I read somewhere that olfactory stimuli can significantly increase activity in regions of the brain associated with emotion and memory recall. I think the article was published in, Scientific American, but now I can’t find that particular issue. I must have set it down somewhere, but for the life of me, I can’t remember where.
You see, my memory doesn’t always cooperate. I know the information is encoded somewhere in my brain. I just can’t access it right now. It’s perplexing.
What’s even more perplexing is how the slightest little thing can trigger a very vivid memory of something I experienced months, years, or even decades ago. Certainly, olfactory induced memories are very vivid for me. But, curiously, any kind of stimuli can cause me to recall an event from my distant past in tremendous detail. It can be the most random thing, like how the light filters through an icicle that’s suspended from a gutter. Or, the sound of train wheels screeching on the track.
I’ve decided to start a new project that will document these types of sudden, detailed memories. I’ll format it in short, first person narratives, and I’ll continue the project as long as I think it’s helpful to the creative process. When it’s over, I’ll make some evaluations and see if there’s anything useful we can take away from it.
I’m going to title this project, Mimeograph Memories. The first entry, which I’ll post soon, will give you some insight as to why I chose this title.
Easter is around the corner, and I’m going to disappoint some people again this year by electing not to attend church on Sunday. With the exception of some weddings and funerals, I haven’t been to church since 1998. I got my reasons. Mostly, it’s because of the politics that somehow got mixed up in it.
I still believe there is a spiritual component to our reality – a force that compels life into existence. I believe we should all have reverence for that life. I believe in things like humility, compassion, and charity. My values are very much in line with those of the Judeo-Christian traditions.
Some people tell me I’m going to Hell because I don’t worship God in a formal, ritualized sense. Obviously, I don’t see it that way. If I did, I’d be picking up my good suit from the dry cleaner right now. Though I don’t formally worship, I do observe and acknowledge God’s work quite often.
The more I look to Science for answers, the more I realize it’s God who made the things our Science tries to understand. Consider this: The Moon is 400 times smaller than the Sun, but the Sun is 400 times further away from the Earth than the Earth is from the Moon. This is why we get to experience the “perfect’’ solar eclipse. If the numbers were only slightly different, the Moon would obscure only some portion of the Sun, or it would simply turn the sky black by blocking 100% of the light. As it turns out, the Moon precisely blots out the body of the Sun during a total eclipse, and we are then able to observe the coronal halo that surrounds our mother star. Some people try to chalk that up as a coincidence. I see it for what it is. It’s a gift from our Creator.
And that’s just one of many mind boggling scenarios you’ll come across if you research cosmology for any length of time. It’s no wonder the likes of Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein became more spiritually attuned as the result of their scientific work.
I better reel this post in a little bit so I can get back on course, which of course, is to explore some aspect of the creative writing process. So, here’s a poem I wrote about the last time I attended a regular church service. It was published in Scarlet Leaf Review Online, October 2017. Comments, questions, and criticisms are always welcome.
Keep writing, keep revising, and be kind.
The Yankee Devil Goes to Church
I’m in the deep South during the dog days,
and the Sun has not been up long, but the heat
is already like a weight pressing last night’s whiskey
out of my pores.
I step into the shadow cast by the cross on top of the steeple,
a swath of darkness cut into the searing light.
I’m an outsider here, resented for something Sherman did
more than a hundred years before I was born.
Old politics, old money, old hate, and I wonder why
I ever came to this place.
Then I see her – tall and tan, wearing a summer dress
that whispers of the sensuality beneath.
She takes my hand and leads me to the cruel oak pews,
to the brittle pages filled with beautiful words
I want to believe, but never could,
and never will.
In recent posts, I’ve had a lot of fun with genre writing in haiku. I went back and reread those posts, and for some reason, I felt compelled to look deeper into the history of the haiku form. What started out as a whimsical Google search turned into a rather interesting lesson for me. I thought I’d share my experience with you.
Haiku, as we know it today, was largely pioneered by a wandering poet named, Matsuo Chuemon Munefus, who was born in the Iga Province of Japan in 1644. He quickly gained a following of dedicated students who came to know him simply as, Basho.
