Nordpolen Journal: trying to disconnect

Nordpolen Journal: trying to disconnect

Oslo to Longyearbyen
June 14, 2013

I have to admit, it is a strange thing, perhaps a completely insane thing, to fly across the United States and then across the Atlantic Ocean, and then all the way to the northernmost point of Norway, and then back across the Atlantic, (bypassing Iceland, land of the best musicians on the planet) to land on an island no one except Philip Pullman has heard of, which is really an archipelago, to meet a group of artists who are complete strangers, and then climb aboard a ship and sail without any idea where you will be going or what you will be doing for two weeks.

It is such an insane idea it appealed to me unequivocally, and was in fact, something I knew I needed to do. Needed because my life is a study in extremes: the extreme of analytical, day-bound problem-solving, and the extreme of self-abandoned expression. The extreme of day is my job, which arms my wallet and (theoretically) allows me to spend the non-work time writing, which is the expression part. Unfortunately, the extremes get out of balance, which leads to a kind of relentless, low-level despair.

The Scream- Oslo Airport

I am not the first creative person in the world to struggle with this problem of money versus passion, nor will I be the last. I can’t in good conscience feel sorry for myself either, because I have the option to struggle: something a lot of exhausted and hungry people wish they had. At the same time, it is hard to live a life knowing that there’s a thing you want to be doing, that you love, that you were made to do, but you can’t do it because you have to do this other thing so you can earn your lettuce and tomatoes and fish, your bus pass and your deodorant and your tennis shoes, your electricity bill and garbage service and toilet paper.

If you’re lucky, the thing you feel passionate about doing is also something people want to pay money for. Alas, poetry is not one of these things. The nice part is, it’s always been this way, and I can look back to the times when the poets in various lands had to make verses for their bread, and had to rely upon their cleverness to somehow entertain the king but not insult him enough to earn an axe to the neck, or be locked up for annoying important people. Bersi Skáldtorfuson composing poetry while in chains after being captured by King Óláfr Haraldsson. Christian Krohg's illustration from Heimskringla, 1899-edition.It does bring to mind an interesting question: is it worse to die quickly by one’s poetic wit, or slowly?  Better to wear rags and rhyme for a cup of wine… or wear H&M stare out your years into computer screen, riding an office chair into infinity? Both are tragic, but only one is a current option.

Before this trip, I had been feeling the weight of this balance of extremes more keenly than usual. Not that I wasn’t getting any poetry written, but when the day world gets too much advantage over the world of disappearing into writing, I begin to feel like a sleepwalker. And when I don’t write, my vision begins to narrow, and I start to believe that the struggle is meaningless.

I begin to listen to an internal voice that tells me  the world is nothing but routine, and that what matters is whatever conflict or fear-of-the-day is being blasted through the internet or blaring out of all the big-screen TVs mounted in the hospital cafeteria and the surgical waiting rooms. When this state begins to get a foothold, it colors everything it touches with a veil of futility and exhaustion. I become too tired to write. And by tired I mean soul-tired and gut-tired. The drive doesn’t disappear, but it converts to a kind of guilt-tipped, pointing finger. It is not a joy but another responsibility that I’m neglecting. Not writing means I am wasting my life.

I had reached a point, before this trip, when I had to wear headphones most of the day to survive the onslaught- that generalized aggressive energy of news, traffic, bills arriving for things I did not buy or subscribe to, email spam, emotional spam, people fighting over parking spaces or running other people over in crosswalks, or strangers hulking along the street projecting menace, or hopelessness, or desperation.

After awhile, faced with that level of assault to the psyche, it’s hard not to become hard. And the hardness is double-edged, because to write, to really fall in and write, becomes an exercise in trying to shrug off an increasingly more permanent armor in order to get at the vulnerable parts of the self- the only parts that can shape-shift into the work. Some writers combat this hardening by drinking, or going off on psychedelic road trips, or maybe some of them cope with the pressure more eloquently. Some of them just toss everything to the wind- walking out on their jobs, picking up and moving, giving away all of their possessions, in the hopes that upending a world that has settled into an ugly configuration will allow it to re-settle into a more liveable shape. I used to do that. I used to box everything up and get rid of most of it and get in my car and drive across the country. Then I’d settle in a spot for awhile, and the build-up of this struggle for creative balance would build up to the breaking point again.

