Brenda Ueland – Author and Hero

Brenda lived most of her life writing and teaching in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the city where I grew up, and within a mile or two of where I have lived most of my life.

I was well into my forties before I even knew who she was, and from the moment I read her book: If You Want to Write I knew that I had found a mentor whose simple prose and honesty could guide me in the maturation of my own work.

Brenda, taught writing at the YWCA, she published a memoir about her life growing up in Minneapolis and  she wrote as a columnist for local newspapers and magazines, she wrote for national publications like Harper’s as well.

Brenda was born in Minneapolis at the end of the nineteenth century; she spent her twenties in New York City where she was connected to various movements in arts, literature and politics. She was a proto-feminist and a revolutionary thinker, and she came to all of that with a simple self-assuredness that was her defining characteristic.

This is why she is a hero to me…her teaching, which she summarized in her treatise on writing, provides the most simple and profound guidance: she tells her students to find their own voice and write from there.

She encourages people to simply be themselves, to tell their stories with the written word as if they were speaking to their closest friend, to shout when they are shouting, and to whisper in the time of whispering.

She told them to be true to themselves, to write with authenticity, because she says: the reader will know if you are faking.

She encourages people to listen to themselves, and to become familiar with the sound of their own voice.

Her book on writing had been out of print for nearly forty years until, a few years after her death in the 1980’s when it went back into production and became a best seller.

Like Brenda herself, her book was ahead of its time, and is the best treatise on writing I have ever read.

Below is an essay I wrote as a response to her advice:

Inspiration and Futility

Alternating Between the Poles

This essay examines the role that inspiration has played in my creative life; as a writer, as a thinker, as an academic.

Inspiration is a broad and multi-faceted subject, I focus on three aspects: the moment, the content, and the expression of inspiration.

So that I may avoid engendering the misperception that my creative life has been an extended moment of awe, mystery and transcendence, I will also present a discussion of my struggles with a deep and pervasive sense of futility regarding my creative mission, a negativism that has dogged me like a cynic over the years.

I have a sharp sense for the inspired moment, moments that come in many ways, and not all of them my own.

There are not enough hours in the day for me to list the catalysts that have informed my creative drive, but when they come together, those disparate things and beings, those moments when memories interact with consciousness in real-time, when relationships become apparent that had never before been discerned, when, like alchemy, or a flash in the pan…wham!

The creative spirit comes.

In those moments, when my attention is keen, my attention is singular, a path toward the end of a creative ambition becomes clear, and my will becomes fixed on a specific set of steps, like the choreography of a dance. That is the inspired state, when burgeoning insight is precipitously balanced with a readiness to act.

These moments come to all of us, we sense them when they do. The wise will seize them, dwell within them, and linger in their space.

True inspiration is more than a feeling.

The truly inspired moment comes into consciousness with content, it is the flash that both illuminates and enlightens. It is a flare in the dark whose sudden eruption points the way, either out, or in.

When inspired content first springs to mind it is like that brief look you are allowed, of the image you are trying to construct from a jig-saw puzzle. There it is, in your mind, for a moment, and now you have to put it all together with only the memory of that vision to guide you.

The inspired moment is more than a feeling, more than awe, more than a sense of mystery, or of transcendence, but feeling is an essential part of it, and that feeling is not a tepid one.

Inspiration is light; yes, but not without heat. It is hot with imperative, with the command to do; to write, to stand, to move.

Inspiration is like the germination of a seed, a seed that is fully formed in its flower, and expressed completely in its fruit.       

Inspiration is a force. It is dynamic. In a literal way, inspiration is the movement of the Spirit within us, enlivening, vivifying, it is as much a part of us as the air we breathe. It is a “divine guidance or influence exerted directly on the soul of humankind.”[1]

To speak of inspiration in its aspects, or its parts, is somewhat artificial, perhaps impossible, as if when speaking of a wave you can name its peak, and its trough, without acknowledging that the two are essentially one, alternating and changing.

