Those Who Come While We Sleep

brains, Cabinet of Wonders, creepy stuff, history, metaphor, perception, religion

I used to have these naps.  They were strange naps; I would lie in the sun in my apartment some afternoon when I’d been working really hard, and I would fall into a sleep so profound it was almost painful.  And then, when the first depth of it had passed, I would find myself lying there, unable to move, trapped in my nap.  It was like I was pinned to the couch or the floor — wherever I’d been lying — and the nap went on, and I couldn’t move, the sleep was so intense; and yet I wasn’t fully asleep.  It would go on for some indeterminate amount of time, and then I would be released.

Being the kind of person I was, I didn’t worry about these naps.  Sometimes I thought they were brought on by sugar, sometimes I thought they were a gift, a kind of ubernap that refreshed me more than usual.  Once or twice, though, I thought I saw something that really shouldn’t have been there: a small man sitting on the foot of my bed, a strange glittering shape in the corner of the room.  And I remember all the way back to being a baby, lying in my crib, terrified, unable to move while these shapes streamed at me from the ceiling.

These unmoving waking-dreams have a name, as it turns out; it’s called Sleep Paralysis.  Apparently, when the body is moving between sleep and wakefulness — at either end of the sleep cycle — the body can be in REM sleep while the mind is awake.  It’s related to lucid dreaming, where the dreamer is aware that he or she is dreaming and is able to gain some control of the dreaming experience, and to out-of-the-body experiences; in sleep paralysis, the sleeper tends to fixate on re-establishing control over their body, but in an out-of-body experience, the sleeper perceives themselves as being separate from their body.

The body naturally falls into a sort of paralysis when it is in REM sleep, called REM atonia, where muscles are kept from reacting to the dreams the sleeper is experiencing.  Think of cats or dogs twitching while they dream of hunting: most of the muscles are disabled, but the echo is there, the ghost of the movement. 

Then of course there is the sexual dimension:

“The release of certain neurotransmitters… is completely shut down during REM. This causes REM atonia, a state in which the motor neurons are not stimulated and thus the body’s muscles do not move. Lack of such REM atonia causes REM behavior disorder; sufferers act out the movements occurring in their dreams… Erections of the penis (nocturnal penile tumescence or NPT) normally accompany REM sleep… In females, erection of the clitoris causes enlargement, with accompanying vaginal blood flow and transudation (i.e. lubrication). During a normal night of sleep the penis and clitoris may be erect for a total time of from one hour to as long as three and a half hours during REM.” [wiki]

Which brings me to another point: sleep paralysis is often accompanied by vivid hallucinations, perceived loud noise, and sometimes an acute sense of danger.  So how does this work, if you feel that you are pinned to your bed, unable to move, feeling anxious, but at the same time you have a big stiffy under the covers?  What would your hallucination be?  Would it, perhaps, be that of a demonic lover, keeping you still by evil magic while taking advantage of your manly charms?  Conversely, imagine how confusing it would be if you were a staid Victorian lady who was pinned frighteningly to her bed while experiencing distinct stirrings in the night?

Enter the incubus, one of the oldest forms of supernatural creature, a male demon who lies with women at night — and its counterpart, the succubus.  Tales of these visitors can be found from South America to Africa to Eastern and Northern Europe.  One of the earliest mentions of an incubus “comes from Mesopotamia on the Sumerian King List, ca. 2400 BC, where the hero Gilgamesh’s father is listed as Lilu. It is said that Lilu disturbs and seduces women in their sleep, while Lilitu, a female demon, appears to men in their erotic dreams. [wiki]

There was a great deal of debate as to these creatures’ purpose in early Christianity, but the common debate was whether the demons had any reproductive capability, and were they using humans in order to reproduce (a la Rosemary’s Baby).  It became commonly accepted that incubi and succubi were the same demon, changing shape: by taking female form, they were able to collect male sperm and then turn around and impregnate a human woman using their male form — and the collected sperm.  The Malleus Maleficarum states:

“…to beget a child is the act of a living body, but devils cannot bestow life upon the bodies they assume; because life formally proceeds only from the soul, and the act of generation is the act of the physical organs which have bodily life… Yet it may be said that these devils assume a body not in order that they may bestow life upon it, but that they may by the means of this body preserve human semen, and pass the semen on to another body.”

