Living · Writing

Resolutions 2019: A Writer’s Blocks

I couldn’t think of what to write about this week.

This is a case for steady writing. It works. I took two weeks off because two Mondays in a row were Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, and I felt justified, but then I took a third week off just because. I’ll say I was planning on migrating my blog, and that’s true, but it’s also true I was just letting myself slip out of the groove.

I did move the blog. It feels like a good time—New Year’s and all. A time of changes, new directions, new endeavors. But I didn’t write. I just did detail work like going through all my old blog links and making sure they connected here. And now it’s been three weeks… and a day, since I’m moving also from Mondays to Tuesdays. And I have nothing to say.

I do have a wonderful family, who are trying to help me, though. Rob saw my box of Santa figurines waiting to be moved to the garage when the rain stops, and suggested I write about why we have such stupid Santas. (He misread “Int’l Santas” as Int 7 Santas, which in the Dungeons and Dragons world means your Santas have a score of 7 out of 20 in Intelligence). 

My daughter offered up the weirdness of language as a topic, still proud of catching her dad in a raucous pun trap last night. We’ve been taking advantage of the rainy weather to make chili, and while she crushed up saltines in hers, she asked if it weren’t cannibalism. “Not unless you’re a salty cracker,” her dad retorted, then he hung his head and groaned.

But the weirdness of language demands volumes, as does the clever pun-potential of my kooky family. So maybe I just need to tackle the problem head on and generate some topics. I often write about something that happened during the week on my blog, so what has happened of note?

We started a new year, and that always makes me want to make resolutions. Nietzsche regarded resolutions as a criterion for differentiating humans from animals. The idea that we could make a promise to do or be something in the future, make plans and stick to them or not, projecting an abstract view of ourselves in the new, resolved guise, was fundamentally human for him. I know it’s two weeks late, but it’s still January, so I’ll make some resolutions.

I will write more. Blogs, yes, but also fiction and also an article on Beowulf that I should have written years ago. If I boast that we wield words (and I do in my bio, which I reread for the first time in two years—oy), then I’d better do some darned wielding or welding or wending or something.

I will read more. I’m starting to feel like I don’t read as much for pleasure as I used to, and given my newish obsession with non-fiction, particularly non-fiction about reading, I feel like I need to sit and roll around in a novel, but I haven’t really, not even over the longest winter break I’ve had in sixteen years. So yeah—read more.

I will shake up my teaching. I’ve started on that, so will keep moving forward. Semesters are a different pace from quarters, and require some new approaches, so I’m thinking up new assignments, new ways to break up class periods, and new ways to get people involved and engaged.

I think I’ll keep a grateful log. The current state of American politics and policy has me regularly grim-faced, so I will remind myself that as I work to improve things, I should notice many things are still right as rain.

In fact, that reflective impulse is where I’ll stop tonight.  I always think of Janus at the new year, the Roman god of beginnings, transitions, passages, and transformations. He’s two-faced, with one face looking forward, but one also looking backward, reflecting, seeing where we came from and where we’re going at the same time. That seems admirable to me. Not that I want two sets of eyes, but that I  aim not to lose sight of what I’ve learned as I move forward. What I’ve learned tonight is that a steady writing habit makes it easier to write.  I knew this. But I just re-learned it. C’est la vie.

Good luck out there. And may you live up to some of your resolutions, forgive yourself for the ones that slip, and always roll higher than a 7 for intelligence.