The inspired moment must be followed by a genuine enthusiasm for the work that lies ahead, enthusiasm which is itself synonymous for the indwelling of the divine.[2] When the inspired moment comes we must find a way to let it be within us.[3]

Inspiration is personal. It occurs in the lives of real people, and though it comes with great power, it is nevertheless subject to the cares and concerns of the individual, but the caring for it comes throughout the course of our daily lives.

Brenda Ueland says this about inspiration:

Inspiration does not (in fact) come like a bolt, nor is it kinetic, energetic striving but it comes to us slowly and quietly all of the time. But we must regularly and every day give it a chance to start flowing, and prime it with a little solitude and idleness. I learned that when writing you should not feel like Lord Byron on a mountaintop, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten – happy, absorbed, and quietly putting one bead on after another.[4]

It may appear that Brenda has said something different or contradictory to what I said about inspiration in part I of this essay, but she and I are not necessarily speaking to divergent ends.

I have talked about the power of inspiration as a force, about its flash and dynamism. Brenda says that inspiration it is not that. I have been talking about the beginning of inspiration, she is talking about what comes after the inspired moment.

Brenda is talking about living with inspiration, about the inspired life that comes after the vision, she is talking about the falling rain, after the thunder claps and the clouds burst.

What Brenda is talking about is the more important part of inspiration. The inspired moment may fill us with vision and give us purpose, but nobody (nobody that I know of) can live out their lives in that ecstatic state.

Inspiration is like electricity. There is so much power in it. To stay in the inspired moment forever would burn us up.

The key to living with inspiration, to carrying out the inspired visionwe have received, is to regulate that power. We regulate it through habit, ritual and disciplined work, like stringing beads together in kindergarten, Brenda says we must allow for some downtime, in order to give our circuitry a break.

Having space, being quiet, experiencing emptiness, these are essential for cultivating inspiration.

Doris Lessing, says in her Nobel acceptance speech[5]: “Have you found that space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write? Into that space, which is a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas—inspiration.”

Like Brenda Ueland, Doris Lessing is talking more about the care for, and the nurturing of, the creative-will within us, what I would call the expression of inspiration and the cultivation of its content. This is something that should be differentiated from the inspired moment itself.

In Part II of this essay, Nobel Laureate, Doris Lessing strikes the most vital point. She addresses the need to listen, to listen to one’s self.

It is altogether easy to listen to our inner critic, that insipid, clamoring voice knows exactly how to get our attention, but how much more important, and life giving is it to listen to our creative voice, to hearken to it music, and care for it, like the gardener who cares for the tender shoot as it pokes its stem up from the soil to unfurl its fronds.

For art to find its expression we must give our creative voice the attention it deserves, turn to it rather than the noisome din of the inner critic?

We must listen to the clear pealing of the bell, whether it is faint or loud.

Brenda Ueland said this in reference to the power of listening in her essay Tell Me More:

I want to write about the great and powerful thing that listening is, and how we forget it. And how we don’t listen…to those we love. And least of all, to those we don’t love. Because listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force.

When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life…It makes people happy and free when they are listened to.

When we listen to people there is an alternating current, and this recharges us so that we never get tired of each other. Now this little creative fountain is in all. It is the spirit, or the intelligence, or the imagination—whatever you want to call it. If you are tired, strained, have no solitude, run too many errands, talk to too many people, drink too many cocktails, this little fountain is muddied over and covered with a lot of debris. The result is that you stop living from the center…it is when people really listen to us, with quiet fascinated attention, that the little fountain begins to work again, to accelerate in the most surprising ways.[6]

Take these words about listening, about how we feel when we are listened to and relate them to our creativity.

If we can slow down, be fascinated with our ideas, and attentive to our own needs, then we will have the time to express our creative voice.

If we listen to the stirring of the heart, that stirring will grow into a song, and then a chorus, with a symphony to follow. It will expand and unfold within us encompassing both our heights and our depths, extending itself throughout our lives while conjoining our peaks and troughs, making of them a singular unbroken wave.

What we have discussed to this point, in parts I – III of this essay, that is the flowering side of the garden. It is the place where we love to be, when everything is growing well and going right, but there are many times in our lives, countless times, when inspiration strikes and is not received. when it is received and not acted on, when it is acted upon and is not fulfilled.

