Thursday, May 2, 2013

On the heel of Achilles, OMG

En route to Boulder, today

Before I embarked on my journey to Boulder today, I found myself again deeply immersed in the Greek epics, especially the Odyssey and the Argonautica. So I chuckled when Colorado friends informed me yesterday that I would be arriving on the heels of a winter snow storm that had been named - in some comic elemental wordplay - Achilles.

    At my home airport, I paused to admire and puzzle over a great red balloon, shaped like a dialog bubble in a comic strip, that shouted OMG. This felt like a happy cosmic shout out. I had to stop to take a happy snap. An elderly woman with the sharp, quizzical features of a bird paused so as not to get between my lens and the great OMG balloon.
    On the plane, I found the same lady sitting next to me. When I greeted her, I was surprised and delighted when she replied in an accent almost identical to mine. I would call that accent Anglo-Australian. It is nothing like the Strine of Crocodile Dundee, more like BBC English, yet with a kind of informality and with definitely no effort to sound either "posh" or "common." We started sharing notes. She was born in Sydney ten years before I was born in Melbourne. Her maiden name was the same as my mother's.
    We had to pause in our now very lively conversation because a younger man was standing over us. "You are in my seat," he told my neighbor, brandishing his boarding pass. "But I was led to my seat," my rowmate protested. "The flight attendant brought me here." When we checked her boarding pass, we saw there had been some confusion. She was supposed to be sitting two rows back. She offered to swap seats with the man who was supposed to be sitting next to me, and he agreed. "Things could get really good now," I remarked. "When seats get mixed up and plans get screwed up, the Trickster comes into play."
    She recounted some of passages of her life, with remarkable verve and humor. She had lived in Montpellier in southern France, where I have taught for several years and where I am traveling again later this month. "Now I am Helen of Troy," she laughed. "Have you heard of Troy, New York?" Had I heard of it! I lived there for ten years as a result of a remarkable series of dreams and coincidences described in the introduction to my book Conscious Dreaming.
    "My middle name is Hypatia. Do you know about her?" Indeed I do know about the great woman philosopher and scientist of Alexandria in the fourth century. She was the mentor of Synesius of Cyrene, the philosopher and early bishop of the church whose treatise on dreams is my favorite book on the subject before the modern era; I devote many pages to him and his correspondence with Hypatia in The Secret History of Dreaming.
The list of parallels between our lives grew and grew. She told a wildly funny story 0f how she spoke in Italian at a laboratory in northern Italy named in honor of her father, a pioneer of radio transmissions. Over-confident of her command of the language, she thanked her audience for their "jockstraps" instead of their "support". I matched this with a hilariously embarrassing episode in Paris in which I was casting roles for an impromptu dream theater and had my host play the role of a seal that had come out of the water in a woman's dream. Quite oblivious to the fact that I did not know the French word for "seal", I kept calling him by another word until his wife jumped up and down and said, "Robert, the word for seal is 'phoque'. You've been using an old word for  piece of excrement. Stop calling him a piece of sh-t and call him a phoque."
     Our conversation was getting livelier by the minute, and the match-ups continued to multiply. We talked about our experiences as Australians living in North America. I remarked, "Sometimes it's useful to be Australian. Once, after 9/11, I was allowed to get away with leaving a knife with a nine inch blade in my carry-ons because the TSA guys understood thanks to Crocodile Dundee that Aussies have to have their knives. I was made to take it back to the check in and have them put it in my suitcase." (I can't do justice to this story here, but you can find it elsewhere.) Not to be bested, Helen of Troy told me, "Four years ago I packed a sharp knife in my grandchildren's carry-ons, along with their sandwiches, so they could use it on a picnic. They found it in the scanners at Bradley airport and let me take it home without a reprimand." One thing more we had in common: getting away with inadvertently trying to take knives through airport security, because we were Australians.
     More important than all these amazing match-ups was the way she was functioning, as the conversation continued and deepened on the two-hour flight to O'Hare, as a reviver of memory. She reminded me of very specific places and elements in the Australian landscape that I have been seeking as I work on a book that involves the challenging experiences of my Australian boyhood. Her delight in language, and languages, brought alive my own lifelong engagement with foreign phrases that have made foreign mindsets native to me. And she reminded me of Sirius, which she called the Dog Star. She was an astronomer by profession, and she spoke brilliantly of the formation of star systems. We spoke of constellations that I saw in boyhood but can't see where I now live, and of Sirius, which she called the Dog Star, which has always been part of my dreaming.
    Where was she going today? To Colorado Springs, to take part in an Olympic-level springboard diving meet. At 76, and using a cane? Absolutely. The vital energy of Helen Hypatia was amazing. She seemed to have more of that than all the people on the plane put together and I told her so.
     We had broached the subject of dreams more than once by now. The picture of her standing straight on the high board before flying into the air reminded me of a song that came bursting through me last week.