Why the baby conceived in this way is not simply a normal baby, no one seems to know; but in the Christian tradition, a baby conceived this way (a cambion) is usually wickedly smart and able to get people to do their bidding.  Some texts hold that a cambion does not exhibit breathing or pulse, but appears to be alive — until they are seven years old, at which time they begin to appear more like normal people.  Caliban, from the Tempest, was supposedly a cambion, as was (according to some stories) Merlin.

When the experience is not sexual it has still been attributed to demons or other supernatural presences.  The word nightmare, for example: mare in nightmare does not stand for female horse, but for mara, an Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse term for a demon that sat on sleepers’ chests, causing them to have bad dreams.  In Newfoundland, the sleep paralysis experience is referred to as the “Old Hag,” similar to the Night Mare: a creature who sits on the sleeper’s chest while they sleep, making them helpless.  Similar stories can be found in Sweden, Fiji, Turkey, Chile, and many other places; one of the interesting things about sleep paralysis is that it is completely cross-cultural — a product, simply, of being human.  Studies done in Canada, China, England, Japan and Nigeria found that 20% to 60% of individuals, across the board, reported having experienced sleep paralysis at least once in their lives.  

Often, sleep paralysis is associated with narcolepsy, a disorder where emotional excitement makes the sufferer fall asleep.  More rare, but also associated with both sleep paralysis and narcolepsy, is cataplexy, a disorder that makes one lose control of muscles, either totally or partially, in muscle groups.  Thus, for example, one woman I know falls to the floor when she gets overstimulated — but is famous for being able to set her glass on the nearest surface on the way down.  Common cataplexy responses are buckling at the knees, weakness in the arms, and lolling of the jaw; but the effect is brought about the same way that REM sleep temporarily paralyzes the muscles.

This makes me wonder about myths such as Rip Van Winkle.  Was he, actually, asleep the whole time?  Or did he have some kind of waking dream — was anyone sitting on his chest, causing him to neglect his life and let his house and crops fall to overgrown ruin while he lay, unable to move?  (What about the guy in the song “Four Minutes of Two,” who fell asleep waiting for his girlfriend and woke up to gigantic metal bugs?)

And lastly, in the spirit of things falling to overgrown ruin, here is a quote about Lillith, the demon/goddess/early feminist (depending on your source) — whose origin can be found in Lilitu, the Babylonian demon described above.  The quote comes from the Bible’s Book of Isaiah 34:13–15, describing the desolation of Edom:

“Her [Edom’s] nobles shall be no more, nor shall kings be proclaimed there; all her princes are gone.  Her castles shall be overgrown with thorns, her fortresses with thistles and briers. She shall become an abode for jackals and a haunt for ostriches.  Wildcats shall meet with desert beasts, satyrs shall call to one another; There shall the lilith repose, and find for herself a place to rest.  There the hoot owl shall nest and lay eggs, hatch them out and gather them in her shadow; There shall the kites assemble, none shall be missing its mate.  Look in the book of the Lord and read: No one of these shall be lacking, For the mouth of the Lord has ordered it, and his spirit shall gather them there.  It is he who casts the lot for them, and with his hands he marks off their shares of her; They shall possess her forever, and dwell there from generation to generation.”

This is supposed to be about an accursed place, and the passage, in Old Testament tradition, shows that accursedness by listing eight different “unclean” — possibly demonic — animals (including the Lillith, apparently).  However, from my contemporary perspective the beauty of the description gives me chills; it looks to me more like a blessing.  In fact, there are places I would like to invoke this curse in the here and now.  Wouldn’t it be amazing?

