A Day For Songs

 

Beneath the revelry of the feast the hall percolated with whisperings.

“Who is that stranger seated next to Alcinous?”

“Where does he come from?”

“Where is he going?”

No one knew. No one had heard. In a port city like Phaeacia comers and goers were usual‒ shipwrecks, traders, and diplomats. But, for each of them something could be said of their origins. All that was to be told for the man sitting beside the king was that he had washed up on shore the night before and had been found with the first rays of morning. Not a soul on the island knew even his name.

The Runner lay in the center of the track, like the Vitruvian man set in minature against the symmetry of the asphalt circle. He lay in an infinity of space, not knowing who or what he was. Now that it was over he felt muddled. Stuck. Uncertain. He had lost his bearings somewhere in the stormy sea. He was without compass. Without direction. There were no charts, no maps. He was lost.

What he had was a web of memories and personal histories, stories and remembrances. Things he had said and done. Things which had happened to him. His inner thoughts and longings. All ragtag and disconcerted. He let them swim to the forefront of his thoughts as he lay on the grass. They did not jump or pounce on him. They no longer scared him. Rather, he held onto them because they felt important. But just why that was… well he couldn’t say. At the moment they were without form, wispy, sifting around in the caverns of his frame. They were amorphous half finished sentences. And yet, they were unmistakably connected.

Alcinous’ banquet hall was at once overwhelmed by, and deaf to, the blissful notes of Demodocus’ harp and the fine timber of his voice. Overwhelmed in that no matter where in the hall a banqueter might be they could not help but hear the bard’s song. Deaf in that, though they certainly heard and were pleased to hear, only the nameless man next to Alcinous was listening.

He stared at Demodocus, enraptured. The old man’s frailty was evident in all but his fingers, which crested and fell, up and down, as they plucked the harp strings perfectly. His throat quivered with each note. Blind as he was, he stared off into a void, playing his instrument by touch. But, it seemed to the man that Demodocus was staring right at him. His blank eyes swirled with a sort of mist. They were dead, with none of the characteristic brightness of living eyes. And yet they seemed, in their listless way, fixated on the man watching from the high table.

Demodocus sang of the world’s creation. Of how Earth had risen from Chaos and sculpted on herself the mountains and valleys. He sang of the Titans, who overthrew their father, Ouranos, and took dominion of the world. Of the race of Olympian gods, born of Cronus, destined to overthrow him. He sang of Zeus’ triumph over the dragon Typhaon‒ how he struck him from the sky and buried him beneath Mount Etna, which belches smoke to this day. He sang of the Four ages of Man: Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Iron.

He told of the great heroes. Deucalion and Pyrrha, the first of the Iron age, who survived the Flood. Of Jason and the Argonauts, who brought back the golden fleece from Colchis. Perseus, who slew the Gorgon. Bellerophon, Theseus, Atlanta, Cadmus, Phaethon, Orpheus, Daedalus, Oedipus, and a host of others, until finally he came to the men at Troy. A most recent tragedy. The man watching fixed a dark grimace as Demodocus launched into the tale. His heart pounded in his chest.

“Sing to me muse of the wrath of Great Achilles” shrilled Demodocus. A thousand ships moored on Ilium’s beaches. 10 years. Soldiers devoured by mouths of spears. Longing for home. I never wanted to go. Noble Patroclus leveled by Hector. Achilles. Mourned through the night. The next day, no holding him back. Hector’s corpse dragged around the city. He shouldn’t have done it. More bitter fighting. Paris’ arrow struck Achilles’ heel. No saving him. An idea. My idea. A great horse. Made of wood. Left outside the city. The fleet gone. No trace. A great debate. Priam’s people brought it in. In the night slipped out the best of the Greeks. I was there. They opened the gates. Agamemnon’s army returned from hiding in full glory. They reduced the flame of Asia to ashes. Only because I had to.

Tears were brimming in the stranger’s eyes.

No safe passage home for the Greeks. No escaping their guilt. Little Ajax dashed against the cliffs. Menelaus blown far off course, he arrived home late and weathered. Agamemnon killed in his own house. And Odysseus…

Demodocus’ eyes remained blankly fixed on him.

No one new where Odysseus had gone. He left the day after the smoulder with his fleet and was never seen again. Stories circulated, Rumor made her rounds. He must be dead, most thought. Shipwrecked, drowned. Or lost, fewer believed. No one was sure.

The nameless man wanted to burst. I’m alive! I’m alive! I was lost. I was lost. I was horribly lost. I thought I’d never find my way back home.

The Runner gazed up at the nighttime sky. Until he pieced together all that had happened he was lost. Until such a time that he could speak clearly and boldly he was without identity. A vessel whose contents would never be known. Corked and catatonic. He felt that if he could put what he knew and what he had seen and done and felt into words there might be some semblance of clarity. He wanted very badly to tell his story.

But, how could he ever tell it honestly?  It was all so tangled. All that there were were slanted, even self serving, memories and the shreds of his notebooks haphazardly splattered with ink (it is better, one finds, to write their worries and victories through when they privately confront and assess them). And what had really happened exactly did not correspond to his personal narrative. Not to any of what he had felt at the time, nor to any of his reflections. It was sort of made up. A kind of half formed fiction based on true events. He ruminated. Which version was true? The one which occurred factually was without life, and therefore woefully inaccurate. The version which stirred him, and which felt to be real, was certainly a fabrication. He wondered. Perhaps it was not possible to be completely honest, not in the details anyway. In fact, he concluded, it was decidedly not necessary.

The amorphous half finished sentences started to find their beginnings.

Did he have the stamina? The strength? It was no easy thing, what he was proposing, not even if it was for his own peace of mind. To collect one’s belongings and orchestrate them in such a way that they make sense is a sacred and taxing enterprise. Once he began things could never be the same. He would have to continue his march through all manner of weather. He would want to give up in the middle, he was sure. At times he would feel hopeless. He would never finish. He would wonder why he had ever thought to set it down in the first place. Things were fine, before, weren’t they? What need was there? Wouldn’t it be easier to drop it and move along? Why tumble down the rabbit hole? Though, perhaps the task’s worth was also inherent in its difficulty.

The sentences grew punctuations.

At what point did reflection give way to self obsession? Was this not an entirely selfish exploit? One that removed him from society, even if only for a time, during which he would be of little use to anybody and perhaps least of all to himself? It was undoubtedly so. But, when weighed against the absolute necessity of what he felt, this acknowledgement was not enough to sway him. He had to make sense of it, or he would continue in his stuckness. In a state of stuckness one is of little use, anyway.

The sentences grew into paragraphs.

But what if…

And now the larger, more ominous question loomed.

What if it didn’t mean anything? Suppose he put it all down somewhere as best he could, only to find that it didn’t mean a god damned thing. That it was still just as muddled and confusing and labyrinthine as it was now. That it was nothing more than a series of coincidences, perhaps now organized, but nonetheless babbling and without direction or purpose. That at bottom it was empty.

Or, suppose, not being able to understand or come to grips with his own emptiness, he created “meaning” out of what was inherently meaningless. Suppose he manufactured, sculpted, or otherwise artificed some greater purpose simply in the act of putting it down. He wouldn’t be able to help it. Everything needed a beginning, middle, and end. The story had to have a final bell to justify its retelling. Did his life have such a bell? Probably not. He would become a liar, maybe. Delusional at best. A hopeless romantic of the worst sort.

And he wasn’t sure which was worse: finding nothing, or creating that which had never existed or belonged in the first place. Perhaps this question was unanswerable.

Demodocus’ spell was broken by a hearty hand on the stranger’s shoulder. It was Alcinous. His silvery hair fell around his circlet.  His face was etched with laugh lines. He spoke to his guest through the fading reverberations of a chuckle, gesturing towards the lords joined with him in conversation.

 

“But come, my friend,

Tell us your own story now, and tell it truly,”

(8.642-43)

 

Odysseus back up at him.  “You have heard it,” he said. “Just now in the bard’s song.”

“No,” Alcinous countered, “That is the story of Greece. What is your story?”

 

“Where have your rovings forced you?

What lands of men have you seen, what sturdy towns,

What men themselves?

(8.444-46)

The stranger opened his mouth to answer but no words came out. He wanted to tell him. Oh how badly he wanted to tell him. He wished that he could find the words to articulate just exactly what had happened, and how it had felt. Not just the events, but his own inner thoughts, too. He wanted to be out with it. There were terrible, fearful times. When the giants had smashed his ships in their harbor. When he had sailed to the black sands of Erebus and the ghostly shades swirled around him. When he had gazed into the Whirlpool’s gaping maw. He wanted to scream it out. I have seen these things!

And the triumphs. To coast on the winds of Aeolus himself. To see with his own eyes the splendid cattle of the sun on the shining bright island of Helios. To hear the Siren’s song, haunting and melancholy, it struck chords within his own depths‒ not even the bard here could match it. He wanted horribly to tell someone. To make them see as he had seen. To make them hear and feel as he had. He wasn’t sure why, but he no longer desired to be the stranger.

But, it was difficult. To plunge into all of it again. To make some sense of it. For every moment of exhilaration there would be one of suffering. For each victory, a defeat. To tell it honestly he would have to go back and relive it.

He threw a glance to Demodocus, who gazed back, as if to say “finish my song, Nobody.”

The Runner continued.

Something, nothing, or the resemblance of something, he felt he had to try. He had to try. At bottom he knew it was inevitable that he would, eventually. So, perhaps it was time to begin his labor. He must tell someone, even if only to have the satisfaction of the words spilling from his lips. He felt that if only someone could hear, could read, what he had to say then perhaps the horns would sound and the sky would break. He felt as if the reverberations of his vocal chords could shake mountains, and the stroke of his pen might drain the sea. That he could make them feel deeply what he had felt. That he could show them the most exquisite frightening things that he had found. He could fight the impulse no longer.

“Finish my song” said Demodocus’ blank eyes. The stranger’s wish to speak was brought to its brink. What a glory it might be to add his voice to the song of the world, sung so beautifully just now. The stranger looked back to Alcinous. He spoke,

 

“… you’re set on probing the bitter pains I’ve borne,

So I’m to weep and grieve, it seems still more.

Well, then what shall I go through first,

What shall I save for last?”

(9.12-15)

Where to begin?

Alcinous’ eyes softened. He waved his hand at the herald, who whispered in Demodocus’ ear. The Bard nodded and ceased. He gave a subtle smile to the man about to speak. The stranger took a deep breath in preparation.

“Let me begin by telling you my name…”

(9.17)

The Runner stood up.

There was something fantastic about those shredded bits of memory. Maybe they weren’t an answer, but they were a place to start. Now if only he could articulate it, then perhaps he would find some peace. He should be out with it if only to proclaim himself a part of the intricate tapestry of human existence that he would could never hope to see in its entirety. To announce his belonging. He would not feel at ease until he knew himself to be woven into its threads.

The Runner wondered about where to begin. He thought it best to start with his name. Then he reconsidered. Until he got it all down he had no desire to tell it. Not because he disliked his name. He just wasn’t sure to whom or what it referred. All of what was to come would be his attempt to find out.

 

 

Note: All excerpts from the Odyssey are taken from Robert Fagles’ translation.

Homer, Robert Fagles, and Bernard M. W. Knox. The Odyssey. N.p.: Penguin, 2002. Print.

