Emerging from the Bardo

MonteVerde-butterfly

Taken in my previous life while visiting Costa Rica.

This is a meditation on a book I haven’t read yet. You’ll just have to keep reading to find out how that works.

A week or so ago, I went to Town Hall with the NWCs to hear George Saunders talk about and read from his new novel, “Lincoln in the Bardo.” I told M that I felt like a fangurl, I was so excited to hear Saunders, even though I’ve read a total of two of his stories (10th of December and The Falls). Both stories made huge impressions on me – so much humanity is evident in his way of capturing the thoughts of his characters, a rare and often funny empathy on display. In February, I read a New Yorker article about the new book and immediately knew I had to read it. So, when M found out he was coming to town, we all jumped at the chance to go. Our three tickets included two signed copies of the book, which I will be reading as soon as I can, given my usual embroilment in several books at once (slowly digesting Charles Johnson’s “The Way of the Writer,” commuting my way through “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith and just picked up a collection of James Baldwin’s writings yesterday at the library). I am running out of time to achieve my life goal to read all the books!

On the off chance I don’t attain this lofty peak, I will have to hope that my bardo is filled with books and I can stay there for a while. Oh, if you haven’t looked up bardo yet – it’s a space (or place?) in Tibetan Buddhism between death and your next life. A sort of limbo land.

At dinner before the lecture, we spent some time talking about the intriguing concept of the bardo. Even though it’s a post-death phenomenon, metaphorically we felt that it could be about any period of limbo. When you don’t move forward and aren’t sure you ever will. I feel like I spent three years in the bardo, going through the shock, anger and grief of Doug’s stroke. I’d have to learn more and maybe there’s not even an answer to how one leaves the bardo, but I feel like I have emerged from this in-between place. Which isn’t to say I’m “over it” now, it’s not the kind of thing you ever really get over, but I feel I’ve reached a point where I am ready to find out what’s next. This next life has writing, reading, resisting, joining with like-minded people to work for racial equity, working with Doug to make a new plan for the rest of our lives together. So I am now really thinking of the bardo as a chrysalis, because you emerge with your old self still there but in a new form, sipping nectar instead of munching on green leaves.

Getting back to the book, if Lincoln is in the bardo, he must be dead, right? Not really. It’s his son Willy who is dead and in the cemetery, where Lincoln visits him. Lincoln’s actions and thoughts are narrated by a bevy of ghosts, interspersed with historical snippets that provide snapshots of the ongoing Civil War. Given this unusual story telling device, the live reading was unlike anything I’ve seen for a novel before, a bit like watching a scene from a play involving five people (in the section we heard). It was exciting to see a reading as unique and creative as the book itself seems to be. I’m sure I’ll have a lot more things to say once I read it.

Before and after the reading, Saunders talked about this first novel and his life as a writer (and the many odd jobs he did before that). If I was a fangurl before seeing him, I’m now completely enamored. He’s down to earth, funny, creative, just like his writing, which he talks about as this fun thing he gets to do, as play. Even though I love to write, I have a hard time grasping this idea, but he made it seem so possible. What if writing could just be a room full of all your favorite things to tinker with?

Along those lines – and this is going to sound ridiculous, since it is called fiction after all – although I love playing with words, I tend to get very dull and unimaginative when trying to write anything fictional. After reading The Falls, I had this sudden realization that if you want to put unconventional, funny, trippy, even inaccurate words into your characters’ mouths (or minds), you can just DO that. They can say all the wacky stuff you want them to, you aren’t bound by any rules. I’ve always been a rule follower, in life and in grammar, and this was just such a liberating moment. Even the beloved NWCs gave me astonished chortles at that confession, so I won’t hold it against you if you are laughing right now.

Saunders (who wrote for the New Yorker in 2016 while reporting on Trump rallies) wrapped up the evening with a Trump resistance poem he wrote in Seussian style (this link goes to the DC reading, which I think is slightly different from what we heard, but it will give you the idea). It starts out with him answering a question on the importance of art and artists in these politically challenging times. Perhaps this period of our country’s history is another bardo, and we will all emerge from it transformed, for the better one can only hope. More than hope – continue to work toward.

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About a Podcast About a Blog About a Poem about Dusting

That’s a mouthful, I know. Let me explain.

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A book I may never have picked up if not for our many ways of getting information.

When I’m not able to read – while cleaning, gardening, cooking, wedged on the train in a way that prohibits even phone reading – I often turn to podcasts. I have a long list of them I like to listen to, ranging from football (Sea Hawkers) to learning (Stuff You Should Know) to word nerdy (A Way with Words).

I was listening to the podcast “On Being” the other day, when she interviewed poet Marilyn Nelson. I had not heard of her before, but my knowledge of poetry is limited to mostly white guys from the distant past. During the interview, the host mentioned a blog post she’d read by a professor on returning to her university office after a year-long sabbatical. While dusting, the professor was reminded of one of Ms. Nelson’s poems named after that very activity. How dust is made up of so many fragments of things of the earth and of life, through all of time – from “particles of ocean salt” and “winged protozoans” to “algae spores” that create “these eternal seeds of rain” – and it made her feel so appreciative of the dust that she almost wanted to stop dusting. (The reminder that we wouldn’t have rain without dust was a fact I’d forgotten, lost in the dusty corners of my mind.)

I bring this up for a couple of reasons. It made me realize that artists see the world in so many interesting ways and inspiration may come from anywhere. I’ve never looked at dust and thought ‘I’m going to write a beautiful poem about that.’ Perhaps next time I am doing some mundane chore, I’ll be moved to look at it differently. I could even expand on that and think about how we might view events, both good and bad, differently. The perspective of dust (i.e., it exists in a time span we can’t really grasp, as does the Earth and the universe) may serve as a reminder of how short a moment we have in this life. We are, after all, destined to become dust ourselves, contributing to the life cycle in another way.

On a less morbid and more mundane level, I am not a very great housekeeper; my house is usually cleanish but far from immaculate. I don’t hate to clean, but I’d much rather do other things. I often feel like I have to justify reading or writing when the house is a mess. This poem, the professor who blogged about it, and the podcast where I was blessed to learn of them, reminded me that our observations and thoughts (and sharing them) are so much more important than whether the house is clean. I did happen to be cleaning while listening to this podcast, so there’s some irony for you.

These are moments that make me realize how lucky we are to have so much information at our fingertips, how much more there is to discover and how seeking out new things can reward us greatly. Especially if the reward is feeling less guilty about spending time reading and writing in lieu of dusting.

Marilyn Johnson said that when she was 13, she prayed to God to “give me a message I can give the world.” I am grateful for her prayer and for the answer she received, because she is a brilliant poet and thinker. In its own circuitous way, one of her messages found its way to me and it gave me inspiration, comfort and motivation to keep doing the work of the mind. It goes to show you that you never know how your message might help somebody somewhere, if you just believe in yourself and keep going.