Other links:
– Narcoleptic dog on YouTube

– Windsor McCay’s Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, my favorite book on dreaming: hilarious and true to life, and drawn in the early 20th century.   Pay no mind to the poor design of the modern cover (unlike the cover of my edition, below); the inside is what matters.

If Only I Had A Fourth-Dimensional Mirror

Cabinet of Wonders, people, perception, Personal, philosophy, weird science

Since I’ve moved house, I’ve been looking through all my old clothes that have been stashed away for years. I’m one of those people who find really cool clothing and then when they look ridiculous I stash them away until they are reasonable to wear again. It’s surprising how many clothes actually do work fifteen years later (as long as they’re not bubble gum fashion statements).

One thing that has been striking me over and over recently is the shadow-me that I seem to live with. By this I mean, my younger self, which hangs around in these clothes and in photographs. A tall, slender girl with blonde hair who lacked the confidence to express her opinions. I pull out dresses with the 26 inch waist and think, who was that person? Why didn’t she speak up? And I still feel her inside me somewhere, still anxious about things, still idealistic, and she’s wondering “what the heck happened to me! I want my body back!” It’s like being schizophrenic.

I think I blogged somewhere in Croatia about palimpsests, those places where the information from older times gets layered over newer information. Lately, I’m thinking that people, as creatures who live and grow through time, are really just living palimpsests. Our older selves are simply layered versions of our younger selves. Take a look, sometime, at an older person’s face: you’ll see every experience they ever had, etched into the lines there. If the person has had a bitter life, their face will show it; and people who live their lives well have a certain beauty, laid into their faces like a mosaic or like those poles with the layers and layers of posters stuck to them.

Have you ever seen or read Flatland (my favorite is the wonderful 1965 animated version, with members of Beyond the Fringe doing voices)? It’s about some 2-dimensional people (squares, triangles, etc.) who meet a sphere as it passes through their space. The sphere, as it passes through, appears to grow and shrink as different parts of it are bisected by the 2-dimensional plane, and the denizens of that world think that it’s only a circle which appears and disappears and fluxuates in size.

As you can see in the video above (which I found after writing most of this post), we are all multi-dimensional creatures, made huge with the vastness of time’s dimension, yet seeing only the three-dimensional slice of ourselves in each moment. The younger me, the older me, the me-that-is-to-be, they are all only aspects of the wholeness of myself. So I really am only looking at a part of the whole when I wonder who that person is/was/will be.

What is the shape of that whole, really? I don’t mean just in terms of our bodies moving through space; I mean, who are we? What drives us? How does that inform the multidimensional self?

Up to about twenty, we are growing so much that we can’t keep up with our own changes, and as a result every time we meet ourselves we are totally different. We get used to this flux: it’s all we’ve ever known, and we don’t generally have the agency to influence the world, so we take it in stride.

However, by the twenties, then, are about being Finished — about Being A Grownup. People in their late teens and twenties are busy reveling in doing all those things they’ve looked forward to doing when they became A Grownup: going out to clubs, eating whatever, drinking, staying up late, taking terrible care of their bodies: in other words, going where they want to when they want to — and reading all those banned books. They smoke, they swear, they talk about exciting new things. They try stuff. They are busy devouring the world and showing everyone how they are Not A Kid.

In their thirties, people tend not to need to prove this point so much, and often settle down a bit, getting involved in their job or family life and generally feeling youthful but settled. Their bodies are still good, their friends are smarter, they are deepening intellectually. Life is good.

Then a weird thing happens in the forties and/or fifties. Suddenly their bodies are betraying them; weird physical anomalies appear as if overnight, literally — one day they’re not there, and the next day they are: weight gain, strange fallen bits, wrinkles and bags and puffy bits you never imagined on yourself, all materialize, one by one, in an avalanche of hellish change. By the time you’re sixty or seventy, perhaps you’re used to it. I don’t know; I’m not there yet. However, it’s clear that some people go down fighting all the way.