There are many forces; both within us, and without, that are opposed to the power of inspiration. They are the menial and the mundane, the day to day duties that obscure our vision, the doubts that disrupt the voice of the muse, the cold fingers of fear clutching at the heart, tearing at the will, and the hand that stills them.

The death of inspiration comes through that inner critic, the one who tells us that our work is futile[7], frivolous, and useless, the one who spreads the debris and the clutter that covers the bright and bubbling fountain within us.

The Spirit blows where it will, and reaches everyone. The muses[8] sing to us all. Whether we think of the force of inspiration as divine, as a gift that comes from without, or as an innate power that is inherent to our being, as our “true self” speaking to us. When the moment comes we must, each of us, fit it into our busy lives, either that or forget about it and watch it fade away.

Brenda Ueland says[9] that “the true self is really the Conscience (or God)” not speaking to us about “morality or convention” but daring us to explore the “truth (in ourselves) toward bravery and the greater life.” When you find that truth, she says, your true self, “and see how gifted you are, you can write as slowly as you want to.” You can let the world be the world, and not let it set you off the course of fulfilling your vision.

The weal of our life will turn, our inspiration will rise with it, if we let it. We will lift from it, and jump off it, just as we reach the apex of the curve, or the moment will pass, as we cling to the wheel, as it turns around, and down we go, pushed into the ground of uselessness and futility.

I have been inspired, felt the spirit of inspiration move within me. I have been overcome by the hot flash of a great idea, felt the deep desire to act, heard the voice within me speaking; slowly, steadily, quietly; and at other times; fast, demanding, and loud. I have not always listened, but then again, I have not always known how.

The moment of inspiration can be startling. As awesome as inspiration can be, it is not always brought about by the sublime, the divine and the lovely. Truth, beauty, and goodness are not the only things that catch my attention or make me want to do something.

Sometimes I am moved by what is altogether mundane, human, and vicious, by evil, ugliness and lies. Sometimes I am moved not to stand up, but to take a stand, not to move, but to be unmoving.

When inspiration comes, the heart and the mind must be open. Inspiration may be triggered from outside of ourselves, from something we witness, such as the splendor of nature, a grand view, or a shocking event.

Inspiration may come from something small and simple, from a conversation, or a question. The moment may come, and go in an instant, leaving it up to us to make sense of its significance, to the mediation of our genius, or the daemon within us.[10]

There is an encounter that plays itself out in my consciousness over and over again. The encounter between my inspiration, and futility, by which I mean doubt about the purpose I feel that I am directed toward.

This is the dialog between my creative self and my inner critic.

For instance, I have been, and I am inspired to share with Christians the gospel as I understand it, which is a gospel centered on the hope of universal salvation.

My first encounter with this doctrine came out of my own active imagination, a discourse with my daemon, if you will. It came by thinking logically about some of the most basic claims that Christians make about God: that God is love, and loving; that God is all-powerful (omnipotent), that God has the perfect ability to accomplish God’s will; that God is all-knowing (omniscient), that God knows us, understands us, even as we know ourselves; that God is omnipresent (not, not-present in any space), that God is with us and God wants us with God.

These claims led me to the logical conclusion that, when all things are said and done, there are  no barriers to God having God’s way in the matter of our salvation.

If God truly wills the salvation of all people, which Christian doctrine claims that God does, then God will save all people.

My grasp of this argument came in a flash. It came as inspiration. It was both intuitive and revelatory, and it came when I was fairly young, at the age of fifteen.

In the ten years that followed I did not do much with this idea, except that I would using it in the occasional argument I might have with a fundamentalist Christian.

In that period there were moments when I would recapture that feeling of inspiration, but not every argument I pursued produced those feelings. When I would argue the doctrine with people who could grasp the logic, that feeling of inspiration would ignite inside of me, I would want to linger in the conversation and explore all of its implications, both in terms of human destiny, and in terms of the future of Christianity.

However, when my interlocutors could not grasp the logic, I often felt like Sisyphus, endlessly pushing that great rock up the hill. The same words and concepts that might delight me on one occasion, would on another occasion come out sounding like a drone in my ears.

