Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Labyrinthine Mysteries

Sunday was my Grandson Noah's (The Line Writer's) 12th birthday. The kid is really growing up into a fine young man. Being as how he is, after all, The Line Writer, I gifted him with a Lamy Safari fountain pen and a high quality journal book, hand-tooled leather, bound by craftsmen at Renaissance Art in Santa Fe, complete with replaceable Arches paper in hand-torn, hand-stitched signatures.

If the quality of one's writing instruments is any indication of one's writerly skills, then Noah should be on a strong footing.

Of course, we know that it isn't the cost of one's tools that counts, but rather how best one adapts to using whatever tool one chooses. Sticking with it, that's the key to getting past the awkwardness of the mechanics of tool usage, making them transparent through built-up muscle memory, to the point that they simply disappear, and words magically appear on paper (or screen) shortly after having been formed in one's mind.

He came home with us to spend the night, Noah did, after his birthday party, where we spent the evening sitting in my newly remodeled office, writing and drawing.

Somehow the subject of mazes came up (another mystery), and this prompted me to dig into the closet, high up on the top shelf, where I unearthed a tattered maroon file folder, bulging at the seams. Inside were papers yellowed and musty - he took immediately to the timeless aroma of these old papers - and I leafed through piles of miscellaneous writings from early in my adult years, decades ago, when I spent much of my spare time as a high schooler and then U.S. Navy sailor with pen and paper, a mysterious inner thought-life revealed.

My "early works" these could be termed, although I'm certain they won't grace the pages of some future biographer's efforts. What they really represent are growing pains, documented in excruciating detail. But, along with numerous awkward attempts at stories short and somewhat humorous, there were found sheafs of papers written about one of my childhood fascinations, that being mazes.

Years ago I had collected numerous maze books, among which were those written by one Greg Bright, an Englishman, who not only designed mazes as graphic works of art but also put spade to sod and dug his own life-sized version in the heather of dear old England. He also worked on some rather novel theories of maze design, one of which ("one way valving") came to fascinate me. He left it up to his readers to determine how a maze could be designed to control the flow of traffic through the network.

I was probably Noah's age when this seemingly bizarre enchantment with mazes took hold. And so I began, over the next few years, to figure out how Greg Bright's cryptic reference to maze designs might be worked out in actual practice.

I pulled out page after page of scribblings and theories and schematic diagrams of "routing networks" (Bright's term), but these didn't interest Noah nearly as much as when I got to a stack of actual mazes, some completed but most in various stages of design, left unfinished for decades.

I told Noah the story of how I came to draw a complex maze of double and triple spirals onto an eight-foot-long scroll of notebook paper between eighth and ninth grades, which was eventually lost in one of many subsequent moves during my restless years of long ago.

We spent the next hour drawing our own mazes, and I took the time to show Noah my line mazes (you follow the inked line, rather than the space between lines) and also the 3D version of the line maze (where lines overlap, but only join at purposefully-drawn nodes), and also the schematic diagram of a 3D line maze that had no start or finish, neither any dead-ends, but instead represented a grid of pathways and nodal intersections. The edges of this schematic diagram wrapped around to the other sides of the grid, sphere-like, endless connections for the sheer joy of the hunt.

Noah, I found out, had already begun his own discovery of mazes, independent of my prompting, and showed me his own particular style of maze design. This surprised me: I had assumed that I had been one of only a few young lads to take interest in the convolutions and labyrinthine machinations of the maze designer. His independent interest makes me wonder how common of an interest this is among young boys, perhaps a common cultural artifact that's remained unseen and hidden amongst all of the other interests and distractions of childhood. Fittingly, the mystery remains.

Mazes, (and their unicursal cousins the labyrinth) I knew from my reading have fascinated civilizations for millenia. They hold a special spiritual implication to many cultures, whose depth of meaning have perhaps been lost to antiquity. Mazes perhaps represent the uncontrolled wildness of natural life bottled up in a tableau of finite dimension, symbolizing the trek, the journey, the quest, with its endless corridors and confusing decisions and promise of a destination, a reward, the goal like that proverbial gold at the end of the rainbow, symbolic of a future promised after-life.

We like the temporary confusion of the maze, if but for a season, before the temporary fascination wilts into the miasma of fear, the notion that we're really lost and aren't getting out of here anytime soon except by courage and perseverance. Words to live by in these challenging times. They are like models of real life, with its challenges and confusion, reminding us of the lessons learned by our parent's parent's parents, receding into antiquity, the mystery of life hidden within its cerebral-like convolutions.

The evening grew late, it became time for us to think about hitting the sack on this late summer's eve, before another year of school will soon begin. I bundled up the sheafs of musty papers into their tattered folder and replaced them to their resting place high up in the closet, to rest for another season of time in perpetual slumber, resting for some eventual future date when they will once again be taken down, opened up, leafed through, new mysteries of a past youth to be revealed anew.

Don't throw out those old papers, those dog-eared jottings and scribblings, for they are the life of the soul revealed, recorded for one's posterity, if one can but put up with the nuisance that their clutter inevitably provides.

It is tempting to pare down one's material possessions into some idealized end-state that resembles an Architectural Digest interior, neatly arranged and coordinated, feng shui'd to the n-th degree, complete with Zen rock garden in the front yard. But then where would the evidence remain of a life having been lived? The clutter of our personal affects are like a private archaeology that we bequeath to our progeny. Though their decline and rot are inevitable, as are their eventual discard, we owe it to our off-spring their access, a brief glimpse into the mystery of who we are, or once were.

(Written via Lamy Safari in composition book)


Blogger Richard P said...

A wonderful post, thank you. I remember being fascinated by mazes, especially intestinal or cerebral shapes, around Noah's age, but I never studied them systematically.

[Word verification: amate. Plural imperative of "to love."]

8:29 PM  
Blogger Wordherder said...

There's magic in times like you describe here. Treasure them as I know you do.

8:42 PM  
Blogger Cameron said...

Joe, this is marvelous writing. So expressive and flowing. The subject of the maze is fascinating. It is definitely a symbol of something very central to our core.

How lucky your grandson is to have you, and how lucky you are to have your grandson.

9:26 PM  
Anonymous Michael Höhne said...

Wonderful musings, Joe. Thanks. Although I was never absorbed by mazes, I did design and build, in the seventh grade (US school system, we have to specify now in this international medium, meaning I was 11 or 12 years old) an actual 3D maze. It is a box of six levels of a six-by-six grid of mazey passages, to be negotiated by a marble (a small ball) directed by tilting the box. Each level has a single hole to drop the marble to the next level and eventually out the bottom--in one direction. (You do this by feel, of course, since you cannot see the marble.)

Turn it over and go the other way. In this direction there is one point at which it is possible to drop two levels at once, and if you do, the maze you end up in is a dead end. The trick is to tilt the box quickly in the correct direction while dropping through the first of those two lined-up holes, so as to land on the first of those levels and then continue out.

The first way is easy. The second way!--I have only done it twice in forty years and only one other person has ever done it.

Have Fun!
Michael Höhne

2:31 AM  

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