Reading · Writing

Blessed are the Legend-makers, or My Favorite Poem

Do people still have favorite poems? Is it something people rate or collect, like songs or movies, and then there are too many, so you have to say your top ten?
Last week someone tagged me in a social media challenge to list my top ten movies, and I’m still deliberating. But I know my favorite poem.
My favorite poem is “Mythopoeia,” and it’s by J.R.R. Tolkien. It’s longish at 148 lines—longer than Poe said we are comfortable reading in his “Philosophy of Composition,” an essay he wrote about his process of writing “The Raven.” I love “The Raven,” but I love “Mythopoeia” more.
“Mythopoeia” is an occasional poem; that is, he seems to have written it on a particular occasion—following a discussion with C.S. Lewis, where Lewis argued that myths were lies, “though breathed through silver.” In the days and weeks following this event, Tolkien responded with poetry, as such an occasion demands.
He starts with an accusation:
                You look at trees and label them just so,
(For trees are “trees,” and growing is “to grow”)
You walk the earth and tread with solemn pace
One of the many minor globes of Space:
A star’s a star, some matter in a ball
Compelled to courses mathematical
Amid the regimented, cold, Inane,
Where destined atoms are each moment slain.”
He’s taking to task all those who see the world with clinical, scientific, quantifying brains—those who assert we can classify and codify all, and that that is the best way to understand it. Tolkien accuses Lewis, essentially, of having no soul, or at least not having the ability to wonder at the mysteries and magic of the world.
Tolkien, a devout Catholic, called God the Creator, but posited that humans were, or could be “sub-creators.” God did the big stuff; humans create little worlds. When he created Middle Earth and The Shire, he was sub-creating. But he did so with a healthy dose of respect and awe for God.
Chaucer’s Franklin comes to mind (doesn’t he, always?). In the Franklin’s Tale, Nature (Mother Nature) claims that she and God are like a well-matched couple. He creates cosmically, and she creates on Earth. Tolkien’s mutual roles here subdivide a little differently—God creates the physical world (no Mother necessary), and artists create little, imaginative worlds. Still symbiotic; still complementary.
I’m not Catholic. Or Christian. Pagan love for Natura comes closest to my faith, I suppose, so I see nothing wrong with these thoughts of mysteries, and I love the idea of complementary creation. Humans, in constant awe at the natural world and its cycles and stories, make new art in our own fashion.
Tolkien goes on to explain how such storytelling takes place:
                He sees no stars that does not see them first
Of living silver made that sudden burst
to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song,
whose very echo after-music long
has since pursued. There is no firmament,
only a void, unless a jeweled tent,
myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth
unless the mother’s womb whence we all have birth.
Two things strike me here: first, that primitive people made mystical explanations for the natural world, and we have been singing songs to explain and perpetuate those ideas ever since. But that might seem to lend support to Lewis, as the mythic view of things may have been part of our primitive past, but now we know better.
Tolkien says no, however. That each person is “primitive” as they come to understand the world. That childhood is our individual Neolithic phase, and we can choose to keep connecting with those impulses, those feelings of awe and wonder and joy, or we can walk solemnly with Lewis on his mathematical course. I’m not a Luddite, but I am a recovering biology major and the spouse of a biochemist. I vote with science, but my heart loves myth. This speaks to me deeply.
The last lines of the poem yell the loudest, in my opinion. It’s an image of paradise for poets, and one that resonates with some of my favorite images of paradise. Borges said he imagined Paradise to be a kind of library. I do too. So, it appears, did Tolkien.
                In Paradise they [poets] look no more awry;
And though they make anew, they make no lie.
Be sure they still will make, not being dead,
and Poets shall have flames upon their head,
and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
there each shall choose for ever from the All.
So paradise is a place where poets are gifted with all the material they can ever use, like living in Chaucer’s House of Fame, but with flames upon their heads (like the blessed souls they are) and play their harps and sing new songs forever.
Paradise is doing what you love most, with limitless time and materials and with faultless results, and being blessed for it? You don’t have to be Catholic to love that.
Long live the Legend-Makers.

Cleaning the Writing Pipes

I have written academic prose for a number of years now—mostly about teaching, but also about literature. It is a mode I still don’t find natural, despite (cough) over two decades experience. I can do it, but it takes effort. When I argue, I do not sing.

Academic writing takes research and planning and more planning, and then writing, then revising, then editing. So does writing fiction. But somehow one feels like work to me, and one feels like play.
In fact, writing fiction feels so much like play that I haven’t let myself do much of it. I’ve needed to get a job, to get tenure, to get promoted, and fiction hasn’t figured in to that. And now that I have reached a point in my career when I can write what I want, I still put up roadblocks.
In the worst sort of self-sabotage, I now feel like I’ve built a career writing academically:  how will I remember how to write creatively? So here’s how I have done it—am doing it:
I’ve read books about being creative, and finding time to fit creative work in around a career. I’ve taken an online coaching class for creative folks who feel blocked. I’m reading and workshopping with The Artist’s Way. And once, last fall, I participated in an all-day write-a-thon whose goal was to produce sample fairy tales, folktales, and fables for a collection aimed at elementary classrooms.
That was an exhilarating nightmare. And it unclogged my writing pipes.

The setting was a room full of tables and laptops, and about twenty writers. Over the course of the day, each writer produced nine pieces, in thirty minute time blocks, on themes and subjects that were assigned on the spot. “Here’s your topic. Write a story. Go.”
For fairy tales, we had to retell a tale we remembered from our childhood in our own words–in thirty minutes. We had to tell one about a princess that started traditional and ended postmodern–in thirty minutes. We had to concoct a ghost story for the folklore section based on a tabloid headline we drew at random–in thirty minutes. You get the idea. Nine texts.
I do not envy the editors their job of clean-up and presentation. I am not proud of all those pieces; there is one, even that I would be truly mortified to see in print.  But the process of cranking out story after story really got my head in to a whole new space.
The experience was invaluable. For someone who doubted her ability to write creatively, I had nine texts to show for myself. Some had come in part from stories I knew, but some were utterly original—about subjects I had never considered. I learned that I had enough story-stuff in me to pull together when I needed it, AND if I needed new material, I could be counted on to produce it.
I had not written against a clock since my last grad school midterm, and then I knew what I had to say; it was just a matter of writing it down fast enough. This was an entirely different experience: making things up that I didn’t have a plan for–and making them presentable–was trying in ways I could not have predicted. It was physically exhausting also—the drive home from Los Angeles is a blur.
The journey to viewing myself as a creative writer is long and winding and not over, but I took some giant strides forward that day. It is my fervent hope that others don’t make it this hard on themselves, but I suspect many do. Is it our culture of productivity (despite being fraught with early death and stress-related ailments)? Some vestige of a Puritan work ethic that says we shouldn’t enjoy work too much? Just a personal fear of letting ourselves “play” as adults? Do we worry that an art career doesn’t come with a 401K?
It doesn’t matter at the moment. What matters is I’m kicking all of that to the curb. And whatever else I have been or am, now I am a writer too. And I’m finding my singing voice.
(The Artist’s Way is by Julia Cameron, and there has recently been a 25th anniversary edition released.)
Living · Writing

A Hodge Podge of Small, Good Things

1: I started a Bullet Journal at the beginning of the year. In my head this is a sort of a mash-up of an art journal, a calendar, and a series of lists, so it appeals both to my creative side and my need for order and reminders. My normal mode of remembering is to write a list, so if I can keep all my lists in one place, I stand a better chance of not losing them, and if I can use stamps, markers, and/or washi tape, I feel like I’m playing, so this is Adulting Disguised as Play—always a good thing.

