Archive for November 2014

Nano-ed ’14   2 comments

nanowidge50KwootFinished a day early, with a solid push for most of the day. Spent three hours at an informal Write-In at the Brattleboro library, which helped a lot. Tired–check! Glad I Nano-ed again this year–check! You can always learn more about process and the reaches and tricks of self-discipline and the divine gift of imagination. Looking forward to revising-check! But not yet.  First: sigh. S-T-R-E-T-C-H. Relax. Binge-video-watch. Ah!

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Learning from the Ancestors, Part 1   Leave a comment

mallorybkI’ve mentioned my obsession with Indo-European (IE) in previous posts, and given samples of a conlang I derived from IE and use in ritual. One of the many fascinations of this reconstructed language that’s the ancestral tongue of 3 billion people — half the people on the planet alive today — is the glimpses into the culture we can reconstruct along with the language. (Here’s a visual of the IE “family” and many of its members.) How, you thoughtfully ask, can we really know anything about a culture dating from some 6000 years ago – the very approximate time period when the speakers of the IE proto-language flourished? A good question — I’m glad you asked! – and one hotly contested by some with agendas to push – usually a nationalist or religious agenda intent on serving a worldview that excludes some group, worldview or idea. Hey kids, let’s define our club du jour by those we don’t let in!

But the most reasonable and also plausible answer to the question of IE language and culture is also simpler and less theatrical. Indo-European is the best and most thoroughly reconstructed proto-language on the planet — and it’s true there’s much still to learn. But after over two hundred years of steady increases in knowledge about human origins and of thoroughly debated and patient linguistic reconstruction, the techniques have been endlessly proven to work. And if a series of words that converge on a cultural point or practice can be reconstructed for IE, then the cultural practice or form itself is also pretty likely. Notice I don’t say merely a single word. Yes, to give a modest example, IE has the reconstructed word *snoighwos “snow” (the * indicates a reconstruction from surviving descendants — see footnote 1 below for a sample) – and that possibly suggests a region for an IE “homeland” that is temperate enough to get snow.  After all, why have a word for a thing that’s not part of your world in any way? But wait — there’s more!

Here’s an uncontested (note 2) series of reconstructions – *pater, *mater, *sunu, *dukter, *bhrater and *swesor – all pointing to an immediate family unit roughly similar to our “nuclear family,” with father, mother, son, daughter, brother and sister all in place. It’s fairly safe on the basis of this cluster of reconstructed words – and others, if you still doubt, can be provided in painfully elaborate detail – that with a high degree of probability, an IE family existed all those millennia ago that would also be recognizable in modern times and terms.

[Side note: almost every reconstructed IE word listed in this post has a descendant alive in modern English. Want proof? Post a comment and I’ll be happy to provide a list!]

stan carey - Indo-European Jones meme - nothing shocks me - I'm a linguistThings understandably get touchier and more contentious when we move on to words and ideas like *deiwos “god”; *nmrtya “immortality”; *dapnos “potlatch, ritual gift-exchange”; *dyeu + *pater “chief of the gods” (and Latin Jupiter); *sepelyo– “perform the burial rites for a corpse”; and a few whole phrases like *wekwom tekson, literally “weaver of words, poet” and *pa- wiro-peku, part of a prayer meaning something like “protect people and cattle.”

What else can we conclude with considerable confidence about the IE peoples? Many lived in small economic-political units governed by a *reg– “king, chieftain” and lived in *dom– “houses.” Women *guna, *esor left their families at marriage and moved to live with their husbands *potis, *ner, *snubhos. A good name *nomen mattered then just as it does today – even with social media both exalting and trashing names with sometimes dizzying speed – though small-town gossip always filled and fills that role quite well, too. Heroes dominated the tales people told round household and ceremonial fires *pur, *ogni in the village *woikos, *koimos at night *nokwti. The most powerful and famous *klewes– heroes succeeded in slaying the serpent or monster of chaos: *oghwim eghwent “he slew the serpent” and thereby earned *klewos ndhghwitom “undying fame” (note 3). Special rites called for an *asa altar and offerings *spond-, because the universe was a place of an ongoing re-balancing of forces where the cosmic harmony *rti, *rta needed human effort to continue.

