Disclaimer: This unedited, rough draft material is a year-long project in response to our 2004 theme: pilgrimage. It is meant to be a dialogue between myself and my fellow Mammoths and any of you who happen along. It is intentionally not polished, nor is it finished. Charlie Buchman Ellis
On the emperor of Qin. I had an interest in him a while back it seems, so Iíd already underlined the pertinent facts in a history of China. He was ruthless. He did manage to unify the six nations, but his reign did not last long. The Han nation conquered him and the Han ruled China for many centuries. So, Hero is the whitewash, though I have to admit not much of one. The Emperor and the Assassin portrayed him closer to the historic figure.
He had an interest in immortality which occupied the years after his successful unification of China. He took seven trips to 5 holy mountains in search of an elixir for eternal life. The history I have is pretty broad stroke; it didnít go into details, but I imagine these are mountains holy to Taoism. The Taoist immortals are wizards (priests/advanced practitioners) who advanced far enough in the practice of Taoism to live forever.
The emperorís journeys sound like pilgrimages, and their purpose may not be so far off the pilgrimages of the middle ages and even those of today like the Hajj and immolation next to the Ganges. After all, the aim of pilgrimage in all these cases is to get right with a dominant metaphysic: Roman Catholicismís version of Christian salvation, being right with Allah and assuring a place in paradise, and, purification for eventual merger with Brahma.
Ivanís winds hit 170 mph this afternoon, as he skirted Jamaica and headed for Grand Cayman. Yesterday I mixed batches of liquid fertilizer by projecting a strong hose stream into a watering can. As I did so, I noticed the water foam, whirl in a clockwise direction, and form an eye.
The matter of scale is, of course, different in the extreme, but the experience reminded me that even the most fearsome of natural occurrences has its more modest analog in the world we see everyday. Sit down quickly in a bathtub or hottub, tsunami. Boil the soup a little too fast in a covered pot. Volcano. Strike a supporting wall with a piano youíre moving in the basement: earthquake in the living room.
A basic tenet of sympathetic magic is this: As above, so below. It recognizes the striking similarity between our micro world and the macro world. Bad science? Sure. Bad faith? Nope.
In spite of the horrific consequences of Ivan and his brother, Charley, and sister, Frances, I find myself pulling for them, wanting them to get strong, be fierce. I want them to show us, put us in our place. Remind us that fooling with the worldís great processes could have catastrophic results.
I also find them thrilling. Even though or, perhaps, because, since childhood, I have respected tornadoes, I have never ceased regarding them with awe and wonder. Like most folks raised in tornado alley I have lived through extreme devastation, since the effect of cyclonic forces up close. And they are terrible. This same wonder and awe rises in me on any summer afternoon or early evening when the high, puffy clouds of midday turn dark and towering, lightning forks to the ground, the winds pick up, and rains comes down in sheets.
Itís not hard to go from wonder and awe to sacred and holy. In fact, Zeus, El, and Thor were storm gods who lived high on mountain tops where storms were born.
Hereís what they do for me. These big storms make it clear to me that my life and the life of those living around me are only part of a greater cycle, one driven by the rotation of the earth, gravitational pulls of the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn, the energetic effects of solar radiation translated into wind. And more. When I die, no matter what my legacy, none or magnificent, it will not matter to the next Ivan, or the tornado over Oklahoma, or the wall cloud approaching the upper Mississippi. These are divine majesties, working where they will, as they will, when they will, and wreaking havoc without conscience.
Two quick observations: Head election judge yesterday. Really long dayó6am to 9pmóand the fruit of it in votes: 28. More to the point I think we opened the polls and gave folks an opportunity. In Andover there were no contests, only two offices per party, each with only one candidate, so the low turnout went like this: either you didnít know about the election and didnít vote, or, you knew about the election, knew there were no decisions possible and didnít vote, or, neither, you showed, made no decisions and left. In our case there were 28 people in the latter category, six of whom were election judges and five of whom voted absentee, so a total of 17 people walked through the doors at the Bunker Lake Activity center and filled in their oval.
Today (Wednesday). Saw John Desteian again. Melancholy lifted, so, our work there was done. Sort of. Decided I bring on my melancholy, at least in part by writing, and, that itís the price of entry into the deeps. I decided I donít regret the sadness, in fact, I find it useful, a place of struggle, learning, like Jacob at the Jabbok Ford wrestling the angel.
Yet, I wouldnít consciously choose to go there, although, as John pointed out, I do choose to go there.
When I told him I didnít like the crabby part of me when it came on, he said, ďIt may be a bit optimistic to think youíll be able to avoid that.Ē This is psychoanalyst humor. I laughed out loud, and said, ďOK, I get it.Ē
Kate, unfortunately, is stuck with clueing me in when I arrived at the Jabbok Ford.
