral order: shaping the individual to the requirements of his social group. In this way it is a map of how society is supposed to be.

This is what he says about the fourth function of a mythology:

The fourth and most vital function of a mythology is to foster the centering and unfolding of the individual in integrity, in accord with d) himself (the microcosm), c) his culture (the mesocosm), b) the universe (the macrocosm), and a) that awesome ultimate mystery which is both beyond and within himself and all things. Creative mythology springs not, like theology, from the dicta of authority, but from the insights, sentiments, thought, and vision of an adequate individual, loyal to his own experience of value. Thus it corrects the authority holding to the shells of forms produced and left behind by lives once lived. Renewing the act of experience itself, it restores to existence the quality of adventure, at once shattering and reintegrating the fixed, already known, in the sacrificial creative fire of the becoming thing that is no thing at all but life, not as it will be or as it should be, as it was or as it never will be, but as it is, in depth, in process, here and now, inside and out.

On reading that, I felt a fresh surge of energy, vitality, flow through me. A functioning mythology enables--in fact is that which alone can enable--an individual to live in accord with his or her world. This is why I do what I do. To serve this function, I turned my back 26 years ago on worldly achievement and success. I have not always lived in integrity with that choice. And for not living in integrity those times, I am now suffering.

There's much more that could be said on this topic, but I'll leave it there for now.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2005

feeling heavy

This morning the same heavy tired feeling in bed, a sluggish desire to sleep on after Kimmie had risen. The song filtering through my earplugs: "Sunday Bloody Sunday" by U2.

No further progress of cold symptoms, so I dosed myself with more echinacea. Then, in the cold gray of morning: back to the writing rockpile.

Morning notes: Peoples, Nations and Cultures and Alexander the Great and A History of Warfare. Kimmie angry and irritable as she came down to leave.

"Here it is eight o'clock," she said, "and all because of my fucking hair."

"Hair happiness," I said mildly, "it's so hard to find."

She wrenched a black winter coat from the closet, yanked it on, looked in the mirror closet-doors, and tore it back off.

"That coat's hideous. I'm giving it away."

She ripped another coat from the closet and angrily thrust her arms into the sleeves. I helped her into her backpack and she was out the door and gone--a single crisp salute to me as she strode down the sidewalk, tripping briefly.

I took extra time over my morning stretches, since I've had back pain again (mild) for the past couple of days. I've been procrastinating going to the chiropractor, in fact have been procrastinating everything. (I did make an appointment later on.)

Then, feeling heavy, back to chapter 19: the chapter that just won't go away. More tinkering with the notes: how does Menahem feel? What is the train of his thought? Type type type. Then back into the chapter itself: modifying the opening stretch yet again, changing Menahem's outlook and thoughts. Can't be bothered to smooth the new stuff in properly; it would waste even more time. I'll just drop it in and fix it all up later in draft 2. I have a strong feeling that the new material is not better, merely different.

I meddled with it rather joylessly until about noon. Then I sat awhile trying to pretend I was going to do more. Eventually I opened up my journal and quickly typed in a dream I'd had in the morning. It was a new variation on a recurring dream about trying to use a public washroom, and finding it awkward/exposed/filthy.

As I type these words it's 2:48 p.m. I'm scheduled to provide Kimmie with limo service from work to her hair stylist at 4:00. Maybe I should do some dishes.

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Monday, November 14, 2005

still thinking, still learning

Felt heavy and groggy in bed this morning when the alarm went off, distantly perceived through my earplugs, at 5:30. Heavy eyelids. I lay there awhile as Kimmie launched herself up, switched on the radio, and bustled through her morning routine. I vaguely tried to identify the song I heard playing, muffled by the earplugs. What the heck was that? (Had to unplug them to find out: "Devil Inside" by INXS.)

Eventually it occurred to me that my greater than usual morning fatigue might be the first sign of an impending cold: that is usually my first sign, if I'm alert. I started taking echinacea.

I worked on notes first thing over coffee. Today I focused on keying notes I highlighted last night in Peoples, Nations and Cultures about ancient Italian tribes. I was wanting to zero in more on the character Marcus, whom I have decided to make Italian rather than Roman. I keyed notes about the Aequi, the Bruttians, the Lucanians, the Sabelli. I knew that these were among the first peoples conquered by Rome (the first being the Etruscans to the north) in its steady expansion from being an ordinary market town in central Italy. I also knew that they provided recurrent problems and rebellion. The relationship was complex.