I used to look forward to getting crow’s feet. I thought getting old wasn’t such a bad thing, and looked forward to someday being one of those leathery old ladies full of cool stories (as opposed to the unmarked, unremarked face which was my youthful lot). Then one day, for reasons which aren’t important but were temporary, I woke up and the space above my eyelids had fallen down over my eyes: I could feel my eyelashes holding them up, and when I looked in the mirror I almost screamed. My eyes had gone from the familiar crooked, normal-sized, expressive and not-ugly eyes to some horrid small and mean-looking ones, the eyes of a stranger. I’d swear it wasn’t even me looking out of them.

In that moment, it suddenly occurred to me that this might be what my eyes might look like in old age. Suddenly I was a lot less keen. Where were my same eyes with the crow’s feet? Would my eye-skin do this, simply sag over my eyes until I was drowned, lost, subsumed in someone else’s face, getting up every morning and looking in the mirror and wondering where the me that I had looked at for years had gone? Was I doomed to look mean forever?

Luckily, the awful swelling passed, but it definitely shook me up.

I remember my 90-something-year-old great aunt — the one who was married to the painter, who made amazing clothes out of curtains and wrote poetry and called you “Darling” in a wonderful deep voice — I remember her telling my mom, “You’re always sixteen inside, darling.” She would flirt with young men and get away with it, because she was so dynamic. The young men always responded — they were fascinated by her. She was as wrinkly and lacking in hair as the next old lady: but she carried herself with drama, wore interesting clothes, and was a marvelous conversationalist.

The thing is, I always aspired to be her. I thought I wanted to be that cool old lady when I was older. But I didn’t realize how hard the journey might be — to go on keeping hold of who you are when the outside of you changes so much. I’m already one of those people whose outsides and insides have never matched: I used to look in shop windows when I walked by, not because I was vain, but because I could never get used to the idea that that person was me. Initially, it was because I couldn’t believe that I was fully-grown and had all the grownup bits; but later, it was more to do with not believing that the person with the blonde mane and the unfinished-looking face was really me. It simply didn’t seem like an outward expression of who I was. And yet, as the years go by, you get used to that outer self and you come to see it as a favorite sweater, something comfortable that you wear every day and even dress up with accessories — like clothes, for example (In my case, later, when I had a few more lines in my face, I dyed my hair red and became much more satisfied with the match between inner and outer selves).

Eventually, however, the sweater gets baggy — and that’s when you suddenly realize you’re stuck wearing it even if you find you don’t love it so much anymore.

I’m thinking more and more that what you have to do is stop thinking of it as if you are an unhappy consumer who can’t buy a new sweater (although many people actually try to get the old one retailored); what you have to do is think of it — all of it — as a whole. It’s not so much that the outer you has worn out, while the inner you is inside screaming to get out; rather, all of those incarnations of you — the child, the nubile young thing, the virile strong young man, the parent, the middle aged person, whatever guises you have inhabited along the way — all of those are actually still there. Literally. You just can’t see them anymore.

Wikipedia informs me that although I was taught that “Time Is The Fourth Dimension,” in most mathematical models there are many different spatial dimensions, and time is not a part of these dimensional spaces. However, there is a type of space (or spacetime) called Minkowski space: “In physics and mathematics, Minkowski space or Minkowski spacetime (named after the mathematician Hermann Minkowski) is the mathematical setting in which Einstein’s theory of special relativity is most conveniently formulated. In this setting the three ordinary dimensions of space are combined with a single dimension of time to form a four-dimensional manifold for representing a spacetime.

“In theoretical physics, Minkowski space is often contrasted with Euclidean space. While a Euclidean space has only spacelike dimensions, a Minkowski space also has one timelike dimension.” Et voila! I can still talk about time like it’s a fourth dimension. Mathematicians may scoff, but it’s just damned easier this way, so I’ll willfully stick to it for this post.

