I’ve been thinking a lot about myths lately.
The other day, I happened upon this article, which claims that American films (and TV shows, etc.) find inspiration in Greek mythology in times of great social turbulence. If this is true, I think we can expect to see several million remakes of the Odyssey next year. Maybe more.
Around the same time, a friend of mine and I were talking about the mythical counterparts that we saw in our respective lives. That day, I found myself on a bridge over the Fraser River, biking through a torrential rain storm. The river was dark gray, and the industrial land on either side of the river looked barren and deserted. It all felt very much like a journey to the underworld. This may read as an unnecessarily harsh indictment of the Vancouver suburbs, but it actually made my ride feel less miserable, maybe even a little heroic.
Maybe that’s why we like stories about myths, because they make the struggles of life — getting soaked by the winter rain, having a government which raises taxes on the poor and middle class to give corporations tax breaks, feel more noble, more universal. Maybe that’s why Greek tragedies have lasted so much better than Greek comedies. Or maybe it’s just that they make us feel smug. Yeah I was wet, but at least I didn’t murder my father and marry my mother. Take that, Oedipus!
So spare a moment for a Joseph Campbell-esque thought: today – what’s the mythical counterpart of what’s going on in your life? What mythical creature or hero or god(dess) are you feeling?
Speaking of myths, below I’m pasting a story I wrote a few years ago and never published. There’s a mythical creature in it. Maybe several.
By Ari B. Goelman
Then she was gone, and I missed her.
We had met at an outdoor dance party in late July. It was one of those endless summer nights you get in Vancouver, when the sun sets at 10 and it still feels early. The party was on the roof of a friend of friend’s apartment building, high enough that you could see English Bay to one side, while on the other the mountains glowed in the setting sun.
The next day I woke up in her bed, with her asleep next to me. Her feet were sticking out of the blankets. I remember noticing how big and beautiful her feet were, right down to the glittery toenail polish, and tufts of fine, golden hair catching the sunlight. She wanted to go hiking in the mountains that Saturday, but I convinced her to see some stupid Danish movie at the Cinemateque instead.
The summer stretched into a beautiful autumn. A warm September, a mild October. Our last night together was Halloween. She dressed up as Liberty, I dressed up as Truth. No one at the Halloween party understood our costumes. We fought about it afterwards. Our last fight.
I said, “What’s the point of dressing up if no one knows what you are?”
She blinked — she had these beautiful, long eyelashes, the same golden color as her hair. “What’s the point of dressing up?” she said simply. She patted my cheek. “Anyway, it’s over.”
“What’s over?” I said, hoping she was talking about the party, even as I understood that she was talking about us. I couldn’t believe it. It hadn’t been a particularly nasty fight.
“My heart is a mountain that you cannot climb. It’s better if we just end it now. I want to spend the next few months sleeping.” She walked out of my apartment. She didn’t say goodbye. She didn’t bother with a final hug or fake tears or any of the other annoying parts of a break up.
And that was that.
She stopped returning my phone calls. She didn’t come by the parties where I used to see her. For hours, then days and then weeks, that was that.
She was gone, and I missed her.
I didn’t show up at work for so long they thought I had quit. I had quit, I guess. I bumped into my manager outside the office a few weeks later, and I made up lies about how I was spending my time. I was learning to snowboard. I was writing screenplays. I was road biking, hiking, winter kayaking. My blog had sponsors. He should check it out. Totally.
Really, I was spending my time thinking of her. I was spending my time thinking that there had to be some combination of actions I could take, some perfect combination of words and flowers and calculated occurrences that would win her back.
And then, one day, I saw snow covering the mountains north of the city. She had always wanted to take me hiking in the north shore, where she was from, but I never wanted to go. Until now, without her.
The mountains weren’t so far away from the city, not really. It took me two hours to get there, but only because I had to take two buses. The first bus smelled like gas and sweaty people, but the second bus – the bus to the mountain – smelled like snow.
