Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Travel Agent

In the world of travel agenting, every place has a code. AVL. CDG. FCO. All the romantic and troubled places in the world are summed up in three letters: BEY, JRS, NBO. My first travel agent job was at the top of the BB&T Building, Asheville's steel and glass skyscraper. The office of Wilcox World Travel and Tours occupied the entire floor with cubicles for individual travel and group travel. I worked in Groups. In our section of the office, the floor was covered with airline-blue carpet. In winter a walk from a desk to the photocopier would generated static electricity. I'd get shocked everytime I touched the machine. I anticipated it. It was a mild form of torture built into the every-day necessities of work.

Between trips to the copier, I organized people's adventures. I had three-ring binders for each tour I was organizing. One group was The Beverly Hill Baptist Church Choir's European Tour. The address was Rodeo Drive in the 90210 zip code. Its leader was Nick Stimple, who wrote the songs for Air Supply. When I'd call him to go over details, I fought the urge to talk about those songs. I'd hear them playing in my head: I'm all out of love. I'm so lost without you. When you're booking travel for thirty-plus people, you know not all of them will enjoy the journey. People wrote letters complaining once the trip was done. From the Beverly Hills group, I received letters griping that wine had been served on a train in Italy, that there was no air-conditioning in the castle in Poland.

Travel to the Holy Land comprised a large portion of the company's business. "Journeys with Paul" was a favorite. One passenger, one of the countless pastor's wives who gave their names as their husband's with a mere "Mrs."placed in front,  explained to me on the phone that she thought "Paul was the best-looking of all the apostles." I booked lunches at "St. Peter's Fish" and arranged boat-rides on the Sea of Galilee. One client requested an add-on tour of the "hopscotch court Jesus drew under the city of Jerusalem for the children." A woman called the day of one tour's departure asking to join because "Jesus told me in a dream I have to go to His hometown." (I pulled it off.)

For every tour I'd key in the passengers' names and place these people I did not know in hotel rooms together. I'd organize their meals from my desk, their transfers from the hotel. Every little detail: I organized it. But I knew every time a departure date appeared on my calendar, there was so much more that these people would experience that I could only have the smallest hand in. And nothing I could rescue them from, from my desk a few feet from the copying machine that zapped me.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Alchemical Christmas

The intertwining of the alchemical metaphor and Christianity are never quite so pronounced as they are at Christmas. Of course, since the metaphor isn't ever outwardly shared, its resonances with Christmas remain invisible.

On my drive out of and back into the city today (because I had to retrieve clean clothes for my daughter's school performance since she'd become a mud-swamp during recess), I listened to Christmas carols. Shepherds watching in fields. Holy infant. Christ is born in Bethlehem. Years ago, before I started researching alchemy, these songs told a story of the birth of Jesus. And they were beautiful. I remember hearing Julie Andrews singing them at the Royal Albert Hall in London when I was four years old. So beautiful. And they're still beautiful. With another level added.

In the alchemical metaphor, matter is worked through a series of alternatively soothing and mortifying steps. At the end, it is "killed," then it is left in a "tomb" to putrefy. Then it is brought back to life: resurrected. These "biblical" terms aren't mine. They are the terms that have been used for ages. Ages. And it sounds like I ought to be writing about Easter, since that is the rebirth. But there's something about the language of rebirth that drew my attention in a jaw-dropping way. When the matter is made gold, in the metaphor (for it is no more just about matter than it is about the matter of our selves), it is referred to as "the King," "the son of God" (as opposed to the son of man) and even "King of the Jews." "Our newborn king" in the carol is an alchemical reference to a successful alchemical process.
The shepherds watching in fields are the alchemists, watching and waiting. The star is the spark of life that the alchemist hopes she has stirred into the process through passion and love and hard work. Ages. It all goes back ages.

Most of the hymns in the hymnals used in churches were written (I observed this while I taught at an Episcopal boarding school for nearly a decade: I attended at least three chapel services a week, creating a lot of time to let my eyes trail down to the bottom of the page to see when the songs were written) during the 18th and 19th century, a time when alchemy was coming under fire of a cold rationality even Sir Isaac Newton would have shied away from. The teachings, I suppose, had to be conveyed somehow. People weren't reading fairy tales anymore or legends of the Round Table, former vessels for alchemical wisdom. So, hymns became the cups for hidden meaning. Christmas carols speak to the final step of the magnum opus, the moment when base matter has risen to a new state.