At some point, I got too old, and frankly, too stubborn to uproot again. I wanted things in life that don’t survive when you transplant them. I wanted to cling like a limpet to San Francisco, the most ungrateful mistress there is. But this meant that I could not grandly disrupt the world every time things began to get routine. What happens, now that I stay put and let things continue to build up and wash over me? I get bent out of shape, and begin to believe in the most depressing versions of reality: that people are awful and the world is mostly violent and hopeless.  And then I rebel against that idea, because it is simply not true. And the irony of it all is that I’m doing all this rebelling against myself: the hopelessness and the answering rally against a dark vision of the world is all non-verbalized. It’s a little diorama of war inside my head, visible only to me, and felt only by me. And if I’m not writing, there is no way to let it out.

However, I don’t believe that this sense of overwhelm I struggle with is entirely self-made. It is also the result of an atmosphere of constant distraction.

The boundaries of the personal and the public are disappearing. People talk on their cell phones while they are in a public toilet. They talk on speakerphone on the train. They speak louder than they would normally, without any filter or thought of the people around them, because when you are talking on a cell phone, the world around you becomes secondary and somewhat unreal. I think this is just a simple matter of our capacity for attention. When you talk to someone on the phone, you try to filter out distractions around you- like other people, who nevertheless are forced to listen to you and are then distracted by your conversation, because human beings hone in on voices and language. We try to listen to one another, even if the person talking isn’t talking to us. Meanwhile, we are distracted from whatever it is we are doing: trying to read? Trying to text someone? Trying and trying and trying…. to concentrate, to not be distracted. Public space used to be considered shared space, and therefore a place to be considerate of others. Public space is now rapidly converting to portable personal space, and the people and things in public space are basically furniture.

And the rising gestalt is to further blur these social boundaries by not just offering the services and technology to be in constant and immediate contact, but to begin to expect it from everyone. If someone doesn’t answer and email within say, 30 minutes, you might text them, or call their phone, or both in rapid succession. For some people, 30 minutes is way too long. This isn’t just in personal life: it has extended into the workplace, where email has created a constant, unorganized flow of questions, open-ended conversations with ten people cc’d, and the expectation of immediate response. People check their “work” email from their beds at home, or when they are at dinner with a friend. There is no longer a sense of place connected to function… which is one of the basic concepts behind behavior.

A good example is a dojo. People build dojos to train in martial arts, and there are rules of respect and codes of behavior that apply only when you are in the dojo: inside the dojo, you keep things clean, you show respect to the teacher and each other, you listen more than you talk. These rules are not arbitrary or cultish: they are there so that learning and training can happen. If you change your mindset to fit the place, eventually, the place evokes the mindset.

Noma Kendo Dojo

Outside the dojo, these rules don’t apply, and you can go back to your “non-dojo” mindset, to be and do other things. Similarly, work used to be work, and home was home. At work, there were certain expectations of behavior. Rules that made it possible to be productive. Then you go home and those expectations are released. Of course there are notable exceptions: doctors, mothers, I’m sure other people can think of more… but the basic idea holds- we need a way to shift from one mode of being to another. We need moments of respite. We need thinking time, play time, talking time, working time, sleeping time, reading time. Unfortunately, the urge to complete a task, or to be responsible, or to answer a call from some other part of life is very strong, and is now enabled everywhere we go. The impulse to check, check, check the email or the phone, is as strong of an impulse as wanting to smoke a cigarette, but there is a much higher tolerance (and no proven negative health outcomes- yet) for the addiction of constant distraction.

