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the Showman

“That country where it is always turning late in the year. That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay. That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun. That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts. Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain.”

– Ray Bradbury, The October Country

So autumn begins, my first autumn feeling like I belong here. One of the interesting things about living in the desert was that the seasons are not quite the standards you expect. I don’t mean spring – summer – winter – fall, though that’s true too. Summer is when the leaves crunch under my feet, and autumn is when life comes back.

Of course, it was the only place I’ve ever been where the October people show up in October. (That is – the State Fair is in October.) Then the late winter is the time all the traditional circus-fair-type productions come through. You know, they show up on a bunch of sixteen wheelers and unfold a bunch of attractions that only look passably safe and a some sketchy-looking games and a funhouse and maybe some crappy food, and they set up for the weekend in a parking lot somewhere.

Sometimes instead of finding the sketchy travelling carnival, I go to Oaks Park. Part of the magic of amusement parks is that they should not exist – they’re a kind of permanent liminal place. Carnivals are meant to come and go, and even amusement parks tend to have their seasons. (Disney is… an entirely different kind of magical space.)

My time of year has always been the span of Needing A Sweatshirt, from the first crisp morning until it snows. Of course, I’m on the other side of the country, in an entirely different weather pattern now. I can make my sweatshirt work for most of the winter, here. It creeps in a little ahead of the equinox, here and there: honey crisp apples at the farmers’ market and a few wet days in the 60s. The equinox makes it official, though.

And in the face of that, I can’t help but think about Odin, and the faces he’s shown me.

Once the autumn touches you, and your leaves go red and orange and yellow, and your afternoons get cold and your evenings come early, well, that’s not the sort of thing that gives up easily.

And the Professor, once he gets his fingers in, well, he doesn’t give up easily either.

Autumn was always my favorite season, even before I figured out the obvious. But that really took shape for me in college, when I suddenly had all the freedom I’d imagined even if I was only a few hours from home, and I seemed to have all the crisp dawns and crystal cold midnights I could stand. Yes, even the autumn of my freshman year ended eventually, but it waited a good long time – past Thanksgiving break that year, ridiculously long for that part of the country.

After being inspired to revisit the Oz books, I gave some serious thought to the Wizard of Oz as an archetype. There’s something to be said for starting from faking it and learning as you go, after all. Somewhere along the way, he started talking back.

The Wizard is a humbug, but in the books he’s a fucking clever humbug. Eventually he does learn magic from Glinda, but by that point he’d already accomplished everything interesting. And since they were both carnival men, I couldn’t help associating the Wizard with Professor Dark.

It wasn’t until more recently that I made the final leap – Odin himself was traveler, con-man, teacher and storyteller, as like to deal you fair as to take you for all you were worth. The line between showman and shaman is perhaps thinner than we like to admit. When a mess of tents and a man with a vision roll into town, it can be hard to tell if he’s a faith healer or a carny at first glance. (And Oz is, don’t forget, on the other side of the rainbow.)

So, funny story. Back when I first started reading tarot, the Hanged Man came up for me pretty much all the time. Often enough that it was a running joke with my friends, anyway. I identified quite a bit with the card, and would sometimes even use it as the querant card if I wanted to get a reading without it coming up.

I was not really into Norse myth at all at the time, so when Odin came around and said he’d been letting me call him Professor Dark since I was small, I didn’t really make the connection between him and the hanged man that came up in the readings, though in retrospect I think that may have been what the cards were telling me.

At one point I asked Odin how long he’s been around, what made him decided to take an active role in my life at all. When I was a kid, I didn’t know what was going on, and I certainly didn’t reach out to him, unlike a lot of my deity relationships.

The answer I got was, essentially, always. And I’ve been chewing on that for a little while, and now I’ve got a theory. I don’t think that Ol’ Blue Eye picked me out in the cradle or anything like that, but I have always been the hanged man. I almost died at birth because I nearly hung myself on the umbilical cord. He didn't pick me so much as I, unintentionally, went to him.

The Professor was one of my first… I guess you could say spirit guides. A parental figure, in a fucked-up way. He sends me messages via fortune teller machines and whispers to me on dark rides. I knew him before I knew angels or gods, when I was a small child whose heart nearly burst with hope looking down on the amusement park from the top of the ferris wheel at night.

All the wrong things used to scare me. Some of them still do, but I don’t know many seven-year-olds who fear mediocrity with the chills that used to keep me up at night. I worried that somehow I would have to stay in that town forever. I worried that the goblins would never steal me away. (Turns out you have to ask politely, but that’s another essay.)

I still credit the Old Man with getting me out, just as I credit the Dark Lady with keeping me sane while I did it. He’s the one who pushes me when I get complacent and drags me kicking and screaming when I lag behind. I don’t see him a lot these days, and I usually curse him when I do, but in the end I always end up thanking him.

I have plenty of context for Odin now. I’ve studied the myths and the lore, and I would most likely recognize him if he came to me in floppy hat and traveling cloak. The face of Odin that most resonates with my experience of him is the wanderer and storyteller, traveling in human guise from one home to the next, facing whatever adventure was around the corner. Often, when I see him, he still chooses the face of the showman for my benefit. With as many names as he has, I’m certainly not going to begrudge him two more.

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