Lira heptacordada”  by  is licensed Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad de Sevilla under CC BY 2.0


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In the Demon’s Mouth

Thunderheads marched over the Red Rock Jewel Valley. Out in front, the raindrops of the vanguard splattered slowly at first, making earthy brown splotches on the red sandstone. Milarepa felt the first drops on his neck and looked up, surprised to see clouds marshalling overhead. Rain was scarce here. Praise Indra, he thought, and went back to collecting twigs from the tangle of grass beneath a clump of stunted cedars. Then came a thunderclap which resounded between the valley walls and the rain thickened into a sheet. He stood upright to look again. A wave of dizziness came over him and blurred his vision. His observance of the ascetic rites had left him haggard and emaciated. When his vision returned his stomach dropped as the great column of storm heads came into focus. A billowing mass of black clouds which rose for miles and miles and filled the entire sky. They crept above the river bed, beating their thunderous war drums and flashing their standards of brilliant lightning for all to see. This was no benevolent shower brought forth from the grace of the rain god.

Suddenly, a ghastly wind came ripping through the valley. The patter of the raindrops in stream was overcome by howling and the thin trunks of the few shivering trees of the riverbed were swept into bowed arches. It struck, so suddenly that it tore the handful of sticks from Milarepa’s hand and they barreled off out of sight. He had to get out of the valley.

Milarepa fought with the wind as he made for the shelter of the rocks by the northern canyon wall. The wind whipped his robes against his bone thin legs as he ran. As lightning struck the clump of trees behind him they exploded into splinters. He scrabbled up the path leading down from the mountain. His cave was not far. The rain poured harder, turning the path into a sluice of muck. He slipped again and again, holding tight to boulder and scrub to keep from sliding. His panting tore at his throat. He grew dizzy with each step and his vision became riddled with black spots. He came upon the wide ledge where his cave lay. The spots grew and grew. He flung open the rude wooden door and collapsed onto the stone floor, panting. His vision failed completely. His hunger had given way to nausea. He could not lift his arms.

He wondered if he would die. Twelve years of practice came to an end on the floor of his cave too weak to save himself. He thought of his guru. Oh, Marpa, how I need you now. And he remembered no more.

The rain broke around noon.

“Do you think they’ll call the meet?” the Runner asked the starting official.

“No, no. Got to keep going. Got to run. Got to run.” He grinned wide beneath the brim of his raincoat. “Got to run. No question about it.”

“Good, good.” The Runner said after too long a pause. “That’s good.” The knot in his stomach tightened. He hoped there was a hurricane.

At 3:30 the rain had ceased. The temperature had risen. The clouds remained overcast. The Runner was stepping onto the line of the 400 hurdles. His heart was thumping a mile a minute. Easy does it. He thought. Easy does it. Teammates lined the fence.

“Let’s get that 53” came the voice of his coach over the din. The Runner nodded. 53 seconds. He hopped from foot to foot. 53. 53. 53.

“Runners to your marks” came the starter’s voice over the microphone. 53.

“Set.” 53.

Bang. The man in the lane to his right went out hard. The Runner went with him. He sailed over the first four with ease. Nice and controlled. Nice and practiced. 53. He kept the man just in front of him. A good rabbit to chase. Over the fifth fatigue began to set in. Expected. He stuck to the rabbit like glue. 53. They leaned into the curve. Over the sixth. Still smooth. His lungs were heaving now. It would be time to make a push soon. Over the seventh. Now. It had to be now. He came out of the final bend throwing his arms back and forth like a locomotive engine. The rabbit chugged along just as steadily.

As the curve gave way to the final straight away he observed the rows of hurdles straighten themselves out from the stagger, just like ballet dancers in their final movement. Panic knocked in his chest. They came to hurdle eight. The Runner slammed his knee into the crossbar. Fuck! The Rabbit pulled away. He regained his balance and chased after him. The collision had thrown off his steps. No, no no! he thought as he slowed down to meet hurdle nine. Speed up! He came over the ninth row with all the grace of a sack of flour. The field surged ahead of him. It was hopeless now. Crawling over the tenth he crossed the finish line in dismay.

He panted for a while with his hands on his knees before walking to lay down in the grass on the infield, where he watched his rabbit celebrate with his teammates from his peripheral vision. He looked to the scoreboard at the head of the field. Maybe he thought. The digital orange flashed names and times. Jesus. He collected himself, threw his spikes over his shoulder, and walked back to the stands.

A day passed.

It was by the grace of some god that Milarepa awoke shivering in a puddle by the entrance of his cave. The still open door was buffeted on its hinges by the wind, making loud clattering thwacks against the outside wall. The rain continued to descend outside. He weakly rolled over, sat up, and leaned up against the wall of the narrow passage. His head swam, and his stomach groaned beneath his yawning ribcage. He blindly felt with a shaking hand for a sack of seeds on a low shelf beside coils of rope. Finding them, he shoveled them by the handful into his mouth. The storm had taken him by surprise.

When he finished the seeds in the bag he let his head rest against the wall of the cave, breathing heavily. He waited for his nausea to subside. His vision was starting to return, fuzzy. He whispered a soft prayer to the Buddha, thanking him for his life.

In his state of delirium he thought he heard voices coming from within the main cavern, echoing off the walls. He strained his ears against the rain. There was bustling and crashing on the floor of the cave, and, yes, someone was talking. He listened.

There was a deep gurgling sort of voice, like a tar pit speaking. It said, “…in fact, Fair Ones, there is a yogi who lives in this very cave who is revered as a great sage by all the people of the Dro Wo Valley.” It was talking about him!

“Oh! Very nice, very nice!” came a nasty screeching voice.

“They say he can perform magic. They pray to all the gods that one day he will return to teach them the Dharma, because, you know, the master at Dro Wo monastery is getting very old.” That master is Marpa! thought Milarepa. So, he is still alive. Milarepa often calculated Marpa’s age. He was already an old man when he had sent Milarepa to the mountains. He longed to see him. Marpa would have been able to help him.

“But, he cannot come down from the mountains.”

“Can’t do it, Chief! Can’t do it!”

“He cannot return until he achieves the enlightenment of the Buddha and becomes a master himself.” Who were these men, who knew so much about him? They must be from the Dro Wo valley. But what were they doing in his cave? And what was that scratching sound, rumbling sound? “He has been here for twelve years, Fair Ones! Twelve years. And not a single day of progress has he made in his great task. What use is a guru if he is not enlightened?”

“Not good enough! Not good enough!” Milarepa seethed. Surely by now, he had guessed people in the valley would be talking, wondering if he would ever return. But to come here to his cave and mock him! He stared into the dark of the cavern, seeing no one. They must be one of the gangs of robbers who had stumbled on his cave in the storm and, having guessed its owner, were having a laugh before making off with what little he had.

“To what people has he given guidance? Who has he led to path of the Buddha?” The remark stung Milarepa to the core.

Then came a sardonic deep throated listener with a parody of sobs. “Not a single one, Chief. Not a single one.” These fools! These criminals! Milarepa struggled to his feet and grabbed a walking stick leaning against the wall. He leaned heavily on the staff as he made his way in the direction of the voices.

“This yogi pretender has abandoned the poor people of the Dro Wo Valley. He will never return because he will never be enlightened. He is not wise enough. He did not study hard enough. And that is why,” came the leader, “to fill his absence, we must preach our dharma, Fair Ones.”

A round of applause.

The robbers erupted in laughter.

“Where are you?” He shouted, even angrier. He swiped his stick to and fro across the cave, hitting nothing. He almost fell in his weakened state, and steadied himself on the wall.

Fingers snapped from nowhere, and suddenly the wall torches, extinguished since yesterday, sprung to life. What Milarepa saw in the new illumination were not robbers at all.

The Runner felt, as he did each week, like something of a wash out. It wasn’t that he was slow. No! It was only that he couldn’t seem to run any faster no matter how he tried. Once again he had finished in 54.26 seconds‒ the same time as the last week, and the week before, and before that, and before that. He had run the same time for two years. 54.45, 54.09, 54.72.  In fact, he had run the same exact race for two years. He would run a beautiful 300 meters, it would seem as though he was going to break from his pattern of frustrations and burst forth into the sunlight, only to implode in the home stretch. There was something about the seeing the finish line which panicked him and sent him careening into crossbars. He was stuck. Plateaued. And he was beginning to lose hope.

He walked back to the stands the long way to avoid the post-race ritual dialogue with his coach, where he was told he had done a good job, was asked how he thought, how he had felt during, and most famously “what happened in the last stretch?” It was then the Runner’s turn in this little dance to give some vague and evasive response, such as “I don’t know what happened there, coach, I just got tense towards coming around the last turn. Couldn’t get over them.” He would claim anything, from injury to the weather to poor sleep the week of due to coursework, to avoid discussing how each time he entered the final hundred meters a bolt of panic shot through his chest and his muscles contracted like cold rubber bands. He just had to shake it off. He would snap out of it.

As he approached the benches he avoided the eyes of his teammates as they bestowed the customary and unified congratulations on a race well run. They knew and he knew it had been ugly. He muttered thanks enough before throwing on his rain jacket. He sat himself down on one of the cold metal benches beneath the team’s canopy intent on brooding.

“You could have won that race,” came a voice from behind.

The Runner looked round to see who it was. “Oh, hey Farsfield.” He hoped he would go away.

Farsfield was older. He had sandy brown hair and freckles dispersed around his nose and cheeks. His big ears extended out beyond his square crew cut. He was prodigiously slim and tall and his uniform was always too big for him. During races he could be seen pulling his jersey back over shoulders. It was a little comical. But he was certainly fast.

Before Milarepa were five of the ugliest demons in all of Tibet, all laughing their awful laughs amidst the crashing and rustling.

“He’s here! Oh, he’s here!” It was the screeching voice. “That’s the one you were just talking about, Chief! Let’s eat him, Chief let’s eat him!” A bird beaked beast with bulging bloodshot eyes was rolling about on the floor laughing. His face had been wrinkled by a lifetime of scowling and frowning and teeth baring. A pair of black feathered wings and his skin was utterly covered in tattoos depicting scenes of battle. He was a living tapestry of horror and bloodshed. Cities crumbled upon his chest and arms. Soldiers fell to the sword. Armies burned and stole and left the smolder behind them.

“No, no.” Came the heavy voice next to him. “We’ve got to convert him. That’s the Chief’s orders.” Somehow his chuckling maintained an element of moroseness. He was a hulk of a body, with grey skin like rock and fangs the shape of scimitars protruding from beneath great fat lips. Even as he laughed his face was etched with the marks of sadness. As though he were a living stone who could not escape the birth of a carving he did not ask for.

A crash pulled Milarepa’s astonished attention to the floor on the opposite side of the cave. Two more demons were wrestling over a canvas sack of bhat. The winner at the moment was an impossibly fat princely figure, whose ears drooped with golden hoops and whose arms were covered in silver bangles. He was crushing a skeleton, whose sun bleached fingers still clung to the sack. “It’s mine you great oaf!” the skeleton rasped, pulling the sack close to his chest.

“I saw it first you little freak!” roared the prince on top. He was sweating profusely. The skeleton wriggled out from beneath him and climbed onto his back. He was choking him now with his necklaces. The prince spluttered, and dropped the sack. He reached overhead and threw the skeleton, whose bones clattered on the floor. They both dove for the sack.

“Here, Fair Ones, is the very man himself. Our gracious host!” The laughter redoubled.