2: I also received a gift from a student today—just a small gesture, really, but one so thoughtful, personal, and entertaining as to be emblematic of all that is good in my career. I teach humans. I teach humans about books. I teach humans about books that entertain and instruct and challenge and provoke and affirm. It is a serious endeavor, one steeped in humanity, and a genuine site of connection to individuals and the world. And individuals are wonderful. Sometimes the world gets me down, but individuals are awesome.

This student gave me a rubber stamp that he had custom-made for me. It says “Never trust a vowel” in a lovely, crisp block of text. This is something I shout gleefully (but in all seriousness) in many of my classes, as I point out to students the words they know in various languages and traditions. If they’re translating Chaucer’s Middle English and get stuck on the word “holp,” I remind them to try other vowels, and most of the time they come to “help” on their own. Vowels are what change most readily (consider regional accents). I have joked in class that I write it so often on people’s translations, that I could use a stamp, and someone listened and acted.
3: Finally, a poem. I wrote it years ago, when my kids gave me some bug and I missed a dear friend’s wedding. In the throes of this miserable cold and flu season, it seems relevant again, and still a pipedream. I will never be Ironmom. I will always snuggle the sickie.
“A Resolution”
Someday I’ll learn not to
Comfort a sick child.
Not to welcome on to my lap,
In to my grembo
An oozing, seething
Bundle of germs.
When my son has a fever
I won’t rock him in the comfy chair
Legs over one armrest
Head on my heart.
When my daughter has a tummy ache
I won’t lay her on my stomach
Rubbing her belly
As if it were my own, like
Two spooning Buddhas, for luck.
When they cough
I’ll spin them away from me
Aiming them like guns at the world
Instead of pulling them close
Calming their spasms with
The beat of my heart
The strength of my arms.
I’ll be Ironmom.

I will never get sick again.


Beginning the Mabinogion Again

This is an excerpt from a new project I’m working on–a reworking of the Welsh Mabinogion.  It’s just a bit–just because I’m swamped this week and need to use something here that already exists.  I hope you enjoy it; I’m having a blast.

Chapter 1: The Hunt Gone Wrong
Sometimes a hunt is nothing but sweat and dirt and waiting. Not this time. Pwyll’s heart beat in time with his horses’ pounding hooves, and the trail was hot. He was chasing a stag, fast and sleek, and instinctively elusive. But this one wouldn’t get away. This one was white, and stood out in the dark leaves like a beacon, luring his dogs on in to the woods. When something leads you like that, you follow, and you ask questions later.
In and out of trees, the stag seemed to flow like a river, without stumbling or snagging a single branch.  Later he might reflect on that and find it odd, but not in the moment.
Adrenaline pumping, he charged recklessly after the dogs. Five dogs:  there were generally four together and then Finn swerving around, herding them, faster than the others and capable of switching back and steering the whole pack.
The barking was steady for several minutes, and Pwyll’s energy was flagging. He couldn’t keep up this breakneck pace forever. His horse was tired, and so was he. They had to end it soon, or there would be nothing but sweat and dirt to take home. A dog yelped shrilly, and the barking stopped. Finn bayed like they must have cornered the deer, but when the horses caught up with the dogs, what Pwyll saw made his breath catch. The dogs were circling a small mound in a clearing that backed up against a sheer wall of stone. Pwyll quietly said a prayer of thanks that he hadn’t run his horses headlong in to the clearing—they surely wouldn’t have been able to stop in time and would have smashed in to the stone.  The stranger thing still, was the deer had vanished.
Finn looked miserable. He ran the opposite way around the circling dogs, howling, his eyes sweeping the clearing for any trace of his quarry. The dogs sniffed furiously, noses to the ground, one after another around the mound.
“Where’d it go, Finn?” Pwyll asked cautiously. “It didn’t leap up that wall, surely.” Of course not, the dogs’ noses were saying, as they rounded the hillock again.
Pwyll hopped down from his horse and joined the procession of dogs. Finn stopped baying and looked up at him quizzically. “What now?” he seemed to ask. “I don’t know, buddy.”
Pwyll sat down hard on the mound, exasperated, and a puff of dust rose up around him.
Finn sniffed the dust and sneezed. Then he backed up, growling.
“What’s up, Finn?”  The words were just out of his mouth when the dog blurred and shimmered, and the sound of running animals startled Pwyll off the mound.  As he scrambled to his feet, the stag streaked past him, and the dogs took off back in to the woods.  “Where did he come from?” he yelled to no one, and headed back to his horse. He began to swing on to the horse, and a pack of snow white dogs barreled by him, knocking him to the ground.
“There must be twenty of them! Whose are they?” This time he was asking the horse, Llewellen, who snorted indignantly. As they resumed the chase, Pwyll heard the barking, steady and loud and cacophonous, and then it thinned, like fewer dogs were barking. In a few seconds, he understood why—his dogs had been passed up and then left behind. The white dogs were faster, and they had led the quarry away.
“No!” Pwyll shouted, drawing up Llewellen in to a slow trot and letting everyone catch their breath. “And we were so close!  Where did those dogs come from?”  he hounds whined sympathetically, and panted prodigiously. They were worn out. “Let’s go get a drink,” said Pwyll, and he led them over toward the river.
Sweat and dirt again. He sighed. As he walked his horse and his tired dogs through the trees, he thought of excuses he could give for coming up short today. They wouldn’t believe his story about crazy white dogs that appeared out of nowhere. He could already hear Gwyn mocking him.
As he dipped his hands in to the river for a drink, he heard the barking start up again, distantly. They were coming back. He splashed the water on his face instead of drinking it and hopped back on Llewellen. “We might have another chance!” he called, and off they drove in to the trees.
They found the dogs back at the mound, in a pack around the deer, who lay on its side on the earth. “Hah!  Off!  Off!”  He ran his horse in a circle, hooves pounding and breaking up the dogs. Two of the white hounds left the deer and attacked Llewellen. Pwyll stabbed his spear down in to the fray, skimming one on the shoulder and piercing one through the leg.  He swung the dog around by that leg—the dog’s ears were bright red—and tossed him off to the side. He chased the other dogs away from the deer, back in to the woods where he came from.
When he returned, his own dogs were harrying the deer. They knew not to eat the body, but the deer was dead, and they were chewing on its legs and antlers. “That’s enough, guys. Let’s get this beauty home,” he called. He leaped to the ground and knelt to inspect the stag.  “It’s amazing! I’ve never seen anything like it.” The whole pelt was white, except the ears, which were blood red. The eyes, too, open in that awful, frozen stare, were red.  He closed them gently and shook his head. “I’ve really never seen….”
“Of course you haven’t,” came a stern voice from behind him. “It’s not from around here.” A tall, black-clad man on an enormous, heaving stallion stood so close to him, Pwyll jumped. How had he not heard his approach? The horse snorted, and the man leaned down, pulling his hood back off his face, enough to reveal intricately tattooed skin and sunken, fiery eyes.
“Neither am I.”
(That’s a map of Medieval Wales, by the way.)
Living · Writing

