Skyfall: M and Ulysses part 2

My post Skyfall: M and “Ulysses” got me thinking about what I know by heart. Long ago some English teacher or other required me to commit the whole of that long dramatic monologue, “Ulysses” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, the 19th century poet, to memory. It is 70 lines long and free verse and that much more difficult because there are no rhyming clues.

It begins “It little profits that an idle king/By this still hearth, among these barren crags/ Match’d with an aged wife/ Should mete and dole/ Unequal laws unto a savage race.” Ulysses is standing in the port of his island kingdom, Ithaca, beside his ship or even on its prow, and addressing his crew and his subjects. Presumably his “aged” wife is there, Penelope, who faithfully waited for him all those years while he was fighting in Troy and taking his own sweet time getting home. Thinking he had perished, suitors beset her in order to gain her kingdom. She devised a scheme to put them off, saying she would choose just as soon as she finished weaving her tapestry: every night, she tore out what she had woven that day. Now Ulysses regards her merely as an aged wife.

Presumably his son, Telemachus is also there. Ulysses says of him “most blameless is he”, suited to the task of mete-ing and dole-ing apparently and subduing the savage race “thro soft decrees”. Ulysses does concede that Telemachus is “well-loved of me”. Maybe, but not all that well respected. Still “He works his work, I mine.” but make no mistake, only one is glorious.

Mainly, however, Ulysses is talking to his mariners, those poor sods who are going to row him, assisted now and then, by fortunate winds and scant sails. “Push off, and sitting well in order smite/ The sounding furrows”, Ulysses cries. “For my purpose holds/ To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths/ Of all the western stars until I die.” “It may be that the gulfs will wash us down,” he suggests, for he is going to take them out past what we call Gibraltar into the Atlantic Ocean, terra incognita so far as the ancient Greeks were concerned. I am ill-equipped, probably, being an aged woman, to understand how his charisma made his men eager to follow him still.

Nevertheless, I can well understand the lines with which he closes. I took them to my heart as a teenager, but they are even more significant now that I can empathize with the ageing hero:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.

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The First and Second Sleep

In Medieval literature, including Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, there are references to the time between the first and second sleep, which was the ideal time for study, one book said. I vaguely remember knowing that already, possibly from a long ago summer course. I learned it anew from my morning paper, the National Post, which published excerpts of Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep this week.

The book’s author David K. Randall recounts how a Virginia Tech history professor noted these references in his reading and how a Bethesda psychiatrist put the question of what this meant to the test. He deprived those in his study of artificial light. Initially, they took the opportunity to sleep deeper and longer than they had before, but eventually, they seemed to catch up on their sleep deficit and a new pattern emerged. They fell asleep shortly after sunset and woke up sometime after midnight, at which time they stayed awake for an hour or so and then fell back into a second sleep. Having escaped the tyranny of artificial light, they had apparently reverted to the medieval sleep pattern.

Okay, I know I’m old, but this is ridiculous. I remember my grandfather sitting up in the middle of the night in his wooden chair with the wide arms. I had been woken up by the smell of the herbal cigarette he was smoking to soothe his farmer’s lungs.

When I was born, we had no electricity in our rural community. In fact electricity did not come to those hills until well after World War II. It was not until then that the people there got out from under the Depression and were able to afford to pay for the lines from the road to their farmhouses. And while I lived in town from the time I was 5, I spent summers back there with my grandparents, so I do recall a way of life that was mostly devoid of artificial light.

I say “mostly” because toward the end of those years, my grandmother managed to buy an Alladin lamp. Not the kind that you rub for three wishes, but a tall kerosene lamp with  a brighter light, which may have had something to do with the mantle. This particular lamp could also be hung on a wall bracket where it gave us kids enough light to see our playing cards half way across the kitchen. My grandmother sat nearer it to sew or knit and my grandfather sat in his grandpa chair at the gloomier end of the kitchen. The old, little oil lamp was still carried upstairs when we children went up to bed but the puddle of light it shed went back downstairs with Nanny.

I remember sitting on the porch in the evening watching the light fade in the east, my young aunt and uncles climbing onto the porch swing beside their father. The sun was going down behind the house, sinking below steep Hereford Hill. As the sky faded into an improbable turquoise in front of us, a single silver star gradually appeared over the Mount Monadnock. My grandfather broke the silence that had fallen on us five children.