“Oh that’s a good one, Chief. That’s good!” screeched the bird.

Milarepa now looked upon the last demon. He was standing on Milarepa’s bed, using it as his stage for speaking. He was taller than the others, and towered over them from the bed. Two great buffalo horns protruded from his head. His skin was deathly white, which enunciated his black sunken eyes, which were lidless and unblinking. But, his most striking feature was his impossibly wide mouth. It gaped in a sinister smile filled with needlepoint teeth, and was bordered by red lips the color of blood. His looks and demeanor struck Milarepa with a terror which he worked hard to suppress.

“Welcome home, Milarepa” said the Chief.

Recovered from his initial shock Milarepa wondered if perhaps he was hallucinating in his famished state, but the wreckage of his cave assured him he was not. The sanctuary had been destroyed if not ransacked. His books and scrolls lay torn and scattered. His figurines of the gods and goddesses had been melted down in his cauldron. Ash from the fireplace had been kicked across the cave floor. He mustered his strength, took a deep breath, and left the wall.

“Demons,” he shouted. “You must leave this place at once! This is holy ground that you defile. Lest the Wrathful Buddha descend upon you in his unspeakable anger, I banish you immediately! You will never again set foot in this sanctuary!”  

Even the Skeleton and the Prince stopped wrestling for a moment to share in the renewed wave of roaring laughter. Milarepa’s anger fizzled into shock and despair. The demons made no sign of leaving.

Farsfield sat down next to the Runner and stared at him intently while adjusting his uniform. “You could have won that race,” he repeated.

“I know” said the Runner. Perhaps if he gave him short answers he would give up and leave.

“You’re faster than them” said Farsfield.

“I know that, too” replied the Runner curtly. Farsfield had a bad habit of not realizing, or not caring, when he wasn’t wanted

“Then what happened?”

More than a little annoyed, the Runner offered the usual. “Yeah,” he said with a sigh, “I don’t know what happened. I just locked up in the last 100.” He looked at Farsfield, trying to read his expression. It was blank. “Seems to happen a lot. Just unlucky, I guess.” The Runner tried to keep a pleasant and inquisitive smile on his face by exhaling through his nose.

“Bullshit” said Farsfield. “Accidents don’t happen every week.” The Runner dropped his smile.

“Look, I don’t know what to tell you, Farsfield. I got to the end and I started hitting hurdles. I don’t know why.”

Farsfield looked at him hard. “I don’t believe you.”

“Why don’t you go and watch the 5k, or something?”

Farsfield made no sign of getting up.

“What do you want?” asked Milarepa.

The Chief’s laughter subsided, and the others quieted themselves in suit. “We have come to convert you Milareppa. We are here to show you the virtuous path of the Demons.”

The two on the floor cheered and clapped. “Brilliant! Brilliant!”

Milarepa was indignant. “Do not try and tempt me demon. It bodes ill for you. I am a protector of the Dharma of Buddha Shakyamuni. I am a servant of the gods and an enemy to the Asuras across the sea. I am the student of Marpa the Translator of the Dro Wo monastery where I studied the Dharma for 10 years in yogic practice. I protect this sanctuary. You will leave here immediately and return to your holes in the mountains where you can do no harm.”

The all laughed again.

“You cannot cast out that which is yourself, Milarepa” said the Chief. Milarepa was puzzled. The Chief’s words didn’t make sense. His confusion must have shown because the Chief continued: “Think, old man. Have you remembered none of what Marpa taught you? The mind is inherently empty and still. It is like a signless ocean, smooth like glass.” The Chief began to gesture with his hands as if preaching atop Milarepa’s bed. “It is pure and perfect in its calm. It transcends all emotion; sorrow, joy, anger, lust, greed, envy.”

“But the mind, as soon as it engages in thought, is corrupted, because no thought is a pure expression. Thoughts are definitions. They are labels. They allude to characteristics, relationships, judgements. They distinguish one thing from another. Any thing is attached to a thought, and only exists as that thing because of how it is perceived. The most beautiful copper statue of the Buddha is only beautiful because it is perceived as such. There is no objective beauty. Only a definition conceived. Definitions such as these lead to dualities. Opposites. Because there is beauty there is also ugliness. Man sees the depths of sorrow because he knows the crests of joy. He wants because he knows what it is to have and not have. He is easily angered because he knows pride and shame.”

“Thoughts are like waves on the pure ocean of the mind, making the appearance of difference. But thoughts arise within the mind. They are of the mind just as waves are of the ocean. Therefore, the turbulence which man perceives around him is nothing but thought, which is in turn only his own mind creating distinction. He is tossed about on the swells of his mind’s ocean not realizing that he has created the storm himself. In fact our very own Marpa once said that‒

“All beings and all phenomena are of one’s own mind. The mind itself is a transparency of Voidness,” Milarepa interrupted. He remembered the lesson. “How does a demon know such things?”

“I know because you know, Milarepa. I am you. You created me. You created all of us” he gestured round at the wide eyed snarling audience.

“That is not true!” shouted Milarepa “I rid myself of you long ago.”

The Chief flashed his ghastly smile once more. “Oh, don’t be so surprised, Milarepa, it doesn’t become you. We never left you. Not for a moment. Oh, you ignore us in the worst of ways. You sit, day in and day out, wasting away in that saintly skull of yours, hushing us, bullying us, pretending we don’t exist. But sooner or later we were bound to bubble up. It was only pretend, you know. You wanted us gone so badly that you let yourself believe it when we seemed silent. But we were always there, dormant, just under the skin.”

Farsfield sighed. The Runner debated whether or not he should get up himself and leave Farsfield, but the gangly buzzcut would probably just follow him.

Finally Farsfield spoke. “That race had nothing to do with anything physical,” said Farsfield.

“What?” What was Farsfield getting at?

“There was nothing physical about it. You can run just fine.”

Alright, so Farsfield wanted to play therapist. The Runner clapped his hands to his knees. “Oh? What a relief! Then, what is it Farsfield? What’s my issue? Do you have a diagnosis?”

Farsfield swallowed what must have been some angry words, and settled on an eye of supreme annoyance before he spoke. “I watched you. I watched you run 300 meters of a beautiful race. I watched you look smooth‒ you were the only one not clapping the cross bars through the three. You lead with your right the whole time, right up until the last bend, which means your steps were on. Then, I watched you fall apart for no reason. You were stronger than them. You were quicker than them. You had better form. And I didn’t see you trip over your shoelaces. Something’s going on up here.” Farsfield tapped his skull.

“Look, I tensed up. Maybe I get tense when I’m tired. That’s what happens to people when they’re tired.”

“Yeah? Maybe. But we all watched you run 54 seconds last week in practice. It was a time trial.  And you just sailed over those things. And you didn’t spontaneously combust three hundred meters in, either. No, you were smooth, like a gazelle. Just bounding. But you get in a race, where it counts, and you just lose it. So, no. I don’t think it’s because you just get tense when you’re tired. You were plenty tired last Wednesday and you finished just fine. Whatever this is, you’re making it happen.”

The Runner seethed. First Farsfield wouldn’t leave. Then, he insisted on trying to rip him apart. What was Farsfield’s issue, and why couldn’t he be content with polite conversation about the shitty weather, or something? But, beneath his seething was a kernel of anxiety. Farsfield was asking the questions he had gone to great lengths to avoid for the last two years.

Farsfield had made it clear that he wasn’t going to be dissuaded. So, with no foreseeable way out, the Runner gave as vague an answer as he could. “Alright, there’s some stuff going on, when I’m out there,” he said, nodding towards the track. “I’m thinking too much.” He had to drag the confession out of his oesophagus.

Farsfield’s face showed a genuine concern. “What is it?”

This stubborn little prick. “I really, really, don’t want to talk about this with you, Farsfield.”

Farsfield stared at him as if he were studying a specimen under a microscope. His eyes locked with his own and he intensified his gaze, searching his irises. “You’re not afraid of the pain,” he concluded. “You’re too used to it by now, it doesn’t bother you like it used to.”

“Farsfield, what are you doing?” The Runner shook his head in disbelief. He was trying to psychoanalyze him.

“It’s not burnout.” Farsfield had his hand on his chin like some goddamned philosopher. “You come to practice early every day. If it were burnout you’d be late.”

“You’re being ridiculous.”

“It’s not an injury. If you’d been running through anything serious for two years even you would have to say something. And it’s not‒

The Runner interrupted him. “Look, just because you dragged it out of me doesn’t mean you get to know all about it. You’re not Freud, and you’re not anybody’s fucking saviour. I’ve got some mental stuff kicking around when I race. Fine. You can satisfy yourself with knowing that you brow beat me until I said it. But, I will handle it. And I don’t need you, or Coach, or anybody else, playing doctor. I will figure it out, and I’ll run just fine. Now, why don’t you go bother somebody else?”

Farsfield looked as if he would blow smoke from his nostrils any second. “I don’t know why I thought I’d waste my time trying to talk to you. You’ve got it all figured out, right? You don’t need anybody’s help. Well, I’m going to give you my own, personal, theory of why you’ve run the same clusterfuck of a race every weekend for two years. You’re afraid.”

The Runner opened his mouth to protest. Farsfield cut him off. “You panic. Every time you come around that last bend, and you see the finish line, you fall to pieces. You panic and you get tense, and your muscles lock up like tetanus. And then you start falling all over hurdles.”

“I told you I will handle it” the Runner said, raising his voice. Teammates nearby started to titter uncomfortably and avoided looking under the canopy. “Look, I’ve made it pretty clear I don’t want to talk to you, so leave me alone.”

“Well,” said Farsfield. “Then I wish the best of luck.” And with that he rose, and made his way down the stairway to the track making metallic thuds with each step.

The Runner opened his mouth and faltered. He hadn’t meant to get so angry. He tried again. “I’m sorry Farsfield,” he called, “I didn’t mean it.” But Farsfield made no sign that he heard.

Milarepa was both awed and ashamed as he looked upon the demons and the destruction of his sanctuary. The room was silent now, save for the thudding and crashing of the two demons who had not ceased their wrestling since his entry. The demons stared at him. The Chief with his impossibly wide grin.  What he saw, he knew, was a reflection of himself. In its states of chaos and disrepair. The broken shards of pottery. The beasts which blinked at him. The two who throttled each other in the corner. If Marpa could have seen he would have roundly beaten him. There was no greater evidence of his inability than what he saw before him. Milarepa felt as though he might be sick.

He breathed in.

But, an idea began to declare itself. His face brightened. If these demons were truly his own making, then he himself should also have the power to defeat them. But, as the Chief had said, he could not banish what was himself, so perhaps‒ oh how foolish I am to try to dispel these manifestations physically!  