Metamorphosis–Giving Myself Permission to Change

I got my fifteen year pin at work. That’s half a career. It feels like a perfect time to shift some gears.
I sometimes have to remind myself not to be afraid of change. I’m pretty good about trying new foods and restaurants, but big changes, I resist. I’m done moving. I chose a career with job security.  I’ve been married to the same guy pretty much all of my adult life.
But I know change is good. I know it’s invigorating, and I know it’s necessary. Since I’m not willing to trade in my husband for another model, it had to be work that changes.
I certainly am not stopping teaching, although some shifts are coming there too, as we change to semesters, and I step out of the King Arthur class and in to some new territory after “semester conversion.”  But this is a multi-faceted job I’m in, so I’m shaking things up in terms of writing.  Really, I’m giving myself permission to revisit a dream.
If you had asked me at fifteen what I wanted to do when I grew up, I’d have said write, and at that point, I’d have meant poetry. I wrote a lot when I was young, but I could never have been so bold as to try to make a career out of writing creatively.
After about twenty-five more years of reading, though, I feel like I have something to write.
It started with a book for my kids. After reading so many books to them, I felt like I could tell where the gaps were, and what worked and didn’t work. But I still wasn’t ready to commit to thinking of myself as a writer.  It took five years to write one little novel. The kids I wrote it for have grown up; that doesn’t sound like I’m a writer—more like a scratcher in the sand.
This year, though, I’m picking up speed. I got awarded a sabbatical to wrap up the novel. That was very validating. I started a blog about reading. It turns out that counts as writing! Before I finished my first novel, I started thinking about the second one. And as I start getting in to critique groups and searching for an agent, I find I have reached a critical mass of baby steps toward a new identity and now don’t feel like an impostor when I call myself a writer.
There is a delicate dance, being a reader and a writer, and we can go from being one to another and back again in an endless circle. I have always considered myself a reader, but only a dilettante writer.  But I have come around to writer again, and this time I’m not begging off.
The best bit of wisdom my dad ever gave me was “If you do what you love, you’ll never work again.”  At the time, I dropped the biology degree and ran headlong in to literature and languages.  And he was right (except for grading). What he forgot is that there can be more than one thing you love.

Handwriting can be crafting too!

I love writing. Not writing blogs or stories or poetry (although I love those too!), but the act of writing—of forming letters. I think text itself is beautiful.