Hubble Captures View of
In some version of Minkowski spacetime, then, your tired old body might look like a Nebula photo from the Hubble telescope, or like the best palimpsest you could never imagine. You might find that all the joyous moments shine among the multitudinous wholeness like stars, or that each care that etched its line on your face was represented by a thousand tiny vacillations, like the delicate frills on a jellyfish. You might find that all your many travels make you into a great creature so tangled and enfolded in the Earth that the two have become inextricable. Which gives a new meaning to the “personal responsibility” part of ecological stewardship.

Looking at the women I know who have reached the crone age successfully, I think to myself “it is possible.” It’s possible to move through the baggy patches with grace, building a beautiful whole. The secret is to live with joy, and the wrinkles in your 3-D self will hopefully layer themselves over the droopy eyes until the palimpsest of happiness embeds itself in your polished old skin so your eyes can’t look mean, especially when you look at them in all four dimensions and see who you were, where you went, who you became, and all the many layers and scars and travels and experiences in between, becoming something so vast, so world-encompassing and beautiful that you can’t help but be proud.

The Many Personalities We Live With

Cabinet of Wonders, children, perception

This is Garky. Garky spent almost a whole day sitting in chairs with Younger Daughter, shooting down the vampires in the trees, and generally sharing many other adventures before geting injured and requiring bandages. Now she lives in this vase.

You might mistake her for some kind of Sogetsu Ikebana*, but you would be mistaken. Despite my daughter’s belief that she can hold vampires at bay, she is really an onion flower (don’t tell Younger Daughter).

This is the same daughter who personifies such characters as Snitch, Miru, Grumpo, Cute-o, Wadro, Sicko, and Happo.

They all talk in a strange way, saying “You too nice to me” instead of “You’re too nice to me”.

Snitch likes to eat hair and fingers, because it thinks they are worms. You must keep these things away from it, or it will grab and eat them.

Miru likes to eat fresh skulls with brain juice, as well as having a fondness for the flavor of cactus, and always hugs its pillow. If it loses its pillow it gets really sad and goes and looks for it. If anyone steals its pillow, it bites them.

Grumpo complains all the time, about everything, including nice things. If you’re nice to it, for example, it says you’re nice to it too much.

Cuto is incredibly cute, but loves to bite off your limbs, and can go for ages and ages without food or water.

Wadro loves its hole. Its hole is any area of water (other than the ocean). If you go in its hole it drags you under and drowns you. When there is no water, Wadro cries, “Hole! Where hole!” in a piteous voice.

Sicko barfs on you.

Happo is always happy and okay with everything. Even if you beat on it or say mean things. Happo is the teflon of characters, to the detriment of itself and everyone else’s sanity.

Characters appear when Elder Sister bings them into existence with her invisible magic wand.

The term “characters” is not to be confused with Annoying Little Character, a hand-creature who is incredibly annoying and cheerful, singing its Annoying Little Character song and dancing until someone slaps it, whereupon it lies down and gets sick for awhile. Only time passing can improve its health.

These are not the only characters who appear. When Elder Daughter was three she became intensely enamored of a butternut squash that my father had drawn a cartoon face on with a Sharpie. She called it her “heavy baby” and carried it everywhere, in the car and into bed. We had difficulty with the gales of mirth trying to get out, but we bore with it until it got so shrunken that it had to be disappeared, whereupon she spent several weeks looking for it.

I remember reading an interview with Frank Zappa many years ago in which he talked about following his son Ahmet (aged perhaps three at the time) around trying to catch the lyrics to a song he sang called Frogs With Dirty Little Lips. It fascinated him, he said, because it was such a great concept, and because the words changed all the time, and it drove him crazy. Now I find, looking it up, that he actually did put the song (or some momentary version of it) on his album Them or Us. I need not mention how much I love how Frank Zappa’s mind worked. It is a secret, or used to be.