"The son" is the term given that matter when it is beginning the process. When that matter has turned to gold, it is called "the king." So, we ask, how is it the king is born in the manger (another term for crucible)? Because in alchemy the lowest is the highest and vice versa. The king has to be born in meager circumstance, because only in humility can we find greatness.

This is the message of Christmas.

Reading it this way doesn't at all detract from the meaning, the "reason for the season." Alchemy teaches that "both" truths hold in any situation: a personal and a universal. Since alchemy occurs in all of us, is all of us, Jesus is one who completely moved through all the stages and became the Son of God, was born the Son of God (I know theology can go on and on arguing about this: both is the answer). He is the great teacher for having done so, and I do my level best to walk in His footsteps, being kind, practicing compassion, learning to "read the world," as he advises (even raising his voice!) the disciples to do, though they don't "get it."

And there is the other level.

Just as were I Jewish I would find the Kabbalistic meaning in all rites and rituals, and were I Muslim, I would seek the Sufi perspective, as an Episcopalian I find the mystical meaning in the same. And love it. And celebrate it with my whole heart. Because I know that I, too, am on my way to becoming "gold," to rising to new states of being, to being born surrounded by cows and goats and mice and oxen, hay and cold air. Alchemy makes Christmas at once personal and universal. Not just a story, a story that has been used to oppress and confuse and conquer. It is a timeless story of becoming new. I am at once the watching shepherd and the newborn baby and still the amazed four-year old hearing these songs about this moment in awe. And in me are the wise men guffawing when I screw up. And three kings bearing gifts for the mother who is also me, and I am the weary, worried father. And a bright star, leading me toward myself through the dark desert night. I am my own Bethlehem. In the liturgical calendar, I am about to begin.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Reflections on Steve Martin's An Object of Beauty

For a book about surface-appreciation and the nature of beauty, this book's jacket-designers knew the cover would be judged. First of all, using canvas as the book cover is a brilliant idea. The print of oilpaint-like quality is a delight. Moving into the novel, the aesthetic appeal continues. Martin's prose is clear both when he is speaking literally and figuratively. His similes and allusive turns of phrase give the novel striking textures in what could otherwise be a not-so-striking read. He weaves subtlety into the surface elements by stretching our imaginations like canvas across the frame.

To increase the license for such figurative speech, he makes his narrator an art writer, Daniel, who, as the Independent notices, functions much as Nick Carraway does in The Great Gatsby. Daniel is the witness who, like Carraway, steps over the line once or twice but for the most part provides a line, if only by doing so. Both men remind us there is a line.

When we think of the main characters of Great Gatsby we think of Gatsby and Daisy. Similarly, the focal point in The Object of Beauty appears to be Lacey Yeager. But in both works, the narrator is the one controlling the information. Seemingly innocuous and apparent instruments of narrative, the narrators in both works bring their own baggage with them to the story. In a novel about objectifying beauty, the Daniel undergoes a similar transformation as Lacey, learning the value of slow time in love, breaking below the surface distractions of desire, thereby embodying the narrator in the narrative and making him the embodiment of novel's theme.

Similarities between this book and Gatsby reach beyond narrative strategy and figuration. Martin indulges his own Fitzgeraldian bifocals to witness both the elegance and the grotesqueness of the New York scenes. In the sympathetic character of Patrice, we see the genuine lover of art. One of his many counterparts, Mr. Alberg, comments "Collector is too kind a word for me. I'm a shopper." Then the latter tells, and tells again, a tale about a Joseph Beuys' "felt suit," the reader feels much the same as when reading of cruel Tom Buchanan's mistress' blood dripping over a fashion magazine in the hot, second chapter hotel room. Martin's eye roams the aesthetic spectrum, counterpointing artworld stimulus (much of it beautiful) with artworld behavior (much of it not).

