Monday, September 17, 2012

Commonplace Book: purevineland

Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.
     -- Alan Watts

The map is not the territory.
     -- Alfred Korzbyski

Eternity is not a length; it is a depth of time. We enter and meet there through the sacrament of love.
     -- Forrest Church

Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish fill the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars. I cannot count one. I know not the first letter of the alphabet. I have always been regretting that I was not as wise as the day I was born.
-- Henry David Thoreau

The purpose of the universe of the flowering of consciousness.
     -- Eckhart Tolle

You are an aperture through which the Universe is looking at and exploring itself.
     -- Alan Watts

Life is now. There was never a time when your life was not now, nor will there ever be.
     -- Eckhart Tolle.

God chooses one man with a shout, another with a song, another with a whisper.
     -- Rabbi Nahman of Bratislava

To try to be better is to be better.
     -- Charlotte Cushman

Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.
     --Thomas Jefferson

You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.
     -- Anne Lamott

Worry is a form of prayer for something you don't want.
     -- Bhagavan Das

There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.
     -- Carl Jung

People tend to become like that which they love, with its name written on their brows.
     -- Huston Smith

The Astrolabe of the Mysteries of God is Love.
     -- Rumi

God is being, awareness, and bliss. God lies on the further side of being as we understand it, not nothingness; beyond minds as we know them, not mindless clay; beyond ecstasy, not agony. Understand with Shankara that "the sun shines even without objects to shine upon."
     -- Huston Smith, The World's Religions

My doctrine is not a doctrine but just a vision. I have not given you any set rules, I have not given you a system.
     -- The Buddha

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
     -- Leonard Cohen

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Sing a Song of Bradbury

On the fifth of June, in this Our Year of Predicted Apocalypse 2012, the planet Venus -- guiding light of ancient mariners, namesake of love goddesses from all cultures, bright twinkle making her the celestial object most often mistaken for a UFO -- transformed into a pinhole shadow while traversing the surface of Sun. Under cover of this rare astronomical event, Ray Bradbury -- usually associated with the redder, colder, farther planet of Mars -- slipped forever from our own surly Earth.

Though he will likely always be shelved as such, Bradbury never much cared for being labeled a "science fiction author." This was a misnomer from the start, applied by Doubleday at the release of The Martian Chronicles in 1950. Fair enough for that book, but even by then Ray had moved from the genre-driven pulps to the "slicks," including a special Halloween edition of Mademoiselle built around his short story "Homecoming," not to mention four appearances in the Best American Short Stories anthology series (thrice with stories not of rocket ships but of racial strife). And as anyone who reads beyond the title knows, Chronicles isn't really about Mars: it's about exploration, ambition, the folly of human desire -- the burgeoning space-age was merely a handy metaphor. And Bradbury examined far more than Mars over the course of his 50-year career. No matter the locale -- romantic, foggy Ireland; quirky but bitterly divided Mexico; Civil War battlefields; China circa 400 AD; his own Rockwellian, fictional Green Town, Illinois -- he mostly charted another striated, romanticized crimson landscape: the Human Heart.

After receiving the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2000, Bradbury got busy refocusing the lens on his long career. As part of that process, Sam Weller's authorized 2005 biography, The Bradbury Chronicles, goes a long way, cataloging Ray's disparate achievements. His work appeared in decades of publications ranging from Captain Future and Weird Tales to The Saturday Evening Post and Redbook. Commissioned by John Huston to write the screenplay for Moby-Dick. Winner of the 1968 Aviation-Space Writers Robert Ball Memorial Award despite having never flown in a plane (though he eventually did fly after the age of 60, Bradbury steadfastly refused to learn to drive). Friendships with Alfred Hitchcock, Christopher Isherwood, Ray Harryhausen, Aldous Huxley, Forrest J. Ackerman, even Walt Disney (for whom he wrote the original voice-over narration for the Spaceship Earth ride in EPCOT). A fistful of Cable Ace Awards for the seven-year television run of The Ray Bradbury Theater, itself primed by years of work in radio and theater, including his own Pandemonium Theatre Company. Not bad for a wide-eyed kid who once stood on Hollywood sidewalks, hawking newspapers to movie stars.