“Ghosts and demons, enemies of the Dharma,” Milarepa exclaimed. “I welcome you today! It is my pleasure to receive you! I pray you, stay; do not hasten to leave; we will discourse and play together. Although you would be gone, stay the night; before you came, you vowed to afflict me. Shame and disgrace would follow if you returned with this vow unfulfilled. Drink the nectar of kindness and compassion, then return to your abodes. ”

This time the demons did not laugh. In fact, they shifted uneasily. And suddenly Milareppa knew their names. He recognized them. He lay claim to them. They were none other than himself, and so they must be allowed to stay. “Anger” he said to the winged demon covered in tattoos “please won’t you stay in my house? I would cherish your most holy company.” Anger gawked before dissipating into thin air like so much smoke. “Sorrow,” he turned to the granite looking hulk, who put his hands over his ears. “I will prepare the most lovely bed for you if you would only stay the night.” And Sorrow too disappeared. “Greed” he spoke to the gaudy man, who looked at Milareppa even as he struggled for the rice. “Please, be my guest tonight and we will share the most wonderful stories.” A look of pure horror came into Greed’s eyes before he too dissipated. “Envy,” he said to the skeleton, who pounced on the bhat and shoveled handfuls into his mouth. The grains spilled from from his skull down his rib cage and scattered on the floor. “Envy, stay with me tonight, and I will make you the most delicious bowl of bhat you will ever eat.” And Envy, too gave a look of utter surprise, before he crumbled into dust and disappeared. “Where are you going?” called Milarepa, “I am no longer angry at you. I was only angry because I was afraid. But now that I know you are manifestations of my mind, I am so pleased to see you. We are the same. Please come back!” But they were gone. Milarepa rejoiced.

“If it’s one thing demons can’t stand it’s compassion,” came the Chief with a sigh.

Milarepa turned now to face this last demon, but this one’s name he still could not say. A cold chill crept along his skin. “Who are you?”

The Chief hopped down from Milarepa’s bed with a thump and stalked towards him, his cheeks still pulled into his ghastly grin. “I’m often hard to put my finger on. “But I am just behind almost everything you do, Milarepa. Every sermon you have ever preached. Every hour you spent in contemplation. Every prayer, and every offering.” The demon drew closer. “You’ve carried me your whole life, Milarepa.” He drew back. The tattered room was silent. Milarepa studied the Chief’s face hard.

“Fear.” The name fell from Milarepa’s tongue laced with the venom of his disdain.

“Yes.” The demon hissed.

“Then, Fear, I welcome you with an open heart. Would you kindly keep me company in my cave?” Against Milarepa’s great hope, Fear did not disappear.

“I’m afraid that’s not enough, Milarepa. Anger, Sorrow, Greed, Envy‒ you can free yourself of these because you can easily accept them. But I will always be with you.

“I will conquer you like the others.”

Fear laughed “You’re only lying to yourself, Milarepa! If you believed that I would already be gone,” he snarled.  

“I tell no lies!”

“No,” said Fear, “I tell no lies.” He gestured towards himself with crooked fingers. “For 12 years you have sat in this cave, meditating, wasting away. You bear up, old man, against the elements. The night time cold that chills your bones. The sun that bakes these rocks. Up and down the mountain for firewood, chanting, chanting, chanting. Dutifully you inhabit the emaciated life of the ascetic. All of it,” he spat, “without making an inch of progress. No great enlightenment! Nothing but what you walked into the hills with!”

“And why? Man is afraid because he knows success and failure, and you, Milarepa, cannot stand to fail. You are afraid. Deeply, deeply afraid that you will die without ever achieving your quest. You will die disappointing Marpa, and leaving the rest without a leader. You wonder, late at night when your guard is down, if you’re even half the sage they claim you to be, knowing that you can never show your face in your village until you achieve what you set out to do. You cannot bear to look your master in the face, who you adore to your ruin, until you succeed in the trials he has given you. You are petrified by the prospect that you are not the man you hoped you were, and so I am enthroned.

The irony is that the very thing which motivates you to succeed is the same which obstructs you at every turn. You will never be enlightened so long as you live in terror. You will live with the grip of the world around your throat and choke on your own misery, Milarepa. Failure is an ever present possibility, hanging over the heads of every sentient being. I do not vanish because you can always fail.”

Milarepa stood speechless. He felt as though he were a window pane shattered by the powerful gaze of another. He felt like the shreds of the canon which swirled around the floor in the wind let in by the still open door. He lowered his eyes, crushed once again. It was true. All of it. He could not deny it. The thought of returning home having failed was more than he could bear. “All that you have said is correct.”

The Runner dropped his duffel bag on the floor of his room, and rummaged for his water bottle. He couldn’t stop Farsfield’s words from bouncing around his skull. Even when he wasn’t around he wouldn’t leave him alone. By now his anger had been replaced with a leaden feeling in the pit of his stomach. Farsfield had cut through him like wire through clay.

Finding the bottle, he strode to the bathroom sink to fill it up with water. The trouble was not getting tense in the last 100 meters. That was only a symptom. True, a symptom with an obvious effect, but not the root. The truth was just as Farsfield had guessed, though he’d never tell him that. Every time he reached the final hundred meters he panicked, without fail.

He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror, and looked up. He looked haggard. Worn. What are you afraid of? He asked of his reflection. It stared back at him. He blew air out of his nostrils, waiting. Failure came the answer. He nodded, and continued to lock eyes with the reflection. Why? he asked. Because of what failing would mean answered the reflection.

What would it mean?

It would mean you weren’t good enough. You didn’t make the cut. It would mean you didn’t work hard enough. That you were slow. It would mean all your teammates and coaches watching you, wondering why you never quite lived up to their expectations. It would mean that you weren’t the person you thought you were, and that would rip you apart. You can’t fail. You’re not allowed to fail.

But everyone fails. The reflection stared back blankly. If everyone fails, he asked, why should I be any different?

Maybe you’re not. The Runner frowned.

“Look at me and say it,” Fear whispered. Milarepa could not bring himself to meet the demon’s eyes. “Look at me, Milarepa. Look into my eyes and say it.” Milarepa did not move. Fear took Milarepa’s chin in his icy grip and jerked his head up to face him. “Sing me my psalms.”

Milarepa stared into Fear’s empty, black, eyes. “All that you have said is true. I have lived in terror of defeat such that I have utterly failed. I am destitute. I am broken. And,” he faltered, “I am giving up.” There was a certain relief in voicing what he had long dreaded to say.

Fear looked wary. “Tell me of your terror.”

It was over now. He had tried, and he could not succeed. The greatest disaster of his life had been realized and he felt light as air. “Fear,” Milarepa stared at the demon with intense earnestness, “I have failed. And since I have failed, and will never have a mind free from you, it is only right that you be my guest. But, since I have not enough to feed you, you must eat me.”

Fear tightened his grip on Milarepa’s jaw. “Cease your ravings, old man.”

“Fear, you must eat me! Please! You are my guest and I have not enough to feed you. You must eat me!

Fear stepped back, “Get away from me,” he snarled.

Milarepa let out a fierce yell and ran at the demon, who stumbled backwards and braced himself against the wall behind. Milarepa placed his hands around Fear’s jaw, and pried it open. “I have failed because of you, Fear. Now I place my head in the mouth of failure! I accept that I have failed! I rejoice that I have failed! I praise the Tathagata in his kindness for allowing me to experience such an utter and total defeat because I am no longer beholden to you!” And he thrust his head inside of Fear’s mouth.

Fear shrieked, and vanished as if he had never existed at all.

Milarepa stood panting in a cold sweat, with his head thrust forward in the space where Fear’s mouth had once been. He took a deep breath and smiled. He felt as if he had lived inside a leaden shell his whole life and had only just burst through the cracks and emerged.

He set to sweeping up the mess the demons had left in his cave. When he finished, he knelt down in the middle of the floor, and fell into a deep calm.

The Runner took deep breaths in through his nose in lane three as he hopped from foot to foot.

“Runners, to your marks” came the static voice of the official. He looked out at his teammates lining the fence. Each of them has hit their walls before, he told himself. He picked out Farsfield’s face, before setting down into the blocks. I am no different. Did he not eat, sleep, and breathe like the rest of them? Was he somehow above harrows and pitfalls of humanity? He would fail. He would fail again, and again, and again. This is just the way it was. And if he fought it, denied it, renounced it. Well, he would he would stay stuck, and scared, and unhappy.

“Set.” The Runner brought his hips to the sky. So what was failing? He had failed, already. For two years. And the only punishment was his own agonizing. The world still turned, after all. He was responsible for his own misery. Let it go, he thought. And his muscles relaxed.

Bang.

 

milarepa by omnos is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Return to the introduction to Athlos: A Journey through Running

Or Check out the complete list of Athlos posts


Announcing the Gardener Theme for Treebank Self-publication

Treebanking has distinct merit as a pedagogical tool. The entire process is useful for language learners of all levels, whether as an introduction to more complex sentence structure or as a practice exercise to hone skills. It can sometimes be challenging to convince educators to use treebanking tools, not because they cannot see the merit, but rather because they are concerned  about being able to use the tools effectively. They may feel they lack the technical ability to manipulate the data, files, and annotation platform. We want  educators to have confidence in their ability to use the tools and teach others to do the same.  Treebanking with Perseids and Arethusa is fairly simple, and most people will learn how to use these tools by sitting down and using them.

 

With this in mind, I set myself to answering another question I continue to get each time I introduce new teachers to treebanking, “what do I do with all this data?” With Perseids we want to empower users to own their data. One avenue would be for teachers to connect with  projects which aggregate treebanks, with the hopes they might turn each classroom into part of a larger crowdsourcing project. However, larger treebanking projects prefer tagsets based on international standards for dependency grammar, which are sometimes unintelligible to the average student of Greek or Latin and can be overwhelming. For this reason, we designed Arethusa to give users the ability to customize the tagsets to coincide with the grammars and map to textbooks they are already familiar with.

 

Along the same lines, we want to put in the end-users hands the ability to publish their work themselves, whether they’ve used a standard tagset for their annotations, or a customized version, and to then extend their publications with other resources as appropriate for their choices.  The work we did with Professor Matthew Harrington’s Latin AP Pedagogical Treebanking project allowed us to explore how we might use GitHub to support this.  We can take advantage of the services GitHub provides freely for publishing versioned repository resources as web sites, and for connecting with Zenodo to assign digital object identifiers (DOIs) to these resources. We developed a customization of a Jekyll theme with predefined templates for displaying treebank data in a GitHub pages site. Perseids users can download their treebank files directly from Perseids and import them into a GitHub repository using this theme. This allows users with minimal technical expertise to easily get a site up to publish and display their work.

 

The way this works is simple. Users download their treebank data, add them to their GitHub repository and then create html files for each tree that contain just a small .yaml header (which we call ‘tbpages’). Jekyll uses this .yaml header to populate a table of all the trees in the collection on the main page, as well as a display page for each individual tree. The theme uses a widgetized version of the javascript-based Arethusa application to display interactive representations of the trees. The Arethusa widget runs in the page served by the GitHub pages site and and retrieves the tree data directly from the underlying GitHub repository. The only dependency on Perseids is for retrieval of the tagset data files, although these can be configured to reside locally as well.

 

The goal was to create something that people could use with a minimal understanding of the underlying technology. Users with a little more technical expertise can explore the options Jekyll offers for additional customizations. Setting the whole thing up as a theme allows for us to roll out improvements to the widget and distribute them to our users in an easy way. Bringing together the widget and the Jekyll theme, we created the Gardener Theme, which allows users to plant gardens for their collections of trees.

 

One of the initial goals of the project was to document the pedagogical techniques that we have seen work with the Perseids Project in classrooms around the world. Additionally, the project was intended to help students experience having their work published. Gardener was designed not just to be easy to use, but to be flexible enough to facilitate publishing both trees and associated student work. Jekyll only needs to read the .yaml header to generate the page, the rest of the tbpage file can contain whatever additional content the user wishes. In talking with educators, we found that response essays or analytical write ups are commonly used as a way to assess the skills learned via the creating the treebank. If a classroom used this theme to publish their work, each published page could also contain essays which would help explain the shape of the trees. This creates a fantastic place for students to display work and create fixed proof of their skills in Greek and Latin.