U.S. Wireless Licensing and Operations Map 2012

Just before I left for the Arctic, someone asked me if I would be able to answer email while I was away. I said, “No, we will be off the grid. No internet.” This person then insisted, “But surely the ship will have radio, will have satellite?” My response was disbelief: “I don’t want to be in contact. That is the point of going to the North Pole.”

Am I the only one that that feels exhausted and sickened by the constant barrage of phone and email and media? Actually, I’m not. And there is a growing number of people beginning to recognize and address this problem that Christopher Butler has aptly termed, “Hyperity,” a state of overconnectedness which he described, way back in 2010, as an effect that causes stress, mistakes, lowered IQ, and lowered productiveness.

Of course, anyone who has tried to wean themselves off checking their phone and email knows that distraction is oddly compelling. It is both the cause, and the band-aid, for the feeling of being overwhelmed. I think the thing that has frightened me the most over the last few years is realizing that it has become harder and harder for me to concentrate. I am so used to a scattered way of working and thinking, that I can’t do one thing at a time anymore. At the gym, I ran on the elliptical machines while playing Candy Crush Saga on my iphone for an hour. In May I was doing this pretty much every day. I listened to podcasts while playing Candy Crush Saga, while walking down the street.

Candy Crush RehabAt work, I listened to the news with headphones on while answering emails and scanning documents, and working with five other pieces of software- toggling from window to window and function to function. Yes, studies show that  multitasking doesn’t work, but for a decade we’ve been trained not just to work this way, but to live this way, and the world is still demanding we do it.

The good news is, when the technology is off, and put away, and there is no chance of “just checking it for a sec,” it is still possible to disconnect, or rather re-connect. After traveling for two days alone without text messages or cell phone contact with home, I felt a kind of peace starting to take hold. Yes, I felt lonely, but that is not a bad thing. To feel lonely is also to look forward to seeing people again. And if there is any one thing I could say is missing from life that is causing the bulk of my struggle with balance… is that I have forgotten what it feels like be in a quiet place where there is nothing to do but look around and see and feel, and then decide to do something. Not be compelled to do something. Not be prompted or reminded or expected or worried or pulled in a direction by nervous or reflexive/reactive energy to check on, check on, check on something… but to act deliberately and with curiosity… to walk out into a new landscape where all signs point to possibility, and to choose.

Longyearbyen Airport Destinations Sign

Nordpolen Journal: Time-Traveling through Pigeonholes

Nordpolen Journal: Time-Traveling through Pigeonholes

San Francisco, California
June 12, 2013

Heading back in time to the day I left.
9:54am Onboard Flight UA 414 SFO to Newark.

I’m on my way.

I have, in my over-caffeinated hands, a copy of Gods & Myths of Northern Europe, a 1964 paperback written by H.R. Ellis Davidson, which promises in its chapters such tabloid delights as Thor and the Giants, The Berserks of Odin, the Doom of the Gods, Thor and his Hammer, and Njord, God of Ships.

Gods and Myths of Northern Europe

Unfortunately, it was written in 1964, and assumes that everyone in history was both a he and a heathen. I was willing to tolerate such a throwback view if the writing was really good, but after I read that the Vikings were, “… a formidable body of men… in many cases men of culture, discrimination, and wit, with love of a good story and a neat jest… who sowed their wild oats… and grew up to be wise rulers, fathers of fine families… some even saints…” I resisted the urge to flush the book down the lavatory toilet and chalked it up to that gender tic so common for pre-1970s intellectuals: to assume the male gender when writing about humans in general. I also assumed the writer was a man, but behind those tricky initials (it takes an initialed pseudonymer to spot one) writes one Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson. I decided to check out Sky Mall instead, and then watch The Hobbit, where at least some of the heroes are heroines and the conceit is fiction, not authoritative cultural history.