John made an interesting point about pilgrimage, ďI donít know any pilgrimages that donít have a descent.Ē He thinks writing about pilgrimage opened me to the descent, a place I go to encounter certain questions.
It is in this sense that the melancholy is inevitable and will not go away, will not be analyzed and done with, a thing of the past. Since it is a way, a path, on its own, and a path engaged with serious matters, and, further, since I engage in this writing, an interactive process where the writing informs me and transforms me, and, in turn, an informed and transformed me effects and changes the writing, then, from time to time, the melancholy will return. And I will probably not know because I will be distracted, absorbed in whatever descent in which Iím engaged.
I find this an oddly liberating notion; it depathologizes my melancholy, makes it an aspect of my process, my self; or, said as Hillman might say it, melancholy allows the gods to work through my Self on me. And the gods come when they want and leave when they wish.
I feel as good now as I have in several weeks, a little giddy. The gardens in its fall mode; Kateís party was a success and is in the past; Jonís married and doing well; Joseph is in his last (5th) year of college studying quantum mechanics and Chinese movies and Fourier transformations. My trip to Southeast Asia is in a little over a month and we have our Woolly journey to the Black Hills next week.
Plus I donít live in Florida or along the Gulf Coast.
By the time you read this I will have finished a sermon focused on Grandparents and ancestors and kinship. A bit more on that and the long march of our genetic material, a pilgrimage at the molecular level, yet startlingly our own.
Yesterday, after my session with John, and in the subsequent day, a sort of crystallization process happened. Two or three key things: first, the melancholy is a process of my Self as it grapples with difficult material; second, I began to see the decision to write in a new and more positive light; and, third, I read an article that distinguished between an academic and an intellectual, a helpful distinction for me.
As I said in the material above this new view of melancholy makes it a part of me, a way of being while in a particular state; this creates, over the lifetime view, or, viewing the life as a pilgrimage with inevitable descents, a sense, for me at least, that melancholy is, if you will, normal, that is, it is not a disease process, something to be excised or medicated or gotten over, rather it is somewhat like breathing hard during exercise, or exulting in a time of accomplishment; it goes with the territory of living.
This allowed me to approach the period of time since leaving the Presbytery (and, too, the time since leaving college) with a different perspective. The true value of the decision to write lay in the exposure of my Self to the interactive process of creation, not in the products of that process, except in that the product is a more integrated, individuated Self. I assume this value holds for whatever you experience as creative, that is, where you take intimate parts of yourself out, reshape them, expose them to the external world, and experience the dialectical interaction inherent in their exposure both to others and to the Self.
So, with melancholy as a part of life and writing as a Way, a true path for pilgrimage, not a career or a job, I was able to embrace the distinction between an academic and an intellectual. The distinction came in an essay I canít locate right now, one dealing with a favorite literati topic these days, the public intellectual and their imminent demise, or the reasons for their virtual disappearance.
An academic becomes blinkered by the demands of increasing specialization into knowing more and more about less and less. A good example is the particle physicist, the astro-physicist, the solid state physicist, the cosmologist, the theoretical physicist. Each of these scientists share a common discipline, physics, yet, in response to the demands of burgeoning knowledge about separate sub-disciplines: quantum mechanics, what you get when you break atoms apart, the nature of stars and galaxies, the creation and eventual fate of the universe as we know it, and the difficulty in fitting all this stuff together in a grand unified theory. Often, these brilliant thinkers and experimenters admit they do not understand the work of persons in their own discipline, since quantum mechanics http://phys.educ.ksu.edu has its own outsized scope now as does the also strange world of quarks and leptons http://particleadventure.org/particleadventure . This specialization may or may not be necessary, but it does seem inevitable given the explosion of data and theoretical work, not only in the sciences, but the social studies and other disciplines like psychology as well.
The intellectual, public or not, attempts to stay at least one level of generalization above the specialists and tries to pull notions together, to critique them from a philosophical or ethical or religious perspective while trying also to appropriate them for the general public. In science I think of Stephen Gould, Lewis Fielding, Carl Sagan, Bill Bryson and John McPhee. In literature Harold Bloom. Isaiah Berlin in political philosophy. Joseph Campbell in myth and folklore. David McCullough and Stephen Ambrose in history (among many).
The intellectual is not, normally, a member of the academy, rather he or she resides in a third space, neither in the formal academic life, nor in a readily recognized career track either. They have, according to the essay to which I refer, voracious reading habits and many write, sometimes getting read, sometimes not.
The demise of the public version, the intellectual engageí with, usually, political life is seen as symptomatic of our age. I think it is more likely that the concept of demise is the symptom, a symptom unmasking the normative American distrust for the life of the mind (pretty heady. come on, letís keep it simple. youíre all in the head.), a distrust unlike our almost polar cultural opposite in this regard, France, where the public intellectual can have the status of a rock star, everyoneís pinnacle of public acclamation.