This is a useful trait for a medievalist, I suppose, as decoding letters and transliterating text is easier if you also think it’s pretty, but today I’m really just talking about handwriting. In a world where some states are taking cursive writing out of schools, lots of things will end up looking like calligraphy, no? 
This means I’ve spent and continue to spend some time on my penmanship. My dad was an architect, and architects used to have to learn a particular script, so anyone could read the blueprints. (They don’t teach this anymore, incidently—another skill lost to the computer age.) I learned that blocky script from him, and by 5th grade I went the opposite direction; I decided I needed to have some distinctive features in my handwriting. I practiced pretty lowercase f and s and uppercase H and made them part of my repertoire. I was a geek.
I still am. Now I practice “lettering” with brush tip pens and online tutorials. I still think writing can and often should be pretty. As with any skill, it comes with practice, and I hand write a lot. I still take notes longhand (not that they’re elegant, but it counts), and keep journals around to jot things down that I need to remember or I need to write about.
My son found one of these journals recently. My son has many fine qualities, but his handwriting is atrocious. At some point even I caved and suggested he type his homework. But occasionally I try to encourage him, and truthfully, his writing is getting easier to read. On the way home from karate the other night, where I had been scribbling in my journal while he practiced blocks and strikes, he picked up the journal and started flipping through.
I asked him if he could read my scrawl, as I knew I’d been writing fast. “Kind of,” he said, but it’s weird because it’s a mix of cursive and printing.” Guilty. This was interesting to me. Did he really process cursive differently, so that it was jarring, slowing him down to sort of switch systems in the middle of a word? Is that a kind of dyslexia?  (His dad is mildly dyslexic.) Surely not. Maybe? I pressed him to discuss.
When we got home, I asked him to show me the passage he’d been reading. Ah…  Out of around 40 pages of text, my kiddo flipped to the one page I had written in Middle English. Yeah. That’s harder to read, but not because of my hybrid script. Too many letters, and not all of the right ones. Enough to make you feel dyslexic, maybe, if you weren’t expecting it.
Which brings me back to scribes and medieval writing. (Was I there? Only briefly.) Medieval scribes sometimes copied texts in languages they couldn’t read. Think of the possibility for errors! And even if they could read the text, “copying” needs to be in quotes, as they frequently changed the spelling on purpose or without thinking. They were human, just like we are.
And writing is a uniquely human act.  Maybe that’s another reason I want to give it its due.  To honor and appreciate the act of writing, the medium through which we convey our ideas.  And one I’m not prepared to hand over entirely to the machines.

Thialfi Earns His Keep

This is an excerpt from my book, which has a working title of Roskva and the Runes.  The novel is a retelling and adaptation of the story in Norse myth of Thor’s visit to Jotunheim, the land of giants.  Along the way, Thor acquires two children in a compensation/fostering deal, and the girl disappears from the narrative.  I always wondered what happened to the girl, Roskva, who disappeared from the myths, while her brother, Thialfi, went on to have adventures with Thor.  This is my attempt to fill that gap and be cool in the eyes of my children.  Chapter 2 picks up right after Thor announces he’s taking the kids.

