Heaven & Earth

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The problem – the predicament – invoked by any contemplative tradition that pivots upon the idea of unattachment, upon freeing oneself from the suffering induced by desire is that seeking freedom from desire is itself a desire. Be it within Hinduism or Buddhism, what have you, the sought after release binds you to this world or that, to samsara or Heaven. In seeking freedom, seeking anything, you are bound to the thing being sought; one inevitably grasps at the freedom from grasping. Suffering, then, within this life, seems inevitable. To address this psycho-spiritual quandary, this philosophical and ultimately personal mythological dilemma, the wisdom traditions must broaden or even double back upon the narrow interpretation of nirvana or heaven or selflessness in the spiritual sense and acknowledge that life, as we know it day to day, is a duality: our hearts may be in heaven but our bodies remain here, bound to the vicissitudes, struggles, predicaments and challenges – the play of opposites – that comprise life and death. Analogies, allegories, symbols – myths – at their best do well to glean practical wisdom from the otherwise impenetrable, impossible ideal.

Yudhisthira, for example, the king of Hastinapur within the Mahabharata, by way of supposedly having released himself from attachment to all things, even the well-being of his family, is granted entry by the gods, the Devas, into the ultimate Heaven, as a mortal, an incomparable achievement. He arrived, having endured an arduous journey through the Himalayas, even losing his wife and brothers along the way, never swaying from his unattachment. The interpretation of the dialogue is, and any misinterpretations are mine:

“You shall not enter with that dog, Yudhisthira,” declares Indra, king of the Devas.[1]

“Dog?” Yudhisthira turns. “Oh. Yes. Well, this animal has accompanied me of its own accord. And has likewise endured all the trials of the journey. I will not enter Heaven without him. It would be unjust.”

“Unjust?” Indra scowled and consulted with the Devas. Then he addressed Yushisthira. “You have passed the final test. Your devotion to dharma coupled with your courageous compassion for the dog, who as it happens is itself a god, the god of Dharma, has earned you both access to this Heavenly realm as a mortal.”

Audiobook production has begun! I received a fifteen minute trial reading for approval through Findaway Voices and also comments from the narrator, D.S. – he had a question about my preferred pronunciation of Neutic, a strategy for footnotes that made sense (ignore them unless they add to the story, which some of them may) and translations (allow the listener to glean meaning from the context). I agreed with it all – I’m keen to rely upon the professional experience of D.S. and I understand, if anything, that audiobook production, akin to theater, say, is a performance and the integrity of the performance ought to take precedence over the text.

All this comes, like a gift, just when my zeal and convictions have been perilously flagging. With the book not selling and the job consuming too much time and energy my wannabe authorpreneur adventure has lately seemed impossibly daunting. But, having let it go, this came back. It’s a refresh. A beginning. Time Crime yet lives. And I’m thrilled and inspired, again, to engage the story and the characters – I’ve missed them! I’d frankly almost forgotten what I was working for at the home improvement. But indeed it has been for this, the audiobook. All the crazy shifts, lousy pay, aching joints and exhaustion has been for the book.

That said, I was goddamn anxious as hell about listening to the sample – I had to work myself up before I hit “play,” reading the advice from Findaway regarding how to review the sample, what to do if you don’t like it and all that. They do a good job of projecting sensitivity and straightforwardness – a sense that they understand the challenges but also possess the experience to get you through them. Anyway, I swallowed my anxiety and took the plunge, afraid that my writing would sound unbearably hackneyed but otherwise game to get on with things. If I can’t write, then listening to someone read the damn book will put the nail in the coffin of my aspirations like nothing else.

So, I listened. And, whew, it wasn’t terrible. D.S. did a fine job. I’d perhaps edit a handful of things in the writing – what seems glaring now makes me wonder why I didn’t catch it earlier, but then I know that I’ll always want to edit a handful of things and I’ve got to let it go and just keep some faith in the story and my talents, such as they are. Hey, this is what it is to be on the playing field, this is what it is to be on the adventure: I may end up an incompetent moron for all to see and hear. I may fail. But it sounded okay. That is to say, D.S. seems to get it and my only job is to let him do his thing – he’s very experienced and while I thought, gee, I might prefer that Vixy sound a little tougher and bitchier, less diminutive, less girly, and Mr. Z., he ought to sound more sonorous and wizened or… I told myself to shut the hell up because I know nothing about voicing a novel and when I discard my preconceptions I grasp that D.S. has done well to differentiate the characters, he’s got the pace, the vibe, the magic, and he’s got to be provided the freedom to interpret things without me nitpicking every detail. In short, the novel has a voice and for better or worse it’s mine. If the reading makes me cringe (and for the most part it doesn’t, not yet, anyway) it’s nobody’s fault but mine. So that, inevitably, D.S. reading the Conrad passage, well, I thought I’d like to be able to write like that. It was nice, then, when D.S. graciously included a little encouragement at the end of his comments: “Thanks for the opportunity and for a really unique and fun story – sci-fi is always nice, but what I might call really literate sci-fi is a treat!”