“That will be Venus,” he said.

The evening star! And we children whispered to ourselves, “Star light, star bright/ the first star I see tonight/ I wish I may I wish I might/ Have the wish I wish tonight.” And then we refused to tell our wish for fear it would not come true.

I don’t remember what I wished, but it may well have been just to go on living in such blissful peace.

As darkness fell, a soft cloud of light bloomed softly from the town across the border in Vermont where there was electricity. Then one by one, the other stars popped out until the dome above us was full of them. We stood on the gravel drive gazing up at them, turning with our arms out for balance and nearly falling over, until Nanny called us in.

Once in a while, we found it necessary to journey to the outhouse before bed, a journey which could be undertaken only in pairs. There were no flashlights. It wasn’t worth lighting a lantern. I remember stepping down off the flat stone that served as a porch step and turning into a darkness as thick as black velvet.

“Stand still for a minute,” Nanny called before she shut the door against the bugs. “You’ll get your eyes back.”

I would have been glad just to get my breath back. Our voices seemed suddenly small. The darkness immeasurably large and strangely silent.

Were there wolves?

I have experienced such darkness as an adult at Peppermint Creek camp grounds above the Kern River in the Sierras. We always avoided the “serviced” camping area, pitching our tents next to the creek itself. Under the huge trees, there was no light pollution. The stars were numberless. It was possible to believe as I have heard that there are as many stars in the sky as there are grains of sand on all the beaches on earth.

Talking about the medieval two sleeps, a number of us have decided that we can take a new attitude to the tendency of age to wake up in the middle of the night. We can do what they did in the Middle Ages and value it as time well found.

http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/09/17/book-excerpt-how-the-lightbulb-transformed-the-

http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/09/17/book-excerpt-how-litttle-we-know-about-sleep-is-sciences-dirty-little-secret/

Where’d Y’ Go?

I know Journal # 118 wonders too. Far from the nearest WiFi connection is the short answer. The library in that little rail town had one, but its hours were so weird I never caught up to it.
As for #118, I’ll get back to you. Living with an ever changing family of up to 17 left no time for reflection.
Coming soon: Septuagenarians in the Wilderness.

Consider the Second-Best Bed

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Shakespeare famously left his wife, Anne Hathaway, his second best bed. Period. Biographers have explained this. Most of his estate went to his daughter Susanna including the best bed, which would have belonged to the master bedroom, but to quote Anthony Burgess in his book Shakespeare, “She (Anne) had her widow’s dower at common law, and her place in the great house that Susanna and her husband took over, She was content to live with Susanna and she got on well with her son-in-law. The second-best bed was installed in a particular chamber and this chamber was inalienably hers.”

Will was not, after all, expressing his feelings for the older woman he married in a hurry and left asap to pursue a career in London. He wasn’t a miserable tightwad either. Having lost his son Hamnet when the child was 11, and being estranged from his daughter Judith who had married unwisely, he was laying his money on Susanna to produce a male heir. Didn’t work. Susanna had a daughter who married twice but had no children. Judith had three sons but none survived to produce children. Pas de heir!

Whew! Good to get that settled.

We all have experience of the second-best bed – at holiday time, on vacations, in cheap hotels, as children at grandma’s – the deep-valleyed ones, the plastic pull-out couch, the couch itself, the hard-as-cement beds, the mat on the floor. We have stubbed our toes on the metal legs of the pull-out and ruined our backs on the ones with blown springs and woken up aching all over in the hard ones. Our host’s query “How did you sleep” has been met with a bald-faced, not entirely convincing lie.

Or we have found ourselves in the best bed, a comfortable place to be, and discovered in the morning that the host and his wife somehow managed to coil together in a narrow cot. Discovering such a carefully concealed secret is a humbling experience.

These days, we have boxed beds that can be blown up with an all-included foot pump and provide our guests with a waterbed experience, long after the death of waterbeds, which was, as you know, watery and unexpected. Whether these air beds leak with rude noise in the middle of the night, I do not yet know.