Chapter 2

The road was dusty and the air was cool as Roskva and Thialfi left their childhood home to travel with the gods.  They were slaves.  Compensation.  The price their parents paid unwillingly for all of their lives.  Roskva walked silently, tears tracing down her cheeks.  Up ahead, Thialfi slouched along, kicking rocks as he found them.  Even when he was pouting, though, he was faster than she, so he was far ahead of her.  The old man walked between them, and Roskva found herself transfixed by his feet, momentarily distracted—he seemed to walk so smoothly, his cloak just floated along.  And he left no footprints in the dust.
                Roskva decided to brave a conversation and hurried her pace to catch him.  Even as she hurried, his pace quickened, though his robes stayed motionless, so that he was the same distance ahead for a minute or two.  Roskva began to despair that she would not catch him, then pushed that feeling down and tried harder.   She heard a deep, sonorous sigh, and his pace slowed. “You are determined then, child, to catch me?  So be it.”
                “Thank you, my lord,” Roskva panted, and she thought she saw a small smile on his face as she came up beside him.  “It’s just I’d like to ask you what I’m to call you, sir.  Master?  Lord?  What do you prefer?”  Her boldness surprised her as much as it did him.  But she stayed even with his pace.
                “Ah.  Well, those work, but I also have names.  Why not use a name to call me?  I’ve many names.  Wayfarer, Old One, Slaughter-Father, Riddler, Flaming Eye, Hooded One, Hanged One, High One, Screamer, Long Beard, Raven-Tester, Terrible One…”
                “Ok.  Thank you.”  Roskva interrupted him, but then stumbled for words, humbled.  “Which do you prefer I use to address you, Lord Odin?”
                “I think you’ve chosen wisely.  I answer quickest to Odin.”  This time there was a smile.  Roskva was sure of it.  Her shoulders relaxed some, and she settled in to stride next to the father of the gods.  This was going to be some trip.
                Thialfi and Thor were walking far ahead and headed for a forest.  They stopped at the edge, in the shade of the tall birch trees.  As Roskva and Odin approached, Thialfi snatched Roskva’s hand and dragged her in to the trees.  “We’re to gather kindling.  Come on!”  And off he ran, with her in tow.  He couldn’t hold her long, though; she tripped on the uneven forest floor and couldn’t keep up.  It seemed to take him a minute even to notice he’d let go her hand, and then he turned back, glaring.  “Come on, Roskva.  Now’s our chance to get away.”
                “Oh, so that’s your plan?  You think we can escape old Flaming Eye, do you?  You want to annoy someone who calls himself Slaughter-Father?  Thialfi, be reasonable.  We belong to them now.  Father and Mother are fine.  This is the deal.  Now help me look for kindling.”  Roskva’s eyes burned as she spoke, but she held back tears in front of her brother, convicted in her desire to set a good example.  Thialfi was headstrong, and now in more danger than ever.  She’d keep him safe.
                Thialfi, however, was not so easily convinced as she would have liked.  “So that’s it?  You’re giving up?  Fine.  I’ll go back alone.”  He glowered at her, then turned away and kept moving through the trees.  The trees, he noticed, were getting thicker and closer together.  It was impossible to run.  He wound his way through for a few more seconds before coming up fast on a ravine he nearly toppled in to.  He let out a small shriek as he steadied himself.  Roskva was at his side immediately, holding his shirt, pulling him back.  They both looked in to the ravine.  The cleft in the earth must have been thirty feet down, and ran both directions along the edge of the forest as long as they could see.  It must have happened abruptly, like an earthquake, for they could see broken trees and shattered boulders in the bottom.  And there was no way around it for miles.
                Roskva bent down to pick up some splintered roots sticking out of the wall of earth, then kept picking up twigs as she walked back to the clearing.  Thialfi followed, but kicking at tree roots most of the way; he didn’t stoop to pick up kindling until they were almost back.
                Dinner was uneventful.  The children were not in the mood to be convivial, and the gods were not interested in chit chat.   The food was good, and that seemed to be enough for everyone.  When Thor wrapped the bones in the goatskins again, he looked at Thialfi disapprovingly, but without the expressive eyebrows this time.  Thialfi went to bed, shamefaced and sullen.
                No one knows exactly what happened in the night.
                Somehow, some way, some giant got close enough to grab Thor’s hammer.  He woke with a start, shaking the ground as he jumped to his feet.  “Mjollnir!  Someone’s taken Mjollnir!  Get it back!”
                Roskva shook herself steady, blinking sleep out of her eyes.  It had been a long day, and she had been sleeping deeply.  Thialfi, though, was off like a shot.  As Roskva chased Thialfi blindly, stumbling first over her bedding, and then in to her brother’s, the night air brought her to senses.  The ravine.  “Chase him toward the ravine, Thialfi,” she cried in to the darkness, not sure if he was close enough to hear her.
But he was.  And he was on it.  For a giant smart enough to get Thor’s hammer, running in to the forest was a stupid idea.  Thialfi guessed the giant was looking for cover, but didn’t’ know the danger.   He banked on that as he chased the thundering footfalls ahead of him.
Thialfi really was fast.  Even with the giant’s strength and size, the boy was able to run back and forth behind him and herd him toward the ravine.  It was too dark to see much of anything, but the giant crashed through trees like they were toothpicks, and he smelled like moldy cheese and wet sheep.  He roared in frustration, like an animal, as the trees got thicker.  Tracking him was like looking for the haystack instead of the needle.
It was almost too easy.  It was definitely too quick.  One tree too many snapped under the weight of the giant’s massive arms, and it was over–he was over–down the ravine.  He didn’t even know to slow down.  The noise was deafening when he slammed in to the bottom, and the force of his body blasted a crater in the earth below.  Thialfi stood looking down, thinking about how much farther he’d now have to climb to get that hammer, clinging to a tree branch in the moonlight, as Roskva approached.
“You did it!”  She was panting worse than he was, but she threw back her head and laughed.  “Thialfi, you chased down a giant! A giant!  Not a fox or even me.  You took down a giant.”  Thialfi swayed over the ravine as the triumph settled on him.
“It was your idea, child.”  Odin’s voice came out of nowhere, and Roskva started.  Thialfi was so shaken by his sudden appearance, he nearly fell.  How did he get through the forest without their hearing him?  Thialfi registered briefly that he was glad he hadn’t been tracking the Riddler, when he spoke again.  “Thialfi, is there enough moonlight for you to climb down and retrieve that hammer?  My son is understandably uneasy without it.   He would be grateful to have it sooner rather than later.  I can see the rock giant is quite dead.”
Thialfi’s voice shook.  “Yes, sir.  My lord.  Sir.  I’ll be back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.”  And he let himself fall the first bit of the way down the ravine.
Odin was regarding Roskva, whose chest was still heaving.  She dimmed her smile in the scrutiny of his glaring eye, but couldn’t turn it off completely.  “You interest me, Roskva.”  Her smile began to beam again.
Thialfi came back in to the camp with Mjollnir strapped to his back.  Thor was pacing, Odin and Roskva seated around the fire.  Thialfi was covered in earth, as if he’d slid down the ravine and tunneled back up, but he had retrieved the hammer.  Thor stopped pacing and fixed him with a stern look, then his face cracked in to the biggest smile Roskva had ever seen.  She counted sixteen teeth before he moved on from smiling to lauding Thialfi.  “Good work, boy!  Good, good work!”  An already tired Thialfi collapsed under the weight of Thor’s hand on his shoulder.
It wasn’t quite dawn when Thialfi had come back, and now the sun was climbing in the sky, they were back on the road, and still Thor was praising Thialfi’s speed, dexterity,  and, well, downright  usefulness.  Roskva didn’t mind, wasn’t jealous.  Thialfi was visibly happy, full of his accomplishment, enjoying the adventure, and, Roskva concluded, significantly less likely to run away.  And besides, Thialfi could be useful and speedy all he wanted.  She was interesting to the father of the gods.
That night they set up camp at dusk, and Thor began to roast the goat flesh over a spit.  They sat under the protection of several birch trees, watching the fire and waiting for the meat to cook, and telling stories to pass the time.  Odin went first, telling the tale of his retrieval of the mead of poetry.  He lingered over the image of himself as an eagle, triumphantly returning with the mead of poetry in his mouth, spitting it into jars as he crossed the burning walls of Asgard, the bird-shaped giant behind him sizzling in the flames.  Roskva sat rapt, and even Thialfi was still, listening more intently than he appeared to be.  “And since then we call good poetry ‘Odin’s mead,’” he said, a sense of finality in his deep, musical voice.
“Don’t tell me you’re stopping there!” the children’s heads whipped around, trying to identify the source of this new, oily voice.  “Don’t you want to tell them where bad poetry comes from?  I’ll tell them, if you’re too shy.  Good poetry comes from the mead from Odin’s mouth, kids.  Bad poetry comes from the mead he crapped out before crossing the wall.  When you need a good dose of doggerel, just reach for the eagle poop in front of the fortress of Asgard.  Not only did that mead come from the wrong end of Odin, it also landed outside the sanctified courtyard of the gods, out on the rough rocks of the wild.  Poor doggerel.”  As the speaker talked, he seemed almost to materialize out of thin air.  By the time he was done talking, though, he was as substantial as any of them:  tall and wiry, with thick, coppery hair that hung down to his shoulders and over his eyebrows.  He had one green eye and one red eye.  Roskva couldn’t look away.
Thialfi, too, sat staring, sitting upright to do so, as Odin sighed.  “Loki.  Welcome, brother.  What a pleasant surprise.”
“Loki?”  Roskva murmured the name almost inaudibly, but the tall man turned his mismatched eyes on her and kept watching her, though he spoke to Odin.
“Yes, Odin.  How goes your journey?  Who are your companions?”
“Thialfi and Roskva, newly acquired by Thor.  You can stop trying to intimidate Roskva, by the way.  She’s much too sensible to be taken in by you.”
Loki shot his eyes to Odin, then back to Roskva.  “And what makes you think I’m trying to intimidate her, Allfather?  Can’t a man look at a girl without such aspersions being cast?”
“A man may.  You are not a man.”  Odin leaned back against a stone and drew out a pipe.  “To what do we owe the pleasure of your company tonight?”
“Yes, Loki.  What are you doing here?  Speak fast.”  Thor leaned forward from his rock, his brows starting to furrow, and his fingers flexing as if itching to grab something.
“Why, just seeking your good company,” Loki said. “I was looking for you at Asgard a few days ago.  Frigg said I’d just missed you.  She said you were out on an adventure, and that is just what I am here for—an adventure.  So what are you up to, besides kidnapping and telling half-finished stories?”
“We’re not kidnapping!” bellowed Thor.  “These children are mine in compensation for damage.  Who are you to question my actions?”
“Easy, Thunderhead.  I’m not criticizing.  I’m just interested.  Where are we going?”  Loki leaned back near Odin, adopting a relaxed, haughty pose.  Odin had a strange, bemused look on his face, but no one was watching him.  All eyes were on Loki, who was tipping his head back to look at the stars.
When Odin spoke, his voice seemed to come from all around, and his words were slow and measured.  “You are traveling to Jotunheim, Loki, to contend with Utgard-Loki, the giant king.  Look out for each other, and look out for these children, whose lives you are responsible for.  I shall return to Asgard, but I will watch your progress and enjoy the show, so do not disappoint me.   This girl shall be my eyes as you journey.  What she sees, I will see.  And Loki, your shoe is on fire.”  With that, Loki jumped, the spell was broken, and Odin was gone.  The two remaining gods looked at each other and laughed.   Roskva wondered if she would ever be able to sleep again, she was so amazed, and then, a moment later, she was asleep.