 

We are pleased to announce that the first open version of the Gardener Theme is now up and running. Go and check out our demo blog here or fork the theme and get started here.  And don’t forget to send us feedback!

Well of Urd

 

The Wanderer had a vision.

The twilight hung dim across the sky, and the shadows of the trees threw a darkness over the forest road that made it impossible to see. The Wanderer listened to the trees groan in the breeze, uneasy.

He had come looking for wisdom in the Land of Gods. Asgard, the bards call it. Here, Valhalla stands roofed with shining shields, and the Aesir gods take their rest in golden halls. A bright place to be sure. But darker places lie in the folds of Asgard, at the foot of the peak where the warmth of the sun does not reach so easily. Old places. Places of knowledge.

He was searching for the Great Ash Tree, called Yggdrasil, the pillar which binds the nine worlds together. It anchors itself to Asgard by a single great root, and beneath that root lies a modest stone well, the Well of Urd. The well contains in its depths the record of the past. Men and gods come to gaze into its waters. They see their lives reflected, full, not missing a breath. They grow wise and are called prophetic. Among these Odin ranks first, the All Father, the wisest of all.

The Wanderer came to a stone marker in the center of the path. There was only one rune, etched in simple hand, old and weathered, unfamiliar and archaic. It read Memory. This was the right path, then.

The Wanderer stood for a long while, debating his course. He could turn back here and return to where he belonged, he knew this. He looked down the path past the stone, but he couldn’t see far.

Then, a child came forward from the dark. The Wanderer gripped the hilt of his sword, but the child did not seem to notice him. He was playing, making stabbing motions with his wooden sword. “Take that,” he said “and that! No one can beat me! For I am‒” but he didn’t finish his battle cry. The Wanderer stood, motionless. The child got closer, ducking and parrying his way towards him, as if in some great struggle. When he was at arm’s length he thrust his wooden sword at the Wanderer, pausing just short of his throat, and with his arm raised he looked up at him, fierce, eyes scrunched up in determination.

Shivers screeched down the Wanderer’s spine. This child, with his blonde hair down just below his ears, and his boyish freckles, was identical to his own childhood self. He was staring at a reflection from years and years before. He swallowed hard.

“Go back, Trespasser” the boy squeaked. “There’s only pain for you here. And if it’s knowledge you seek, you’ll have wrestle it from me. But you might as well turn back now, for I am‒” but he stopped short again. He withdrew his sword with a flourish, and raced off down the path.

The Wanderer stood, unable to move. He had heard songs about phantoms and the tricks they played on travelers. He looked back towards the world of men, longingly, knowing he had already made his choice. He ripped off his mail and cloak and sprinted after the boy into the dark.

The Runner wiped away the sweat from his eyes, and threw his weight into the orange Hyundai mower.

        The problem with a job like grounds keeping isn’t the work or the heat.

        The mower coughed out a half-chewed pack of cigarettes.

        It’s that you’re alone all day with nothing but your thoughts.

        The mower wailed on, chewing up coffee cups and paper bags. There was a crunch and the neck of a beer bottle shot out against the fence.

Each day he and his supervisor worked their separate ways around the house. It was a lot of time alone. And each day, thoughts reverberated around his skull. Memories, mostly. Some things he was happy to remember; laughter around the dinner table, and long car rides to nowhere. Many he wished he hadn’t recalled, though. Mistakes. What he wished he could erase. Or wonderings, if things could have been different. The recollection of his past repeated itself over and over like a record that skips. Comedians blaring their chops through his headphones couldn’t distract him. He just kept thinking and remembering until his chest hurt from the stress of it.

He had always believed in reflection. Had always been introspective. If you wanted to understand yourself, he thought, you had to look back. You had to see all you had done, and explore it with an analyzing eye. A life examined. Why did I do that? You had to ask. But the question “why?” was always followed by How could I do that? I can’t believe that I did that. I’m so sorry that I did that. And the guilt descended like a vulture.  

He wished he could stop.

When three o’clock came, the Runner peeled his gloves from his hands, and slung his backpack over his shoulder. On his way home he played the radio, trying to drown out his inner monologue, but it was no use. Frustrated, halfway between Route 1 and Route 206 he rolled up the window, and he screamed. He screamed hoping that maybe if he gave voice to what was sitting in his chest it would leave him. It would be forced out into the air, where it would dissipate like so much fog. But it didn’t. It sat. And his restless memories continued.

He pulled over. He didn’t know what to do.

The Wanderer ran for what seemed like hours. He stopped in a misty clearing. What he saw, when he looked up, filled him with a mix of joy and trepidation. Extending into the earth before him was a gigantic gnarled root so large fifteen men could not wrap their arms around it. Yggdrasil! he thought. It was here, he had found it. He knelt in exhaustion, and examined how the smaller roots protruded from the largest and snaked their way through the mist into the ground. At the foot of the main root was a well, small and made of stone. The Well of Urd. Excitement coursed through him.

He approached the well and paused. There, scrawled upon Yggdrasil’s roots were columns of runes. He squinted to read them, and fell upon one column on the central root. It was a poem written in old hand.

“The unwise man is awake all night,

and ponders everything over;

when morning comes he is weary in mind,

and all is a burden as ever.”

“Wise in measure let each man be;

but let him not wax too wise;

for never the happiest of men is he

who knows much of many things.”

        The shadow of concern loomed across the Wanderer’s face. He continued reading at a fevered pace. Whose words were these?

“I hung on that windy Tree

nine whole days and nights,

stabbed with a spear, offered to Odin,

myself to mine own self given,

high on that Tree of which none hath heard

from what roots it rises to heaven.”

“None refreshed me ever with food or drink,

I peered right down in the deep…”

“Ere long I bare fruit, and throve full well,

I grew and waxed in wisdom”

        The Wanderer stepped back in horror. He knew whose words these were. They were Odin’s. A warning, left from his visit in an age long past. He looked up and saw the fraying noose still hanging from the roots above. There was a price to pay for Urd’s wisdom.

The Wanderer stifled a shudder and shrank away from the well.

The Runner twisted the key out of the ignition and sat. He took a deep breath. This was no longer sustainable. He took out his pad and pen.

We are told, so early, that we must regret our mistakes.

We sing in the pews, “Oh Lord, we who fell from grace beg forgiveness.” We live with our sins in the forefront of conscience, so that we might never forget. We call this humility. We regret the people we once were. Deny them. Wish them out of existence. We can’t stand them. But we must never forget them, lest we repeat their crimes. We are told to reflect on our mistakes‒ this is noblest. This is the work of the wise mind. Reflect, they say, but they neglect the subtext: to reflect on oneself, raw and honest, and see all the chips and cracks, is pain. There are no lies to protect you from an honest memory.

There was anger mounting in the Runner’s pen.

But, blame can only be passed along so far. We do this to ourselves. We carry around our pasts and depress ourselves: I was never good enough in school. She left, and it was my fault. I should have stood up for what I believed in, but I didn’t have the courage. All the while saying “But I’ll be better! I’ll be better! I’ll learn from this, again and again and again, until it’s all I think about.” Learn what? What is there that you don’t already know.

I wonder, oh I wonder.

        The Wanderer looked around. There was no one here. He could still turn back. He could leave here and never return. He looked back to the well. What would his price be?

He wasn’t sure what made him do it. It could have been a ravenous lust for knowledge. It could have been some sense of principle. Or, perhaps some belief that what he had read scratched on Yggdrasil was not true. But, the Wanderer made up his mind. He put both hands on either side of the well, took a deep breath, and opened his eyes wide.

There was nothing but inky black. He strained his eyes harder. What was he to look for?

Then, something. An image played out on the water. It was the boy! It was himself. He was there, playing in the stable of his old home. The image was more vivid than any memory he had ever had. There he was, climbing to the top of a hay stack. The horses were out that day. The scent filled his nostrils. Manure and dried grass. He could feel the straw scratch his skin. The Wanderer was filled with a mirth that he had not known for years.

The scene changed. He watched himself sit on his father’s knee by the fire and heard his stories just as he had told them. The fire crackled, and he felt himself drifting off to sleep.

Then, he was in a forest helping his brother scrabble up some slippery rocks. He could hear the roar of water, because there, just above, was the waterfall, pouring itself into the pool below. “Do you see?” he shouted. His brother stared with eyes wide. “It’s amazing!” he answered.

Tears rolled down the Wanderer’s cheeks.

A new scene rippled into view, and he waited with eager anticipation. He was on the floor of his old home. He had his brother pinned under his weight and was pulling on his hair. His brother shouted and struggled to get away. Exhilaration crept beneath his skin. It felt good. He was so used to feeling small, and here, at least, he was big. The Wanderer was ashamed. He wished he could banish the feeling from himself, but he could not deny it.

Then, the boy grew up. He was fighting with his mother. He was shouting at her. He was so angry. He could barely keep from sobbing. But, when her eyes became wet with tears, he rushed to apologize. She screamed at him to get away. The Wanderer winced, and felt the guilt as if he had been shouting again. This wasn’t him. This couldn’t be him.

The boy, even older, was walking down the village street. He passed by a beggar. Each day he saw him there in rags, and each day he passed by. “Alms for the poor?” the man said. The boy kept walking. “Sir,” the beggar said “I’m hungry, and cold.” The boy fingered the coins in his pocket. He bent his head down and walked on.

Memory after memory unfolded in the well. He saw every misdeed and moment of weakness. Every wrong and offence. The Wanderer didn’t want to watch anymore. He had buried these things.

The well went black once more, and he could see nothing.

Then, he felt the dull tip of a wooden sword push against his throat from inside the well. His blood went cold. Now free, he staggered backwards and watched the phantom from the road rise from inside the well. “I told you, Trespasser” he squeaked. “I told you to stay away!” He jumped down from the well and thrust his sword just short of the Wanderer’s throat once more. The Wanderer threw his hands up in surrender. “Did you think that wisdom is free?” the boy bellowed. “Did you think you could ever walk away from this place without beating me?”

“N-No! I didn’t!” the Wanderer stammered.

“Nobody beats me! For I am‒” For the third time, the boy did not finish.

The Runner pulled into his driveway.

He needed to go for a run. He left his backpack in the car, and went out. He let his legs move the way they knew how to, and his arms seesawed with them.

He was starting to understand.

He was looking for the wisdom of a life examined, but was unaccustomed to such honesty. Each day he browsed the shelves in the backroom of his mind, and was surprised when he found the uglier parts. He had not entered because he wanted to, but because he had been told that he must, and was caught unawares when he found the door locked behind him.

Yes, he was capable of carrying out that which he disdained. He had been a bully, before. Had been weak, and cowardly, and naive. Had been selfish. He had come looking for great insight only to find that he was human, and this is what he could not seem to stand. It was not a thoughtful and sagely mind that ran through the record of the past each day, but one incredulous that it could not reconcile what it saw in its own memory with what it perceived itself to be. And so, not understanding, it rejected what it saw, and his memories resurfaced again and again screaming look at me! Look at me and tell me who you see!

People speak of memory as though it is a trivial thing to which one comes and goes as they please. This is not so. Memory binds itself to the restless mind and traps it. With all his introspection, the Runner had made for himself a pair of shackles.