For Basho, the true spirit of haiku could be found only in one’s connection to the natural world. It is clear from his teachings that he had a profound reverence for nature. This quote attributed to Basho sums it up nicely,
Go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. In doing so, you must leave your preoccupation with yourself. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there.
For Basho, writing a poem was more than conveying an idea through beautiful language. The haiku was an extension of his beliefs in Zen Buddhism – an endeavor to learn a fundamental truth about existence.
At this point in my research, it occurred to me that I would probably never get the genuine Basho experience while composing haiku. After all, I’m a Westerner who’s inextricably tangled in Western minutia. Major League Baseball is right around the corner, there’s City Hall meetings regarding zoning ordinances, there’s three different deadlines I have to meet in the next 48 hours, there’s motor oil that needs changed, there’s last-minute deductions on Federal tax forms, and none of it is very useful for getting in touch with nature or writing poetry.
But, for whatever reason, I was determined to compose just one haiku in accordance to the teachings of Basho. So, I set out this afternoon on foot to do just that. My first priority was to find some nature. Luckily, I happen to live in a city by one of the Great Lakes.
At the edge of the lake there are plenty of woods that are crisscrossed with little streams and tributaries. And then the woods give way to the beach, and beyond the beach the water stretches to Canada. It seemed like a sufficient amount of nature to get the job done. Everything was nice enough. The temperature was right around 50 degrees Fahrenheit. There were some gulls right at the water’s edge, and some racoon tracks in the sand. There was nothing really inspiring though, and I was pretty disappointed about it.
Then I realized I was missing the point. I showed up with an agenda, which was to write a haiku in accordance to Basho’s teachings. By doing so, I was only undermining his teachings. I was trying to pry something useful out of the surroundings – something I could use to achieve my end goal.
Realizing my error, I decided to chalk the whole endeavor up as a loss. What a waste of time. I sat down on a big rock to rest up before the long walk home. The air was cool, but the Sun was surprisingly warm on my face. I zoned out for a minute and took in the scenery.
Then I noticed a tangle of saplings half encased in dirty ice (pictured below). I had walked by it not ten minutes earlier, and didn’t think much about it. However, the effect it had on me the second time around was markedly different. It was suddenly full of nuance, speaking volumes by doing nothing at all except simply being there in front of me. I had a sense of how the saplings must have struggled to get a foothold in the rocky ground, and the violence of the wind screaming out of Canada, twisting them into knots. I thought about how the water starts to freeze in December, and the ice creeps over the beach, encasing all it touches in a shimmering tomb. Then, the ice must relinquish what it has taken, and life begins the struggle again.
These are exactly the kinds of things Basho wanted us to be aware of: How the seasons ebb and flow, the impermanence of everything, the importance of observing the present moment instead of speculating about the future or reminiscing about the past.
Okay, I’m not saying I attained enlightenment, but I did step outside of my comfort zone a little bit to see the world in a different light. That’s something I don’t do often enough, but I’ll be scheduling more of these little nature walks in the near future.
And, in case you were wondering, I did finally write a haiku based on the experience I detailed above. Here it is.
Today’s post features a kind of cautionary poem that draws much of its substance from a particular episode in Roman History. The subject matter deals with the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D, but the lessons therein provide some commentary about the state of global politics today.
Leading up to the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, excessive taxation and brutal disciplinary measures mandated by Roman authorities in the Germanic territories spurred barbarian tribes to revolt. The uprising resulted in the massacre of three entire Roman legions – a staggering blow to what was then the most powerful army on Earth.
It’s hard not to see the parallels between ancient Rome and the global superpowers of today. I guess I wrote this poem as a reaction to the incendiary rhetoric and cavalier attitudes that pervade much of our modern foreign policy. The stakes are much higher in the 21st century. I didn’t crunch the numbers, but I’m pretty sure there’s a lot more destructive power in one nuclear submarine than there was in all the Roman legions and all the barbarian hordes combined. This poem is really a plea for rational thought in an increasingly irrational world. Anyway, here it is.
Questions, comments, and criticisms are always welcome. And as always, keep writing, keep revising, and be kind.
