Saturday, October 12, 2013

Chemistry

You have a reputation among your students for impassioned anti-adverb rhetoric and for dire warnings about the dangers of allowing a character in a story to remain on stage alone for too long.

The former position came about as the result of hearing stories in which you began keeping score on the number of -ly adverbs and how they impart a clunky sound to the narrative as well as suggesting the writer pick more vigorous or descriptive verbs.  The latter position took more time to arrive as a full-fledged concept, but when it arrived, you seemed to have been able to recount the inevitable consequence of leaving one character unchallenged for too long.  That character, having nowhere else to go but into the heady atmosphere of interior monologue, would more often than not come to wonder how she (or he) had arrived in this current mess.  Of course the nature of story is to involve characters in messes, so what's the big deal with wondering how or why?

A significant quality of the human condition is to wonder how it began.  As individuals in a general sense, as readers, and as writers who with some regularity get characters into situations, we are more apt to wonder what's lacking in a person who doesn't wonder how it--whatever the it may be--all began.

For the longest time, at least since you were in the fourth grade in Hancock Park Elementary School, Third and Fairfax, mid-town Los Angeles, your interest in the it, as in where it all began, was in creation myths of different cultures, starting with local Indian tribes, then spreading out to Hopi and Navajo, then Apache, and eastward to the Plains Indians, securing your interest in anthropology and, thanks yet again to your sister for her helpful nudges, to the worlds of Greek mythology.

There was also your more-or-less force-fed sense of the creation myths of the Abrahamic religions culture into which you were born and raised, although there were many times when you'd reached points of exasperation with the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim ethos that you wished to have been born into something with less restrictions.

Good luck on that; they all had some boundary or bureaucracy to which you took a dislike.  Even the cultures remote from you had one or two turn-offs, a realization that had you wandering about the verges of atheism out of sheer annoyance with the eventual restrictions where ever you looked.

All that said, you nevertheless found yourself this afternoon at a celebration called Durga Puja, or celebration of the Hindu goddess, Durga, and her victory over an incredible, buffalo-like being named Mahishashura.  Both names are Sanskrit.  The Mahi- prefix to the monster is the Sanskrit word for great or large, thus maharaja is great king, and maha samadhi is the great, transcendental meditative state of death.  Hindus do not merely die, they enter maha samadhi.

The short version of how you found yourself tucking into a plate of lamb curry and veggies is your long friendship with a number of monastics, both East Indian and gringo, and the attendant immersion into some of the Sanskrit creation epics and philosophical treatises such as The Bhagvad-Gita, The Maha ( there's that word again)Barata--Mahabarata-- (or Great India), and the Hindu equivalent of The Talmud (on which you more or less grew up), called The Upanishads.

Thanks to your friendship with Christopher Isherwood, who helped his guru, Swami Prabhavananda, do a modern translation of The Bhagvad-Gita, you got his inside story of translating your favorite line from that epic, which in some measure formed your belief system about writing:  "To the work you are entitled, but not the fruits thereof."

This is the essence of  what is called karma yoga, work as worship.  What this means to you is that you get to do the work but the satisfaction and rewards which may be possible from it should come from being able to do the writing.  Anything else is gravy or, if you prefer, icing.  Isherwood quite liked and shared my interpretation.  Since you admired him, this small area of agreement means a good deal.

He was also in part responsible for you being taken on by a swami in the Ramakrishna Vedanta order, thus yes, this atheist had a guru.  You only knew his non-monastic first name, Kiran.  His monastic name was Swami Aseshananda.  He was five feet four, possibly five feet, five.  You called him Mr. Big.  Many of the senior swamis or their female counterparts, pravrajikas, are given names of affection.  It was not uncommon for Swami A. to be called Maharaj, or that added finishing touch, a terminal ji for an added measure of affection, Maharajji.

In many ways, you had the same feeling at lunch you had several years ago at a celebration you attended at the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, where you were led along the path of The Stations of the Cross by an earnest monk who told you that while many of the Acoma Tribe were what he called Good Catholics, he was aware that they still observed what he called "the old ways."  Then he smiled.  "We, of course, call your faith 'the Old Faith.'"

Today, you were in a bright display of cultural variety, East Indians, gringos, Latinas, in some way or other paying tribute to something or other, one line for the lamb curry, another line for vegetarian.  

In the Hindu theology, there are gods, goddesses, one of whom, Vishnu, is the aspect of god that manifests such avatars as Rama, and Krishna.  Well before you came here, you learned about Rama from The New York Times Crossword Puzzle.  Clue:  Avatar of Vishnu.  Four letters, it has to be Rama.

You learned about the Acoma Pueblo from Willa Cather's novel,   Death Comes to the Archbishop.  You learned about Swami Aseshananda by bumping into him at a funeral service for Swami Prabhavananda.  At one time, Swami A. was Swami P's assistant.  You asked one of the monks about him and were told that when he lived at the Trabucco Monastery here in Southern California, he'd taken one of the monastery cars into a garage because of some engine related problem, then come back to report what a holy place the garage was and what great souls the mechanics were, because when they lifted the hood of the car to look at the engine, they all said "Jesus Christ."

Even an atheist can see chemistry in that, and it is chemistry that draws you to places and things, and yes, to the lamb curry line.




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