Funny, I’m not exactly sure what kind of monster I’ve created with TC – Angie’s mother finally commented, “I read your book – you’re very intelligent, I’m not sure I can understand all of it.” Okay, hmm, well, perhaps a better writer would have made it more readable, I don’t know, I wasn’t trying to be intelligent; rather I was trying to be engaging, but I’m doing my best. Who knows? – I may not be a novelist, we’ll see, perhaps I should stick to non-fiction? “Thanks for reading,” I told her. As far as D.S., I can only assume he’s being sincere. I mean, he’s working, he’s not reading for pleasure, it’s his job to plow through the good, the bad and the ugly and move on to the next one. He’s busy and in demand. And I’m frankly not.

Meanwhile, let me tell you, it’s more than a little nerve wracking, this business of listening to somebody read your work, knowing they’ve read better books and probably worse, I suppose, too. Otherwise, the experience of bringing Time Crime to life in this new way is as invigorating and thrilling and goddamn terrifying as a proper adventure ought to be. And it’s nice, after all these exhausting, seemingly directionless months trying to hold down the job and somehow hold to the idea of being a sci-fi novelist, one that isn’t an embarrassment to the genre, paying for advertising, picking away at editing TC2 when I get the energy, trying to read and keep up my scholarship…, well, in all humility, it’s nice to do something I’m good at. It all clicks when I’m engaged with the writing, even when it has to do with the production of an audiobook version – the work is real work, invigorating instead of merely exhausting. Which only speaks to the authenticity and necessity of engaging one’s personal mythology. Or in more plain spoken terms, it was Jack Canfield who said spend more time doing what you want to do and less time doing what you don’t want to do.

It sounds simple enough yet somehow many of us screw this up. How? Why? Most of my ten years of journaling have at least something to do with this self-induced schism. Since April when I took the home improvement job, for example, I’ve felt as if I’ve done very little other than scramble to keep up, to learn enough, fast enough, to get the job done, endure the shifting schedule, endure the hours, keep the faith, as it were, in myself and at the same time let it all go. And now help take care of the puppy. All the while being drained by a life that seems too heavy on obligation and too light on inspiration. And aspiration. Seamus Heaney, the well-known Irish poet who died in 2013 said of George Mackay Brown, “George strikes me as one who followed his true course… he didn’t fail himself.”[2]

I can only aspire to do the same.

Last year at this time I still had my big environmental manager job at Blasco (name changed to protect the tyrants) and we’d come back from our adventure travel trip to Scotland, hitting Inverness and the surrounding Cairngorm high plateau (the highlands), taking a ferry to the Outer Hebrides, hiking the Isles of Skye, Harris and Lewis, all very hustle and bustle and planes and automobiles and buses – too rushed but still worth it (and looking back gloriously free of sham-demic silliness). It was Angie’s dream to visit Scotland and the job I had, another career type job and it paid more than I’d ever made in my life (the story is in the DOP, of course) made it almost immediately financially feasible to do so. So we did. Follow your bliss and support those who are following theirs and all that. We added a tour bus day trip to Orkney, visiting Kirkwall and on the whole, considering the blur of everywhere we went, I’m keen to remember the Callanish Standing Stones, Skara Brae on the blustery shore of Orkney, the Ring of Brodgar, the ferries, the water, the mythological resonance in all of it. That, and the rockiness – the huge broken hunks of black stone that seem to comprise the very backbone of Scotland, as if the gods hauled up the crust of the Earth and flopped it upside down to create the land. That the standing stones themselves are more ancient than the pyramids is mind blowing – such evocative mythos!

“In Orkney lore, the stones are darkness-loving giants who came down one night to the lochs to drink and dance, lingered too long, and were petrified by the rising sun.”[3]

I love it. That, and I’ll remember the sheep, which seemed to be everywhere, so that we enjoyed fantastic lamb dishes. And, of course, given my predilection for offal, we couldn’t pass up a delectable plate of haggis.

Of note, Ruby is just past ten weeks old, currently at 4.5 pounds or so but putting on ounces quickly, getting her legs under her and otherwise being her own adventure. Dogs are nothing if not completely present, are they not? And the smaller the dog, it seems, the bigger the personality.

[1] Dogs have a peculiar status in Hindu culture. In the Rig Veda, the dog is seen as a protector… but dogs are also considered ominous as they are associated with Yama, the god to death. They are associated not with civilization but the wilderness, which is why they are linked to mendicants…. Adding to their reputation for bringing misfortune, dogs are also regarded as the mount of Bhairava, the fearsome form of Shiva. Their reputation is such that they are kept away from wedding altars and holy sites, and a howling dog is a harbinger of bad luck. In fact, even the sight of a dog is considered to bring bad luck. Because of their territorial nature, dogs  represent devotedness and bondage, with a need for constant attention and validation. They, therefore, become symbols of neediness, insecurity, attachment and ego. Citation: Ahmed, Bushra; Rajrupa Das, Medha Gupta, Hina Jain, Seetha Natesh, Rupa Rao, eds., The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic, (New York: DK Publishing, 2017), 413.

[2] Maggie Fergusson, George Mackay Brown: The Life, (London: John Murray, 2007 [2006]), x.

[3] Ibid., 13.