The struggle culminated in the so-called Social War of 91-87 BC, when some tribes tried to cast off the Roman yoke through armed struggle. The conflict was finally resolved by Rome's decision to grant the Italians full Roman citizenship, instead of maintaining a relationship of unequal "allies". With this decision, the unprecedented process of the extending citizenship from the landowners of a single city to all freeborn men of a large territory, embracing many cities, was begun. Previously people had been subjects of monarchs in empires; now they would be (theoretically) voting members of a republic. Admittedly the republic would not last much longer, but this idea, of equal, participating citizenship in a geographically extended polity, was one of the bases of the modern nation-state.

It's important for me that Marcus have a complex relationship with his Romanness. The Social War occurred while he was a boy; his father would have been made a Roman citizen as a result, and Marcus's own Roman citizenship would have followed even if he had not joined the army (where citizenship was one of the rewards of service). The relationship between Rome and the tribes was always at least partly antagonistic--probably is to this day.

Still thinking, still learning.

I have felt tired today, even though there has been sunshine in a brilliant clear sky. I walked among the dark shadows and fallen leaves, stopped to note the progress of the apartment-demolition at 6th and Chesterfield. I'm being gentle with myself.

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Sunday, November 13, 2005

learning as I go

Back at the note-making again this morning. One foot after the other, keep walking. The method I've developed is to reread the previous day's notes with Word's highlighter function switched on. The "keeper" bits I highlight as I read through. When I want to review my best thoughts on the current chapter, I can scroll up and read the yellow highlights.

I'm liking chapter 19 better. I'm feeling that the beast is in the thicket; I just need to flush it out. Choices previously made, as far back as the outline stage, restrict my freedom now. But somehow in that restriction of freedom lies the expressive power of what I'm doing, the thematic depth, and also the verisimilitude. My lack of choice makes the situation feel lifelike to me.

Does it bother me how long chapter 19 is taking me? Yes. Sometimes I let my mind glance briefly and only implicitly at the arithmetic that would reveal how long it might take me to finish my opus if every chapter took me this long. But, damn it, I can't be pushed by such considerations. If I don't like what I'm writing, there is very little chance anyone else will--and why would I ask them to in any case? So my mission is to soldier on until I like what's coming out.

Today I liked where the notes were taking me. I review the basic steps of the chapter, again and again. What kinds of developments would turn the outcome of my chapter into the biggest surprise? Then: what would those developments imply about the meaning of my work, about the themes that my characters are carrying?

My first paragraph of notes today ran thus:

So: Act 1 is Habib trying to justify himself to Menahem. And also explaining his crisis: that he has promised to return worldly goods to gentiles, or confirm that they are to stay on and become full members, at least, in the sense of being allowed to cohabit and eventually journey "home" with the real villagers. It might be a case of Menahem respectfully listening, waiting to get a word in edgewise. The turning-point is Menahem switching him off to inform him that it's Menahem who is to be punished--and what his crimes are.

I us the "Act 1" label because I try to see the action within a chapter or a scene as having its own three-act structure. I don't by any means succeed at this all the time, and it's not always appropriate, but I find it useful, especially when I'm having difficulty giving shape to a scene.

I liked where I arrived at today. But it implies going back to earlier moments in the chapter, when Menahem is alone with his thoughts, and changing those. More and more I see this as a decisive turning-point for him, his view of the world. I'm not sure what's at stake--I'm learning as I go, as any reader would.

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Friday, November 11, 2005

writing: not like reading

Remembrance Day: so a holiday here. There was no alarm, but I was awake anyway by 5:20, no doubt due to the early collapse last night (before 10:00 p.m.). Fine: I like getting up early on days "off". I lay about awhile, then made coffee for Kimmie so she could read her latest Anita Blake vampire-hunter novel in bed.

I got right to it and opened up chapter 19 notes, and dove in, tussling with the character motivations. This depends so much on what's happened before. So: on to the history. What do they know about each other? What have they been doing with their lives these past months and years? Often the answers to these questions are quite straightforward--but one needs to ask. One needs to ask because the writer must be conscious of the answers.

It's strange, but the answers were already all there in material I've come up with before. It's just the packaging of the answers--which answers--that is somehow hard. I experience a weird reluctance to look clearly at a character. There is fear: fear, I suppose, of not being able to come up with answers, or fear of the effort involved. The same thing that makes one procrastinate starting on a long run.

