Monday, July 25, 2011

Whatever I Want


I am subscribed to BlogLily's Summer Reading Program and I recommend that you subscribe as well. It is free. If Lily has more packets left, you will get one in the mail and start your lovely, literary summer trip, keeping a list of your reads like you haven't done since you were in gradeschool. You must read (at least) 8 books before the summer is over and, one hopes, write something about each one of them. I am not sure what date Lily marks as the end of summer, she did not say. I am shooting for finishing my 8 books by the end of August, but you may wish to inquire with her further.

I received my packet from the BlogLily Summer reading program in the mail, and put it on the kitchen windowsill where I could see it often. I left it unopened for two days in order to heighten my excitement. I waited for a quiet, sunny early morning, until I was alone with a hot cup of coffee, before I slit open the envelope with a real letter opener and sorted through the contents. I am impressed with the small patches of stick-on Velcro that hold the little handmade booklet closed, and I am impressed also with the carefully constructed little paper triangle that you slip over the top corner to keep it all neat together. The glassine sleeve, reminiscent of those used to protect the fragile outer-skins of aged and fragile books, was the piece de resistance, making of the booklet and its accompanying bookmark something clearly meant for keeping. Well done, Lily!

Naturally I, who have zig-zagged through life in a way that would make most people nauseous, started with the category "Whatever You Want". After all the hubbub of the move from Tiny Town, what I wanted most was a bit of wisdom and a pale finger pointing at the moon . So here you have it: My review of Diary of the Way: Three Paths to Enlightenment by Ira Lerner (A&W Visual Library, 1974).

First, I am delighted that a company that otherwise spends all of its time making and marketing root beer should take a moment to contemplate The Way. What fun!

Diary of the Way is not fiction, but rather a meditative medley of text and photographs that takes the reader with the author as he gets to know three Asian masters: An old Japanese man who is a judo and Aikido master; a beautiful young Chinese woman with a sad past who is an herbal healer and Qi Gong master; and a young Chinese-American man who is a Taoist and master of Tai Chi Chuan. Lerner follows his masters around the island of Hawaii where they were all living in the 1970s, and delves into their practices and lives, writing down what they say and photographing them. Ultimately, he paints very personal portraits of three very distinct, profound and memorable people.

It strikes me that while this book came out only 5 years after the Summer of Love, it doesn't have that patchouli smell or texture of fake Indian clothing that so many spiritually-oriented books of that period do. It is rather a landmark exploration for Western readers of a cultural and spiritual approach to life that was all but unknown to most people at the time and which holds up very nicely today as a kind of primer to Eastern philosophy.

What I like about this book, beside the great photographs and tasteful editing, is its refusal to be a how-to. Lerner allows his masters to make their points themselves, and he stays out of their way except to make a few, marginal editorial comments that put some of their ideas into a historical context. He is the omniscient observer, not inserting his personality much, though I got the feeling that he fell a bit in love with the herbal healer whose name, by the way, is Lily.

I also like how Lerner lets his masters be human beings, allows them to discuss their own trajectories not only in their arts but also in their personal lives. The older master who took up Aikido in his 50s is an inspiration to me. Lily, who lived under a repressive Chinese regime which "stole (her) childhood" from her, sometimes forgets to eat, works way too hard, and occasionally regresses to the childhood she never had, hiding in her favorite peach tree and refusing to come down. The young Taoist master is a classic portrait of the first generation Chinese-American who brings his ancient art to non-Asian seekers with a distinctly American flair and energy.

Ira Lerner's book is a finger pointing at the moon, not saying what to do, but merely gesturing in the direction of a path you might want to consider. Enlightenment is not a destination, the book emphasizes, but rather a journey that is won every single day by working with the raw material that fate has dealt us within the context of a discipline.

Who is this author/photographer, Ira Lerner? I have no idea and neither does anyone. I have looked for him everywhere on the web, and I do not see that he has written any other books or put forth any other works of note, though the photos in this book are really quite unusual, ranging from the purely documentary to the metaphorical level of high art. Despite Lerner's own lack of notoriety, his little book has become one of the classics of Asian spiritual practice for Westerners.

I recommend it. It will go well with a beach vacation, a curl up on the sofa on a rainy day, or as a book that you keep in your bottom drawer at the office to grab a few pages from when no one is watching.

Point Structure: I do not currently know how many points this review has gleaned me for my Summer Reading Program booklet. I know I get 10 just for writing down the title. Probably I get another 10 for blogging about it. And I should probably get 10 just for mentioning Lily's name a bunch of times and embedding a live link to her blog on this page. For now, I will imagine this effort is worth 30 points. And now I must go find my local library, which will be fun since we've only lived here for 10 days, and get myself a recommendation for a new book to read.

Good way to spend the summer, ¿nu?

3 comments:

Tenured Radical said...

Sounds like a great book, and a fun way to get started in your new home, and of course, glad to see you are still blogging. I am currently shilling David Dow's Autobiography of an Execution, which is the most amazing book I have read in years.

Tenured Radical said...

Oh yeah: you gots to fix your Tenured Radical link & link it to the new Chronicle site:

http://chronicle.com/blognetwork/tenuredradical/

Urban Exile said...

Many thanks TR! I certainly will fix that link. It's a lovely looking page....Safe travels home!