Finally, he was starting to understand, but how could he make it stop?

The Wanderer and the boy stood, eyes locked. The Wanderer’s heart was beating fast. What would the phantom do to him? For a long time, neither spoke nor moved. The Wanderer stared, hard, into the boy’s eyes. His own eyes. His heart began to slow. What could the phantom do to him? The Wanderer lowered his hands, warily. The boy tensed his wrist and squinted harder. The Wanderer put his hand on the wooden blade, and lowered it softly. The boy fought to keep his arm raised, but he hadn’t the strength to resist. He knelt so that they were level.

“There’s no use” the boy cried, “for I am‒”

“You’re me” answered the Wanderer. And the boy dropped his sword. “You’re me,” the Wanderer repeated, and the boy embraced him. “You’re me” he said again, and held him in his arms.

        “Can you forgive me?” the boy asked.

        “Yes,” the Wanderer answered, “I forgive you.” And the boy climbed back down into the well.

With the cadence of his step and the sunlight on his face the Runner began to emerge little by little back into the present.

To plumb the depths like that and see everything as it really was is necessarily difficult. But, his suffering, he realized, stemmed from something else. It was his inability to accept those uncomfortable moments of the past that was driving him mad. He had thought that he should be perfect, without blemishes. His memories reminded him that this mirage was simply not so. Each remembrance of his mistakes and failings was a disconnect from the paper mache self-image that he clung to. When he tried to silence them, they grew louder.

Yes, all of that had happened. Yes, he had done those things, but you know, he was still alright. There was no perfect ego. There never had been. The delusions of infallibility were smashed. Why shouldn’t there be mistakes and failures and disasters? Why shouldn’t he find all the normal human baggage there in the recesses of his skull? What he had left when all the sands had slipped through the sieve was himself. A real self, in dynamic states of repair and disrepair. The knot in his chest began to untie itself.

Could you forgive me he asked himself? And for the first time, the answer was yes. And he started to laugh, because he was free.

 

Note: The excerpts from the Norse poem Hávamál are taken from Olive Bray’s translation:

 Bray, Olive, trans. Hávamál. Ed. D. L. Ashliman. Hávamál. University of Pittsburgh, n.d. Web. 02 June 2017.

Mímisbrunnr by Sarah Contreras


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A Choice of Routes

A Choice of Routes

By: Henry Hintermeister   

A lonely ship bobs up and down on the wine dark sea. It’s quiet. The only sound is the sail beaten by the breeze, and the crash of the waves as the wind whips spray across the half deck. The salt stings the eyes of the crew, but they continue to ply their oars back and forth, driving the prow forward. They keep their gaze on the horizon, fixated, waiting.

Odysseus stands amidships, and notices his knuckles clench around the haft of his spear. He looks down, in thought, and the furrows on his brow deepen. Rain begins to patter against the deck. He hardly notices. Now days away from Circe’s island, the Queen of Aeaea’s warnings reverberate in his skull.

“A choice of routes is yours. I cannot advise you

which to take, or lead you through it all‒

you must decide for yourself”

(Odyssey.12.55-57)

The lieutenants lean against the ship’s railing, looking ahead in anticipation, casting furtive looks back at their captain. They murmur in hushed voices. A knot ties itself in Odysseus’ stomach. Circe’s words refuse to leave him, her voice fills his ears.

“On one side beetling cliffs shoot up, and against them

pound the huge roaring breakers…

The Crashing Rocks they’re called by the blissful gods.

Not even birds can escape them, no, not even the doves…

No ship of men has ever approached and slipped past‒

always some disaster‒ big timbers and sailors’ corpses

whirled away by waves and lethal blasts of fire…”

(Od. 12.59-68)

The Crashing Rocks loom ahead, black against a grey sky. They spew smoke against the rain, and the splintering waves thrash against them with deafening sound. The ribs of ships’ hulls jut from the jagged cliffs, hopelessly dashed against the rocks in some other age. No easy way past them, no.

Odysseus strides to the prow and surveys the cliffs for the narrow strait between the two largest peaks, the only way through. He sees the passage, almost hidden by the ocean’s spray, and directs the helmsman towards it. The crew lets out a cheer, thinking themselves saved, but Odysseus’ heart sinks. He strains his eyes, searching, searching, for a little black speck atop the western peak.

“On the other side loom two enormous crags…

One thrusts into the vaulting sky its jagged peak…

And halfway up that cliffside stands a fog-bound cavern

gaping west towards Erebus, land of death and darkness‒

…Scylla lurks inside it‒ the yelping horror…

She’s a grizzly monster, I assure you.

No one could look on her with any joy.”

(Od. 12.75-88)

A small dot appears in the rock, barely visible, unless you were looking for it. They’re not far off now. The mast groans. Odysseus knows what lies ahead.

“…six long swaying necks, a hideous head on each,

Each head barbed with a triple row of fangs, thickset,

Packed tight‒ and armed to the hilt with black death!

…with each of her six heads she snatches up

a man from the dark-prowed craft and whisks him off”

(Od.12.90-100)

The waves grow choppier, and the men brace themselves as the ship rises and falls over violent crests. The crags appear larger now, pillars of black rock. Odysseus grips the railing harder, and squints against the brine. There’s more than a monster in that straight, he knows. The whirlpool. Where is it?

“The other crag is lower‒ you will see Odysseus‒ though both lie side-by-side, an arrow-shot apart…

beneath it awesome Charybdis gulps the dark water down.

Three times a day she vomits it up, three times she gulps it down”

(Od. 12.101-106)

The ship climbs the top of a wave and there, for what is undoubtedly a second but seems an eternity, he sees it, the epicenter of this water’s violence, sending up froth from it’s depths. Breakers crashing, and smoke billowing. He shudders.

“A choice of routes is yours. I cannot advise you.”

(Od.12.55)

The Runner’s eyes are open. His alarm clock reads two in the morning. He finally sits up in his bed, and runs his hands through his hair. He can’t sleep. He picks up his pen, and begins to write.

You know, before you run, you come to this place in the sea. It’s like this hand clutching at your throat. And you it feel in your chest, like a gnarled knot in the oak tree, near the roots. And you count your breath to try and slow your heart down, because you can see it beating through your shirt. And you make the hours stretch into days.

You know, really, you know, that the exertion you’re about to do isn’t really so bad. It takes a few seconds, a minute, a few minutes, less than a half hour. It’s a short lived kind of pain.

But your anxious mind can’t help but recall anyway. You remember when your veins filled with acid instead of blood. You remember when your lungs felt like they were bleeding, working overtime, drowning in oxygen. When your legs locked up, and it took all the strength of your arms just to throw yourself over the finish line. And you stood, with your hands on your knees, gasping and you let the sweat pour out of your skin like river deltas down your back.

These things have a way of resurfacing the night before you race– the agitations of an anxious memory.

It’s like this whirlpool that sucks you down so that you can’t think about anything else. Your mind fixates on the labors the body must do. It can’t help it.

What’s funny about the whirlpool is that, your battle doesn’t really lie there. You can’t fight it. You can’t wish it away. It just, exists. There’s not much you can do. It’s this frightening, deathless, distraction.

The Runner stares out his window. He gets out of bed, and opens a bottle of melatonin. He puts three tablets in his mouth, and swallows. He crawls back under the covers, and he falls into a light sleep.

The crags are almost on them. The oarsmen can see the whirlpool for themselves, now, sending up brine and fire.

The oars cease in their locks, and for a moment there is only the sound of the storm. Then, shouting, as the men leap from their benches. The helmsman abandons the rudder. Odysseus wheels around, angry, but is thrown off balance as Charybdis ceases her crashing and pulls the ship towards her. Her eye opens in her center, small at first, and then wider, wider, and pitch black. An empty nothing. Circe’s words are almost shrieks now:

“Don’t be there when the whirlpool swallows down‒

Not even the earthquake god could save you from disaster

No hug Scylla’s crag‒ sail on past her- top speed!

Better by far to lose six men and keep your ship

than lose your entire crew”

(Od.12.107-114)

The Runner has his earphones in, stretching in lane 8, reaching for his lead leg. He keeps getting distracted, looking at the races on the track, watching middle distance burn the last hundred meters. He keeps looking at their wincing faces.

Second Call. He peels the back off his adhesive number, and sticks it to his hip. He turns his music up, shakes himself loose again, and leans further into his stretch.

Odysseus regains his balance and looks at his quavering crew. He pierces them with his eyes even as the ship begins to yaw.

“Friends, we’re hardly strangers at meeting danger and this danger is no worse than what we faced before. And even there my courage, my presence of mind and tactics saved us all, and we will live to remember this someday, I have no doubt. Up now, follow my orders. Lay on with the oars and strike the heaving swells, trusting that Zeus will pull us through these straits alive. You, helmsman, here’s your order‒ burn it in your mind‒ the steering-oar of our rolling ship is in your hands.”

(Od. 12.208-118)

The crew begins to gather itself.

The Runner is in lane 3, standing in front of his blocks. The others stand ahead of him in the stagger, in their own lanes. He starts to hop from one foot to another like a boxer, he lets his shoulders loosen. He centers his breathing into his diaphragm.

“Runners to your marks.” The referee raises his pistol. The Runner sets down into his blocks.

The crew plant themselves back on their benches. They start to pull in unison.

“Keep to that cliff” Odysseus shouts, pointing to the Western peak, “or the whirlpool will pull us down.” He’s made his decision. The helmsman scrambles back to the rudder, and points the ship away from Charybdis, and towards Scylla’s cave.

“Set.”

The Runner closes his eyes and opens them, inhaling deeply. He has a choice here. He knows exactly what a good race feels like. He can ease off a little. He doesn’t have to push himself to that point of breaking, so familiar. No one would know, except him.  

He remembers his own words, scrawled on paper the night before so that he might never forget.

The real battle the place where you might have some success, is the race itself. The only victory you can have is in passing through that agony you’re so afraid of. No runner yet can boast that they have reached the finish line without pain. You need only choose to confront it.

You can drown in Charybdis. You can drown in your fears. You can let your anxieties dictate your life. You can run from every heartbreak. Retreat from every failure. Tell yourself you’re never going out there again, because out there hurts.

But, pain is impermanent. Better by far to spend a minute intensely suffering than your whole life trying to dodge it.

Bang. The Runner bursts out of the blocks. He drives around the bend to the first hurdle, and launches over it. He rushes down the straight-away, smooth over the crossbars, a ship over cresting swells, and around the second bend, coming on what he knows is the most difficult part of the race.

And why not rid the world of pain? Pitch Scylla from the cliffs? Make the waters safer?

The oars cut through the waves speeding them faster and faster toward Scylla’s cave. Circe’s words come once more:

“Scylla’s no mortal, she’s an immortal devastation,

Terrible, savage, wild, no fighting her, no defense‒

Just flee the creature, that’s the only way.”

(Od.118-120)

Scylla’s heads come snaking out of the cave atop the rocks. Odysseus grits his teeth.

The Runner enters the final hundred meters.

Pain, is an old goddess. A neurological construct that can’t be gotten rid of, or wished away. When you run you come to this place in the sea, and all you can do is endure Scylla’s six writhing heads. It’s the sacrifice you make to cross the finish line. It is hard. And it will always be there.

The Runner starts to falter. You can see him slowing down, dying. He can’t help it. His form becomes broken and frantic. He’s breathing hard. The others surge from behind. He can see them in his peripheral vision. He wants to give up. He wants to surrender. He grits his teeth.