The writing session, which consisted only of note-making, went well. I felt things crystallizing: I felt motivations I can believe in, and can therefore write. When things go well I don't need much time. I can accomplish more in an hour than I can in three hours on another day--or indeed more than I can in a week of such days. But that week is primer: I can't just come up with the goods.

Even the experienced writer has a hard time shaking the idea that writing should be like reading: relatively easy, with fresh original material arriving steadily as you scan your eyes along the page. You expect the text to be there already.

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Thursday, November 10, 2005

rainwashed thoughts

This morning back to the research notes: A History of Technology, Alexander the Great, A History of Warfare, and Peoples, Nations and Cultures.

Kimmie was off into the heavy but warmer morning rain, and I got back to chapter 19. Still building the scaffolding of my scene: imagining my world. Questions, suggestions. Moving toward the scene conflict: what do my characters want? Always a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Plus I had to create a couple more characters to have on hand.

Morning became afternoon. There was lunch to eat, errands to do. I drove out to Pemberton Avenue where Waterland has its new storefront. A Closed sign hung in the window. Ivan, the clerk, opened the door when he saw me approach.

"Waiting for inspector," he said. "Should be running by Saturday."

He invited me to play chess (he had a board set up on the counter even though the place was closed). I felt tempted, but declined. Plus I was illegally parked. I filled one jug at Save-On Foods at Pemberton Plaza, then negotiated the heavy Marine Drive traffic to Cap Mall, where I picked up a bottle of Bell's scotch.

As I walked back out to the parking lot I was struck by the beauty of the sky, a network of pristine blue beyond dark, tattered islands of cloud. The few leaves clinging to denuded little alders sparkled in the low sunlight. There was the massive shadow of cottonwood trees, cathedral-high, by McKay Creek to the right. It is autumn, but the world was still fresh and vibrant, scrubbed clean by wind and rain. My mind felt the same way, clear and open after a period of agitation.

Life keeps moving to its end. What will you do?

Create in joy.

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Wednesday, November 09, 2005

endless fog

My heart is disturbed by various things, feelings about my life and world.

But I was OK this morning as I got to work again on my research keying over coffee (notes from A History of Technology and a reference book I bought last week, Peoples, Nations and Cultures, edited by John Mackenzie). Saw Kimmie out the door looking smart in her long black skirt and dark-green sweater, and headed down here to the office.

Lack of knowledge was the problem, I realized. I would not be able to keep writing until I knew more about the scene I was entering next. Back to the notes document. Yes: I saw that I haven't addressed the specifics of my upcoming scene. What exactly is the location? What's going on there? And my characters? What are their objectives? What is the conflict? Ach, it's work, work, work. I opened some research documents and read through those. Is this enough? Is it good enough to meet my standards?

I wrote suggestions, little paragraphs of possibilities. Things like:

How about their water and sanitation needs? What kind of public toilets or baths are nearby? Probably rudimentary at best. Habib may have set about building his own: an Essene bathhouse and latrine, separate from their residence, although not by the legally required amount. They may have put a water cistern on the roof--or two, one to catch rainwater, another to receive the water delivered by water sellers.

This type of guesswork always feels a bit unsettling, unsatisfying. That is, until something goes click and I feel I know enough to start writing. On this one, no click yet. So feelings of groping in fog, endless fog...


Tuesday, November 08, 2005

master pieces

Apart from my recent astro-ponderings, which had me checking the foundations of my motivation (I'm still checking; I'm always checking), I also had project-fear yesterday as vacation-time ended and it was time to get back to my PC in my diurnally empty house. Project-fear manifests as a vague but definite reluctance to open files related to my project. Upon introspection, also undertaken with reluctance, I find that the underlying emotion and cause is fear.

Fear of...? I'm not exactly sure. Inadequacy, probably. Having disengaged from the project for about a week (the last part of Kimmie's vacation), I don't exactly remember what I was doing, and am afraid I won't be able to get back up to speed; or I have a lazy disinclination to put in the effort to remember what I was up to; or, most likely, am afraid that once I rediscover what I was up to, I won't think it's very good.

Another problem is being harsh with myself. This is the stern-voiced taskmaster in my mind that commands me, "Get down there and write five pages, you useless sloth!" Well, what does any sane sentient being do when spoken to that way? He might, at most, make a show of compliance, but he'll certainly slack off, just to show the taskmaster who's really boss. Yeah, you can talk nastily to me, but you can't make me produce, muvvah!