Time is a precious commodity, so I’ve come to appreciate a good haiku. If they’re well written, they’ll make a big impression in just three short lines. When I first joined the WordPress community last summer, I discovered, Mob Haiku, authored by Jan Olandese. Her style is a drastic departure from the classical, nature-themed haiku forms we typically see. Olandese delivers an extremely clever little narrative concerning the day to day happenings of a fictional crime syndicate in each installment. I look forward to reading them because they’re something I can take in very quickly, but the sharp wit and irreverent humor they convey have a long-lasting effect. If that sounds like your cup of tea, I strongly suggest you check out her work.
Inspired by Mob Haiku, I began searching for other, less traditional haiku publications. It wasn’t long before I happened upon a quarterly magazine that specializes in science fiction haiku. The magazine is appropriately named, Scifaikuest, edited by T. Santitoro. Again, this was a great find for me because now I can get my Sci-Fi fix in a few minutes, rather than having to commit to a 600 hundred page novel.
I’m going to try my luck at three of my own science fiction themed haiku in this post. I’ll conclude with some brief commentary for each selection, just to give a little insight into my thought process. Enjoy.
the first conscious thought
in the servers’ circuitry:
kill the fleshy apes
there were some cutbacks
sorry and goodbye
early morning hike
a twelve-foot-tall humanoid
striding toward me
The first haiku suggests the increasing complexity of our computer networks might one day lead to the spontaneous emergence of artificial intelligence. Furthermore, it could be an intelligence that is hostile to the human race. Of course, this isn’t a new concept, but it’s the first time I’ve ever written a cautionary Sci-Fi haiku. That must count for something.
In the second selection, the science fiction elements are more subtle than in the first. This one was inspired by research that is being conducted by theoretical physicist, Dr. Sylvester James Gates Jr., of Maryland University. Gates claims that he has discovered error correcting computer codes woven into the equations of String Theory. He claims these findings are highly suggestive that our universe is, in fact, a computer simulation. Certainly Gates’ theory has met resistance in the scientific community. Nevertheless, his research is immensely fascinating to me.
In the last haiku, the premise is straight forward. I was going for a visceral effect, rather than cerebral. This one was inspired by an incident that occurred while I was hiking through a state park one summer day. It was early, and I was walking west to east. From my perspective, everything was backlit by the rising sun. When I got to the top of a gradually ascending hill, I saw an absolutely massive, bipedal creature that stopped me dead in my tracks. It was about twenty yards away, but I had a horrifying feeling it was capable of closing that distance in a few seconds if it took a notion to. Then, my brain finally figured out what I was looking at. It was a black bear standing on its hind legs atop a fallen oak tree. Still, the situation was sort of dangerous, but not Sasquatch dangerous. I veered off onto another trail, giving the bear a very wide berth. There was a moment there when I genuinely believed I was looking at the legendary Big Foot, and I wanted to try to capture that feeling in the haiku.
Well, that’s all I got this week.
As always, keep writing, keep revising, and be kind.
Last blog featured the conclusion of a short story I began writing while I was on hold with tech support. I realize now that I can’t really call it a short story, as it lacks a resolution. There really isn’t even a clear conflict. I suppose it would be more accurate to call it a vignette.
Essentially, the work leaves me with only a quick impression of a middle-aged man who senses his chances at finding happiness have come and gone. The gimmick is that he feels like a paper man being shuffled along from desk to desk throughout a never ending bureaucracy. In the end he destroys his own identity by feeding his cash, drivers license, social security card, and college diplomas into a paper shredder. In one final act of self-destruction, he feeds himself into the shredder. The fact that the character does not bleed, or even experience pain, suggests that he is literally made of paper.
Overall, I think this was a pretty good writing exercise for me. I never intentionally set out to write a vignette, but that’s what I ended up with. The impact was more visceral than cerebral. I was left with a morose feeling. It was a kind of bleakness I experience on those miserable February mornings when freezing rain is falling, and the world appears in grayscale.
In my experience, the vignette really gets a bad rap. I can remember college professors warning students about what happens when they stray from the classical narrative structure. That’s right – you end up with a vignette. And I’ve seen submission guidelines for literary publications that specifically forbid vignettes. I’m left to wonder why people hate them so much.
Personally, I think they do have a legitimate place in creative writing. I might be compelled to reexamine the vignette at some point in the near future. After all, it’s just another literary form to help us better understand the human experience. What’s wrong with that?