Hunger is the worst of diseases ~ the Buddha

Monday, August 12, 2013

Mnemosynemon Rolls OR: Percy Jackson & The Sea of Monstrous Self-Doubt

Two weeks from today, school starts back up for all of us, and we've only done a fraction of the hopeful, absurdly noble things planned for mythical summers. Here is only one thing on that list, writ in august, disappearing ink:

"Explore Greek Mythology as a family this summer. AFTER reading Rick Riordan's second Percy Jackson novel, Sea of Monsters, and BEFORE the movie comes out in August, enlist the kids to make a Papier Mâché Medusa head light fixture cover or chandelier, with intrinsically glowing eyes and wafting, organically animatronic snakes. See sketches."

Only a partial fail, though.

Because Papier Mâché is French for "chewed paper," and I can see the way that even with more self-compassion, I still get spit-wadded up with everything I thought up, but somehow cannot execute because of time.

And, you know, mortality.

I get Cyclops-vision, you see, with creative plans: I train one big eye on the parts I didn't do (no matter how small), and completely miss the rest--all the good stuff in the periphery.
And one thing I'm learning is that there's a pretty big field of vision outside the negative--Titanic, in fact.

I didn't finish Sea of Monsters in time, but Ava chewed right through it, since she carries 4 books (one from each current series) around everywhere--but it didn't keep her from beaming, squealing in delight, and leaning over to whisper I love you through the whole movie, when all of us went to see it over the weekend. 

Sometimes, it's only important to have a beautiful, mythic vision of the structure for your days--which can feel long, and yet somehow nothing close to Olympic--whether or not they actually turn out that way.

To put things in perspective, I recommend National Geographic's Treasure of Greek Mythology. Its luminous illustrations and radiant storytelling make it a perfect breakfast or lunchtime (or while in the Charybdis-jaws of that whirlpool: "getting-breakfast-cleaned-up-just-as-lunch-is-on-the-table") read. 
You too can speak in a sibilant hiss, acting out Medusa over a plate of spaghetti, and spear imaginary foes with a three-tined fork--I mean, trident. 
You need a book like this. We all do.

Because just feeding people and loving them, meal after meal and day after day--especially on endless, steam-rainy days when you just want to Ju-ly down and cry because you're not getting anything "real" done, like painting the walls or attending to your own writing, and it's all Percy Jackson & The Sea of Monstrous Self-Doubt anyway--
IS heroic.

Yesterday at breakfast, we played "Celebrity Greek God You Most Resemble."

Ava: Mom, if you were a god or goddess, I believe you'd be "A-pro-fight." You know, the goddess of beauty and love? 

Me: Aphrodite?

Ava: Sorry, I don't know how to pronounce it, but it's true.

Awwwww, I think (for almost 3 seconds): She sees me that way! As a goddess of beauty! And she's almost 10! [Insert sickening fear and resistance to change] How long can this last?...Now wait a minute, why doesn't she see me as Athena? I want to be wisdom, not beauty. Isn't that what we're after around here? Doesn't she think I'm smart?

But Athena is not the goddess of needing to be told she's smarter than everyone else, because she's not so sure. 
She's the goddess of wisdom--which is the really the knowledge of truth, or true nature of things, applied. 
Wisdom is knowledge put to good use. 

Me: Who do you want to be?

Ava: Athena. Naturally.


It turns out this is an invaluable exercise. Keeping Greek myths handy, so you can stop and consider with whom you most identify. Who you might turn out to be, while you eat. 

Because Aphrodite is the goddess of Love.

Which is, said another way, the knowledge of beauty (and ugliness), put to good use.
Nowhere do you see it all more clearly, than reflected in your own plate.

The great dancer Isadora Duncan once said: "Before I was born my mother was in great agony of spirit and in a tragic situation. She could take no food except iced oysters and champagne. If people ask me when I began to dance, I reply, 'in my mother's womb, probably as a result of the oysters and champagne - the food of Aphrodite.'"

Well, I was far too afraid of all I'd read-henned, in popular mothering magazines, doctor's offices, and the Internet to go anywhere near shellfish or champagne (though I struggled with my drinking before and after both pregnancies), but you get the idea here:
Whatever the food of beauty and love is, it makes us leap and spin. It gives us the the wings--and horns, and Achilles' heels--we're each born with. 
And that sensibility passes through, umbilically. 
Our bodies and minds are corded to our parents' issues and identities--for better and for worse--you can blood bank on it.