7:40pm- Second Leg… Newark to Oslo:

After a two-hour layover in Newark, where I spent a great deal of the two hours trying to find an electrical outlet that was not completely taken over by one person charging multiple devices, I decided on the plane to give Gods and Myths of Northern Europe another try. People writing in the midst of a paradigm can’t often see that they are writing in the midst of a paradigm. I too was taught as a young person to assume the pronoun “he” when writing in the third person about shared experience. It was framed to me as a convention, and easier than trying to include both genders. Later, in high school and college I watched as other writers, first in my college classes, and then in the mainstream, began to try to modify the convention- wrestling with putting he/she for every pronoun, or inventing new and awkward gender-neutral pronouns like ‘sie’, ‘hir’, ‘ey’, and ‘zie’, and later changing suffixes for common words like chairman to chairperson, etc. Truthfully, it annoyed me when I first started seeing it, because I thought it muddied the writing itself, and I had come to assume that the masculine assumption was really just a throwback, and that we all when reading would fill in the subtext to include all readers, regardless of gender. At that time, I still did not understand the mistake of assumption, or the power of repetition and reinforcement.

You might think, reading this, that I walk around looking for perceived slights to gender equality and jumping on them. I don’t. Though I have respect for people who fight that battle, even when they overcompensate, I was raised in a very gender-neutral household. I was expected to learn to do my own laundry and cook, but I was also taught to use nails and hammers and power tools. I was allowed to walk in the rain and to come home dirty. I was told I was a tom boy, but not by people in my family. I thought it was perfectly normal  to like to hunt lizards and frogs, to bring home injured animals, to go hunting with a bb-gun with my cousin in Arkansas, or to play soccer and little league, even though for years I was afraid of the ball. I simply did not consider my gender as a determinant of my likes or dislikes at all. My heroes and role-models were Pippi Longstocking and Jacques Cousteau.

Pippi Longstocking

Jacques CousteauIt was only outside my small paradigm that people questioned the things I inherently loved: adventure, books, playing sports, learning about plants and animals, tinkering with mechanical things, scuba diving, science fiction, martial arts, poetry, the outdoors. And even more so the things I dislike: the color pink, dolls, sentimentality, princesses, frilly clothing, tea, and parties. I was told that this breadth of interest- particularly in things traditionally male-oriented- portended something wrong in me: that wrong thing being that I might not be a normal woman. The moment this doubt and accompanying anger solidified in me occurred when I was working on an island off the coast of California the summer after I graduated college. My job was to hike alone in the rugged hills, following landmarks and animal trails, to locate honey bees feeding on wildflowers, catch them and train them to a food source, mark them with paint, and time their departure and return from the food source, using a compass to determine their bearing. From this information we could locate the colonies. I spent a great deal of time alone on this island, encountering animals, like the indigenous fox, who were completely unafraid of humans. I sometimes caught garter snakes, and sometimes ran away from wild pigs. None of the dirt roads cris-crossing the island were marked, and when I had to take a jeep somewhere it was not uncommon to find washed-out sections of road and have to leave the jeep behind and walk.

santa cruz island

About halfway into that summer, I heard that one of the Catahoula hounds down on the ranch- an area where the resident wildlife biologist and some caretakers lived- had had puppies, so I went to visit them. There was an old prospector down visiting that day as well, who, I was told, lived up on Devil’s Peak alone in a shack. He took one look at me holding a puppy in the crook of each arm and said, “You need to have some puppies of your own so you can do something with all that mothering instinct.

The look on his face was knowing and crude, and it hit me in a moment I had been feeling soft and expansive and unselfconscious. I remember a feeling in my stomach of rage, followed by a sensation of cold, and of closing up. I could have, and did, chalk it up to his age- that he had grown up in a different era and had been taught different things- to his lack of exposure to people in general and different ways of living, and to the fact that he was living alone in a shack on a remote island. But five years later, when I was working in a research facility at Cornell University, a highly-educated man who was the director of a well-known equine breeding center in Texas, and whom I was chatting up while we waited for my boss (the Director of Equine breeding at Cornell) to show up, asked me, “Why is it that the dumb masses are breeding, while women like you, the genes we need, aren’t having children?

