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?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

In Which the Caravan of Gypsies Arrives, Quietly.

It is now officially a week that FF and I have been inhabiting our new house, placing things, installing things, washing things that couldn't get washed before we left Tiny Town, throwing things that evaded throwing before. I can see already that inhabiting a house, a house that is our own, is going to be a drawn out process and, as much as we'd like to complete the job in the span of a few days and find ourselves in richtig gut order, that desire is inconsistent with reality. No, inhabiting a house will be a longsome thing, and the house's secrets will emerge but slowly.

The move from our "big, big bed in the tiny, tiny house, in the tiny, tiny town on the BI-I-I-IG RIVER" went smoothly because of the joint forces of FF and me (hard workers, persistent packers) and our three movers from the Joseph Holy Trucking Company. Joseph Holy himself is a rosy, golden haired man, boyish in fact, who claims with a rakish grin that he is much older than he looks. He was recommended to us by a friend who was moved by Holy to Greensboro and had nothing bad to say about the experience. The other members of the Holy Moving Squad, Anthony (who drove my car down) and Faluzzo (a dark brooding man with soul and evident smarts), were rhythmic workers who punched and kidded each other like schoolboys all the way South. They kept their deal, hauling us down to our new digs without breaking one darned thing, as far as I can tell.

I had imagined that our Caravan of Gypsies would lose a few items along the way. I imagined us, a cheery band, clattering down the road with pots and pans clanging on their iron hooks against the sides of the painted wagon, a few dishes slipping out the back and crashing to the road behind us amidst howls of (our own) laughter. But as so often has happens, when I fully prepare myself for the worst with a detailed pre-story, disaster does not happen. Not that losing a plate or two, or even my beloved, spindly bedside table that Mrs. Vega brought to me when I was bedridden in Harlem, or the blown glass bowl I gave FF for Christmas that looks like primordial waters swirling through the air, would have been a disaster. But it could have hurt a bit to see a favorite thing not make it to the new house, to the new life, to the Ark that will carry us going forward.

The Ark. Perhaps that will be my name for this place, but I am not sure yet. Not at all. Our petite Georgian brick sitting demurely on nearly an acre of peaceful, wooded North Carolina land, the lot spanning the distance between Monticello and Woodridge, has not revealed it's name to me yet. She is too occupied with adjusting her sturdy haunches to the inevitable added weight of our lives, accomodating us on her resolute floor boards and sturdy old beams. She is too focused on the settling that's going on to have casual chats with me about such apparent trivialities as names. But both the house and I know that names are of great moment, and that is why we have silently agreed to wait to find hers. Don't rush! I hear her warn. All in good, good time.

I know that just a month ago the Passage family lived here with their skibble of children and tiny collie dogs. And before them, Dr. and Mrs. Johnston were here and they installed various modern conveniences in impeccable good taste. And before them, there was Judy who was good friends with the next door neighbor, the neighbor who brought us a bouquet of flowers cut from her garden last Thursday, Judy who planted a sturdy hedgerow of arbor vitae right between herself and that very same neighbor. And in the prehistoric days, before ranch houses were built, there were others who left signs of themselves buried deep in these fragrant, wooden closets and walls, buried deep in the cool cement of the basement where simple cleanings and changings of the guard never dislodged them. In our house, for it is our house now, we will find notes, marks, pieces of yellow, brittle tape stuck inside cabinet doors, papers stuck between bricks, perhaps a toy. I will find signs of them in the garden, where trees were planted and beds dug, out there beyond the dog fence in what I am now calling The Uncharted Territories, an overgrown foresty part of the property where the surveyor says there is an old wood shed, a pump-house, and what used to be a formal boxwood garden. They are still here. I can feel them. I can hear them. I will find them.

You never pass anywhere without leaving a mark, whether it's in a house or a person's heart. I want this to be a fresh start, like my fresh start with FF. I hear myself whispering to myself as I place clothes in drawers, may there never be a cross word in this house. And like all hopes and pre-histories, reality will be different. But it is good and right to try, and if one must leave marks, may they be gentle ones.

As for this town, we do not know it yet. But we sense that it has big shoulders, a strong sense of purpose, and a purposeful desire to move forward in history with long, muscular strides. We also sense that it carries in its hip pocket a Southern past, like a well-used and sweated on notebook, a Southern past with all the graceful, awkward, very beautiful and very ugly parts that that every Southern town has. We are part of the spicy swirl of outsiders coming in, the mutt-mix of harsh and OK, foreign and American, seekers and settlers. Then there are those who have always been here with their soft accents, their dangling arms, their dogs, their quick smiles and their steady, milk blue gazes. Those are the ones I am keeping an eye on most: I am wondering what they have to teach me.

The Caravan of Gypsies has arrived, oddly quiet and unbroken. Treading lightly. Watching. Alert.

Photo: Bulgaria Magura Cave Paintings,