With Thanksgiving in the wings, it’s a good time for reflection (is it ever not?). Ways of being human have not changed as much as we might think or fear or be led to believe. Family, relationships, good food and drink, a home, meaningful work, self-respect – these still form the core of the good life that remains our ideal, though its surface forms and fashions will continue to shift, ebb and flow. Hand round the *potlom cup and the *dholis, the portion each person shares with others, so that all may live, and we can still do as our ancestors did: give thanks *gwrat– and praise for the gift *donom of life *gwita.

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1. Linguistic reconstruction involves comparing forms in existing and recorded languages to see whether they’re related.  When you gather words that have a strong family resemblance and also share similar or related meanings, they help with reconstructing the ancestral word that stands behind them, like an old oil portrait of great-great-great grandma in the hallway. Some descendant or other probably still walks around with her characteristic nose or brow or eyes, even if other details have shifted with time, marriage — or cosmetic surgery.

For *snoighwos, a sample of the evidence includes English snow, Russian snegu, Latin nix, niv-, Sanskrit sneha-, and so on.  The more numerous the survivals in daughter languages, the more confident the reconstruction usually is. After a while you see that fairly consistent patterns of vowels and consonants begin to repeat from word to word and language to language, and help predict the form a new reconstruction could take.

A handful of reconstructed words have descendants in all twelve (depending on who does the counting) of the main IE family groups like Italic (Latin, Oscan, Umbrian, all the Romance languages, and others), Celtic (Irish, Welsh, Breton, Manx, etc.), Germanic (German, English, Dutch, Icelandic, Norwegian, Frisian, Swedish, Gothic, etc.), Baltic (Latvian, Lithuanian, Prussian), Slavic (Russian, Serbian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Slovene, Polabian, Old Church Slavonic, etc.), Greek (Doric, Macedonian, Attic, etc.), Tocharian (A and B), and Indo-Iranian (Sanskrit, Pali, Avestan, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Sindhi, Kashmiri, Dari, Pashto, Farsi, Baluchi, Gujerati, etc.) and so on, to name roughly half of the families, but nowhere near all the members, which number well over 100, not counting dialects and other variants.

2. “Uncontested” means that words with approximately these forms and meanings are agreed on by the overwhelming majority of scholars. If you dip into Indo-European linguistics journals and textbooks, you’ll often see algebraic-looking reconstructions that include details I exclude here — ones having to do with showing laryngeals, stress, vowel length and quality, etc. indicated by diacritics, superscripts and subscripts.

3. Even without the details mentioned in note 2 above, some reconstructions can still look formidably unpronounceable: I challenge any linguist to give three consecutive oral renderings of the second element in the reconstructed phrase *klewos ndhghwitom! The point to remember is that these are usually cautious reconstructions. They generally “show what we know.” Vowels tend to be much more slippery and fickle than consonants in most languages, and so they’re also less often completely clear for IE than the consonantal skeleton is. Several people, me among them, have worked on versions of “Indo-European for daily use”!

Images: Mallory; Indiana Jones the linguist.

Corrected 18 Dec. 2014

“Oh no, ya can’t always git whatcha want”   2 comments

nanowidge34k“but if ya try sometimes …” Well, the Stones’ song is a good piece of writing advice for your main character. Give her what she wants too soon, and your story’s done before you’ve gotten to chapter two. But let her find out what she needs? Well, that’s at least as interesting.

When a regular blog doesn’t deliver the goods, some accounting by the blogger is in order. So here’s a quick Nano-update: I’m in the home stretch, a few thousand words behind, but that’s manageable. Eight days more! At this point I feel I have at least as many questions as my main character Emily: about the other world she’s been dragged to, about the people behind the scenes and their motives (because, let’s face it, how many people do you know who openly share their motives with you, alert you when they change, and generally keep you in the loop?). Yes, I’ve already written 30,000 words about her experience. Could you do justice to your life in 30,000 words?!