But, you don’t have to bow to pain.

Contrary to the will of every neuron firing in his legs, against the advice of his aching arms, and in direct opposition to his lungs’ inability to take in any more oxygen, the Runner begins to pick his feet up faster, driving towards the finish.

Odysseus fastens his helmet, and grabs two long spears.

“So stubborn,” Circe says.

And then, she is silent

(Od.12.116)

He knows none of these can kill Scylla, but as she lunges towards his crew he throws his spears at her, shouting. They careen off into the distance. Scylla snatches six sailors from the benches.

The ship emerges on the other side of the Crashing Rocks. The water calms as the clouds break and the sun reaches the deck for the first time in days. Odysseus takes off his helmet, kneels, and holds his head in his hands. The pull of Charybdis subsides.

The Runner crosses the finish line with the pitter patter of feet just behind. He’s panting, crouching with one hand on the track. He looks up, and he smiles faintly.

A choice of routes is yours.

Note: The excerpts of the Odyssey are taken from Robert Fagles’ translation:

Homer, Robert Fagles, and Bernard M. W. Knox. The Odyssey. N.p.: Penguin, 2002. Print.

Between Scylla and Charybdis by cea + is licensed under CC BY 2.0


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Teach the Teachers Summer 2017

Teach the Teachers Workshop

Tufts University Boston MA August 14-16th, 2017

The Perseids Project in conjunction with  the Department of Classics at Tufts University is calling for participants in the second Teach the Teachers workshop.

This three-day workshop aims to explore the uses of digital tools in a classroom setting. Treebanking and Translation Alignments will be the main focus of the workshop, as well as different techniques for integrating them into classrooms at all levels.

As the field of classical studies continues to evolve, technology is playing a larger and larger and larger role both in the interpretation of data, but the in the education of a new generation of scholars. As people begin to use these tools to teach Greek and Latin, it is important that we come together and share our experiences, strategies, and ideas. Moreover, this workshop will offer educators who are unfamiliar with newer digital tools and their use in the classroom, to learn from fellow educators the best techniques for their implementation.

Treebanks are large collections of syntactically parsed sentences. Although originally designed to improve computational linguistic analysis, treebank annotations have proven to be valuable tools for pedagogy and traditional philological pursuits.  Treebanking projects have also proven to be valuable tools for students because they provide targeted assessment and feedback. In addition, treebanking allows students to contribute to a growing collection of ancient language treebanks.

The workshop will contain seminars on how to use the tools available via Perseids, in particular the Alpheios Alignment editor and the Arethusa Treebank editor. These seminars will include comprehensive guidelines so that any user at any level of digital literacy will be able to use the tools to their full potential. This will include:

  • Use of translation alignments for language and non-language students
  • Use of treebank annotations in the classroom, including Prof. Matthew Harrington’s treebanks of the AP Latin Curriculum
  • Use of the gold standard review functionality and the board review systems of Perseids
  • Basic self publication workflow for hosting your own treebank collection online.

The purpose of this workshop is to facilitate the exchange of new ideas for the implementation of the Perseids Platform in the classroom. We encourage you to experiment with our tools before attending the workshop, so that you can bring your own ideas about implementations in the classroom for discussion.

Participants should submit a statement of up to 500-700 words in length. Funding will be provided for travel and lodgings in the Boston area. Applications for attendance will be accepted until May 1st.

Statements should demonstrate that an applicant has a strong desire to work with new and experimental teaching techniques. No experience with digital methods is required, but those with experience will be supported at their own level. Although we work primarily with Greek or Latin teachers, we encourage educators who work with other ancient languages to apply. An ideal candidate needs to be willing to approach teaching these subjects in new ways and should be prepared to implement them in the classroom. Please include in your application whether you are seeking funding for travel and lodging.
Send submissions to teachtheteachers2016@gmail.com

Using Plokamos and Social Networks in the Classical Mythology Classroom

How can undergraduates contribute to research in a large lecture-hall mythology class? More importantly, how can such a class get beyond the rote memorization of stories and genealogies to engage with the primary documents and understand mythology in its own context?

 

The Perseids team has been experimenting with annotation to tackle these questions, because annotation is well known to produce deep engagement with a text in the form of close reading while promoting collaboration and conversation among students. However, one big pedagogical challenge is to design a workflow that is simple and lightweight so as not to get in the way of learning. On the technical side, the challenge is to produce good data that can then be preserved and aggregated easily.

 

Our first effort had students annotating Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology with the Hypothes.is web annotation tools. The assignment was to collate the relationships among the figures in an entry of the Dictionary by annotating them using Hypothes.is. For instance, in the entry for Achilles, Thetis would be tagged as “MotherOf” and Peleus “FatherOf”. These tags used the SNAP ontology as a controlled vocabulary. The annotations were then harvested via the Hypothes.is API and serialized according to the OA model. In further passes, students documented attestations of relationships, i.e. which ancient text says that this relationship existed. They did so by inserting a Perseus URI in the annotation pointing to the specific passage attesting the relationship. Students also documented places associated with mythological figures using Pleiades URIs. Finally, students associated each mythological figure with the words that ancient texts used to describe them. These characterizations were produced following the “Word Study” exercise in the “Breaking the Language Barrier” series by Anna Krohn and Gregory Crane. Students looked up the Greek and Latin words used to describe a mythological figure and associated it with an English equivalent in the annotations using Perseus citation URIs.

 

At the end of this multi-part assignment, students had thoroughly researched their mythological figure. They learned who the figure was associated with, not just in strict genealogical terms, but also other associations such as EnemyOf, Companion, etc. They also gained an understanding of the geographical associations of the figure, since Greek mythology is heavily based on local legends. Finally, the students got a sense for the literary treatment of the figures by looking at the original texts.

 

However, after using this workflow with two different groups of students, we found that while the assignment was valuable, the limitations of the tools affected the data gathered. For instance, the lack of a visualization in real time led to issues with the directionality of the relationships, so a mother could be labeled as the son of her child. Also, our instructions to the students had become very complex as we expanded the assignment with characterizations and attestations.

 

In order to continue and improve this work, our team began development of the Plokamos application. Plokamos is Greek for “something woven” and it allows students to build a network graph as they annotate. The application also allows users to see their annotations as a table, and the data will soon be downloadable as a CSV and as RDF.

 

Plokamos has an intuitive and minimalist interface which cuts down on the time needed for annotation and the possibilities for user error. As a result, our instructions to the students became much shorter and simpler. Plokamos also has an attractive interactive visualization which helps to see the characterizations in the context of the network and make sense of the two together.

 

For instance, students working on Odysseus and Amymone noticed that both these figures, who appear on each side of a Classical pelike in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, are connected to Poseidon and his offspring of aquatic monsters (fig. 1). These monsters are further connected to Odysseus because they are all eventually pitted against him and defeated. The characterizations strengthen these connections, as Odysseus is depicted with seafaring epithets, bravery, and sound thinking, while Poseidon is depicted with sea epithets and words indicating fertility and progeny. Finally, Amymone is associated with bodies of water such as springs and lakes, and with her descendants, the Danaids, who carry water eternally in Hades. In this way, Plokamos helped students to gain a better understanding of mythology at the conceptual level, and then apply this knowledge to a specific piece of ancient artwork.  

 

odysseusFig. 1 Social network of Odysseus and Amymone, by Christopher Duff and Patrick Margey

Announcing Plokamos, a Semantic Annotation Tool

Plokamos is a new text annotation framework developed by Frederik Baumgardt and the Perseids project. It is a browser-based tool that can be used to support scholars and students of literary disciplines in their work with text. Plokamos provides users with the ability to assign meaning to segments of text, to share their assertions with colleagues and classmates and to visualize the result of their work in aggregate. We have been using Plokamos as a plugin to our Nemo text browser in the classroom over the last 2-3 months and are looking forward to making it generally available to everyone for use on any source texts in early 2017.

Plokamos is really a continuation of our previous work in building a comprehensive toolset to enable our users to create and use semantically meaningful textual annotations. Our goal in this next step was to better integrate the individual components we used previously, to provide data validation assistance at annotation time, and to be in a better position to adapt our tools to new use cases. In the process we also wanted to make it easier for the users to enter data from a shared and controlled vocabulary. Furthermore, we aimed to add data versioning functionality to the infrastructure to follow students’ progress, to enable parallelism between text and annotations, and to provide this functionality as a tool for scholarly work. Finally, we planned for the application to be easily extensible to allow us to expand into more use cases over time as well as allow collaborators to tailor the annotations and the user interface to their own needs.

plokfig1 Figure 1: Plokamos tooltip embedded into a web article

In more technical terms, Plokamos is made up of an almost fully self-contained Javascript client application to be loaded inside a browser window, and a server-side linked-data named graph store with a SPARQL endpoint. In addition to annotation data, the quad store also serves configuration data that enables the client to validate, interpret and adequately visualize the annotations.

The Plokamos client consists of 3 layers which handle the annotations at different levels of abstraction and each layer provides its own mechanism to extend the application and use it for new kinds of sources, data types, forms of presentation or editing interfaces.

The annotator/applicator layer is the central piece of a Plokamos client application. It manages a local copy of the annotation data, adds interactive highlights to the source text and keeps a history of modified and newly created annotations. It has a core logic that is using SPARQL and the Open Annotation linked data framework to retrieve the available annotations and place them on their correct locations within the text. It can be extended to be able to handle different types of locations (“Selectors”) and different shapes of annotation payloads (“Annotation bodies”).

While the previous layer interprets annotations as just a network of entities and relations, and is agnostic to specific meaning (“Ontologies”) that is embedded in the network, the ontology layer is there to find and extract meaning from it. It can shape parts of the network into objects, translate URIs into easier to understand descriptions, and vice-versa. This is an essential step to negotiate between Plokamos’ general-purpose nature and its goal to provide user-friendly interactions. The ontology layer can be extended with new templates to extract objects from the graph and with additional dictionaries that provide translations between machine- and human-readable representations of the annotations.

The plugin layer takes the extracted objects and creates user interfaces for them which allow users to read and edit the data in different forms. Plugins can either let the ontology layer automatically select ontologies for the object conversion or specify them explicitly. The annotator/applicator layer provides placeholders for plugins to insert themselves into during Plokamos’ initialization, currently there are two such placeholders for annotations on phrases and whole documents, respectively. Inside the placeholders plugins can be designed freely using HTML and Javascript, including libraries such as Bootstrap and d3.js.

plokfig2

Figure 2: Visualization of corpus-level annotations filtered by family relationships

Over the course of the fall semester this architecture has proven itself to be useful and flexible for timely adaptations. We were able to develop new, unobtrusive and intuitive user interfaces for both the annotation reading and editing on single text passages as well as annotation visualization on a corpus. We also achieved our goal of improving the (syntactic) quality of the annotation data by providing the users with suggestions and visual feedback about the plausibility of the entered data. This last step benefited from the feedback that our students gave us while using the tool for their coursework and which we were able to quickly implement as additions to our plugins.