Retelling and Rewriting–Myth edition

Neil Gaiman’s new rendering of the Norse Myths came out last week.  I looked forward to it and dreaded it.  I love his writing, and I love Norse myths, but I was worried his new book would be so awesome it would blow any need for me to write out of the water.  I am writing a Norse myth, you see.  Why on earth should I do that when Neil Gaiman is already doing that?
Whew.  He just translated them.  He revisioned a few scenes, and I was especially grateful for the ones where the Edda are sparse.  For instance, we know that Odin trades his eye for wisdom, that he hangs on the World Tree–a sacrifice of himself to himself–in order to learn the runes, that he visits Mimir’s severed head in the well where Odin preserves it, where it continues to give him counsel. But these are mentioned in passing in the Edda as things you should already know; they are not narrated.
So as I said, I was especially interested in and moved by Gaiman’s telling of the scenes that must have taken place but were never spelled out.  Now these events have a shape, and it’s a faithful, respectful, even loving rendering.  Mostly he is retelling, sometimes modernizing, definitely providing some connective tissue and providing an order that makes sense, but he’s not changing the narratives in any dramatic way.  It is a text I could use in a lower division myth class.  I like to assign direct translations of the primary texts for upper division English majors, so we can talk about manuscript transmission and scribal culture, which Gaiman doesn’t address, and his rendering muddies a bit, but I could use it for non-majors.  Thanks, NG.
So that’s what he did do.  What he did not do is recreate.  He didn’t add content, update, fictionalize, develop shadowy characters, or change plot lines.  Whew.  So I can.
I am writing a book based on one of the stories Gaiman collects, but I am writing a new story.  A character he expresses interest in as well as dismay at not having more information about, I am using for my villain.  A character for whom he constructs a viable exit (having surely noticed she simply disappeared from the myths without a trace or a regret), I have made my hero.  I am transforming the story of Thor’s visit to Jotunheim in to a hero quest for a girl, not Thor. And I do so now knowing more people will know the base story than would have before someone like Neil Gaiman threw his professional weight and his geek-cred behind it.
Meanwhile, I have work to do.  I have a new plot from old roots, a new character from old stock, and a world that may well take less “building” now.  My job is to fill gaps and expand ideas, to translate a story, not just a text.  When Thor and Loki visit Jotunheim, Thor acquires two children on the way, as compensation for breaking the thigh bone of his goat.  In Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, the boy continues on the journey, but the girl is never mentioned again.  I’m writing her story.  It’s exciting and terrifying, and I’m loving every minute.
Teaching · Writing