Of course, that’s half the reason to write: to find out what’s gonna happen next. And depending on whether the ending of the monster-lovely thing you’re birthing is clear to you, how it’s all gonna work itself out.  In my story, the girl gets the boy. But that’s when her real problems begin.

“Here, everything has a container”   Leave a comment

artofdreamsemBack from a seminar this weekend on the art of spiritual dreaming, with a series of quirky, honest, challenging speakers and panelists.  “Intimate” was a word I heard more than once to “describe the vibe”: the distance between speaker and audience collapsed in a remarkable way, so that we were all participants. Or as one speaker remarked, talking about his experience with dreaming and comedy and comedic training with the improv group Upright Citizens Brigade, “you show up, listen and tell the truth.” If the truth isn’t yet funny-sad at the same time, you keep showing up, listening, and telling and digging. You bring it with everything you are. ‘Cause otherwise, what’s the point? Except maybe chocolate.

But the statement I heard during the seminar that has stuck with me is the line that provided the title for this post: “Here, in these worlds of duality, everything has a container.” Or to put it another way, “soup needs a pot.” My wife and I riffed on this on the drive home. Relationships, stress,  jobs, life: we’re just having “container issues.” The center around which the storms rage witnesses it all. Uncontained, it doesn’t get slimed or cracked, burnt or broken, stolen, ripped off, bungled, overpaid or underappreciated. Container issues, these. How to shift attention off the containers, even for a moment, is a source of great freedom and possibility. Don’t, say some. Can’t, say others. Shouldn’t, say still others. We listen, and we don’t, can’t — until we discover a “why not?” lying at the bottom of the bag, like a stale fortune cookie, or a light-switch felt for, in a strange house or hotel room, in the dark. And we do.  And so it begins.

Hence the “art” part in the “Art of Spiritual Dreaming.” As an art, it needs practice. Really improves with trying out and adapting and personalizing, missing and picking up and proceeding in fits and starts, in the best human tradition.

The first stages of practice can be squeaky, atonal cries, like the noises from that violin you or your nine-year-old has just picked up and attempted to drag a bow across. Or grunts and groans, as when you move into that yoga posture, and you suddenly can count every damn one of the 206 bones, plus assorted tendons and ligaments, in the human body. Your body, thank you very much. Sometimes the art consists in not crying. Or doing so, with all the tears and sobs the situation calls for. If you’re a puddle, you’re sometimes half-way to “soup without the pot.” Then you climb back in. Repotted.

Your art may be different. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,” said a certain wise teacher not so many millennia ago. How your art comes to you is your life, what you’re doing today and tomorrow. And after that, maybe.  But when this art we’re all practicing becomes dogma, the artist — who’s the point of it, after all — gets lost in the bans, inquisitions, burnings, purges, pogroms, reformations, downsizings and re-organizations. (Looked at one way, it’s all church/work.) Let me out, says the Artist. I need to breathe. And when we confuse cop-out with drop-out, we’ve confused what Tolkien called the “the flight of the deserter” with “escape of the prisoner.” One is weakness, though sometimes we need to acknowledge weakness, too, just like with crying.  (Show up and tell the truth.) The other, the escape, is a necessity. The bush may survive in the prison yard, but it blossoms in open air. You and I dream every night (proven, documented, everyone single one of us, every night — remembering is just another art to practice) to escape the container into more open air.

We talked in the seminar about techniques.  They’re not hidden, not anymore. Half a hundred schools and temples and ashrams, synagogues and retreats and workshops teach them, sometimes try to claim them, copyright them even, if they’re reeeeely insecure, or greedy and want your $ or other equivalent metal and paper tokens.

Silence. Chant, kirtan, song. Prayer, mantra, favorite refrigerator-magnet team-building-button go-to verbal icon for centering. Icon, image, idol, focus, mandala. Posture, breathing, zazen, yoga, tai chi, krav maga, judo, karate. Ritual, rite, gesture, mudra. Dream, metaphor, lucidity, shift, imaging, visualization. All of these can rattle the container, making us aware of it if we mistake container for real deal, for the truth of what’s going on right now. Pursued with sufficient discipline and zeal, they begin to open doors. Too many! you may say. I’ve just begun with this one, and you’re dumping a truck-load on me.

