Unfolding the Map
If you are feeling a presence that you can't quite explain, something mysterious and unknown, yet full of meaning, it may mean that you have entered a mystical place, or what you think might be mystical. We'll find out in this post if Mystic is mystical. To find this place where the name might mean everything, do some divining at the map.
"I headed toward New London, through Mystic, where they used to build the clipper ships."
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 6
The word "mystic" has always been, for me, one of those words that almost completely describes what it touches, and yet doesn't describe it at all. Mystic is a mysterious word (notice that it has the same root, "myst," as mysterious), that conveys a lot of below-the-surface meaning. It is a word that I have been drawn to every time I read it in print or hear it in conversation. I think that it probably has that effect on many people.
The title Mystic Pizza therefore caught my eye. I didn't quite know what to expect, but it turned out to be a coming-of-age film about three young women. Julia Roberts had her first notable role in it, as did Annabeth Gish and Lili Taylor. It was a nice movie, and I enjoyed it. I later learned that my wife did a play as a young girl with Annabeth Gish (who is about her age) in Iowa, and we have recently seen Ms. Gish's parents at events in Albuquerque, where we and they now live.
This tale feels somewhat disjointed, but there's a point here somewhere. On a trip to visit friends in Connecticut in the mid-1990s, I decided, on the basis of the name of the town and the fact that I had seen Mystic Pizza, to drive down to Mystic and see what all of the fuss was about. Mystic, as I remember it, was a pretty little town trading on its historical shipbuilding heritage. I bummed about, looking at things, and of course eating at Mystic Pizza. Perhaps I thought that the beautiful young starlets would still be hanging about, ready to serve me a plate of hot, steaming pizza slices. Of course, they were long gone. But the town was still there, and its name was still an attraction, though it didn't seem any more mystical to me than anywhere else.
But what is a mystic, and how might this moniker fit to Mystic, Connecticut? After all, mysticism and mystics are very specific things. Mysticism is the attempt to reach different states of awareness awareness, and sometimes a union with the Divine or a Supreme Being. In this sense, a mystic is a person who practices mysticism. All major religions that have existed have had elements of mysticism in them. Anything that brings one to different states of consciousness, or anyplace beyond what we normally see and hear, is mysticism. Simple prayer is a form of mysticism, as the goal is to somehow come in contact with a deity or deities. Meditation can be another form of mysticism in certain faiths. In my imagination, this definition of mysticism conflated itself with the naming of Mystic, Connecticut. New England was one of the flashpoints of religious confrontation in the New World as it was being settled, as various forms of Christianity, including forms of mysticism based on Christianity, battled among themselves and also with the harsh environment and the native traditions. I just assumed that Mystic, Connecticut reflected that history. I also made assumptions based on the literature and history of the times, where people who might have been practicing mysticism were denounced as witches and either driven away or often killed.
Well, it turns out that Mystic, Connecticut sits at the mouth of the Mystic River, and is named for the river.
That still didn't disabuse me of my notions. In fact, it made my imagination wander even farther. The Mystic River sounds even more fantastic, more magical, more mysterious, than Mystic, Connecticut. Certainly, all that history and religion came together to lead to the name of the river. I tried to imagine how the name of the river came about. Perhaps settlers, newly arrived to the area, saw the Mystic River heading into the dark forests and hills of Connecticut, areas where mystery reigned, shadows concealed unknown terrors and perhaps wonders and realities that only the imagination could conjure. If you've ever read Washington Irving or Nathaniel Hawthorne, you know that the areas beyond the settlers' front doorstep were unknown and sometimes terrifying. Thunder could easily be giants bowling, men could fall asleep for 100 years, and the Devil, bad spirits and witches roamed the dark forests.
Alas, however, I was was to be disappointed. The Mystic River was a derivation of the Wampanoag Indian word for, quite simply, "big river." The only mysticism attached to the river and to Mystic, Connecticut was the imagination that I attached to them.
Despite my disappointment at learning the truth, I have to admit that places where our minds wander are often influenced by place and by the labels we attach to them. Would Mystic Pizza, Mystic, Connecticut and the Mystic River have captured my imagination if they were entitled Big River Pizza, Big River, Connecticut and Big River River? Probably not. In that sense, I got my money's worth out of Mystic even before I saw it and if the reality didn't match my imagination, well, that happens in life.
On the other hand, often the name of a place belies the mystical and amazing experiences there. For the incredible natural wonder that it is, the name "Grand Canyon" seems to be a little under-descriptive for a place that inspires such awe and wonder that it can almost put one in another level of consciousness. The near religious experience I had hearing the call to prayer for the first time in Istanbul (was Constantinople) was not something I prepared for in going to a country called Turkey. Romantic encounters that send one to unimagined heights of love and pleasure often occur with people whose names are simply Fred, Mary, Joe, or Karen. Names are only identifiers, and the true mysticism of a place or person will come through despite how they are called. I may have found that Mystic did not live up to my vivid imagination, but I know Mystic is mystical to many. It certainly is a lovely town with a wonderful seaport museum. Every place and everyone has the potential to be mystical to someone, and that is what makes our universe special. You never know when something or someone will bring you to a higher level of awareness, and make you feel like you've touched the Divine.
If one song captures the mystic for me, it's Van Morrison's Into the Mystic. It is one of those songs that feels like it just came out perfect from the beginning, and that it was conceived somewhere on a higher plane. Simple, but multiply layered and beautiful.
If you want to know more about Mystic
Next up: New London, Connecticut