Or, what was even worse for me were the occasions when I found myself talking and talking all night long, and really enjoying the sound of my voice, exalting in the feelings I got from my partner in dialog, or whoever else might be listening, but walking away at the end of it thinking that I had accomplished nothing more than the self aggrandized-stroking of my ego.

When I was twenty-five years old I was beginning to organize a research paper for my undergraduate major in theology. I deeply wanted to write about this doctrine. It was still inspiring me, and now it was motivating me to do something, to write, to research to demonstrate the validity of my claims in a formal way. I was moving beyond the arm-chair, outside of the coffee house, and though I was merely an undergraduate, I felt that I was doing real work in theology.

There was something else happening inside me as well. I was learning a lot. I was encountering more people, specifically, more educated people, people who wanted to argue with me, people who could hold up their end of the argument much better than the street corner variety of born-again-Christian.

I was also beginning to get a clear sense of the weight of history, of the philosophy of Christianity, its institutions, in its liturgy, and the power behind the traditional Christian doctrines that were arrayed against my simple logic.

It felt like that lil old ant, who thinks he can move that rubber tree plant. I had high hopes, but those hopes, and the inspired purpose that fueled them were frequently being assailed by a deepening sense of futility.

The question that my inner critic was asking me was this:

Is it possible for the most crystal-clear expression of the logic in Christian doctrine that I could change two thousand years of history and practice regarding the belief in hell and the theology of damnation?

Possible yes (I guess), but likely, no.

The creative spirit within me, my genius, was good at getting the last word, “keep working” it would say. “keep producing, keep on arguing.”

As an undergraduate I wrote my senior paper for my theology major on the topic of universal salvation, and then I doubled down on it and wrote my senior paper for my philosophy major on the same subject.

By the time I was done with that work, my research had uncovered some things for me.

The twentieth century had given the world many extremely intelligent, talented, philosophers and theologians who had been writing about this same topic. They were Oxford Dons, and University of Chicago Doctors, the alumni of one storied institution or another.

Their work inspired me. I wanted to lend my voice to theirs, carry on the good work, fight the good fight. However, the deeper I delved into the field, the more often I was faced with questions like this:

What is the point?

Why do I care?

If everyone is saved no matter what, why spend time and energy trying to convince people who do not believe it?

If in the end, it does not matter what a person believes, what church they belong to, why even bother with Christian Doctrine?

This is the voice of futility. It is my inner critic undermining me, attempting to convince me to give up, that the question that had inspired me was meaningless.

I learned that I was not the first person to be moved by this question, and not the first to resolve it. I learned that I would not be the last person to struggle with it.

Most importantly, I learned that there was very little that could be done to change the minds of the billions of Christians, Muslims, Jews and others who think and feel differently about our shared spiritual destiny. Most mono-theists, those who believe in some form of hell, they do not believe that God condemns people to hell because logic tells them so, they believe it because they want to believe it, because it makes them feel good.

I learned that logic, by itself, will not free them from those beliefs. 

My education was doing two things, it was arming me with more evidence, more arguments, more history. It was preparing me with expanded powers to synthesize and communicate those ideas. At the same time, it was informing me that no matter how great my dialectical powers might become, I would have little power to persuade the hearts and minds of the unwilling.

As for the willing, well, they were already with me, and that is preaching to the choir.

This is the nexus where my inspiration and my sense of futility meet, where my genius and my inner critic were hanging out inside my head. What happens in this encounter is very important, not just for me, but for everyone.

If you want to be true to the movement of the spirit within you, you may be called to stay with it for a very long time. You must listen to yourself, to the stirring in your heart, the choir that is singing there, like the bubbling of a fountain.

I have spoken of inspiration as a flash, a flare, a fire within, but it is more than that.

Inspiration is more than a vision that brings a small bit of joy, a quick illumination, or a fragment of understanding. If it were only that, then the vision would be a mirage, the illumination would burn as quickly as lime, and the understanding it imparted would be superficial.