All you need is to master just one technique, says the Teacher. Just one, and that will be enough.

Enough for what? Suspicious that someone’s selling you something? For me that enough leads to pure experience. Opinions just not needed till after, if at all. Tolkien describes his sense of new/familiar in one of many instances in The Return of the King, in the chapter “The Houses of Healing”:

… as the sweet influence of the herb stole about the chamber it seemed to those who stood by that a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.

And if this metaphor, which is simply another technique, happens to work for you, you catch another glimpse that can be strengthened by one of the techniques here. Or if you’ve swallowed long years or lives of dogma and you practice denial as one of your (powerful) techniques for self-defense against liars and their lies, or simply if your spiritual taste is nourished by other food, it may not work, and you need to look elsewhere, and maybe else-how. And like so many things that may have started for you way back in high school, “you’ll know it when you find it.”

All of this is simply a larger over-technique. And because it’s shaped in words in this post, it may trip you up as much as help you. So with that caveat I pass it along for what it’s worth. Sometimes even an echo is enough to keep us going down the hall and out the gate and along the next path.

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nanowidge-mon11-17If you’ve been following my nano-progress in the last few posts, you’ll see by the numbers here (showing up and practicing my telling the truth) that I’m lagging in the numbers game. Words, word-count, Nanowrimo, this novel, writing — all containers.  Necessary, but not the final story. I’ve got plenty to write, but it’s coming slower than usual, because it feels good to get it right.

Like the story’s already out there, Emily’s sitting here in the living room, curled up near the fire on a snowy, rainy, yucky Vermont day. She’s cradling a mug of tea in one hand, reading or sketching or listening to music, waiting for the next segment I’m just finishing up, and I’m trying to tell it accurately so she’ll recognize it. Or I’m transcribing from a dream what she told me in detail, in Dirnive, which she granted me a pass to enter last night, and I have to punch “replay” and re-enter that dream to check the experience one more time against what I’ve got so far.

It’s coming through like a dream, not linear — that’s for later, with editing — and with textures and colors and sounds that will loom up suddenly and ask for space and time I hadn’t anticipated. A scene with her parents and brother, casually shopping in an antiques store. A class at St. Swithins that seems to link to Emily’s absence for about two weeks’ earth time, but nearly a year on Dirnive. To conceive and give birth to a child there. Because if she doesn’t, given the difference in time passage between the two worlds, her love will age and die quite literally before she herself is out of her teens. Which makes her parents grandparents — her mother would adore a grandchild, only not so soon — but grandparents of a baby they will never see. Because Emily can come and go between worlds — her worlds — but no one else can. I think. Emily doesn’t want to risk it, yet. She says. See what a novel can do to you?!

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Image: Art of Spiritual Dreaming — John Pritchard

Nano ’14 Update and Fragment   Leave a comment

nanowidge4-14Reporting in from the depths of Nano-ing. My goal is 25K by this Saturday, the halfway mark, and I’m obviously behind, though not impossibly so. Woo-hoo!

So here’s a recent fragment from my deeply drafty work so far. On Dirnive (that DEER-nee-veh, if things like names matter to you like they do to me), Emily’s private “other world,” a council tasked with contacting her fails in its first attempts. But the fallout from their efforts on Emily’s emotional and mental equilibrium is nonetheless severe. Medication and therapy have succeeded only in making her sleepy and angry respectively. Here she meets with yet another in what is becoming a string of therapists who can make little headway with their young patient. Of course, there’s a simple reason for that: Dirnive is actually real and not merely a disorder or complex or hormonal imbalance. Oh, and Char is one of Emily’s friends from St. Swithin’s.

“Well, Emily, this second session is where we have a chance to begin to get to know each other. Is there anything you’d like to say to get us started?”

Emily gazed at Dr. Ericson, her new therapist, and sighed to herself. Another expert.They’re all alike. She smiled sweetly and decided to play along. She turned on the sweet biddable teenage girl charm. But not too much. Understated. That’s the trick.