So, I come to claim my status, self-defined, as an intellectual, public or not, but nonetheless a working thinker, reading, trying to stay away from specialization, and hoping, from time to time to have an insight worth recording or sharing.
This is not in addition to my vocation as a novelist, rather it is a facet of the same impulse. The impulse involves taking in experience and putting in new, novel, ways. Sometimes those efforts are fiction, sometimes not. But always it will involve a dialectic, an honest exchange as best I can manage it, between my Self and the world it inhabits.
And, just as I write these words, I violate them. My brother, whom I plan to see in Southeast Asia, has played footsy with me for months, saying things like, ďIím not a travel guide. I donít want to take your friends around.Ē and deciding to leave Bangkok before I get there, pass through Singapore for a lunch and perhaps a dinner with Mary and me, then leave for his own vacation in Burma.
All this pissed me off, but heís a strange duck (weíre outta the same guy, so we both have these characteristics, I know.) and I worked with him, agreeing to the Singapore meeting because I was traveling 12,000 miles to see him, after allóon Dadís cash, for a bit of irony.
Then, my friend Kwo wrote Mark an e-mail. Now this is a big violation of something or other. He doesnít like his e-mail address, or his mailing address given out to anyone. And I mean anyone.
I ccíed Kwoóa long time ago, maybe Mayówith an e-mail about my schedule that I sent to both Mark and Mary, never imagining Kwo would write Mark, let alone ask him to contact the Cambodian and Burmese embassies for her.
So, I wrote him a quick e-mail late at night (note to self: never send an e-mail after midnight.) in which I said Kwo made an honest mistake, that she thought I came from a close family where a brother would help out a friend.
Now, this is true. But I knew it would gouge him. And I was wrong to do that. But I did it.
He doesnít want to meet in Singapore, in fact, in true Ellis family fashion, I may never hear from him again.
Being self-aware doesnít prevent dumb fuck mistakes. Iíve written him an apology, telling him that from my perspective seeing him once in 23 years and him and Mary living 12,000 miles from the US doesnít count as close in my book. (and it doesnít.) Still, I said it that way on purpose and I got what I deserved. Damn.
Final subjects for this entry: a moving experience in our front lawn. Do you ever catch motion out of the corner of your eye? Like blind sight, where you know somethings happened, but you donít know what? Apparently this comes from adaptive conditioning, long long ago, when we were not only hunters, but prey, too. It allows us to drive down the road without paying direct attention, say, to the other lane or someone about to run in front of us, yet this kind of sight draws us to danger immediately.
I had such an experience in the yard. I thought, out of the corner of my eye, that I saw the lawn move. I pivoted in the direction my body wanted to go and sure enough, the grass moved. It bulged up, sank down, bulged up, sank down, as if something were trying to get out from underneath, to break free into the light from the underground.
Down on my hands and knees I crept toward the moving lawn, trying not to send vibrations through the ground. I watched for about ten or fifteen minutes as the earth swelled, then sank back down. Because of my deaf ear, I had to get close to see if there was sound. There was.
Munching. I imagine this was a Minnesota golden gopher, aerating my lawn for free. Still, I never saw it.
As the animal below moved forward and the earth rose, earthworms crawled up, out of the soil and began hurrying along (well, you know what I mean) on top, where this munching animal was not.
Couldnít help seeing the metaphorical possibilities here. My own attitude toward Mark rose up, bulged from the underground without truly surfacing, as it did he squirmed up and out of the way.
Anyhow, I love these little dramas, played out on various levels in our own yards: below the grass and within the soil, in the grass itself, on the plants, high up in the trees, in the grass and undergrowth. Our Great Horned Owl, whose hoots send shivers up my spine, has left us, but he had his own role, as do the woodpeckers, whippets, and groundhogs.
On a more positive note about the trip. I spent today making my seat assignments (a neat sight by the way, http://www.seatguru.com , has seating charts for various commercial jets and the airlines who use them. Seatguru identifies the good seats on particular planes. Very handy.), buying the only bag, a carry-on, I plan to take, plus a security belt and a digital camera.
Each of these steps bring the reality of the trip closer and make me feel increasingly comfortable with stepping off into Asia on my own.
Over the next week or so, Iím going to finalize my itinerary, at least as an outline, with potential hotels and sights I want to see, approximate times Iím going to spend in each place, then its off to see Dr. Gerst for the appropriate malaria meds and my last Hepatitis A shot.
This is this yearís journey, so Iím trying to not leave anything major out, even if it reveals aspects not always pleasant. I confess the rawness of some of this weekís entry makes me a little tentative about it, but thatís me, too.