My own second-best bed sits in the den, rather awkwardly I must admit, because of feng shui demands. It is narrow, has a metal frame on casters and no headboard. It is prone to surprising trips across the floor. In its defence, it has a good mattress -should be for that price- if somewhat too hard. When I realized that I would be sleeping in it myself, I remedied that by topping it with a feather bed. Odd that we think a night in a semi-comfortable bed won’t hurt a guest, but don’t want to spend one ourselves. Then I decided that the thread count of the sheets had to be upgraded to the best bed’s standards and a requisite number of pillows added. I overdid the duvet and find that it works well in mid-winter but after that, the quilted duvet cover is enough.

And why do I sleep in my second best bed about a third of the time. Neighbours. Thin floors. Don’t ask. There’s only so much I want to know about other people’s personal lives.

I’ve got used to sleeping there and never wake up disoriented, wondering why things are in the wrong place. This is handy since those mandatory trips in the dark would otherwise prove disastrous.

One of the advantages is better brain plasticity. Thanks to Norman Doidge (The Brain That Changes Itself) and others, we now know after years of being told that once brain cells die, it’s game over, that in fact new neural pathways can be established and for example, stroke-damaged limbs can learn to move again. To maintain neural plasticity or brain change, however, we need to be learning constantly. One of my tai chi instructors harps on about moving your kettle to a different burner to avoid rigidity and stagnation. The kettle, in this case, is me and the new burner is the second-best bed.

Twas there “I dreamed the latest dream that ever I did dream”. It wasn’t a police procedural with noir overtones nor was it a lucid dream. (See previous posts.) But it was one of two dreams that have been life-changing. Someday I’ll write about the first one, which I call Etherica and which I had while napping after an exhausting trip to  Los Angeles. The latest one isn’t ready for publication yet, but I can give you the highlights.

It was suffused with love, the kind of love that I felt as a young woman for Blake, my high school sweetheart whom I married, and which I saw reflected in my grandson and his fiancé whose wedding I recently described. This nourishing, accepting and all-encompassing feeling made me not want to wake up, but stayed with me once I did. The dream began with me in my early twenties but looked forward in my dream thoughts many years and actually incorporated someone from my real future. As I pondered over its meaning, I understood the “future” person as I never had before. That was instructive, but more important was a shift that had happened.

Like many people who have had abusive childhoods, I have felt like an orphan, bereft of care, human and divine. As I did the dishes the evening after the dream, I knew that this was over. My heart felt as if it were shattering. Not breaking. I wasn’t sad although I cried. It was opening up. It had to be bigger to accommodate what it would now have to hold – another part of me, repossessed at last.

How can I break the news to Best Bed, the black Hemnes bed from Ikea, so solid, so high, so comfortable, that its second-best Sleep Country cousin has bested it in dreaming?

Septuagenarians On the Road: part 1

We had been on the road together at least once, fifty years ago, lithe, limber and quick. That time we had a five month old baby in tow and we slept in a tent. Now here we were  my ex-husband, Blake, my sister, Georgia and me, septuagenarians on the road again – to the wedding of that baby’s son.

Georgia insists she is not a septuagenarian and will not be until September (at which time she will no doubt celebrate her achievement). Well,okay kid, two septuagenarians and a sexagenarian, does that sound better?

First off, let me say, that we are active old codgers. Every day, Georgia swims, Blake hikes with his dog and I practise tai chi. So physically, we felt we were up to it.

Whether it was wise for the three of us to share a room was another question, but there was little room at the inn, it being graduation day in Amherst, and prices had risen accordingly. Two hundred dollars a night seemed sufficient. Two rooms at that price, a bit steep. I reasoned there would be two queen sized beds and ordered a cot, but I confess when I talked about it to non-participants, I implied there just weren’t two rooms available.

Georgia and I had, fairly recently, driven from Toronto to the Quebec/Vermont border, where we were born and that had gone well. We took turns driving her Corolla. Mostly, I remembered the way although I experienced the usual confusion getting through Montreal.

Blake and I had made many trips when we were married, to the east coast in the summer, to Myrtle Beach on spring break, through the Rockies to Vancouver and for two summers through England, France, Italy and Greece. Blake had always been a fearless driver even on the right- that is to say the wrong- side of the road. Plus he had with an unerring sense of direction.

And I had driven myself from Toronto to Los Angeles, a drive that surely qualified me for this day trip.