“There’s this repeating dream I’ve had,” she began, “three or four times now. Maybe that will give us something to work with, doctor.”

Emily took a deep breath.  Just improvise, Char always says. Well, here goes. “In the dream I’m always in the same place at the start. On a shore, just gazing out to sea, and there’s a single small cloud on the horizon, off in the west. And I know pretty soon I’ll be flying over the water toward the cloud. And I hear Lara’s theme playing. You know, from Dr. Zhivago? The weird thing is, it’s being sung by some of my St. Swithin’s classmates, and they’re all dressed in formal wear, like for a prom, but they’re all in Russia for job interviews. Weird, right? And then Zhivago, you know, the actor I mean, what’s-his-name, Mom and I just watched it last year. Omar Sharif! Yeah, that’s it. So Omar comes out in a cowboy hat and spandex but no shirt. Love the name!  I’m so gonna call my firstborn Omar. So anyway, he interviews the Swithiners for a script-doctor position for the film we’re making. Only it becomes a film about my left big toe, not the Pasternak novel. And my toe has a sad little face painted on it, like a clown’s, along with a period costume for the movie. And he, Zhivago I mean, or Sharif, not my toe, he promises them all a salary that will be paid in cheese blintzes, as long as no one cuts off my toe before the scripts are finished. Which I’m worried about, my toe that is, and I want to tell Lara about it, ’cause she’s been standing there the whole time, rocking the blonde thing and nodding sympathetically at all of us, but she’s off to a mouse festival. Which makes sense, kind of, in the dream anyway, at least with the cheese in it. So I wake up crying ‘No cheese blintzes!'”

She paused. “Wild, huh? What do you think it all means?”

The therapist looked perplexed. Emily barely managed to swallow a shout of laughter. She coughed to cover it. Dad would be absolutely hysterical by now, she thought gleefully.

Nano ’14 Day 6 Update   Leave a comment

nanowidge2-14When you start bleeding caffeine, you know you’re in the thick of writing …

Here’s a rough “back-cover blurb” I pulled together today for my own use:

Emily Fioretta Zhang-Salzano, 15, is living her day-student nerd-life at St. Swithin’s School, until another world named Dirnive (that’s DEER-nee-veh) comes calling and pulls her into it. Literally. Repeatedly. Without warning. Can she stay sane, pass chemistry, reassure her parents, friends and teachers about her strange absences, and halt — or lead — a war?

And I crawled out of a slump and reached the 20% mark today on day six with over 10K. Some of it, not surprisingly, is notes towards a novel, but I’ve got enough (as you can tell from the blurb) that there’s an actual story there. Though the “war” part is a stopgap for something I don’t yet see clearly.

Here at Kimberly’s request is another fragment, continuing from where the previous post left off:

Across the hills to the west the late October sunset faded to a wan streak of amber. The three miles along Spruce Ridge Road to Callahan’s meant two switchbacks and a single-lane plank bridge just before the road turned to pavement. Halloween decorations glowed in yards and windows. A few more nights. Emily was too old for trick or treating, she thought regretfully – had been for some years, because everyone saw her height first and misjudged her age. But Kev at twelve loved the holiday untroubled by such things, and she still enjoyed it through him. His homemade vampire priest costume hung on his bedroom door, ready to go, with a real clerical collar he’d borrowed from Father Andrew, and makeup from last year’s school production of Rocky Horror Picture Show. The brief parent-teacher controversy that flared over that choice had brightened two weeks of otherwise dull classes for Emily with its predictable arguments, letters to the editor, and overblown opinions. For her own amusement she argued both sides to herself, uncertain which one deserved to win solely on logic. The production itself was a rousing success. Branston Central enjoyed an excellent theater program.

A dip in the road recalled Emily to the moment. She loved the subdued colors, the listening landscape of autumn, even the shorter overcast days that made a return to a warm house that much more inviting. Her headlights parsed silhouettes of dark tree limbs, then the deeper darkness that was the road. Mist rose off pastures and meadows, glazing and scattering the twin beams in front of her. The wet road shone faintly.