I won’t even begin to address how many things are wrong with that question, but emotionally, personally, it was again like having someone stick a knife in my gut. I had just finished telling this man all the things I was doing with my life, that I was trying to work simultaneously at a demanding job to support myself so that I could spend time writing in the mornings and the evenings- a difficult feat that I am still working at- only to be told that all of this was inherently less important than a biological imperative that defined me and pigeonholed me whether I was uneducated or educated, passionate or passive, talented or mediocre, driven or complacent.

All of this went through my head in the space of a few seconds—which is one of the beauties of time-travel in the mind—and it made me think twice about judging the author of this book, H.R. Ellis Davidson, who I began to imagine had started out with a deep passion for the stories of the Norse gods, and after years of being schooled and deformed into the various shapes that allowed her safe passage through the scholarly world, had arrived in the position of author with that flame still alive in her gut for the stories, but forced to filter them through the legitimizing, emotionless, and authoritative lens that is academic writing.

Assumptions- these were the ones I made, diving back into the book, hoping that underneath the highly-trained and stylized language, I might feel the metaphysical force of these myths. After all, myth-making is something we do all the time: maybe even more quickly and more often than the pre-internet era. Stories arrive instantly now, and rather than being carried from town to town, country to country, continent to continent at the pace of a horse or a caravan or a sailing ship, told and re-told tens of times along the way, they arrive every minute of every day, told and retold hundreds of thousands of times in a single day as they bloom across the globe. If myth is what a story becomes as the details become less important and the lesson or meaning becomes more important, we are more prolific mythmakers than ever before.

What did I want from bringing Gods and Myths of Northern Europe with me on the trip? It’s a significant choice that I made rather arbitrarily- I couldn’t carry much, so the one or two books I chose should have been carefully considered. But what I did was go to my favorite used book store and pick out a book that I pinned my hopes on like a racehorse- not because of the odds, but because of the name. In the spirit of that arbitrary choice, I decided to perform a kind of stichomancy with the book, which is to open to a random page and see what’s there:

p. 124-125

“The deities of the Vanir are not easy to define in the northern myths… Yet in some ways they form a clear-cut and convincing group, because we can see the main characteristics of fertility gods and goddesses from other civilizations and other regions of the world repeated… in the figures of Freyr and Freyja and their following….  In some ways the deities of the Vanir are the closest of all the heathen deities to mankind. We have the line of kings, taking it in turn to rule the land and acting as the givers of prosperity if the Vanir favoured them and abode with them. We have the seeresses, a link between men and the Vanir, sometimes possibly appearing as Frigg and Freya, coming right into men’s homes as the Mothers, or the Parcae of the Givers, to convey the blessings of the goddesses. The Vanir were amoral, in the sense that their province was not to distinguish between good and evil, to bring men the ideals of justice or to teach them loyalty to one another. They were there to give men the power that created new life and brought increase to the fields, among the animals, and in the home. They brought also the power to link men with the unseen world. Beside the fruits of the earth and the baby in the cradle, their gifts to men included the wise counsels granted through divination, when the god spoke through a human mouth.”

Frigg Spinning the Clouds

Freya, goddess of love, sexuality, beauty, fertility, gold, seiðr, war, and deathSo there it is again… and rather than rebel again at this imposition of fertility, the seemingly random page I opened to which strikes me again in the face with this badgering label of mother and giver… I tried to look past the insistent refrain in the text of gifts to men and links to men and blessings to men but at what I feel is the essence of the story and the meaning to take away- the myth. This myth is that the power inherent to these female archetypes is the ability to dialogue with the unseen, which is quite literally symbolized by the ability to bear children. From the unseen comes life.

Now, in the 21st century,we can look under a microscope and “see” the unseen components of life in the form of gametes. That particular detail of the mystery of the unseen has been lost to us. Our physical understanding and definition of life has become more detailed since these stories emerged. We know what systems must shut down for life to be lost, and medically define death as as the cessation of all vital functions of the body including the heartbeat, brain activity (including the brain stem), and breathing. (Though that definition is being challenged by current resuscitation science.)

