Sunday, August 16, 2009

My Little Enigma

As I cruised down a rural road, this mind-catching sign leaped into my peripheral vision. I made a mental note to revisit it on my ride home, to stop and take a picture. Later, when I parked in the empty lot, I noticed a gigantic stuffed panda perched on the upstairs porch of the empty/haunted/work-in-progress restaurant. He had faded to a pale and mellow brown in the August sun. Slouched into his setting, he looked accepting of life’s surreal surprises. He seemed to take in the lush green landscape, to admire the Queen Anne’s lace waving far below, right next to the Enigma sign.

Today’s lesson: Always stop to revel in the little mysteries.

If this is a restaurant-to-be, I’m coming back for the grand opening. (Beautiful: The Grand Opening of the Enigma! Solutions to life’s riddles revealed with a meal …) I love the idea of opening that door, stepping over the threshold, and entering the Enigma, ready to savor a sip and a bite of magic and mystery.

Which carries me rocketing back in time to another odd sign in Steppenwolf, Herman Hesse’s unsettling and dream-swirled novel written in 1929. It’s a hallucinatory tale of many doors, mirrors and masks. (Hesse’s works were the perfect, mind-exploding material for college-age readers. As a young woman I read his books, one after another.) Due to discovering the Enigma sign, I wanted to find a particular, connected section in the book. Presto. I opened the book to the exact page. Of course, I’m sure the book tended to open to where it was frequently opened to in the past, to one of the many dog-eared pages. However, bear with me here, shrug off all doubt. It was so fitting, Steppenwolf opening like a door to the very words I was searching for!

Fellow enigma explorers, read them yourselves. (Forgive several brief omissions in the text.) Here are Herman Hesse’s words:

This time, too, the wall was peaceful and serene and yet something was altered in it. I was amazed to see a small and pretty doorway with a Gothic arch in the middle of the wall, for I could not make up my mind whether this doorway had always been there or whether it had just been made. It looked old without a doubt, very old; apparently this closed portal with its door of blackened wood had opened hundreds of years ago onto a sleepy convent yard …. I paused to examine it from where I stood without crossing over, as the street between was so deep in mud and water. From the sidewalk where I stood and looked across, it seemed to me in the dim light that a garland, or something gaily colored, was festooned round the doorway, and now that I looked more closely I saw over the portal a bright shield, on which, it seemed to me, there was something written. I strained my eyes and at last, in spite of the mud and puddles, went across, and there over the door I saw a stain showing up faintly on the grey-green of the wall, and over the stain bright letters dancing and then disappearing, returning and vanishing once more. So that’s it, thought I. They’ve disfigured this good old wall with an electric sign. Meanwhile I deciphered one or two of the letters as they appeared again for an instant; but they came with very irregular spaces between them and very faintly, and then abruptly vanished. … Why have his letters playing on this old wall in the darkest alley of the Old Town on a wet night with not a soul passing by, and why were they so fleeting, so fitful and illegible? But wait, at last I succeeded in catching several words on end. They were:


I tried to open the door, but the heavy old latch would not stir. The display too was over. It had suddenly ceased, sadly convinced of its uselessness. I took a few steps back, landing deep into the mud, but no more letters came. The display was over. For a long time I stood waiting in the mud, but in vain.

Then, when I had given up and gone back to the alley, a few colored letters were dropped here and there, reflected on the asphalt in front of me. I read:


…. I was freezing and walked on … longing too for that doorway to an enchanted theater, which was for madmen only. At every other step there were placards and posters with their various attractions …. But none of these was for me. They were for “everybody,” for those normal persons whom I saw crowding every entrance. In spite of that my sadness was a little lightened. I had had a greeting from another world, and a few dancing, colored letters had played upon my soul and sounded its secret strings. A glimmer of the golden track had been visible once again.

-- Herman Hesse

When my daughters were small, I referred to the airy passageway between two trees as a “magic door.” We always went through together. It felt like we were entering new woodland universes, being careful never to be separated, following the same path. For years we were in the same world at the same time. Of course, as they grew up, they entered their own kingdoms, kept opening new doors, which led in turn to separate places and whole other sets of beckoning doors.

Lately, after anticipating and attending a small high school reunion, I’ve been reliving the joys and pangs of the past. It’s jarring to look back and marvel at how life would have been so different based on seemingly insignificant choices, or a single locked or unlocked door. I was going to attend the reunion in my hometown with one of my oldest friends, but a death in her family prevented her from coming at all. The night of the party, I entered that shadowy time machine alone. After an initial wave of high school shyness, I was transported somewhere else, somewhere where old friends and acquaintances were all welcoming, with good stories to tell. Each person I saw, each story I heard, set my mind and heart off in another direction. The event summoned my own history with all of its own anecdotes, with its own collection of sweetness and grief. By this stage in our lives, I think we have all had enough life experiences to jettison the masks. I felt like a lot of straight and deep things were said. Delightfully humorous things, too.

Time got billowy there, and although I thought I would have time to connect with everyone, I didn’t. E-mail correspondence began or continued in earnest. People I didn’t know well in high school became new friends. Other people who didn’t/couldn’t attend the reunion made contact. Six of us – three who were at the reunion and three who weren’t – converged from all directions to meet again yesterday. We spent five hours talking. I’m proud of how they’ve all turned out and took great pleasure in their creativity, intelligence, humor, and compassion. Two of them are my oldest friends: one from third grade and one from way back in first. (She still remembers my first classroom entrance after moving to the area midyear. I was wearing red sneakers and crying!) How magical to be able to retrace my steps through so many passages and to still find new possibilities and doors revealed.

Phew. Okay. Let’s move out of range of this tsunami of nostalgia, and on to: THE ENIGMA PRIZE!!! Can anyone out there identify the location of the Enigma sign? I will send the first person to correctly uncover that mystery a FREE signed copy of my skinny chapbook, The Smaller, Paler Version of His Head. I’ll also enclose a miniature mystery. My contact information is in the sidebar of the blog.

Note: the condensed passage was from Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse, the 1963 revised edition from Holt, Rinehart and Winston, pages 31 - 33. The original translation was by Basil Creighton in 1929; the revised translation was by Joseph Mileck and Horst Frenz in 1963.


Pam said...

What a journey you've taken us on-sparked in part by that incredible sign. Love the way it seems explosive and then associative. Frissons of memories. But I don't know where it is...along the Taconic Parkway???

Christine said...

Hi, Pam -- thanks for reading! I'm never sure if longer posts get read on blogs, so I appreciate your devotion! Isn't it a wonderful sign? No, it's not on the Taconic, but you are getting close...

Deborah Batterman said...

One door closes, another opens. I'm going to the opening with you!

Christine said...

Absolutely. I so look forward to it! Thanks for reading.