who knew?

“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 (I assumed 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. 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. Jackson’s film version of 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 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.


6 thoughts on “who knew?

  1. Wisdom and goodness show up in an unexpected way? Well, if it shows up in my own words I often have trouble thinking about it as wisdom, but…

    My age is such that I just caught the tail end of the hippie movement…but enough of a catch to have it form my being. And, like many of the generation, not wanting to do the things that I hated about growing up, I vowed to be different, adopting the philosophy (in a nutshell) ‘do as I do, not as I say.’ So you and I have very similar ways of being with our children. Additionally, I never wanted to use God in relation to goodness, because God was used against me as a child…’be good or God will get you.’ And while I don’t think that this misuse was intended to create fear but rather a way that religion might have been taught back then, that was way too scary for me; I certainly was not going to plant that seed in another. Goodness is a way of being human. That’s what my mantra is and that’s what I hope my kids learn.

    I have two daughters, Emma, 14 and Molly, 12. Emma has always had a very unique ability to accept the world as it is. She doesn’t wonder how electricity gets into the light switch (my childhood obsession) or how or where babies come from or how the earth came into being. It just is. It has always been that way for her. I think, on a level, it makes learning easier. My 12 year old, Molly, well, I think her first word was ‘why?’ followed by her second word, ‘how?’

    My personal experience in raising daughters is that girls are mean, especially girls in the sixth grade. Last week Molly (sixth grade) came home on her birthday crying because she had been outcast again, by the big, mean bully-girl. She’s tall, thin, rich, pretty, all the boys like her, and on and on. She said things to my daughter, made her an outcast among their friends, had others shun her and convinced everyone not to come to Molly’s birthday party. It was awful. And then that horrible word came out of my mouth: hate. “I hate her!” My daughters were shocked. All they hear from me is “don’t hate. How can you hate? If you dislike something that much, why would you want to give it the energy that hate takes?” Anyhow, my ‘hate’ utterance left their jaws hanging.

    I immediately forbid Molly from associating with that girl again – so much for my hippie style of parenting! I would have erased her from Molly’s phone (Eva Braun-ish, I know), except her name is in some kind of crypto-code like all the names and I didn’t know which one was the evil girl. But, Emma, sensing my distress and loss of calm and character, and being the compassionate person that she is, just looked at Molly and simply said “let it go.” Wiser words I couldn’t have spoken myself, obviously. And if that was not enough, she turned to me and said, “that goes for you too.” I sure didn’t see that coming…sometimes your own words…

    A few days later Molly called the girl and said that there was no need for them to hate each other, and while maybe they were not meant to be “friends” they could find a way to be cordial to each other. Not so epic, but an excellent barometer of how they internalize how I am present as a mother (my episodic regression towards hate aside). I ask you – who knew?

  2. I’m fascinated by Alexandra’s two insights, both of which I can profoundly identiry with. The first is the rock-solid intuition that the truths of the “Lord of the Rings”, as they are manifested in the events, scenes, characters, and themes of the books and movies, represent a Reality that is so resplendently Real and True – so much more Real and True than any of the “realities” and “truths” in which we traffic down here in the Western world of the 21st century, AKA, the Kali Yuga – that they completely outstrip the strangely plastic and flavorless “challenges” thrown out to the would-be heroes of our age. This insight that the “Lord of the Rings” is the Real place-to-be for any normal human being, whereas our current aeon is merely a place-to-survive, naturally led to Alex (I believe) to her second wonderful insight: that no matter how hard you try to talk yourself out of it – in this most secular of seculum – with uplifting self-pep-talks borrowed from the dusted-off tomes of ancient mythology, reconstituted as “The Hero’s Journey” and “Fire in the Belly”, even the basest turpitude of our present age suggests only a shadow of the reality by which we might otherwise have exercised our souls had we been born somewhere slightly higher and closer to that glorious opening in Plato’s cave.
    I can’t describe in words how strong was that emotional impression after emerging from the movie theater (and I know many share this experience), after seeing the trilogy, that what I had just observed was a greater representation of what is True and Real than anything occuring in the quotidian world of fuel prices, petty oil wars, lurking politicians, and warbling rhetoric into which I had emerged from the dark cave of the cinema. How ironic that Plato’s cave has been oddly reversed in these ghastly days of meaninglessness and insignificance; that in order to get a glimpse of something more than an ephemeral shadow of Truth, we must actually enter the darkness of a “cave” where we sit, our eyes nearly enchained to the screen which displays shadows-in-reverse of things belonging of to the Real World.
    We can thank Tolkein, and Peter Jackson, for making this glimpse of the True possible. And after having been refreshed and inspired by that glimpse (though it is really our only recourse at this juncture in the history of consciousness), we can turn courageously to this maddeningly boring age where nearly all magic and mystique have been stipped from human existence like bark from the Tree of Life, and without shedding any more tears over the spilled milk of enchantment, face the world with that very sense of interrogative presence which you mentioned, and which is the only source of true Wisdom and Truth that is left to us anymore.