Inspiration, when it is true, is a call to action. Sometimes what the inspired moment calls you to do, can be done quickly, and then it is over. Other inspired moments can call you to rearrange your entire life, while you engage with the inspiration throughout. The longer the commitment, the greater the temptation will be to yield to the inner critic and allow the inspired moment fade away under the force of futility.

You cannot escape the forces of futility. They work on the will and the imagination like entropy. Futility will assert itself and be an active part of working out your calling. And here is the thing, if you are dealing honestly with that force, if you grapple with it, you will find renewed inspiration in that struggle.

When I was working out my master’s thesis, and in the years since, I discovered that, none of my good ideas about universal salvation were new. I figured this out early in my research, many modern philosophers and theologians had written about the things that I was thinking about. I learned that every generation of Christians since the time of Christ had someone in the global community saying these exact same things.

The discovery I was making, each new voice I found was met by me with a kind of joy. It was a comfort to read their thoughts, to understand my own thoughts as an echo of theirs moving forward in time. We were sisters and brothers in the struggle to share the most poignant ppiece of the gospel, to tell the really good news: believe not so that you may be saved, believe that you are saved already and rejoice.

Then slowly, inexorably the weariness would set in. The resignation that came from the understanding that all of these good people, all of us, we were all like exiles in Christianity, just a tiny minority within the bigger movement.

The temptation to yield to futility can lead you to a seed bed of new inspiration. This is kind of like a buddy movie, where the two characters do not really get along: your inner critic and your creative self, think of The Odd Couple, of Felix and Oscar, always on each other’s nerves, and yet they are the best of friends.

At first blush, futility and inspiration seem like they are diametrically opposed, one voice is calling you to action, the other is asking you to sit down. Each would like to eliminate the other, but they are both a part of what makes us human.

Futility, like drag, will slow us down, this is not always bad, it can give us the time and space to rethink our approach, to listen, and even give us insight into how to move ahead better. Just because our inner critic is a critic does not mean that she or he is wrong.

Remember the wisdom of Brenda Ueland, when she said:

The creative power is in all of you (us) if you just give it a little time, if you believe in it and watch it come quietly into you; if you do not keep it out by always hurrying and feeling guilty during those times when you should be lazy and happy. Or if you do not keep the creative power away by telling yourself the worst of lies—that you don’t have any.[11]

Inspiration, if it is true, and we are true to it, will continually assert itself in our imagination, it will demand its place, find its voice, sometimes startling, sometimes quietly. That voice is yours, and mine. It will lead us out of the swamp, transform it into a verdant wetland, doing so in the light of our best expression, coming as fulfillment, and the radiance of joy.


[1] The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, Inspiration, “1. Stimulation of the mind or the emotions to high level of feeling or activity. 5…Divine guidance or influence exerted directly on the soul of humankind.”

[2] Rollo May, The Courage to Create, p. 103 “Apollo spoke in the first person through Pythia…the god was said to enter her at the very moment of her seizure, or enthusiasm, as the root of that term en-theo (‘in-god’), literally suggests.” W. W. Norton Company, New York, 1975.

[3] Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit: pp. 149-150. “Blake of course thought the imagination and inspiration (which we all have, as I have said) came from God and through God’s messengers; psychologists tell us it is rooted in the unconscious. But one explanation is as good another. I prefer Blake’s better because it is much easier to understand and more plausible…and remember the word enthusiasm means divine inspiration.” BN publishing, 2008

[4] Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit: p. 47, BN publishing, 2008

[5] Doris Lessing, Acceptance Speech, Nobel Prize for Literature, 2007.

[6] Brenda Ueland, Tell Me More, Strength to Your Sword Arm, pp. 205-210, Holy Cow! Press, Duluth 1984.

[7] The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, Futile, “1. Having no useful result. 2. Trifling, and frivolous; idle.”

[8] The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition, Muse, “1. Greek Mythology Any of the nine daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus, each of whom resided over a different art or science. 2. A guiding spirit.”