So I suppose, despite our poor housekeeping skills, my household has its interesting moments. At least the Characters don’t argue with me much.

An example of Sogetsu

*More on Ikebana and Sogetsu: “the great difference between the Sogetsu School and [traditional] Ikebana lies in the belief that once all the rules are learned and the techniques mastered, there is an unbounded field for freer personal expression using varied materials, not just flowers.” [wiki] Curiously, I think the same kind of thing could be said about play. And about storytelling. Or even, perhaps, things like manners and who you feel like being, at the moment.

Here also, some Sogetsu masters’ work. And a little about the man who started it. I think I might do a photo post about it, sometime…

The Muse as Moment and Place

books, Cabinet of Wonders, people, perception, philosophy, Writing

This morning I went over to Neil Gaiman’s blog to see what was up (actually, I was trying to see what his schedule was for WorldCon, but got distracted by the posts, as usual). He wrote an excellent response to a reader who was complaining about George R. R. Martin not cranking out the next book in a series.

Mr. Gaiman replies, very rightly,

“For me, I would rather read a good book, from a contented author. I don’t really care what it takes to produce that.

Some writers need a while to charge their batteries, and then write their books very rapidly. Some writers write a page or so every day, rain or shine. Some writers run out of steam, and need to do whatever it is they happen to do until they’re ready to write again. Sometimes writers haven’t quite got the next book in a series ready in their heads, but they have something else all ready instead, so they write the thing that’s ready to go, prompting cries of outrage from people who want to know why the author could possibly write Book X while the fans were waiting for Book Y.”

There is much more than that, of course. But hard on the heels of my discussion of the “I Suck” moment and what to do when the writing needs a rest – and how color helps recharge those tired batteries – it made me think a little further about that process. The nice thing about Mr. Gaiman’s post is that he describes the fact that writers have lives. People die, the house needs painting, or your pet needs to go to the vet. This is normal. It is easy to think of writers and artists – creative people – as being these lone madmen who drink too much, staying in their little apartment or cabin (or whatever), creating like a rabid monkey, typing or painting away to the detriment of their health and human relationships.*

This vision, of course, made me have to go find Anne Lamott’s great essay about Shitty First Drafts, from her book Bird By Bird, and reread it, again:

“People tend to look at successful writers, writers who are getting their books published and maybe even doing well financially, and think that they sit down at their desks every morning feeling like a million dollars, feeling great about who they are and how much talent they have and what a great story they have to tell; that they take in a few deep breaths, push back their sleeves, roll their necks a few times to get all the cricks out, and dive in, typing fully formed passages as fast as a court reporter…

“Very few writers really know what they are doing until they’ve done it. Nor do they go about their business feeling dewy and thrilled. They do not type a few stiff warm-up sentences and then find themselves bounding along like huskies across the snow. One writer I know tells me that he sits down every morning and says to himself nicely, “It’s not like you don’t have a choice, because you do–you can either type or kill yourself.”

Sometimes, I admit (much less often than BC: Before Children), I find myself bounding along like a husky through the snow. But usually it’s following a long fallow period, where the ideas have been allowed to grow and mate and become fully-formed, and are now dying to get out.

So what is it that makes the muse happen? Where do the ideas come from?

I’ve often thought of ideas as spores. I walk around with the back of my head hanging open like a cargo plane, waiting for things to drift in. Sometimes I can feel them tickling in there when they alight, but I know by now that if I touch them at that stage they’ll wilt. So I do the dishes or water the garden or drive to town, with my inner eye turned back there, peeking hopefully at the little sprouts. And eventually, some die, but some begin to get robust enough to deal with me pawing at them, examining them and even elaborating on them. Sometimes, I’ll handle an idea thoroughly and then put it back into the cargo area so that other spores will land on it and change it into something beautiful. Sometimes, it meets another nice idea back there and they get together and have a happy marriage.