  3. #

    Hana: I was really touched by your story. It’s so,so,so hard to bear the suffering of our children, and the bullying and unkindness that you describe really is terrible. But the insight and wise words that came out of the mouth of your two babes is so beautiful. It really is like watching a small miracle to see that they have their own capacity to turn the rawest of experiences into wisdom and compassion….they can even teach us. Amazing.

  4. Simka321: You feelings really capture the passion that Alex felt–and still feels–about LOTR. Watching her cry in the movie theater really reminded me of the power of some art to awaken a yearning and capacity for transcendence. I was really struck by the comment about Plato’s Cave being reversed–going into into the cave and seeing reflections (projections) that are more Real and True than the sense of unreality that we experience outside. It’s amazing to watch a little kid “get” the Real and True because it reminds a person that we were born with an innate capacity for an intense engagement with life. For me, it does have to do with awakening that “interrogative presence,” at least I think. Why do you think it is that most of us feel at such a ghostly remove from reality, from the lives we were meant to live, so much of the time? And yes thank Tolkein and Peter Jackson. Now Alex is 18, and I continue to see how LOTR has been a world, a guide, the gift that keeps on giving.

  5. I recently read a biography of Alexander the Great. The biographer suggested that Alexander, although a Macedonian, was raised on stories of Greek heroes. And then I started a biography of Gandhi, and the biographer suggested that Gandhi was raised on the spiritual stories of great Indians. Oh, and both biographers suggested that these stories imprinted on the very souls of these men. These stories shaped them.

    And then I thought about myself, what stories had I been raised on? Moby Dick, Jane Eyre, and The Count of Monte Cristo. But I don’t know if they imprinted my soul because I am school teacher not a sea captain or imprisoned in my attic or freeing myself from profound injustice. But perhaps those stories instilled in me my sense of fairness and truth and the consequences of actions.

    We no longer live in a world of storytellers and shamans around the fire, although I did read today that a tribe in the Amazon was spotted from a plane that had never had contact with the outside world. No, most of us live in a world of print and images. But perhaps the need for stories resides in the human soul. Perhaps we will always be bound to the stories of great deeds or incredible struggles. And maybe, just maybe, the true shamans and storytellers of today are filmmakers and bloggers.

    Yes, it makes sense that Lord of the Rings provided an anchor for the child. Stories ground us. They encourage us to rise to greatness. They can transform a potentially meat-eating, liquor-drinking, womanizer into a Mahatma. They can transform a child into a conqueror. Maybe they can even transform a little girl into a teacher seeking fairness and equity for all.

    If oxygen makes life possible, stories make life grand.

    And maybe the medium of the story is not as important as the story itself. Great stories inspire great actions.

  6. We still live in a world of storytellers, but now we gather around an electronic fire. That only dimly understood pull of transcendental truth is there, but it’s in the form of rap, rock and occasionally film – forms that can freak other people out. When I was an adolescent, I had a conservative aunt who counseled my mother NOT to expose me to popular culture – that it was “evil”. Thank god I had parents that ignored such nonsense.

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