We made good time Friday morning, arriving at the Fort Erie border by 11 a.m. and clearing it twenty minutes later. Now we needed to stop for several reasons, some of them typically septuagenarian. Fortunately, the New York State Thruway had a service centre a few miles farther on and we piled out to stretch. It was hard for some of us to stand up when we got out of the car, but we soon shook that off. There was an Arby’s restaurant, but it was still before noon, so why not wait until the next service centre. We were back in the car twenty minutes later, armed with caffeine and rarin’ to go.

The next service centre sported a Mcdonalds. Okay, some of us were food snobs, but also starving, so I gathered my courage and ordered a grilled chicken sandwich. Later when asked how it was, I replied that chicken had not led a happy life.

This pattern repeated itself. We passed centres with Starbucks, for example, but when we needed sustenance, the nearest centre was sure to have only Mcdonalds. What changed was that, at every stop, it took longer for some of us to straighten up when we got out of the car.  We spent the first few seconds more or less doubled over as if we were searching the tarmac for a lost treasure.

It was a beautiful drive, through wooded flat land beside the Erie Canal and then through low hills. Suddenly, two roads diverged. “Go right”, I said, consulting  Google’s convoluted directions. Blake went left. Either I had to be quicker or he did.

That he even consulted me as navigator surprised me. What had happened to Blake the intuitive navigator? That he didn’t react to instruction faster amazed me. What was this lag time about? It hadn’t been there 35 years ago.

The directions the toll guy gave us were more confusing than Google’s but after 15 minutes and Blake repeatedly assuring us that east is east and the I-90 goes east, he proved to be right. Never trust a computer program to know a continuous route if its name changes.

By the time we arrived at Ho Jo’s at 6 p.m., I had decided that I’d rather drive than navigate and if I never sat down again, it would be too soon.

And there in the parking lot was my son whom I hadn’t seen for six months, unloading his baggage. “Legs, don’t fail me now,” I whispered and launched my bent-over body out of the car.

It’s Your Funeral

At a church funeral, the departed person’s first or ‘Christian’ name gets mentioned often. If it happens to be yours every mention is like the bell used in meditation or the little wooden gong struck while chanting. It wakes you up.

In this case, the shared name is unusual now, having dropped out of fashion and so, no doubt, both she and I regarded it as ours alone.

I did not really know her, although I had met her several times, but I knew her son. I see him several times a week and he reminds me of my own son whom I haven’t seen in too long. His mother and I were about the same age.

My initial reaction to her sudden and unexpected death was to rush home and put my own affairs in some better order. There I was nodding along in the fond expectation of another ten years or so when her death woke me up.

By the time, I had found parking and arrived at the church, it was jammed to the rafters. I know this because that is precisely where I sat, the high last row of the balcony where I had an excellent view of the wooden arches of the vaulted ceiling as well as the high stone- edged windows above the side aisles. The organ pipes were above my head and the audio control equipment was at the end of the row.

We rose as one as the processional music began. I was familiar with the order of progress: cross, clergy-four of them, choir, coffin and pallbearers. As a child, I had been part of the white robed choir. I recognized the rank of the clergy by their robes and I still remembered not only the melodies but also the words of the Anglican service. (Episcopalian, it would be called in the U.S.) And this church like the church where I sang was high Anglican.

“More Catholic than the Catholics,” my neighbour whispered.

It was an altogether beautiful experience musically and visually. The Bible readings were chosen to contradict death’s power and even included the well known line, “Death where is thy sting?” And the tribute was full of loving detail about my name sake’s life. Almost the entire congregation took communion, although I remained seated with two lapsed Catholics and a Jew.

I was struck by two things. One of them was that our lives had been very different. She had gone to the same church for probably her whole life and that meant that she had lived near it all her life. I had had over twenty addresses and I stopped going to church as a young mother. She had drawn hundreds of people to mourn her passing. Our family is given to memorials at a convenient date some time after cremation, modest gatherings, but someone is sure to bring a guitar.

The other thing that struck me was how my perspective had changed. When I was a church-goer and heard reference to God the Father, I accepted that a paternal eminence existed capable of granting protection and grace. Indeed He had graciously sent his only begotten son to ransom our souls. As I sat and listened, I was able to see this through the lens of the indwelling divinity I now understood. ‘Salvation’ has become more personal for me of late. That insight, which I cannot apparently articulate, made me happy.

I am very grateful to my name sake and wish her well on her journey. Through her, I got to have a funeral full of pomp and ceremony and exquisite beauty.