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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

the concrete mirage

As I write these words sun is streaming low through my venetian blinds, and the air rings with the reverberations of the two chimney-cleaners' brushing-out of our chimney: a low metallic sawing sound. One of the guys is tall and hulking, in a green mackinaw and a watch cap; his partner is shorter, darker, and more wiry--he's the guy in the roof.

Another relatively breezy day of writing: I'd typed five pages almost before I realized it. My ideal is to write in a relaxed frame of mind, the way I might write my journal or a dream. The view: Just say it. Will my new character ideas pay off? Can I keep creating interesting characters? Is this whole thing going to be as hard going to read as it is to write?

It's later: 4:13 p.m. I've just come back from an errand to the library and (of course) liquor store. The kitchen floorboards squeak as Robin moves about, preparing a meatloaf for tonight's dinner; Kimmie's sister-in-law Ev is coming to join us.

Have I dealt with my identity issues? Not hardly. Does anyone, ever? In Buddhist practice the aim of the (first leg) of the journey is realizing the nonexistence of ego: that the seeming thing we designate by I has no actual, ultimate existence. This thing that we try to cherish and coddle, to feed pleasure and shield from pain, isn't there. And yet people who are mentally disturbed, poorly adapted, who suffer from what is called abnormal psychology--in short, those whose egos are fragile or unformed--are not suitable candidates for strict Buddhist meditation. What we in the West would call a strong, healthy ego is a prerequisite for discovering its actual nonexistence.

The question of identity, then, is part mirage, and part concrete. Here is a quote from William James, used by Erik Erikson in his book Identity: Youth and Crisis:

A man's character is discernible in the mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says: "This is the real me!" [Such experience always includes] an element of active tension, of holding my own, and trusting outward things to perform their part so as to make it a full harmony, but without any guarantee that they will. Make it a guarantee...and the attitude immediately becomes to my consciousness stagnant and stingless. Take away the guarantee, and I feel a sort of deep enthusiastic bliss, of bitter willingness to do and suffer anything.

I have had such experiences, I would say--but they have been in disparate activities, not any one connected effort. The threads of true identity, for me, still have to be gathered and woven together.


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