Five minutes later Emily glanced at the rearview mirror and came to a stop. Where was Pickering Lane, or Roubidoux’s farm, or anything familiar? She got out. No lights from windows in any direction. She knew this road, lived on it since forever, played in its mud and puddles as a child, grew up on it, walked it, biked it, now drove it. How could she be lost on it?

Nanoeing (like Canoeing?)   4 comments

nanowidge1-14So here’s the opening scene of my drafty 2014 Nanowrimo nano-novel. Yes, that means it’s still reeeeeely small.  But it’s getting bigger!

Here’s a bantering exchange between 15-year old Emily Zhang-Salzano, the main character, and her father, to set the stage of dark foreboding (not that dark) for what’s to come, when Emily is whisked off to parts unknown by powers unseen. You know, first a light at the end of the tunnel, but then more tunnel. As the Wise have said, if you want interesting characters, make them suffer …

“Emily!”

“Living room, Dad.”

“Honey, I need you to break the law for me.”

“Way to get a girl’s attention. Does it involve removing mattress tags?”

“No.”

“Downloading adult … cat videos?”

“What? No, that’s so last year.” Neil Salzano appeared in the doorway, a towel slung over one arm, and a dusting of flour on his nose. “Listen, your mom will be home soon, we’ll be eating, but I just discovered we’re out of whipping cream and–”

“You want me to steal a cow?”

“Exactly. Preferably one that also gives chocolate milk, so your brother will consider it a fair trade while you’re serving your sentence.”

“Ha! Nobody would miss me. That’s the beauty of your plan.”

“Clever child. Actually I need you to drive to Callahan’s and pick up a pint of cream.”

“You know I just got my permit.”

“I do. I also know you’ve been driving tractors, pickups, sailboats, dirt bikes and Voldemort knows what else since you were eight. You’re a safer driver than your mother. I’d go myself but I’m expecting a call I can’t miss. Strictly land-line. You know the cell reception in these our dearly beloved hills. Hence the highly illegal nature of your mission, should you choose to accept it.”

“You’re contributing to the delinquency of a minor.”

“So don’t get caught. Three miles, on a dirt road.”

“I’m the poster child for family values. Really. Candidates hire me for photo ops.”

“Just the Libertarians. Honor your father, that your days may be long. Look, you can park in Bill and Angie’s driveway, then walk across the highway and the last hundred yards to Callahan’s. No one needs to see you all unchaperoned and teen-terrifying behind the wheel.”

“What would Mom say?”

“She won’t say anything if you get the cream and I manage to finish making dessert.”

“I can’t get into Harvard or Yale with a criminal record.”

“You’re a misdemeanor waiting to happen. This is your chance to demonstrate your obvious maturity and independence.”

“What a sweet-talker!”

“You know it. And no stopping in at the town library on the way. I’m serious, Em. It’s Thursday evening, I know they’re open late tonight, but I’ll drive you into Branston on Saturday and you can have the whole day to hide away in the stacks at State if you want.”

“Ah, ’tis bribery now. ‘The Corruption of Emily’ miniseries, based on a shocking true story. Branston’s a promise? What about all the yard work?”

“Mrs. Breckenridge is our last this year, but she says she wants to compost her leaves herself.”

“OK, then. Deal!”

“You’re my favorite daughter. Here are the keys.”

By the time Emily pulled the battered Honda out of their circular driveway, darkness settled in and was getting comfortable. Recalling the conversation of a few minutes ago, she smiled again. Mom’s English was really good, but she still couldn’t always follow the banter between Emily and her father. It felt wonderful to be this light and easy again with at least one of them, finally, after all the fights and prescriptions and appointments and drama of the last year. St. Swithin’s had officially ended her medical leave with an invitation to return this fall, and classes were going well. Maybe she actually had her life back again.

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As Patrick Rothfuss says, “Thou shalt not just think about writing. Seriously. That is not writing. The worst unpublished novel of all-time is better than the brilliant idea you have in your head. Why? Because the worst novel ever is written down. That means it’s a book, while your idea is just an idle fancy. My dog used to dream about chasing rabbits; she didn’t write a novel about chasing rabbits. There is a difference.”

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