Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Will O' the Wisp: Go ahead, go into the lights.

Are you the future or are you the past?
Have you been chosen or are you the last?
--Supernova Goes Pop, Powerman 5000

It seems fitting that my re-emergence into the blog scene be spurred by Lydia Kang, since she got me into blogging in the first place.  But a random email from Miss Lydia about a movie was all it took.  

I’m that easy.

Honestly, it’s time for me to wake up again--to rise from the ashes that I left you with in April.  The past few months I have been that girl in the too-tight yoga pants, hoping to the god of Ashtanga that my seams don’t split when I downward dog.  I suffered some disappointments in my writing, and I let it mess with my head and steal my muse.  So in response, I immersed myself in my day job, starting some projects that are grand and scary and exciting and completely different from what I was doing.  I’m creating a curriculum on quality improvement and patient safety that combines resident physicians with administrative leaders.  I’m helping in the roll out of an Electronic Health Care record for my hospital.  And now, I received a scholarship to obtain an executive MBA in health care.  I have been fighting some personal wars--i.e. figuring out what I want out of life.  You know, to paraphrase Patrick Swayze in that cinematic masterpiece, Roadhouse, deep existential type bullshit.

Swayze getting his zen on.

And what was my epiphany?  Have I had a Chopraesque moment?  Maybe.  I discovered that I’m thinking too much.  I need to put away the self-imposed pressure and concentrate on living life to the fullest, day by day.  Hour by hour.

And most importantly, to throw fear to the wind and follow the lights.

Fake? will o' the wisp in Finland
Which leads me to the subject of this blog rebirth--the will o' the wisp.  Apparently in the Pixar movie Brave (highly recommended by Miss Lydia), there's quite a bit about this entity.  Although I have not seen the movie, I do know about the will o' the wisp--my grandmother used to say it was the souls of babies who died stillborn, which is a Czech superstition.  
Pixar's will o' the wisps.
Yes, my ancestors were a wee bit morbid.  
The will o’ the wisp is a ghostly light seen by people at night, usually over bogs and marshy ground.  It looks like the flicker of a lamp and has led many a traveler astray as they try to follow the light.  Other names for this phenomenon include ignis fatuus, hinkypunk, pixy light or jack o’lantern.  Numerous folk tales involve the will o’ the wisp, and generally involve a malevolent character that leads people astray and “off the beaten path.”  People will follow the lights for miles, thinking they are beautiful fairies or angels, only to become hopelessly lost or worse, drown in the bog.  Perhaps this is a disguised social more about the importance of conformity.  Don't go off the path, or you'll be sorry.

Ignis Fatuus, a 1990s Doom Metal band from Finland.
In some European tales, the light represents a lost soul, trapped between heaven and hell.  These poor souls are desperate to get to their final resting place and will try to kill another person in order to "piggy back" onto their soul.  If you are confronted by these souls in limbo, you should first turn your cloak inside out.  However, given we are in less cloak wearing times, another alternative is to stick a knife into the ground.  Apparently the spirit will then try to destroy itself on the knife and you can escape.

This clip from The Princess Bride covers cloaks and accounting in one fell swoop.

Eastern mythology has a different take on the will o' the wisp, linking it to the magical part fox/part human creature called a kitsune.  The will o’ the wisp has been said to represent the foxfire that these creatures produce, also called the "hoshi no tama".  Foxfire holds the kitsune's magical power, and some traditions believe it represents the soul.  In some myths, the kitsune is portrayed as a seductress that will possess a human's soul, and lonely travelers are warned to avoid areas known for foxfire sightings.
Artist's rendition of a kitsune with its foxfire.
In South America, the will o’ the wisp is called Boi-tata and is a serpent with fiery eyes.  Believed to be a type of anaconda, this creature only leaves its cave home at night in order to eat the eyes of its victims.  The light collected from all of this eyeball feasting makes it glow.  In Argentina, the phenomenon of Boi-tata is dreaded as it represents otherworldly activity, specifically the appearance of Satan.
Snake eye humor.
Science has attempted to explain the phenomenon of the will o’ the wisp.  Methane is a highly combustible gas produced by decay of organic materials, which are in abundance in marshy areas (as well as in the human intestine).  Other chemical agents like phosphine oxidizing can produce photon emissions, igniting on contact with oxygen in the air and then spreading into adjacent methane pockets.  The combustion is said to occur at lower temperatures, which explains why nothing around the flames is burned and that we don’t have swamps on fire all over the world.
Methane gas ignited in a marsh.
Skeptics argue that these lights almost seem to have intelligent behavior, following a viewer and seemingly receding and approaching.  Two professors in 1993 proposed that tectonic strain produced the lights by heating up rocks that contained piezoelectric particles (quartz/silicon).  Piezoelectricity is simply electricity that results from pressure.  Movement of the earth puts these rocks under significant stress, thus producing electrical charges that are channeled to earth’s surface.  Other natural reasons cited for the will o' the wisp is bioluminescence of certain types of fungus found commonly in marshy area.
Bioluminescent mushrooms.

Whether caused by spirits, nature, or a trick of the mind, the will o' the wisp provides a cautionary tale--or does it?  I think at some point in life you have to decide if you are going to continue on a safe course--or are you going to be wooed by the mysterious and potentially dangerous flickerings of possibility?  Will you allow the things that paralyze you with fear to become reality, or banish them as spirits in the night?  (Or if you’re of the scientific ilk, like a fart in the wind.)
I’ve made that decision now.
And I’ve never been a beaten path kind of girl.

Thanks to everyone who sent me words of encouragement these past few months.  I've missed you, and the gypsy now has a fire in her soul.