So there's that. I try to unplug the taskmaster and replace it with this gentler guide: Just try looking at your project, and only do stuff that's fun. If it's not fun, don't do it.

This guidance feels pretty nonthreatening. Under this noncoercive regime, this morning I opened up my notes document for chapter 19 and reviewed the last entry. Hm, not bad. I thought of another idea, something maybe to be addressed in the next draft, and keyed a new note in the document. That was ok, yeah, even kind of fun.

I opened up the chapter draft (arrested at page 18) and looked at it. This wasn't as pleasant for me as opening up the notes document--something along the lines of "potential" (notes) vs. "actuality" (draft). Actuality always loses those contests. Still, I know the score: if you want to have a book, you have to actually write it. There's nothing for it. So I checked out the material, and, braced by my new notes, started typing. (Always remember the Truman Capote quote, I believe in reference to Jack Kerouac's On the Road, "That's not writing, that's typing".) Having thought through my scene a bit more, I had an idea of what needed to happen, and I unblocked somewhat. I wrote 3 pages.

A couple of days ago I got from the library a DVD version of an Italian miniseries on the life of Leonardo da Vinci. When I started watching it I realized that it was the same miniseries I had watched at age 13 or so--1972. (The production date is nowhere on the DVD package.) I was happy about this, though, because I have always had fond memories of that series, and it made an impact on me. I remember being struck even at the time by Leonardo's restless dissatisfaction and obsessively inquiring mind. He left so many projects unfinished, and many that he did finish came to bad ends.

I identified with Leonardo, and I still do. My life has also been a restless quest for knowledge. I'm not an inventor--not in the sense he was, anyway--but I am a seeker. And the search in many cases has been more important than the works that may have resulted along the way.

So I watch the isolated and lonely Italian genius on TV, thinking his thoughts, making his cool, objective notes, being mocked and ridiculed by the younger genius Michelangelo (although worshipped by another young master, Raphael) and creating works of art that draw the eye and the mind to this day.

What is the meaning of an unfinished masterpiece?

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Sunday, November 06, 2005

the mission

Morning rain has given way to afternoon sun, shy and late, gently turning the drops in the neighbors' yew hedge into sparkles. The sky is pale, clean blue amid the litter of torn clouds.

This morning, back to the astrological analysis of my life. I pressed on with it, looking up passages in The Twelve Houses by Howard Sasportas and Planets in Transit by Robert Hand. Feeling threads of meaning draw together, I worked on intently. I have studied my chart many times over the years and decades; it's been my main research tool and example (as with any astrologer). Now I dug deeper, trying to find the hierarchy of importance of the various factors.

I was born with Neptune in the 1st house of immediate relationship with the world. Here is an extract I keyed from Sasportas:

With Neptune in the 1st house, something could have gone askew at either of these two important stages [of the infant's relationship with the mother] of symbiosis and separation. If there was not a secure enough tie with the mother, then they might be afraid to develop a strong, individual identity. But if they were forbidden by her to separate, they may never have had the chance to find out who they are in their own right.

I was also born with Sun in the 4th house of the home and inner world. More Sasportas:

Those with Sun in the 4th need to delve deep inside to find themselves. What is achieved in the outer world is perhaps less important than what is accomplished in terms of soul-growth and inner spiritual development.... Those with the Sun here might have experienced the father as so powerful and authoritative that they subsequently cannot surmount a crippling sense of their own smallness and inferiority. They may have to do battle with the father to sever the hold he has on them. In other cases, the father may have been physically or psychologically absent. For the boy-child this could mean there wasn't a clear sense of father upon which to model his own masculine qualities.

Sun in the 4th suggests that they come more into their own in the second half of life. A renewed sense of creative potency, vitality, and the joys of self-expression are potentially available in the later years.

And from my own notes:

Neptune in the 1st points to inherent difficulties in developing self-knowledge. It is square the Moon-Uranus conjunction, emphasizing the conflict.... Sun in the 4th repeats the theme of "finding myself" as a life-task. Indeed, it suggests that this is my supreme life-task.

The natal square of Neptune to the Sun again emphasizes the difficulty of the task: the profundity of confusion and not-knowing, and the transcendent depths from which the fog of unknowing originates. But, as in a good story, the achievement of the hero is only as great as the forces of antagonism. The antagonism here is indirect, subtle, and systemic. It is unconscious and transcendent. It may be infinite.