Equally important to this legacy was the assemblage of Bradbury Stories, a companion for the older The Stories of Ray Bradbury. Over the course of his career, Bradbury published over 600 tales; these two volumes taken together showcase a third of that output, and are a perfect jumping-in point for someone just discovering his work. Even then, the new will seem warmly (if strangely) familiar: the pages bubble over with motifs and storylines that have been either formally adapted or outright stolen to fuel an untold number of films, television and radio shows, comic books (including many issues of Tales from the Crypt and episodes of The Twilight Zone -- to which he surprisingly contributed only one official script, being deeply dissatisfied with the resulting episode). Tellingly, Bradbury Stories reaches page 125 before yielding a bona-fide sci-fi story, and even then it's a chapter from Martian Chronicles.

Still, his most resonant and probably most widely read work is the one that looks most penetratingly into the future: Fahrenheit 451. Though he was essentially rejected by sci-fi's hardcore community for not engaging in harder science, few of its other citizens turned in work so socially prescient: the prevalence of advertising; the numbing escape of reality programming; the easy distractions of prescription drugs; false news as entertainment. It's easy find a censorship message, given the book-burning "fireman" career of the main character, Montag -- but as his boss, Chief Beatty, explains: "Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then ... they'll be happy. Don't give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with." Beatty isn't talking about an imaginary, totalitarian future, but about our Here And Now. 451 isn't about a society sadly, unjustly deprived of books. It's about a non-reading society that couldn't care much less about books or reading -- in any format.

As Weller has it, Bradbury used fiction to predict the past while staying nostalgic for the future -- a seeming impossibility that yet perfectly sums up the man's outlook. Indeed, to read Bradbury is like sitting on the porch of a twilit summer evening: soon the golden leaves will tumble like nature's confetti, but for now, move to stand barefoot on the new-mown grass, cool as a shadowy woodland stream. Listen to the metallic wail of cicadas in the fading cotton-candy light. Watch your shadow dissolve behind you and know that if you keep enough love in your heart, you will Live Forever.

Thank you, Mr. Bradbury. Thank you. Godspeed.

Originally published in the Mobile Register, August 05 2012

Does the blood move in your hand, does that hand move to touch metal, does that metal move to touch Space? Do wild thoughts of travel and migration stir your soul? They do. Thus you live. Therefore God lives. You are the thin skin of life upon an unsensing Earth, you are that growing edge of God which manifest itself in hunger for Space. So much of God lies vibrantly asleep. The very stuffs of worlds and galaxies, they know not themselves. But here, God stirs in his sleep. You are the stirring. He wakes, you are that wakening. God reaches for the stars. You are His hand. Creation manifest, you go in search. He goes to find, you go to find. Everything you touch along the way, therefore, will be holy. On far worlds you will meet your own flesh, terrifying and strange, but still your own. Treat it well. Beneath that shape, you share the Godhead.
     -- Ray Bradbury, from Leviathan '99

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

William Gay: Literary Legacy Will Have Lasting Resonance

Remembering that night, November 2001, Southern Writers Reading. Interrupting the Alumni Grille portion of the evening to announce to the gathered souls in Theatre 98, who then erupted in cheers, that, just in from Hohenwald, William Gay had entered the building. Rest in peace.

William Gay -- a drywall hanger, house painter, and ginseng root gatherer from tiny Hohenwald, Tennessee -- kept a dark, dark secret for more than five decades of his life: He was one of the most brilliant literary minds of his generation.

