Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Watch what stories you are carrying

I see that I must be more careful about the books I select as my travel companions. This week it felt like a mischief-making tree spirit leaped out of a book onto the train track in front of me.
    On Monday I set off to New York City on Amtrak. This was the first time in ages I had gone to the city by train. It can be a beautiful ride. The line runs along the Hudson River most of the way, and it was a fine day to view the fall foliage and the play of light on the water.
    My attention flitted back and forth between the shifting landscapes through the window and my first literary selection, an excellent collection of cross-cultural studies on the practice of dreaming. among indigenous peoples titled Dream Travelers and edited by Trent University anthropology professor Roger Ivar Lohmann. If you consider a scholarly text safe reading, read on.
    I was soon immersed in Lohmann's account of his own fieldwork among the Asabano of Papua New Guinea. They consider dreams to be real experiences; you make visits and you receive visitations. Dreaming is a field of interaction with beings of various kinds, including the dead,  the fairy-like wobuno, wild nature spirits and witches. "Supernatural encounters are frequent; nevertheless, they are odd and exciting. They are long remembered, the source of many tales around the hearth." *
    In dreams, spirits might provide guidance that would lead to a successful hunt, especially when the hunter made certain offerings. Dreams could also reveal when a malevolent spirit was the source of illness or misfortune. It seems that in this part of the island, tree spirits are especially engaged with humans. Before recent Christianization, an elder told Lohmann, "When a man was sick, people would dream that a tree spirit or other thing had hurt him."
     I was startled by the idea that a tree spirit might attack a human. I read on, in the New Guinea elder's account, "I myself have dreamed when someone was sick that the tree spirits made him or her sick."**

     At this precise moment, less than fifteen minutes into my journey, the Amtrak train came to a shuddering stop. After a long pause, it was announced over the crackling intercom that "a big tree fell across the track." After another pause, a conductor rushed up and down the aisle yelling that the tree was on fire. "There's smoke!" We couldn't see what was going on, but we were next told that the "big tree" had brought down some power lines.
    After a long wait, we were told that the train was going back to Albany-Rensselaer, where we had started. We had to shunt in reverse the whole way, agonizingly slowly. Back at our point of departure, we were left to meditate upon life for a long time before we received word that railroad crews had succeeded in clearing one of the two tracks leading to New York City, but we would now have to wait for an incoming train to come through before we could leave.
    I got to Penn Station nearly four hours late. A ride scheduled to take 2 hours 25 minutes took over six hours. When our train resumed the journey interrupted by the falling tree, I put the anthropology book that did not seem able to contain tree spirits back in my overnight bag.
   I contemplated the demonic cat on the cover of the second book I had brought with me. It is one of my favorite novels, Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita, in which the Devil comes to Moscow with an amazing entourage. I reread it for pleasure every few years.
    But not today. I recalled that in the opening scene the Devil, traveling as a foreign professor, makes the accurate prediction that a certain person will be beheaded before the end of the day - by a tram. Not a train, but near enough.

    Over a late dinner in Manhattan, I mused with a Russian friend about a recurring pattern in my travels: the stories I am carrying proceed to play out in my experience of the physical world.
    I once  took off from Bucharest with a Romanian fantasy anthology that included Mircea Eliade's story "With the Gypsy Girls". I was drawn deep into Eliade's eerie tale, in which a man is lured into a bizarre alternate reality from which he cannot return. I found by the end of that first flight that I had been drawn into a very strange parallel reality of my own. I wandered lost all night, stranded at Warsaw's Chopin airport among Russians and Ukrainians who lacked Schengen visas and lay sprawled on every surface like the dead on a field of battle. I managed to extricate myself only two days later. I wrote about that here.
     On another plane, I was reading a memoir by one of Churchill's bodyguards when a stranger dressed as Indiana Jones took the seat beside me. When I asked him about his costume, he declared that it was "the real thing." He proceeded to tell me that his clothes were made by "Churchill's former bodyguard" - Peter Botwright, who designed the costumes for the Indiana Jones movies. That was just one element in an amazing episode that seemed custom-made for me by some designing minds just behind the curtain of the world. I tell the whole story in the introduction to The Three "Only" Things.
At a newsstand at Prague’s Vaclav Havel airport, I once found a new bilingual edition of the folktales of Czech writer Karel Jaromir Erben. This became my reading on the first leg of a very long trip home from Europe that ended in a weird limbo of late-night train stations that were not part of my itinerary. My journey took on the coloration of Erben's dark, compelling verse fantasies in which (for example) a woman leaves her husband's bed every night to lie with the dead. You can find that story here.   
    There was the time I was reading 
A Story Waiting to Pierce You (Peter Kingsley's book on Tibetan-Mongolian shamanism) and got, for my neighbor on another plane....a dominatrix wearing a top hat and Death's heads on the backs of her gloves. The full story is in Sidewalk Oracles
    Back to my latest story. Late Monday night, after walking uptown from Penn Station and checking into my hotel, I was sitting with my Russian friend in El Mitote, a lively Mexican restaurant on the upper West Side. I sipped a margarita and quoted Borges: "The mind is dreaming. The world is its dream."
    "Good thing you did not spend too much time today with The Master and Margarita today," my friend observed. "Strange things are known to happen when people get involved with that book."

    In the Mexican restaurant, the Dia de los Muertos had come early. Skeletons in flouncy skirts and tight jackets were dancing on the wall.
    In the light of the morning, I found Dante standing in a little triangle of green between my hotel and Lincoln Center. Of course. Story within story, all unfolding within the great Commedia. At the television network where I recorded a show, I was greeted by a young woman named Angel. Things seemed to be looking up.
    Memo to self: when you travel, check what themes and plots you are carrying with you.

*Roger Ivar Lohmann, "Supernatural Encounters of the Asabano in Two Traditions and Three States of Consciousness" in Lohmann (ed) Dream Travelers: Sleep Experiences and Culture in the Western Pacific (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) 191.
** ibid, 193.

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