But they’re never right in front of me. They’re always in the back, or slightly to the side. They’re rather slippery, and delicate, and they don’t like being stared at too hard. They prefer being made concrete via my hands. If I talk about them too much, they fade; and if I get partway through making them concrete and then stop, sometimes they grow in the interim. The robust ones will poke me if I ignore them too long. The really delicate, lovely, strange ones will disappear if I don’t do something about them right away, because they’re too much like dreams, and don’t do well in the workaday world.

In every historical discussion inspiration is seen as being, by its nature, beyond the control of the person being inspired. The Greeks, for example, saw inspiration as coming from the muses, creatures born of either Zeus and Mnemosyne (goddess of memory), or of Uranus (the Sky) and Gaia (the Earth). The muses were seen as repositories of all knowledge from the ancient age, who embodied the arts and inspired the creation process with their graces “through remembered and improvised song and stage, writing, traditional music, and dance.” [wiki]

Later, the muses may have lost some of their anthropomorphic properties, but inspiration still remained outside the purview of rational, conscious thought:

“In the 18th century John Locke proposed a model of the human mind in which ideas associate or resonate with one another in the mind. In the 19th century, Romantic poets such as Coleridge and Shelley believed that inspiration came to a poet because the poet was attuned to the (divine or mystical) “winds” and because the soul of the poet was able to receive such visions. In the early 20th century, Sigmund Freud located inspiration in the inner psyche of the artist. Carl Gustav Jung’s theory of inspiration suggests that an artist is one who was attuned to racial memory, which encoded the archetypes of the human mind.” [wiki]

In American society, which is based more than we would like to think in the puritan, or Protestant, work ethic, the idea that something could be so uncontrollable, so beyond the reach of deadlines and time management, is unimaginable. We think that by eating right, by sleeping right, exercising, having good oral hygene, using underarm sprays and meditating, by learning to schedule play-time and carrying our watches and organizers with us everywhere, we can make sure that all the terrifying alternatives are covered and everything will go as scheduled.

Which is true of many things. But other than clearing some time so that you can clear your head, time management simply doesn’t apply to inspiration. Eating, unless you’re a restaurant critic, is unlikely to bring the muse. Sleeping enough might give you good, inspiring dreams; but then not sleeping enough could do the same thing. The rest of it… well, there is something to be said for the wild-man-in-the-cabin trope. At least he’s not wasting valuable cargo space in the back of his head remembering music lessons and mortgage payments.

The back-to-the-land movement in the late 1960s and 1970s saw people clearing space in their lives to make room for the muse. Like the Puritans in the 1600s, the back-to-the-landers were fleeing what they saw as an oppressive society which did not let them live the life they believed in – one free of music lessons and mortgage payments. Unlike the Puritans, however, they did not believe their choices were shaping their entry into Heaven. They went to the country for much more earthly things – to grow their own food, build their own houses, and make the things they lived with. Most of the people who tried it, though, were unfamiliar with the hardships of rural living, and failed crops, leaking roofs, and lack of money to buy supplies eventually drove all but the most resourceful back to the cities.

Still, this movement planted the seeds for the voluntary simplicity movement, a more mature variation on the theme, advocating sustainable living patterns (solar power, homegrown or locally-grown organic food, and fewest possible consumerist items like credit cards and television, which eat up time and encourage spending).