By the time I got there I was hungry. I had brought three granola bars with me. I ate one, wondering how I would get home. The buses didn’t run very often.
I started walking. I put on my hat and gloves, zipped my jacket up to my throat. Goretex clad hikers jogged past me. Some were carrying weights. Some had dogs running next to them.
After an hour my legs hurt. I rested, until I got so cold I had to keep walking. Finally I got to the top of the mountain. I still hadn’t reached the snow. The snow line is higher than it looks from the city, where the mountains seem to be covered with snow.
There was a gondola on the mountain waiting to take me back down, and I realized I could have taken the gondola up from the beginning. But there were more mountains behind the gondola. It was just the beginning I realized. Mountains on top of mountains on top of mountains. It started to rain.
There was a little concession next to the gondola. I bought a muffin and a cup of tea in a cardboard cup and kept walking. After a while the rain turned to snow. It smelled of her face. The leaves were red and falling, blanketing the path and slippery. I tripped once. I got up and kept walking. I tripped again. After the third time I fell, I lay on the ground for a minute. A leaf near my face was heart shaped.
A man’s voice. “So. You’re looking for my sister.”
She was tall, but he was huge.
He offered me his hand, just a bit smaller than my head, and hauled me to my feet.
“Yes. I’m looking for your sister,” I said. I recognized him, of course. She’d told me about her brother, showed me pictures, but we’d never met. She was protective of her family. When we had been together, I had liked that protectiveness. I had imagined her being protective of me some day.
“She doesn’t want to see you,” he said. “When she finishes with a guy, she’s done. Anyway, she’s asleep. We sleep a lot in the winter.”
I shivered as he spoke. The sun was dipping below the tree line and I was cold. My feet were wet with sweat and snow. Her brother looked at me seriously. He had big brown eyes which reminded me of her. “You need to go home. The nights are cold up here.”
“I need to see her. At least I need to talk to her.”
I searched for some shred of bravado, or failing that, some tattered bit of reason. “She left some clothes at my place.”
He shrugged. “She’ll pick them up in April. If she feels like wearing clothes again.” He was naked I realized, covered with long fine fur the color of the overcast sky. You’d think I’d have noticed that immediately, I guess, but he looked so comfortable, and in the dim light I’d thought it was a fur coat.
I tried to remember her clothes. I couldn’t quite picture any outfit. I couldn’t quite picture her face, even. Though I knew she was very beautiful. Though, I knew I loved it when she smiled.
“Go home,” her brother told me.
I didn’t move. He started walking down the mountain, beckoning for me to follow him. His fur glistened silver in the rain. “This way.”
I followed him. It felt faster going down. We got to where we could see the gondola in the distance, and he pulled a battered piece of paper from a little bag he was wearing around his neck. “Here,” he said. “She said you might be up here looking for her, and she told me to give this to you.”
I took the slip of paper. It was a gondola ticket. It had been purchased three weeks ago. She had thought of me at least once since leaving. “I don’t think it’s still good.”
“They’ll take it,” he told me. He put his giant hand on my shoulder. A stray piece of his hair brushed my ear. His smell reminded me of her. “Let her go,” he said. “What are you going to do? She doesn’t love you.”
I wanted to say something clever. Something about how all love is mythical, so who better to long for than a mythical creature? But I couldn’t figure just the right way to say it, and after a few seconds he said, “Really. Give up. Her heart is a mountain that you can’t climb.”
“I can,” I told him. “I’m not done trying.”
He squeezed my shoulder and said. “Be done.”
He was a nice guy. He waited for me to say something, but I just kept thinking about how cold my feet were. How I wished I was covered in fur, too. About how sometimes, no matter how much you want something, you don’t get it.
“Be done,” he repeated. “Take the gondola down the mountain and go home.”
I took the gondola down the mountain. I went home. Then she was gone, and I missed her.