And we don’t need a man and a woman to perpetuate life anymore: we can start with the basic parts and clone it. Beginning with an undifferentiated stem cell, we can grow new tissues or even, potentially, new people. On a more basic level, the Miller-Urey experiment showed that the basic building blocks of life, amino acids, can be created in a beaker in a lab under the right conditions.

Still… the ability to call forth life from pre-life is, at best, a parlour trick, or a demonstration of the greatest knack of the human intellect: mimicry. And to read myth with the arrogance that people two or three millenia ago could only think literally (or superstitiously) is a mistake. What I see in these dry lines about the Vanir is the same kind of mixture of literal and metaphorical thinking people have always used to wrestle with the unknown: an acknowledgment of a deeper human desire to feel less small, to feel more connected to the life that was already there when we entered the world and that will continue after each unique mind passes out of it again. That unseen is what we’re talking about here… the thing you cannot look back far enough with high-powered space telescopes to see, the hidden things that red shift will not reveal, and the low rumble of expansion- not to where we’ll be in another million years, but when we will be, and to what new aspects of reality will still be unseen.

Or, as our rough imaginings of the Norse world tree, Yggdrssil, show… there is a throughline between the unseen and the seen, the material and the immaterial, the literal and the metaphorical. Like most things worth exploring, it is both real and difficult to grasp at the same time.. and just as you crest another peak of concrete understanding, a new horizon of mystery will appear.

Yggdrasil and the Nine Worlds

In that spirit, I fell asleep and dreamt, hurtling through space and time zones over the Atlantic ocean, of my brother, who in the dream was falling off a bridge and toward the rocks below. It is a recurring dream, but this time it felt different… in this dream it was not one brother but all three, combined into a single person. Strangely, and only in the way that dreams provide, that person falling off a bridge was also me. All four of us were both falling off the bridge, and watching ourselves fall. I would like to say, as a writer who appreciates good endings to stories, that just before we hit the rocks, we suddenly swooped and began to fly… off into the unseen. But that was not how the dream ended… it did not end at all… we fell toward the rocks and watched ourselves continue to fall.

When I woke up, the flight attendant asked me if I wanted some orange juice. She also asked me where I was headed. I told her, since no one ever seems to know where Svalbard is, that I was headed for the North Pole. She said, Oh, that’s great! Now… I can never remember… is Antarctica off South America, or Africa?

Nordpolen Journal: Re-entry

Nordpolen Journal: Re-entry

San Francisco, California
July 6, 2013

When I was a kid, we had a cathode-ray tube TV. Sometimes, when the antenna signal got deflected, or the vert and horiz were messed up, all the people and images on the screen would suddenly spasm into several versions of themselves, or the picture would start flipping top-to-bottom on the screen, or bend and zig-zag.  That’s sort of how I feel right now, returning from Svalbard.

It’s not so much a physical sensation as an emotional one… though re-adjusting to a nine-hour time difference is probably part of it. I know my body will figure out how to match the cues from nature soon enough. I’m not so sure about my images on the screen, though.

When I close my eyes, here is what I see:

And when I open them, I see this:

For the next few weeks, I’m hoping to tweak the dials and bring these two visions into alignment. There are lots of stories from the journey I will try to do justice to here in coming posts, including adventures with our understatedly-badass guides, Theres, Sara, and Åshild; the ghosts of Pyramiden; flying snails; it is not 4pm if there’s no cake; the ass-contest;  if it’s dead, drag it back to Kate; and the convivial wrath of Captain Jo.

Much of what I did on the journey was to record audio, which I will be putting together into a larger project that will be available for download in a few months. My ultimate goal is to offer a journey to the arctic in sound, that anyone can take by listening. Why sound and not video and photos? I’ll devote an entire post to that in the upcoming weeks…