We are singing till we're flying
We are flying till we're swimming

Then I remembered something else. In the language of Inuit shamans, there is a word for "dream" that translates literally as "that which makes me dive in headfirst." Helen Hypatia loved this. She said she would make it her meditation on the springboard the next day.

On my next flight, my rowmate was a nurse practitioner busily preparing for a conference in Denver on wound healing. We talked about the role of the mind and of imagery in accelerating healing, and I delivered a paean of praise for nurses, such spirited and practical people - and over the past 20 years, the #1 occupational group represented in my workshops. I couldn't help making a semi-learned joke about Achilles' heel to the nurse going to the conference on healing wounds. "You know, we are coming in on the heel of Achilles, the part of him which, when wounded, can never heal."

At Denver airport, I gathered my bags and boarded a shuttle for Boulder. The heel-marks of Achilles, in the shape of melting snow and ice, got more and more noticeable as we followed the Tollway towards Boulder. The man next to me loved Tokien and had been to New Zealand, so we were soon deep in conversation about how Peter Jackson seems to have the NZ government at his beck and call; its tourism promotion strategy is to represent that green and mountainous country of mists as Middle Earth. Our talk was interrupted by a very loud crack. Not a blowout. A rifle bullet? OMG. A very large stone had hit the windshield right in front of our driver's face. It had made a pattern of concentric rings, but the windshield had not shattered. The driver kept her cool and managed very well. It was a puzzle to her where the stone had come from. We were a good distance from other cars, and she was sure it was not a bit of gravel thrown up from the slurry that the road maintenance people lay down for traction in snowstorms. The stone was over two inches in diameter, "like a river stone."
    I felt a sense of blessing. What is an epic without danger? In those old Greek epics, greater dangers draw the help of greater powers, and when the wayfarer is most at risk a god or goddess who favors him places a hand over him. I felt that hidden hand today. OMG, it felt good...
    By the way, Helen Hypatia and I agreed that OMG means O My Goddess. I'm a goddess kind of guy.

Postcript: The epic theme continues. When I arrived at the Boulder bookstore, I was greeted at the upstairs desk by a young woman employee named Athena. I promptly said, "Where's Odysseus?" A manager responded, "He's in the store. I'll call him." In a couple of minutes, Odysseus appeared, with suitably long Achaean hair and beard. I greeted him with the opening line of the Odyssey: "Sing in me, O Muse, of the man of many ways."
    I asked how he came by the name of the most famous wayfarer in Western literature. "My parents named me Odysseus. They lived in Greece for a while."
    I made a point of reading some of the poems in Here, Everything Is Dreaming that were inspired by encounters with the mythistory of the Greeks, poems like "Birth of Apollo."


Wanda Burch said...

This is reincidence times a bazillion. What a fabulous story that will live forever in the stories that will burst forth from the encounter!

BUDDY said...

An interesting post, Mr. Moss!

Regarding Helen Hypatia's confusing the Italian word for "support" with that for "jockstraps": My main human, Mike, tells me his niece had a similar gaffe during a study-abroad program in Dijon, France. She was discussing Dijon mustard with her hosts and wanted to know whether the famous product had any preservatives in it. So in her best schoolgirl French, she asked if it contained "pryservatifs." She was quickly informed that, no, Dijon mustard does not contain condoms!

Mike says these sorts of things are what make language study fun. As a dog struggling with English, I'm not sure I agree.