May 14, 2008 § 6 Comments
“I should have been born in the Age of Middle Earth,” said my 11-year-old daughter Alexandra as we rode the train down to Manhattan one February day in 2002. “I don’t belong in this time.”
Alexandra had been lamenting like this for weeks, ever since she had seen The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of three screen adaptations of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings by director Peter Jackson.
Life in the Age of Middle Earth was no picnic, I told her, judging from the castles and the clothes that it corresponded to the Middle Ages. There was plague and no antibiotics. Most people had very few outfits or hot baths.
“But I could have been a gentile,” Alex said.
“Good news, honey,” I said. “You are a gentile, and in a time and place where you can have medicine and hot baths whenever you need them.”
“You don’t know what I mean!”
I told I knew she probably meant gentry, the nobles led by King Aragorn who transcended fear and rode out to do battle with the forces of darkness.
That other remark had been like watching a glass fall and not being quick enough to catch it. I had always wanted to be the kind of mother who gave a kid the space they needed to discover what was good and true on their own. I wanted to be what the great psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott called a “good enough mother,” a benevolent presence who stayed in the background, who allowed a kid to be who they are.
Real awareness and real presence are not separate from wisdom and compassion, I really believed this. More and more, however, I had the sensation of words and actions just happening, my awareness following. If you think you have free will, have children.
I had good intentions, as the saying goes. Six months before had been 9/11. Fear and sadness rolled over New York like fog. I wanted Alexandra to know she could always sink below all the voices and images from the media, that she could always take refuge in the sensation of being here and now in the present moment.
But there was the problem, actually a few problems: First, I clearly wasn’t always able to do what I intended (which should have been a clue about the limits of my true state of awakening). And second, I didn’t begin to grasp the role that LOTR played in Alex’s life. I didn’t see that certain stories or myths can be a means to awaken. They can help us explore our true natures and take root in our lives. They can help us be strong.
We’re living in the midst of extraordinary advances in neuroscience. Extraordinary new brain imaging technology and pioneering experiments would reveal the “neuroplasticity” of the brain–its capacity to change its structure and function in response to experience.
Neuroscientists are ingthat the brain is not fixed but a work in progress, fashioned and refashioned from its own idiosyncratic neural connections and capable (at least according to some scientists) of transcendence and the sacred. Bob Herbert, op ed columnist in The New York Times, made the point in his column yesterday, insisting that who we are and who we will become is not fixed but open, an unfolding process of relationship with our experience. I wasn’t quick enough that day on the train (or I hadn’t forged the necessary connections) to realize that Alexandra wasn’t escaping so much as seeking transcendence.
“This is might sound horrible to you because you’re my mother but I don’t want to have an easy life,” Alexandra said. “I don’t mind being in danger. I don’t mind pain, even.”
The Lord of the Rings was Alexandra’s sword and shield, her standard in every sense of the word. It gave her courage. It was her cause. It gave form to what was still formless, and expressed what she didn’t yet have her own words to express, which was the sense (and the sense of most children who are starting to push away from the shoreline into the deep water of adolescence) that she secretly might be capable of greatness.
Alex had watched the final scenes of Fellowship of the Rings with tears running down her cheeks. Years later, I would read a newspaper article about an exhibit of Greek and Roman art that quoted a passage from Virgil, and that image of Alexandra weeping popped into my mind. In the Fleeing the Trojan War, Aeneas arrives in Carthage and finds a temple for Juno under construction. Inside he finds a painting of the war that so astounds him with its nobility and precision that he starts to cry and, according to Virgil, “for the first time he dared hope for life.”
“It was only a picture, but, sighing deeply, he let his thoughts feed on it, and his face was wet with a stream of tears,” Virgil writes. Some people might find it silly to compare an 11-year-old girl crying at a movie to a mythic hero, but Jackson’s film (and Tolkein’s story) had the same power over Alexandra that ancient art is said to possess. It elevated her heart and mind. It gave her hope that life might yet hold greater, maybe even cosmic possibilities, that she might be involved in a great undertaking, even if it was hard to see it in this dark time.
I didn’t understand this that day on the train. I learned it one day years later, I faced a bitter loss that shook my faith in life. The strangest and most unexpected thing happened. In the depths of my grief and fear, I pictured King Aaragorn with sword held high riding out to meet the darkness and my heart lifted. Who could have predicted? My experience Alexandra and The Lord of the Rings forged a neural connection in my brain that saw me through.
Has anyone else had wisdom or goodness show up in an unexpected way? Let me know what you think.