For if I believe in Hillman's "acorn" theory, then my life, my birth, is exactly the one needed for me to fulfill my life purpose. The neuroses and conflicts of my parents were necessary in order to grow the person I had to be--have to be. My obstacles have been large and deep--and mostly invisible. They have been within.

Whatever I may discover on this journey of self-knowledge can't be for myself alone. No doubt the Moon-Uranus combination in the 10th points to the social urge: the need to make my findings public, so to say. Uranus here suggests the ability to reach all of humanity. The Moon suggests the personal need to do so.

In short, my birth chart is of someone who has special problems in discovering who he is, whose own self, identity, is an abiding mystery even to himself. This reminded me of the powerful closing words of Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces:

Not the animal world, not the plant world, not the miracle of the spheres, but man himself is now the crucial mystery. Man is that alien presence with whom the forces of egoism must come to terms, through whom the ego is to be crucified and resurrected, and in whose image society is to be reformed. Man, understood however not as "I" but as "Thou": for the ideals and temporal institutions of no tribe, race, continent, social class, or century, can be the measure of the inexhaustible and multifariously wonderful divine existence that is the life in all of us.

The modern hero, the modern individual who dares to heed the call and seek the mansion of that presence with whom it is our whole destiny to be atoned, cannot, indeed must not, wait for his community to cast off its slough of pride, fear, rationalized avarice, and sanctified misunderstanding. It is not society that is to guide and save the creative hero, but precisely the reverse. And so every one of us shares the supreme ordeal--carries the cross of the redeemer--not in the bright moments of his tribe's great victories, but in the silences of his personal despair.

There it is: my problem is the world's problem. I believe it has been given to me, not to solve the world's problem(!), but to work on it. My background, attributes, and passions are just those of someone whose destiny is tied up with this monumental and difficult question. As I put it in my journal:

I may not have true self-knowledge--for the discovery of that is precisely the problem, the quest, not just of myself but of all mankind. But I may be arriving at the knowledge that that is my quest, my role, and my mission. And arriving at some idea of how to pursue it.

This is a truly exciting possibility, about which I feel good--even wonderful. Here is one more extract from today's long journal entry:

When I reread the Campbell extract I felt a sense of relaxation, even joy. The mission is bigger than just my personal happiness or petty ambitions.

If I can keep that in mind, I should be able to weather the storm of the coming months and years.

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Saturday, November 05, 2005

a rainy Saturday

The dying days of Kimmie's vacation. They are rainy, gray, and now cold. Kimmie loves the weather.

We went to IHOP in New West, then walked through the West End of New West, looking at the old houses, sharing the large Knowledge Network umbrella I inherited from Harvey Burt. Our last stop there was Starbucks for a hot chocolate.

Back to Park Royal in West Van, so Kimmie could buy patterns on sale at Fabricland. Even though I spent so much on books yesterday, I went to Coles and wound up buying two: Uriel's Machine by Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas (authors of The Hiram Key, a history of the Masons), and The Iraq War by John Keegan, whose History of Warfare I'm enjoying so much right now. (When I saw that Uriel's Machine contains material on the Book of Enoch, an important text underlying my own work, I knew I had to buy it, even though I found The Hiram Key a bit lightweight.)

While Kimmie continued to shop, I sat out in the mall with my prose sketchbook and made this entry:


Outside the luggage store called Bentley. I'm on a bench by a table set up in the mall for a woman candidate for mayor to meet and greet passersby. A thin blonde woman in a suit, with Remembrance poppy, with a loud false laugh as people tell her things. Women surround the candidate, and a thick-necked, brush-headed young man with his back to me: Down'’s syndrome.

To the left of Bentley: a Bell telephone store; to the right: The Body Shop. A little gray daylight filters down from high windows, beyond the adventure playground nestled below a tangled geometrical strutwork of yellow girders.

A man talks to a group behind me: a woman answers: "It's hard to see the councillors, I think..."

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"...and I said, Great, sure, go ahead!"

The timbre of the man's voice causes his words to be lost; they don'’t carry.

Clusters of people walk by.

Mother-&-teen-daughter, striding quickly.

2 teen girlfriends.

2 middle-aged women, short, one of them Chinese.

Older man stands in front of Bentley, arms folded, waiting. He drifts away.