Even to those who knew him well, this was apparently a facet of his life unrevealed during the years he spent doing practical labor to feed his family: "In a lot of ways it was like being in a closet. You really didn't go out on Monday morning and talk about the sonnet you wrote over the weekend." But Gay never thought of himself as anything other than a writer, "the highest thing," he believed, "that you could aspire to do."

To the literary world, it was a spring-loaded surprise, tripped with the 1999 publication of his first novel, The Long Home. That James A. Michener Memorial Prize-winning book was quickly followed by a second novel, Provinces of Night, and I Hate to See that Evening Sun Go Down, a collection of stories previously published in magazines such as GQHarper's, the Oxford American, and the Atlantic Monthly. Stephen King declared Gay's third novel Twilight (which features an immoral undertaker far more wicked and dreadful than any sparkling vampire or werewolf) to be the best book of 2007.

The 55-year gap between Gay's birth and the beginning of his publishing career is often mentioned as though it was time (and therefore art) criminally lost, though Gay himself apparently did not see it that way. He spoke in near-Buddhist terms of his journeyman process, of being at first more purely interested in the beauty of language over the movement of story, which earned him no publication credits. Having spent zero time in creative writing workshops or even speaking much with other writers (excepting a somehow unsurprising correspondence with Cormac McCarthy, in the time before McCarthy became a household name), Gay knew no mentor or peers to help direct his powerful natural talent. He was, however, a voracious reader -- it was nearly impossible to name a classic novel or a comic book with which he was unfamiliar -- and found lessons enough in studying Thomas Wolfe and Flannery O'Connor. And while drawing pay as a carpenter, he made more serious work of studying the people around him, their motivations, their flaws, their humor, their loves. Eventually, his narrative strategy took an organic shift toward more concrete storytelling, and editors and agents began taking notice -- but all that early concentration on crafting language would pay off: it is now difficult to uncover an article or criticism about Gay where he isn't compared, favorably, to William Faulkner.

Equally like Faulkner, Gay wrote of salt-of-the-earth Southern-born characters: bootleggers and juke-joint owners, young lovers trapped by the ghostly wrongs of their accidental lineages, carpenters and blues musicians, angels and devils incarnate. In short, ordinary people who find themselves walking the razor divide between Good and Evil, often then forced toward the hard choice that cuts down the middle. They swerve and collide upon harsh, illuminated landscapes: achingly described versions of the rural Tennessee that Gay observed and loved firsthand -- a knowledge that provides anchorage and manifest for his grander gestures and symbols.

While his themes are not exactly the stuff of musical comedies, his prose is not without levity, often downright hilarity: At the 2001 session of Fairhope's literary Southern Writers Reading series, Gay brought down the house reading a scene from Provinces of Night about two men using bricks to secure a blow-up doll beside a rural mailbox. (And for those fortunate enough to have heard Gay read his work aloud, it is impossible to view his words upon a page -- whether it is crafted prose or an off-the-cuff answer to a question in an interview -- without hearing his distinct voice: a Tennessee drawl more personal than merely Southern, so rich as to have often seemed like a language unto itself.) He was a master at what Bram Stoker referred to in Dracula as the King Laugh -- things are never so terrible that human beings will cease to find humor. Not, at least, without ceasing to be human.

Though lauded by the writing and reading community, Gay himself was uneasy with success and the cultish attention that sometimes came with it. Same as Ken Kesey in the wake of his Merry Pranksters celebrity, he viewed it as a distraction and hindrance to creativity. Thanks to an utter lack of pretension, it was no artistic affectation that he would rather work than answer the phone or the door. Even so, visitors were regarded with compassion and generosity, no matter the hour of the interruption. And after dispatching callers with whatever answers or advice he felt was best given, Gay would be inevitably drawn back to his writing table and the plain drugstore-bought tablets and notebooks into which he preferred to draft his stories -- perhaps inspired by the interlude. No work, no experience would be wasted.  