In 2017 we plan to focus on two particular features for Plokamos which we think will help make it a useful tool for many applications. The first one is a refactoring of the component in Plokamos that anchors annotations in their source data — the aforementioned Selectors — to enable higher-level annotations, i.e. annotating annotations. The obvious use case is for educators to grade and comment on their students annotations, but we’re sure that this will unlock further very interesting ways for scholars to express ideas. The second planned feature is the ability to run multiple instances of Plokamos on different regions of a website and let them interact to annotate relationships between segment of the regions. Those relationships can be for example assertions or translations, but again we’re convinced that this provides a foundation for new types of annotations that will emerge with time.

In addition to these features, we will round out the support for open, standards-based access to annotations created through Plokamos.  First, we will add full API support, through an implementation of the RDA Collections API. Second, we will work towards updating the annotation data model as needed to be in compliance with the latest version of the Open Annotation specification, the Web Annotation data model.

We’re excited to watch Plokamos play its part as both a platform for data entry as well as experimentation with new kinds of scholarly concepts, as the Digital Humanities continue to reshape scholarship in the digital era.

Grammatical Treebank Analysis for Teaching and Research Workshop in Toronto: Video Tutorials

In preparation for our Grammatical Treebank Analysis workshop, Vanessa and Bob Gorman have produced a series of videos introducing Arethusa and Treebanking. If you want to prepare for the workshop ahead of time and want some guidance to working with treebanks on your own, these videos are a great place to start.

To register for the workshop fill out the form here.

Preserving Digital Scholarship in Perseids: An Exploration

Fernando Rios, Data Management Services, The Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University
Bridget Almas, Perseids Project, Tufts University
10.5281/zenodo.159569

Introduction

Software is an important part of many kinds of scholarship. However, it is often an invisible part of the knowledge generation process. As a result, software’s lack of visibility within the scholarly record inhibits the understanding and future use of the scholarship which is dependent on it. One way to mitigate that outcome is to preserve not only the final result but also the actual platform, services and tools upon which it depends.

In order to guide preservation of these platforms and services, Data Management Services at Johns Hopkins University is exploring several aspects of software preservation, one of which is investigating how preservation needs can be determined for particular projects such as Perseids. The Perseids Project at Tufts University is a web-based platform that is being used to produce new forms of digital scholarship for the humanities. Consequently, examining how this scholarship might be preserved by preserving the underlying software is of practical importance.

One of the outputs of the Perseids Project has been a series of prototypes of new forms of data-driven publications and digital editions. The data for these online publication prototypes have been produced through the use of a variety of software tools and services that combine dynamically provided data through orchestrated calls to web services. The software tools and underlying services have gone through several iterations of development throughout the lifetime of the project and publications have been produced at different stages of that development. This scenario poses a series of interesting challenges for preservation of these digital publications, the underlying data, and the tools and services that are intrinsic to them.

Objectives

This exploratory project had two objectives. The first was to give structure to thinking about how the data-driven publications and digital editions enabled by Perseids could be preserved. The primary concerns were what should be considered in determining how to adequately capture the collection of services and tools that comprise Perseids? Should the entire collection even be captured? The second objective was to develop and trial a set of questions, presented in the form of a questionnaire, that could be used to elicit information to help address the first objective.

Methods

The Perseids platform and the publications produced on it rely upon complex pieces of software with many moving parts. In order to begin addressing the question of how such a platform and its publications might be preserved, we had several informal discussions of what the major parts of Perseids were, along with general approaches to preservation and the associated challenges. We focused our investigation on a prototype digital publication that was developed on an early version of the platform and that used versions of the annotation tools and services from Perseids which have since been significantly updated or replaced since the prototype was first produced.

In order to understand how we might proceed with a potential software preservation activity, we decided it was important to answer three questions. First, we agreed it was important to have clarity on what the purpose of preservation is and who would benefit. Second, we determined that understanding what the pieces of the software are and how they are interdependent was critical. Third, we decided that being clear on what the costs versus benefits of preserving the Perseids software were, in relation to alternative approaches (e.g., website capture), was the most important question to address, from a practical perspective.

To structure the information, we used two questionnaires developed by Fernando for the purpose of providing consulting services for software archiving by the Data Management Services group at Johns Hopkins University. The first questionnaire asked very general questions in order to appraise the state of the software and gauge any potential gaps which may hinder its preservation and future reuse. Questions included asking the purpose of the Perseids project, its intended audience, the state of user- and developer-oriented documentation, general information about external software dependencies, and questions meant to gauge the general attitude with respect to software preservation and credit.  After Bridget completed the questionnaire, we decided to move forward with determining what might need to be done in order to preserve the scholarship that the target use case represents (i.e, the prototype digital publication) and how it might be carried out.

To do this, a second, more focused questionnaire was developed (by Fernando, using feedback given by Bridget on the first questionnaire) in order to get us thinking about the specifics of preservation, including most importantly, the why. The figure below shows the sequence in which different aspects of preservation were addressed. The questions are loosely grouped by what kind of information they capture: why, what, when, how long, who, and how.

flowchart

Although the questionnaires are still undergoing refinement and are not (yet) publicly distributed, a brief description of the information captured by the questionnaire we used is shown in the table below.

Why Questions in this part revolved around really thinking about the true purpose of preserving software (e.g., enabling reproducibility, reuse, or continued access to scholarship) as well as the intended audience.
What This section attempted to help us think through two things. First, at what level of granularity  should the software be described and preserved in order to fulfil the preservation goal? This is important because different goals may require different levels of granularity in the description of the software. An example of a highly granular description is describing not only the software as a whole but also describing and documenting the individual pieces that comprise it as well as their interrelationships. Once an appropriate level of granularity was determined, a series of questions elicited information on those pieces.
When This section attempts to determine what an appropriate time to preserve software is. For normal grant-funded projects, this will likely be at the end of the project or at the time of publication.
How Long This part simply asks at least how long should the software be preserved. It is a simple question with a potentially difficult answer. Ideally, the answer is ‘a long time’ but the longer the time span, the more effort must be made to ensuring the software remains not only accessible but also usable. Therefore, it is important to come up with a number based on available resources.
Who This section is meant to determine who is responsible for not only the software but also who  bears responsibility for archiving it, making it citable, assigning unique identifiers etc. This section also is meant to help in identifying a suitable  archive where it may be stored.
How This section elicits what approach seems reasonable to preserve the software (e.g., by archiving the source code as-is, using virtualization or emulation technology, or by continued development). In addition, this section determines the kind of documentation that will be included and how it will be attached to the software (e.g., readme file, wiki, structured metadata). Although not part of the questionnaire, the Pathways of Research Software Preservation (Rios, 2016) gives an overview of how different parts of research software might be preserved and how different approaches are related.

Lessons Learned

We learned, first, the importance of sorting through the “why” and “what” to identify those pieces of software which warrant preservation activity and to define exactly what approach to take to preservation. Having the framework of the questionnaire to guide our thinking about those issues helped to focus what felt at the beginning like a daunting task.

Bridget entered into the discussions with Fernando with a pragmatic motivation: as development progresses on Perseids, having to support multiple earlier versions of services in order to support the prototype publications becomes increasingly unmanageable. We wanted to be able to retire the earlier service versions that these prototypes depend upon, but the cost versus benefit ratio for upgrading prototype code does not always allow for that. In considering the options for preserving a functioning version of a prototype, some of which themselves imply a fair amount of work (such as creating and preserving a Docker container image of all the supporting pieces), thinking about the the true purpose for preservation helped to put the problem in perspective and also to identify gaps in our planning and preservation capabilities.

While each of the suggested motivations from Fernando’s questionnaire could be considered to be an ideal to which to aspire in general, when held up against the specific software, they didn’t all make practical sense.  For example, while in theory, reproducibility of the exact display of the annotations and textual data from our target use case seemed desirable, we had to ask if that was essential for preserving and reproducing the scholarship.  The answer to that might have been yes if we had amassed large quantities of data for the use case, and expanded it beyond the initial prototype.  But as we have not yet been able to do that, and the tools and services in question have since evolved, the small dataset we have accumulated for our publication would be better reproduced and expanded via newer tools.  With this consideration in mind, it seems the remaining value of the prototype code would be as a demonstration of a methodology for annotation and a proposed service-based infrastructure to support that methodology.  The code itself is of less consequence than a documentation of the ideas and dependencies would be.

This problem is discussed in the context of scientific workflows in “Techniques for Preserving Scientific Software Executions: Preserve the Mess or Encourage Cleanliness?” (Thain, Ivie and Meng, 2015).  The authors found that preservation of distributed environments is still very much an open question and they suggest various approaches.  In our case, a Docker image would allow an end-user to see the prototype functioning as it did when published but would provide little insight into the methodology or infrastructure.  As we don’t intend to reproduce this environment exactly, we might consider just preserving the “working principle”, providing a description of the setup, using a controlled vocabulary.

It also became clear, in reviewing the questionnaire, that simply having code in GitHub or other open source versioning repository is not sufficient.  All code we write is available in the project’s GitHub repository. However, because of the complex history and dependencies of open source software development, what exists in the repository represents, in many cases, only the tip of the iceberg.  In addition, the GitHub repository, as it currently stands, doesn’t present a true picture of all the people who contributed intellectually to these efforts, because the code is just one piece of the puzzle.  As discussed in Matthew Turk’s excellent post, “The Royal ‘We’ in Scientific Software Development”, we need to do a much better job of recording and crediting this intellectual work. Further, we need to be cognizant of the need to to this as the work takes place. An ontology such as TaDiRAH would be worth considering here.

The “who” section of the questionnaire also raised some interesting questions.  Where does the responsibility for preservation lie, between the software developer and the scholar? Many of the use cases we work on in Perseids are not explicitly funded projects in and of themselves. Our approach has been to try to do as much as possible to serve as many real scholarly workflow needs as possible.  This has provided the opportunity for us to explore various questions around what humanities infrastructure needs to support, while hopefully still also providing real value to our users. At the same time, we have learned that without adequate planning for governance and sustainability, things can and do fall through the cracks.  Prototype code which we have developed, such as for the use case we examined here, does not always have a clear owner. For future projects of this nature, we need to take the time at the beginning to ask ourselves these questions about who will take ownership and responsibility for ensuring the preservation in order to eliminate this ambiguity.

Conclusions and Next Steps

Although data preservation and sharing has received much attention from funders, publishers, libraries and research communities in the past 10 years or so, methods, tools, and best practices for preserving and curating the software associated have not been as fully developed. The evaluation of the Perseids project served to contextualize some of the ideas and workflows around capturing information to enable the archiving of research software that are being developed in the Data Management Services group at Johns Hopkins University.  From the Perseids Project’s perspective, the iterative approach we took gave us a clearer idea of the unique requirements and challenges of preserving the scholarship embedded in this software.

We learned that while having an ideal to shoot for is good, the ideal isn’t always the best or most practical approach. We have, however, identified some concrete next steps we can take to move closer to where we would like to be with preservation of the platform components and outputs.

First, we will explore ontologies and approaches for describing the distributed infrastructure we have envisioned for our publications. We have started with an analysis of the Ontosoft Ontology, although at first glance, it does not seem possible to express with it all the layers of intent and dependencies in our environment. We also intend to explore the Linked Resource Model ontology developed by the Pericles-EU project for this purpose.

In order to preserve the end-user experience of our publications, we expect to use  Webrecorder.io service to create web archive snapshots of their current state.  This will allow us to preserve the visual representation of the scholarly output without a dependency upon the software behind it being available in perpetuity.

Finally, we hope to do a better job planning for the sustainability and stewardship of future undertakings on the platform from the outset, including identifying all participants and the nature of their contributions.