Young family strolls by: girl in orange T-shirt, husband in green T-shirt; she pushes the luggage-piled stroller while he carries the little daughter.

Chinese couple sits next to me: man grim-mouthed with soft ash-colored hair at the roots, dyed black toward the ends. Now they're gone again.

Now it's a white guy in jeans, maybe 60, with a speckled brush-cut. Simple black shoes, black fleece.

There's the loud forced laugh, somewhere behind me and to my left.

Mr. 60 has risen to meet his wife, a plumper blonde in a big yellow windbreaker.

I'm joined by a short thick-headed Chinese man, rubbing something aromatic into his hands, which he periodically smells.

Through more heavy, rainy, Saturday traffic to Wal-Mart and up to the library to find a movie for tonight. Since none of my holds has come in, I picked another film from slightly farther along Paul's Rom-Com Festival: The Truth About Cats and Dogs.

Now we're home. Time for a fire, and to read some of this pile of books I've bought.

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Thursday, November 03, 2005

Saturn riding high

Steady, heavy, cold rain. Awoke just before 5:00 and lay awake with dark thoughts, dark feelings. They were more far-reaching and life-centered than just the usual thoughts about my project--although that made its appearance too. These dark thoughts and feelings have had me studying my astrological transits in the morning instead of pushing ahead with my writing, which I just don't feel like in this state of mind. What wise counsel would I give myself if I were my own astrological client?

The planet Saturn, which astrologer Zip Dobyns calls "the report card planet" and which represents the reality principle in general, as each of us conceives it to be. It's the "reality" being referred to when people talk about being "realistic" and having to deal with "reality"--hard-edged facts that don't bend to suit the dreams or hopes of individuals. Here is what astrologer Robert Hand says about Saturn (slightly compressed):

Saturn represents the way you experience the universe as you have structured it. The location of transiting Saturn in your chart indicates the part of your life that is being examined and tested, the areas of greatest tension in your life, to which you must direct your closest attention. The planets that Saturn transits in your natal chart represent energies in your life that are being challenged and behavior patterns that require examination.

In my chart Saturn is transiting through the 10th house at the top: the house of career, social prestige, and fame. Saturn visits this house for about two and a half years out of every 29 for all of us, and usually the transit coincides with times of greatest success and responsibility in our lives. If you are ever going to lead or direct others, it will generally be while Saturn is transiting your 10th. Saturn's last transit through my 10th was in 1976, when I was in grade 12. I was involved in filmmaking at the time, and did indeed direct others in the making of a short 16mm film called "Nine Minutes", which went on to compete at the Canadian Student Film Festival in Montreal in 1977. Also in 1976, I and my co-producers won the B.C. Student Film Festival for an earlier 8mm film called "The Device". These kinds of accolades are also characteristic of Saturn culminating in one's chart.

No such events are present in my life right now. I expected much of myself, knowing that at age 17 or 18 I was too young to really make a name for myself--that would have to wait until I had done more. I looked far ahead to the time in my mid-40s when the next Saturn culmination would come, and expected significant achievement of myself.

It hasn't quite gone according to plan. I am something more than half, maybe much more than half (including outlining), the way through the first draft of my historical epic, but "realistically" it is still a good year away from being even close to finished, and more than that before I will be seeking an audience for it. Saturn will be moving on to my 11th house of associations, ideals, and goals--a time typically in each of our lives when we are getting used to the success earned in the previous Saturn cycle and are including others in our limelight. Our minds are gradually moving on to new things: new horizons, new ideas. The things that brought us to the top of the cycle are starting to get old.

Of course, I'm different from most people, in that the Sun in my chart is placed in the 4th house of domestic life and one's inner world--opposite the 10th of career and fame. This means that just as Saturn is culminating at the top of the chart, in my 10th house, it is also opposing the Sun in my 4th. This opposition to the Sun is a low point in one's life, when one usually feels fatigued, blocked, and barely able to meet life's demands. This is a 29-year low point in life, when one is urged not to pursue projects too ambitiously. It is often a time of defeats as one recognizes that certain projects have not panned out.

The high point in the Saturn-Sun cycle is when Saturn conjoins the Sun. In my case, this happened 14 years ago in 1991, while Warren and I were working hard at writing the first episodes of The Odyssey in an effort to get the CBC to pick up the series for production. The network gave us the green light to make the first episodes in December 1991. It was indeed a career high, although Warren and I were far from famous, and had none of the power or influence that comes when transiting Saturn is high in one's chart.

