Wednesday, July 14, 2004


Speaking of being swallowed by stories, I've been carried away by this one, fashioning it into a social critique that I no longer much believe in. True, I don't think much of some parts of my public schooling. But if I hadn't swallowed the story of the lonely genius, I would have swallowed some other one -- psychologically less damaging, maybe, but no less of a spiritual poison.

Of all the realms inhabited by sentient beings, the Tibetans hold that this one, the human realm, is the best jumping-off place for enlightenment. The reason being that, unlike beings in the hell realms, the hungry ghost realm, or the animal realm, we human beings actually sometimes are free enough of suffering to stop and look around. But, unlike beings in the various heaven realms, we suffer enough that we never lose sight of our urgent need for transcendance. So I'm not sure I ought to call the suffering of this story -- minor enough by any common human scale -- unfortunate. It was at least a story that kept me restless.

In any case -- fast forward to sixteen. I've graduated from my hippie free school (which required only the few things the state of Washington then required for a highschool education, quite easily done in a couple years.) Back home in Eugene. Going to Lane Community College part-time. I took a World Lit class, and one of the things we read was Lao Tzu.

I read the Tao de Ching over and over. This man knew something. He knew something I didn't know. He teased me, confused me, and frustrated me, but I understood from the very start that in fact he was playing fair. He wasn't getting off on baffling me. He was saying what he had to say as straightforwardly as he could.

I had met a contemplative for the first time, though I didn't know it. I was very young, so I can be forgiven, maybe, for thinking that just listening to him would change me. A door seemed to stand open, when I read him. But I had no idea what to do about it. I stood there waiting for the doorway to get up and walk over me, so that I would be outside.

Other doors opened. I went off to Evergreen State the next year, and I met Dante and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Doors were opening all over the place. I just couldn't get through them.

And all the while the story was chewing on me. I was going to be a great novelist. I would be an apostle of free love. I was going to set a flame of anarchist revolution throughout the land. Or maybe socialist revolution? Sexual revolution, at the very least. My genius surely was going to manifest somehow.

But the world was oddly indifferent to my genius. It tiresomely demanded proof that I was a great novelist, in the form of great novels. My fellow revolutionaries obstinately preferred other manifestos to mine. Women, inexplicably, did not stand in line to be converted. The horrible suspicion that I might be an ordinary person began to occur to me. But only when I was drunk or fatigued. Everyone still told me I was bound for greatness. If I had known then what I learned later, as a teacher -- to wit, how very seductive the fantasy of being the teacher who recognizes genius can be -- I might have received this encouragement with a little more skepticism.

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