The Ballad of Lefty and Sergio, or Teaching, Truth, and Tales

This is a story about teaching, about reading, and about epistemology. I taught Calvino’s Mr Palomar last week, which is a lovely collection of reflective vignettes told from the perspective of a very analytical, slightly uptight man. It has no plot. It’s just a series of moments where Mr Palomar encounters the world:  physically, as in looking at waves on the beach; socially, as when he’s buying cheese in a Paris cheese shop; and reflectively, where he tries to make sense of his place in the world.

In the chapter entitled “Serpents and Skulls,” Mr Palomar is visiting Mexico, and touring the Aztec ruins at Tula. He is traveling with a friend who is well-versed in Aztec lore and clearly knows this site. He leads Palomar through a temple, and he “pauses at each stone, transforms it in to a cosmic tale, and allegory, a moral reflection” (96).
Mr Palomar listens rapt, but is occasionally distracted by a school group of children whose teacher keeps pointing to artifacts and describing them, but concluding each description with “We don’t know what it means” (97). Mr Palomar is torn between these two approaches to the world, and my class was inspired to wrestle with them as points on a spectrum.
To discuss them easily, I ascribed names to the speakers. The tour guide, leading a field trip in Mexico, I named Sergio. Then, feeling silly, and thinking perhaps that might be perceived as a goofy name for a Mexican teacher, I doubled down on my dorkiness: and because Palomar’s friend’s impassioned speech was on the left page of my open book, I named him Lefty. This is the kind of randomness or serendipity (depending on your attitude) that I think characterizes my classes. It also contributes to making each class its own culture. I have different students each time, but I also read differently each time. Ten years of Mr Palomar now, and there’s never been a “Ballad of Lefty and Sergio” before.
These two characters represent two approaches to the world and two ways of knowing (there’s the epistemology, as threatened).  Lefty is the conscientious teacher, who does all his homework and prepares for class, and when he gets in front of his students, he weaves a tapestry of what amounts to “scholarship’s best guesses.”  Knowing the cultural, anthropological, and literary history, he ties elements together and presents a working narrative that tries to do justice to the facts we can prove as well as to the truths of human nature (which are harder to prove, but no less real). He makes meaning.
As a medievalist, I’m very sympathetic to Lefty. It’s my job to teach works whose authors have been dead for centuries, frequently works whose authors are completely unknown.  I teach language no one has spoken for 600 years, and I do that, too, by a series of well-intentioned best guesses. If we know what Old English looked like, and we know what Modern English looks like, we can triangulate and make what feels like a valiant effort at understanding Middle English, the transition period.
But there’s no ironclad evidence.  When all is said and done, Sergio’s nihilistic approach that “We don’t know” is true, of course. Maybe it’s the difference between making meaning and making facts. My job is to look at as many external facts as I can, as Lefty does, and then to look at the most important fact—the text, for Lefty the statuary—and from those, produce a faithful reading.
Sergio is right: there is no empirical truth we can find, separated as we are from the works in space and time, but Lefty is right too. The solution is not to throw up our hands and deny any understanding. The solution is to pay attention to where we are standing, as we view as earnestly as we can and bridge the gap between art and audience.
I promise the last two weeks of poetry is not the beginning of a trend, but I couldn’t resist.  If you sing it, the meter can be smoothed out.
“The Ballad of Lefty and Sergio”
Lefty looks at all the facts;
He tirelessly prepares for class–
Reading, writing, watching, and then he
Constructs the truest story he can see.
Sergio won’t trust his eyes;
He sees this world compound of lies.
It’s foolish to presume that he can know
Anything outside of Sergio.
“I think this! It might be right.
The data speaks to me at night.
It makes sense given everything we know…
Why can’t you just imagine, Sergio?”
“It’s too far gone; we’re too far out.
We have no first person account.
You’re saying more about yourself, you see,
Than anything you’re looking at, Lefty.”

Lefty tells us stories that Sergio can’t believe.

Sergio knows Lefty can’t help but deceive.
These guys will keep arguing long after this song,
But thinking one of them is right is surely wrong.

*Photo credit to Bob Lamb, for “Two Gun Bob and Gentleman Kip” who live again as Lefty and Sergio.  🙂  Thanks, Bob!