In their strange cosmogony predating Copernicus by two millennia, the ancient Greek scientific sect of the Pythagoreans placed at the center of the universe a ball of fire. It was not hell but the heart of creation. Hell, Milton told us centuries and civilizations later, is something else, somewhere else: “The mind is its own place,” he wrote in Paradise Lost, “and in it self can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.”
Grief and despair, heartache and humiliation, rage and regret — this is the hellfire of the mind, hot as a nova, all-consuming as a black hole. And yet, if are courageous enough and awake enough to walk through it, in it we are annealed, forged stronger, reborn.
That is what the non-speaking autistic poet Hannah Emerson celebrates in her shamanic poem “Center of the Universe,” found in her extraordinary collection The Kissing of Kissing (public library), song of the mind electric, great bellowing yes to life.
CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE by Hannah Emerson
Please try to go
to hell frequently
because you will
find the light there
yes yes — please
try to kiss the ideas
that you find there
yes yes — please
try to get that
it is the center
of the universe
yes yes — please
try to help yourself
by kissing the hot hot
hot life that is born
there yes yes — please
try to yell in hell
yes yes — please
try to free yourself
by pouring yourself
into the gutter all
guttural guttural yell
yes yes yes — please
try to get that you
become the being
that you came there
to be yes yes — please
try to go to the great
great great fire that you
created because you
become the light
that the fire makes
inside of you
yes yes — please
try to kiss yourself
for going there
yes yes — please
get that you are
yes yes — please
A great tragedy of our time, this epoch of self-righteousness, is the zeal with which people would rather feel right than understand — the situation, the context, the motives and vulnerabilities behind the actions, the basic fact of the other.
Growling beneath it all is an aversion to our own imperfections — we would rather look away and toward the faults of others than fully step into our own shadow and embrace it with light. In so segregating our own nature, we abdicate our wholeness and cease being fully human.
How to rehumanize ourselves by owning our shadow is what Alan Watts (January 6, 1915–November 16, 1973) examines in some wonderful passages from Tao: The Watercourse Way (public library) — his final book, which he never fully finished before death took him one late-autumn day; it was posthumously published with the help of his friend Al Chung-liang Huang.
At the head of all virtues Confucius put not righteousness (i), but human-heartedness (jen), which is not so much benevolence, as often translated, but being fully and honestly human.
A true human is not a model of righteousness, a prig or a prude, but recognizes that some failings are as necessary to genuine human nature as salt to stew.
A generation before Parker Palmer urged in his magnificent commencement address that you “take everything that’s bright and beautiful in you and introduce it to the shadow side of yourself” so that “the shadow’s power is put in service of the good,” Watts adds:
Merely righteous people are impossible to live with because they have no humor, do not allow the true human nature to be, and are dangerously unconscious of their own shadows. Like all legalists and busybodies, they are trying to put the world on a Procrustean bed of linear regulations so that they are unable to make reasonable compromises.
Trust in human nature is acceptance of the good-and-bad of it, and it is hard to trust those who do not admit their own weakness.
(It is worth nothing that Tao: The Watercourse Way was itself a way of admitting, and remedying, a human weakness on the scale of society — a decade before Ursula K. Le Guin so brilliantly unsexed the universal pronoun, Watts becomes the first to propose, in a footnote, that the Confucian word jen, which is ungendered in Chinese but has traditionally been translated into English as “man-heartedness,” instead be translated as “human-heartedness” and that all instances of “man” as the universal pronoun be replaced with “human.”)
“Whatever has happened, whatever is going to happen,” the poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “it is the living moment that contains the sum of the excitement, this moment in which we touch life and all the energy of the past and future.” A generation after her, Henry Miller placed at the heart of the art of living the fact that “on how one orients himself to the moment depends the failure or fruitfulness of it.”
And yet inner peace — that crucible of happiness — is largely a matter of the peace we make with the passage of time.
That is what Pete Seeger knew when he adapted, nearly verbatim, a passage from the Hebrew Bible — Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 — into the classic 1959 song “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season).” And that is what Nina Simone, who thought deeply about time, knew when she sang her soul into Seeger’s song in what remains one of the most breathtaking covers of all time:
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, a time to reap that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to gain that which is to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time of love, and a time of hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
Once, Octavia Butler (June 22, 1947–February 24, 2006) set out to write a memoir. But she found that “it felt too much like stripping in public,” so she abandoned it. Today, all of her autobiographical reflections, all of her overt politics, all of her creative credos come down to us solely through her interviews, now collected in Octavia E. Butler: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (public library).
These conversations are also the reliquary of Butler’s hard-honed wisdom on the craft of writing, which she taught herself and mastered against the odds of her time and place to become one of the most abiding and beloved literary voices of the past century — part prophet, part poet of possibility.
In an interview given just as she was beginning what would become her iconic Parable of the Sower, she offers young writers the pillars of the craft:
The first, of course, is to read. It’s surprising how many people think they want to be writers but they don’t really like to read books… The second is to write, every day, whether you like it or not. Screw inspiration.
Forget about inspiration, because it’s more likely to be a reason not to write, as in, “I can’t write today because I’m not inspired.” I tell them I used to live next to my landlady and I told everybody she inspired me. And the most valuable characteristic any would-be writer can possibly have is persistence. Just keep at it, keep learning your craft and keep trying.
Forget about talent, whether or not you have any. Because it doesn’t really matter. I mean, I have a relative who is extremely gifted musically, but chooses not to play music for a living. It is her pleasure, but it is not her living. And it could have been. She’s gifted; she’s been doing it ever since she was a small child and everyone has always been impressed with her. On the other hand, I don’t feel that I have any particular literary talent at all. It was what I wanted to do, and I followed what I wanted to do, as opposed to getting a job doing something that would make more money, but it would make me miserable.
It was not easy for Butler to follow what she wanted to do. She did have to take terrible job after terrible job. She worked at a hospital laundry. She worked as a telemarketer. (“I have a good phone voice,” she says apologetically. “I am told I have a good phone presence, and I actually sold things to people. I’m very ashamed.”) But all along, she was writing and writing. Looking back on the dogged devotion of those early days, that vital time when the foundations of one’s craft and credo are laid down, she reflects:
I remember another writer and I corresponding, and he had dropped out. I said, “Why haven’t I seen more from you?” He said, “Well, I didn’t make anything on my first three books.” My comment was, “Who makes anything on their first three books?” I remember that the time I quit that laundry job, it was to go to a Worldcon in Phoenix… I decided I was going to try to live as frugally as possible, and at that time you really could live very frugally. My rent was one-hundred dollars a month. So if you were content not to drive, and if you were content to wear the same clothes that you’d been getting along on for a long time… and there were other ways of not spending lots of money. I didn’t eat potatoes for years after that. I decided that I was going to live off the writing, somehow.
No matter how tired you get, no matter how you feel like you can’t possibly do this, somehow you do.
When an interviewer relays the apocryphal story of how Bram Stoker spent years producing mediocre writing without anyone’s notice until one day lightning struck him and out came Dracula, Butler immediately refutes this myth of divine inspiration with its dangerous intimation that excellence is the product of circumstance or chance. Having placed at the heart of her Parable of the Talents the question of creative drive, having framed it as a matter of “a sweet and powerful positive obsession,” she insists once again on the immense creative power of simply showing up for the work:
It’s one of the things that I try to keep young writers from thinking, that you have to wait, that it’s all luck, lightning will strike and then you’ll have a wonderful bestseller. So I think it’s like the old idea that fortune favors the prepared mind. If you’ve developed the habit of paying attention to the things that happen around you and to you, then, yeah, you’ll get hit by lightning.