Science currently suggests that not only can we pass on our neuroses and mutated genes, we can pass along our neuroplastic-fantastic ability to embrace concepts like goodness, wellness, and heroism, as well.

We are all hyperlinked by the motherlode of our sensibilities, and quite frankly, we're all on a collective quest here, using our senses to help classify ourselves. To see and more importantly, feel, ourselves fitting into the structure.

Down in our bones we know this, and yet it feels disturbing and "discomfortable" (as Otto says) to view ourselves as heroic--at least to use the term out loud--or as something like an epic container for a concept like love.
I deal with this daily, like a multivitamin.

Actually, with my tendencies to clinging to my wordplay and to my past, the goddess I would have identified myself with (without Ava's reframe) is Mnemosyne, guardian of memory. 

It's funny no one remembers her--except maybe by her other name, "Hey, Nine Muses' Mom."

A Mnemonic device is any learning strategy that manipulates information to help you remember--which is all mindfulness is (they're often auditory--a classic example from my childhood is Potsie's "Pumps Your Blood" song, from Happy Days), and I've always thought it funny, as a teacher, that a chief obstacle to students's using mnemonic devices is that they just read about them in books about how to learn, often without guidance.
Then, because they are naturally disinclined to understand words they can't pronounce (much less attempt to use them or their more ineffable concepts), they suffer. 
You can only use skillfully what you first understand.

I find it fascinating that Ava, at 9, will keep at it--even when she risks being wrong, or misunderstood (two things I never like to be). 
Once, she told a platinum waitress that the pie, not made in-house, was okay, but just "blonde."

She'd read, understood, and never said the word bland out loud before. 
She was just making her best guess bringing it into the world.
Which is all parenting is. Which is all creativity is. 
Which is all any of us is doing, at any given moment, trying to understand and be understood.

For some reason when you're 7 or 42, it's fun (though incorrect) to pronounce "cinnamon" as cinn-ee-mon (it makes you feel like a genie bursting out of a spice bottle, which is another set of stories). It's okay to be deliberately incorrect if it helps you remember something else correctly, I think: 

Mnemosyne: If I say it this way, out loud: "Nem-o-cinneemon Rolls," and then hand you one, all covered with sweet, homemade icing, I can guarantee that you will get it--and never pronounce it incorrectly again. And you will no longer be afraid of that particular possibility for failure--if failure is not knowing how.
But you may end up asking for cinneemon rolls:

"Please make the cinnamon rolls," they say on the weekends. 

"I'll make the icing," Ava says.

"Do you know how?" I say.

"How hard had could it be if you just show me? I already know what's in it: it's just confectioner's sugar and a little water with some vanilla extract--I looked it up. But I'm going to add cinnamon."

Probably Mnemosynneemon.

If you want to make sense of things you don't understand, you need to allow for the fact that you don't know how, and that you might be wrong. Also (the crux of the learning curve), that you might never know.
You need to be able to let down to be okay with that. You need someone you trust, holding the possibility of all the miscommunication & mishap warm and fragrant for you on a plate, nourishing you into trying.

Now why is it that I can invite some other confused, hungry soul to sit at my table, and patiently offer (and re-offer, if necessary) the plate of my own mnemosynnamon-scented goodness, yet I cannot always eat my own words?

Because, although both sides of the plate may be the same, they don't always look the same (and they definitely don't feel the same).

Maybe I am neither my beauty nor my clinging, nor the words themselves, but a pantheon of possibilities, on any given day.

Maybe "She"--that mythical Other or Self in the Third Person--is simply my mnemesis. 

I've always loved a line from Pema Chodron: "Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better, it’s about befriending who we are."

Worldly life, then, is making friends with the myth (the many myths). 
Heroic friendship with oneself.

[licks fingers]


  1. I'll see your Potsie and raise you a Mallory Keaton "Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus"!

  2. Not-oddly enough, we've been watching old seasons of Family Ties together over the past year (Netflix)--it's hard to find anything on television anymore that's that well-written, contains great prompts for meaty personal and social discussion, and that is personally satisfying (non-SpongeBob-yelling/repellant) to adults and children. And free. It's SO MUCH funnier than I remember, pining over Alex P. Keaton, as a young girl. I was just talking about this with a friend, who was praising Justine Bateman's comedic timing. And frankly, Michael Gross is one of the most underrated, dry gems of that and all eras. He does the conscious, put-upon husband and intelligent, ethical citizen in a way that is both refreshing and painfully hysterical.