Surprised by his seemingly blunt arrival and shocked by his sudden death, the literary world will never be without William Gay. There is still a novel, The Lost Country, somewhere out there in the aether, and a plethora of nonfiction writing -- much of it about music, his love of which was barely eclipsed by his love of literature -- waiting to be collected. For years to come, the rich ferocity of his already available works will enthrall, electrify, magnetize, and inspire -- paraphrasing from The Long Home, these are the things time will not take away from us.

Originally published in the Mobile Register, March 04 2012

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Rum Diary (1998)

Given the amount of alcohol, paranoia, and depravity splashed across its pages, one might almost consider Hunter S. Thompson's early novel The Rum Diary a thematic prequel of sorts to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, published to great infamy some twelve years later. Initially drafted in 1959 when Thompson was twenty-two years old, freshly discharged from the Air Force, and working as a sports reporter in San Juan, Puerto Rico, The Rum Diary is otherwise a fairly conventional if picaresque narrative, notable chiefly for the hallmarked nervous prose style of the man wielding the typewriter.

Paul Kemp is a wandering journalist who, following stints in New York and London, has managed to land (as Thompson had) in San Juan for the purpose of working at a doomed English-language newspaper, the Daily News. A chaotic soup of characters is immediately introduced: first is Sala, a dejected and cynical staff photographer who spends most of his time bemoaning his "degenerate" co-workers; if it weren't for freelance undercover assignments shooting casino interiors, he might have no work at all. Kemp is amused rather than engaged by Sala's rants, and hangs around him more for the entertainment value than the friendship. The paper's editor is the blustery Lotterman, who rotates stale assignments among the pool while assuring them the paper has loyal backers and adequate funding. Chief among the correspondents is Yeamon, supposedly researching why the locals are deserting the tropical island paradise even as privileged Americans are flocking to it; mostly, though, Yeamon would rather pick a drunken fight than file a story.

Because the newsroom is such a craven hive of flop-sweat-covered desperadoes, Kemp spends most of his time at Al's Patio, a neighborhood hangout where the beers are cheap and cold. Yeamon's beach shack on the other side of the island is also an attractive refuge, not least due to his winsome blonde girlfriend Chenault, who makes a hobby of sunbathing naked in order to rile to local fishermen.

As Kemp befriends Sanderson, a former News editor now aligned with "big PR outfit" Adelante, he slowly realizes the foundering paper is merely an organ for larger interests in American land investments, to be tossed aside once the right deals have been made. Though well paid to script brochures for a shady development project, Kemp increasingly submits to his growing ennui, a disastrous tendency as Carnival season approaches -- that frothy maelstrom of street partying, sexual tension, and unlooked-for racial violence. Despite many options, and the acknowledgement that he is riding a wave he does not quite understand, he is content to see where the momentum will ultimately beach him -- perhaps into the arms of the gorgeous Chenault, perhaps into jail, perhaps both.

Overall, the novel is a winning pastiche of youthful indiscretions not unlike early Fitzgerald (Thompson was a big admirer) or Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, another debut novel which heralded the arrival of a great talent while only hinting at the direction said talent would eventually take. Thompson's writing is crisp, elegantly raw. The plot is thin but the adventure-filled episodes are legion -- bar brawls, sexcapades on midnight beaches, drunken spear-fishing, narrow escapes from law enforcement -- and all spiced with Thompson's prescient wisdom, already prominent in his world-weary descriptions of vagabonds and grifters and fools. Such observations (if not obsessions) would come to fruition in Thompson's later writings of the 1970s, as he sought to make sense of the perceived departure of the American Dream, to find "that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back." Here, he writes of a full decade prior, just before the wave crashes on good men who should have known better. One cannot help but wonder what Thompson would say about the current trending nostalgia for the early 1960s, now falsely painted (as all prior eras tend to be) as a grandly innocent, gently flawed time -- perhaps he would sadly echo Kemp's bitter observation at the end of the novel: "The ride gets pretty ugly from here on in."

Originally published in the Mobile Register, February 19 2012