“Some people practice voluntary simplicity to reduce need for purchased goods or services and, by extension, reduce their need to sell their time for money. Some will spend the extra free time helping family or others… Others may spend the extra free time to improve their quality of life, for example pursuing creative activities such as art and crafts…

“Advertising is criticised for encouraging a consumerist mentality. Many advocates of voluntary simplicity tend to agree that cutting out, or cutting down on, television viewing is a key ingredient in simple living. Some see the Internet, podcasting, community radio or pirate radio as viable alternatives.” [wiki]

Unlike the desire in the 1960s to escape Baby Boom America, the new movement is a much more pragmatic desire to remake how we do things. The idea that one can take a breath and step outside the rat-race, take away all the extra parts of one’s life – the things one doesn’t really need but are paying for because of a perceived lifestyle definition – is not a new one. Epicurus, a philosopher of the fourth century, pointed out that troubles entailed by maintaining an extravagant lifestyle tend to outweigh the pleasure of partaking in it. Henry David Thoreau (another man in a cabin!), was famous for his desire to find a quiet place to write books, where he lived like a hermit (with weekly visits from his mother, who brought him goodies to eat).

Sometimes, though, we are simply tied to the life we have wrought. Not all of us can drop everything and go off to Walden to live alone in a cabin. Many of us have children, and must provide a place for them to live, and food for them to eat. Uprooting everything for a dream is not a simple thing. However, making time to think is not the lazy pursuit we are taught to believe. That mental space-clearing, the opening of the cargo hold and the time for the spores to take hold, is actually sacrament. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Many writers and artists I’ve spoken to have said that giving the muse a chance to speak is their secret to productivity – in other words, making that moment every day for her to come in and then sticking to whatever comes. One man I knew, a potter, said to my father once, “I’ve made a deal with myself. I have to go down to the studio every day, and put my hands in the clay. Then, if I don’t want to make anything, I can wash my hands and go back to the house. But usually, by the time I’ve gotten my hands in there, I might as well throw a pot or two.” Cory Doctorow said, at Viable Paradise, that you need to make a time every day to write. You don’t have to get heroic – 500 or 1,000 words each day will do – but you need to put fingers to keyboard every day. And just like my potter friend, you might find yourself writing a story or two.

Sometimes, though, like Neil Gaiman says, the house just needs to be painted. And then that’s your work time, ’cause while you’re watching that color spread with the roller, your brain is just going to keep collecting the spores, keep turning the ideas over and looking for worms underneath. So when you go back to the easel or the keyboard, you’ll be ready.

“To have laughed often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition;
To know that one life has breathed easier because you have lived;
This is to have succeeded.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson


*Until they leave for Africa to become gun-runners.

Dolphins Have Memes, Too

Cabinet of Wonders, culture, language, natural wonders, perception, weird science

I just heard about this from the BBC: there have been sightings of dolphins off the coast of Australia who are doing what is called “tail-walking” – standing above the water by waving their tales in the water. Tail-walking is not a behavior that wild dolphins display in nature; however, one dolphin from that area did spend some time in a dolphin facility recovering from illness – and, while she wasn’t trained to tail-walk, she did see other dolphins doing it. What it looks like is that she took this new behavior with her out into the wild and taught it to the others.

Observers have been trying to understand what triggers the dolphins to do this, but they haven’t yet discovered anything. What the article doesn’t mention, and I think is probably significant, is the deep sense of play which dolphins have always displayed. It is likely they are doing it as an interesting and fun thing to do – though of course there are more boring possible explanations, such as looking for schools of fish.

But the really interesting thing about this is that it displays what is called “cultural behavior”:

“Culture can be defined as all the ways of life including arts, beliefs and institutions of a population that are passed down from generation to generation. Culture has been called “the way of life for an entire society.” As such, it includes codes of manners, dress, language, religion, rituals, norms of behavior such as law and morality, and systems of belief as well as the art.” [wiki]

Dolphins off the western coast of Australia have been known to teach their young to use sponges to help them gather food, so this kind of dolphin-to-dolphin teaching is not undocumented. But to do something as a group that doesn’t inherently gain them better survival actually points to something deeper, a communication and a passing-on of interesting stuff which, like internet memes and social networking in humans, is a cultural phenomenon. Strange and wonderful stuff!

PS. Link:
Another interesting article from New Scientist (of course – I love that magazine!) about animals teaching each other stuff.