Wednesday, February 11, 2009

I'm Reading...

... daily--Carly will be delighted, if he's still checking in once in a while--the Tao. Actually, it's William Martin's The Sage's Tao Te Ching: A New Interpretation, Ancient Advice for the Second Half of Life, a rather clumsy subtitle but I guess accurate enough. I have been dipping in at random, either morning or evening, and am constantly amazed at how relevant my random choice turns out to be. This morning, I arrived at #29, "The Wisdom to Know the Difference," which starts out thus: "The sage no longer strives/to make the world a better place,/ thus it becomes better and better." And continues, further down: "Do not mistake the sage's serenity for passivity./ We have not given up on important issues./ We now no longer attempt to change/that which cannot be changed." Ah, yes. Of course. The simplest truths are sometimes the hardest to act upon...

I have just finished another book, Bad Dog! by Lin Jensen. His subtitle is also unwieldy: "A Memoir of Love, Beauty, and Redemption in Dark Places." (Why does every book these days need an unwieldy subtitle?) This one opens on the scene of the young Lin, eight years old, and his brother Rowland lowering their pants and bending over to receive a terrible beating with a splintery lath from their Danish immigrant father--for no reason that any of the three can quite understand. The book's title is explained in the next episode, in which the boys' pet dog, in punishment for having killed one of the hundred thousand turkeys on the family turkey farm--and as a lesson never to repeat this misdemeanor--is forced by that same father to wear the turkey's carcass tied around its neck for weeks, until the stinking mess finally rots away. In this way, Lin begins to learn compassion: compassion for himself, compassion for other beings, compassion even for the oppressor--for he comes finally to acknowledge his love for this seemingly cold-hearted, remote, some might say cruel father who is unable to be in touch with his emotions.

Readers should be forewarned that the above are only two of a number of wince-inducing scenes. But that's the point, as the subtitle suggests. It is life's painful lessons that bring Jensen eventually to the embrace--and the practice and teaching--of Zen Buddhism, a slow tempering of the protective personal body armor that his upbringing creates into the love he eventually realizes in himself for all things. From the small self, it expands to embrace the natural world: is it any coincidence that Jensen's great passion, after some pretty dreadful youthful years of sweat and labor on that turkey farm, is eventually revealed to be birds? And the universe itself, as his mind comes to acknowledge its miraculous, organic one-ness.

This is a book about the awful intimacy and certainty of suffering and death, and of the lumps we must expect along the way; and, importantly, about the compassion they are capable of inspiring in one who simply bears witness with forbearance. It's a book about the gradual recognition of the healing power of love, a power inherent in all beings, ready to be tapped by one who calls upon its limitless resources. It's a story told through a series of epiphanies, each one a small jewel of revelation, all hitched together like a string of prayer beads. Each one is beautifully worked, some anecdotal, others more like mini-essays, and others still prose-poems, where precise metaphors and reflections are worked through with exquisite attention to the subtleties of language.

Okay, if I put my critic's hat on, I can find a few quibbles with "Bad Dog!" There are times when I judge that Jensen gets carried away with his own poetry: after reading several dense paragraphs of reflection on the multiple social and spiritual ramifications of a line of silver maples on a suburban street and what they have to tell us about the understanding of our minds and the way they work... well, I have to confess that I wish that a tree could just be a tree. Toward the end of the book, the metaphors begin to multiply and their elaboration tends to stretch the limits of my personal tolerance. But this is no more than a quibble, the kind of idle carping that I try, these days, to avoid. As I have written elsewhere in the past, I have shed the critic's mantle that I wore for many years.

Of interest to me, also--perhaps thanks to my own strict educational background--is the relationship between discipline and freedom. It occurs to me to wonder to what extent Jensen's attraction to Zen--as I see it, perhaps wrongly, the most sternly disciplined form of Buddhism--is the result of such a childhood. There's a part of me that believes that, in art as in life, it's only the sternest discipline that can prepare the ground for the greatest freedom. There's the old saw about the Japanese master who paints a bamboo shoot ten thousand times in order to be able to paint it once. I cling to the (perhaps vain) belief that whatever skills I have as a writer owe much to the teacher who rapped my knuckles painfully with a ruler when I failed to faultlessly repeat my French irregular verbs, and to the Latin teacher who demanded that I commit to memory great useless chunks of Caesar's wars in Gaul.

Did these and other forms of discipline instill in me some intellectual habits that continue to stand me in good stead, as I suppose? Or, more difficult to accept, did the various and multiple miseries of boarding school--by no means so terrible as forced labor on a turkey farm, but still considerable--contribute to the way in which I try to exercise compassion in my life today? Like Jensen, with whom I feel for these reasons a certain kinship, I come a very long way, and yet perhaps not so very far from that childhood. Like Jensen, I found a way to love a father who seemed so remote, and recognize him in myself. Like Jensen, I have experienced life as a series of epiphanies, each one of which has brought me closer to its meaning and its core.

I found much of myself, then, reflected in "Bad Dog!" and I'm grateful to the friend who brought it to my attention. By the same token, I now recommend it to yours.

1 comment:

mandt said...

---Very much enjoy these biographical posts! "I have experienced life as a series of epiphanies, each one of which has brought me closer to its meaning and its core." Indeed, the process is IT!