Lacey embodies Daisy and James Gatz both. As he showed us with Shopgirl, Martin studies psychology and personality. Lacey is a narcissist to the nth degree, as Daniel shows us. But of course could Daniel be missing a part of the story, leaving it for the reader to tell? This is where Martin's ability to create and captivate really comes into play. We all know girls like Lacey, have been destroyed by them. ("She's the kind of person who will always be okay," says a character undone.) We also make excuses for them, which is something that Daniel does not do. Daniel witnesses and wants but does not judge her, except in the way he subtly compares her to money, shimmering, fleeting.

She is compared to money much in the same way that Daisy is. Daniel doesn't comment on any of Lacey's inner life because, like money, she has none. But both Daisy and Lacey have stories shaping them from within. The absence of Lacey's story makes the reader as susceptible as the book's other characters to the too-quick evaluation of "an object of beauty."

The Great Gatsby would not have its thrust and balance without the fireworks-less pairing of Nick and Jordan. Martin builds a similar figure into Object of Beauty. "We could talk for months," says Daniel of his relationship (details witheld). He describes his love interest as being the only person with a normal upbringing, which renders her impervious to Lacey's "full courtship press" of the art world at the moment when it really matters. This slow-and-steady approach to love mirrors the low-key attention of the true collector, rather than the minute-makers who create fame out of novelty.

The "series of successful gestures" which Nick Carraway sees in Gatsby's life is also evident in Lacey's. And in both stories, there comes a point at which things fly out of our control, regardless of the perfection of our gestures. Had it not been for the hit-and-run in Gatsby or the sub-prime loan crisis on Wall Street, our narrators would have different stories to tell, stories of unhindered rises from reality into dreamworlds. The setting of Martin's book makes the reading strangely less intimate than that of Gatsby.
If Fitzgerald's novel was prophetic, Martin's is deeply reflective, exploring the great WTF all economies still feel the effects of, and even going so far as to stitch a narrative, however at once literary and economic, into a chaos. What redeems Gatsby is the truth: that it was never as beautiful as he thought it was. But in Object of Beauty, even in a world fallen to pieces in so many ways, beauty is indeed a redemptive constant, and while the word itself might get dropped from our vocabularies in service to some fashions, Martin asserts it does and always will exist. We just have to be broken from time to time in order to recognize it and allow it all the way in, if only in order to find again a line within ourselves we don't allow ourselves to cross, ever again.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Snow and Solitude

I'm sipping morning coffee, seeing the snow that covers my garden and the neighboring field. The hush of snow, its thick insulation. It bursts my heart with memories of every other snow I weave through in my mind, back to my childhood in Toronto where an enormous blue spruce, though thirty feet high caught it all and became a part of the white. I have an enormous green spruce now, just as tall, outside my living-room window. It, too, catches and holds the weight of it all. I think of the year I lived alone in a cabin in Sequim, Washington, and the week I was snowed in with just my soup and coffee and the poems there were to write then. So many poems. So much solitude I had to hold in my mind, so much it felt I might break under its weight. But then once the week was over, I wanted it to begin again, so comfortable had I become with the world's silences.

Sometimes a heron walked the stony shore in front of my cabin, its gray a part of the sky's gray. Its slow steps on fragile legs were a reflection of my own internal steps around the details of my rocky life so far. I sat at a small table, the kind they had in diners in the fifties, with the stainless steel rim around a formica-like top and stared at the bay. Bald eagles sometimes stood in the trees, appearing tall as men. I stood inside my self, looking over my story, sometimes diving down to seize some memory and re-invent it on a page. I listened to Bach's Cello solos again and again. Yo-Yo Ma's stroke of the bow across the strings was the perfect soundtrack to the snow, and to my aloneness in the poems where I brought figures from my life back to me, tracing their outlines in words that slowly moved into metaphors that surprised me for what they revealed. I wrote virtually non-stop. I had nothing else to do, no one to talk to. The world of poems were a wonderland that opened wider every time I thought some life into the alphabet and followed it. I learned that love has so many sides to it that it was possible to write more than twenty or thirty poems about one person and with each one come to know them and what they meant to me better. I learned that when writing, I become a part of a things in ways I'd missed out on when they were surrounding me. I name them. I give them the attention they deserved. There, alone in my small cabin (barely the size of my bedroom now but still having everything I needed) I sat surrounded by the ghosts that live inside the snow, the memories of a life only yet partly lived, discovering it was enough to write about forever.