There is much more at stake and in play than what I have outlined here. But in terms only of this project, The Mission, my concern is this: that after this grinding transit of Saturn through the 10th I will find that my novel no longer meets my expressive needs--it will have outlived its usefulness. In short: that it will be one of those stillborn projects that dies with Saturn-opposition-Sun, and after the smoke clears some other thing will be what carries me again to an invisible but busy personal peak in another 14 years.

However, now is not the time to be making any such decisions. The advice that goes with Saturn transiting the 10th house is always: keep going. Work hard at the responsibilities you've already got, it's no time to let up. I'll do my best, but there are individual factors at work in my chart that will make this difficult going indeed, I think.

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Tuesday, November 01, 2005

gullets, guts, and genius

A faint brightness behind the overcast, and rain fell sparsely most of today.

Kimmie had a gastroscopy at St. Paul's Hospital downtown. I drove us there early for the noon appointment ("don't be late" the handout commands), and we loitered in the wide corridors of the Providence Building, looking at historical exhibits of the hospital while waiting for the moment to approach the reception desk of the gastrointestinal unit. The humanity passing up and down the yellow halls was as miscellaneous as at an airport: in jeans, scrubs, security-guard uniforms, pajamas; white, Chinese, Filipino, aboriginal; serious, laughing, stoned, anxious. When Kimmie, quiet but brave, was accepted into the GI unit, I was told to return at 1:30.

I walked up Burrard Street and along Robson, passing by the Chapters-Indigo bookstore to seek out a can of Coca-Cola on Granville. I bought it at a little hole-in-the-wall newsstand where a Middle Eastern guy was watching soccer on a laptop on the service counter. I drank the Coke standing by the newspaper boxes at the corner of Granville and Robson, watching buses and police cars shoot by and people stride singly or scurry in groups like quail against the traffic lights, impatient of waiting. An Asian girl tried to hand out free copies of a newspaper; a friendly attractive young man tried to interest people in signing up as monthly donors to Médecins Sans Frontieres.

Coke finished, I entered the Chapters-Indigo store and headed upstairs to peruse the history shelves. A few titles there really interested me, but I held off since I hadn't brought the coupons I'd got when I renewed my loyalty card. I trailed listlessly through some fiction shelves on the top floor, mainly through the science-fiction shelves, thinking I might glimpse something at least with some imagination. No. It's all underworked, I thought.

As 1:30 approached I wound up at the poetry and criticism shelves, and saw some books by Harold Bloom. I picked up the tome titled Genius, a list of 100 literary geniuses and why Bloom chose them. The book opens with his comments on genius and what it is. I flipped. Hm. I like Harold Bloom, was very inspired by The Western Canon, which I got in 1996. What the hell, I thought--I'll get this.

I was attracted by the thought of being reconnected with why I--or anyone--reads in the first place. Here are some of Bloom's words from the introduction:

Literary genius, difficult to define, depends upon deep reading for its verification. The reader learns to identify with what she or he feels is a greatness that can be joined to the self, without violating the self's integrity.... Genius, in its writings, is our best path for reaching wisdom, which I believe to be the true use of literature for life.

I have written before of how I personally was stirred and summoned to a higher life by reading Dostoevsky and Joyce (both included in Bloom's 100). I used to think, years or decades ago, that I had (or might have) genius in this literary sense (I knew I had it in the mundane, IQ sense). Now I think not--although I'm not sure. I might. How hotly does the fire of creative desire burn within me?

I find the idea of genius fascinating, disturbing in some ways. It is isolating, and yet, through created works, can unite people and uplift them.

I bought the book and hurried back to St. Paul's to join Kimmie in the GI unit, where she lay quietly under a flannelette sheet, small and folded up, asleep, her face red. I approached and touched her. Slowly she came awake, opening her eyes a crack.

"Is it done yet?" she said weakly.

"Oh I think so," I said. "I've come back at the time they told me."

"Oh yeah...I'm in a different room."

Kimmie had been filled with Valium before the scope was sent down her gullet. The nurses were caring and affectionate with Kimmie and the other patients in the ward.

"Would you like something, darling?" they would say. Or: "He's a cutie-patootie."

In time Kimmie could sit up and eat a small muffin and a slice of cheese. I helped her out to a Blenz coffee bar across Burrard, then back to the car and home. We drove across the Lions Gate Bridge into a giant rainbow.

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