[9] Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit: p. 121, BN publishing, 2008

[10] Both the Greeks and the Romans (as well as other ancient civilizations) had a highly developed notion of the duality of human nature. They each believed that our physical selves were accompanied by a spiritual being, coexisting with us on another plane of reality. The Romans called this spiritual counterpart our genius, and the Greeks called it the daemon; from these we get our terms “genius” and “demon.” A preference for Roman culture gave their word a positive connotation, and a pejorative connotation to the Greek cognate. Classical culture not only saw this aspect of ourselves as the point of contact between us and the divine realms, but the Roman word for this also means “begetter.” It is more than the aspect of ourselves that communicates inspiration, it is fundamentally the aspect of ourselves that oversees the production or the carrying our of what we have been inspired to do.

Barry B. Powell, Classical Myth, p. 631, Prentice Hall, New Jersey, 1995.  

[11] Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit: p. 46, BN publishing, 2008

Frank Herbert – Author, Hero

I was fifteen years old the first time I read Dune. I had been an avid since I was eight years old when I began reading novels in the third grade, and I read the books that inspired me over and over again.

I read all kinds of things, but at the age of fifteen I read mostly fiction, and that age when I first read Dune in 1984, I found it to be somewhat dense and challenging.

I had taken that first copy from the carousel of the library at the alternative high-school I was attending, and which I dropped out of a few month later. I read that copy, perhaps not as carefully as I should, but as carefully as I could, and I went to see the motion picture when it came out in 1985.

Needless to say, I found David Lynch’s adaptation to be one of the worst movies ever made, and with that Dune passed from my thoughts for a time.

However, in the summer of 1988 I was visiting a friend in Montana, and I picked up a copy of Dune from the bookstore in Bigfork. I needed something to read on the bus ride home to Minneapolis.

Four years had passed since my first go at it, and my window on the world had opened wide enough for me to be able to engage the book in a completely different way. I was hooked. I was nineteen years old.

Dune changed my life.

Since then I have read Dune and all six books in the original Dune series, eight times over, as well as everything else Frank Herbert wrote.

He was a giant.

I have given away dozens of copies of Dune throughout my life, and recommended it to more people than I can count, always with the words this book will change your life.

Many of them came back to me to tell me that it did.

Frank Herbert wrote science fiction, but the science he wrote into his fiction had less to do with spaceships and laser beams (though it had those things), and more to do with the science of politics, religion, ecology and psychology, with the human person at the center of his imagination.

Through his insight Herbert challenges the reader to explore what it means to be human, and he asks open-ended questions about the range of human potential in a way that allows the reader to believe in those possibilities for themselves, and his own view of the range of human potential is inspiring. He believe that we can do more, be more, see more of the world than our senses allow…if we are disciplined he believes we can do it; if we are attentive to the world around us, and if we cultivate within ourselves the desire to live a life without fear we will secure a future for humanity beyond our solar system and spread through the galaxy.

He died thirty-nine years ago today, and when he passed a heroic light left the world.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Author, Hero

When I was still a teenager, when I was beginning to move away from the various worlds of science fiction and fantasy that occupied my imagination, when I began to leave the acid washed pages of my comic books behind, as I was moving past the authors I had been introduced to in school, the so-called American novelists, such as Lewis, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck, it was then that I discovered Dostoyevsky, and a whole new dimension of literature became open to me.

This was the crossroads where literature became philosophy, and the human condition was laid bare.

Through the great Russian novelist I came to understand the power of narrative, its effectiveness at conveying certain truths that no human being can escape the grip of, and for whatever reason there are no authors more adept at this function than the Russian’s, with Fyodor Dostoyevsky being the foremost practitioner of this craft.

His influence on me was profound.

From Crime and Punishment and Notes from the Underground, to The Idiot and the Brothers Karamozov, which are perhaps his most famous works in English, I spent years reading his corpus, all the way through my twenties and into my thirties I tracked down his cannon, until I was left with translations of his notebooks to read…which I did.

I purchased the notebook for A Raw Youth at a used bookstore in Minneapolis (Majors and Quinn), one summer when I was on leave from the Navy. It was the first of these that I discovered; in those pages I could see the way Dostoyevsky constructed the arc of his stories, how he developed his characters from ego to id, from false-self to true-self, from, privilege to despair.  

I also found an Imperial Ruble, tucked into its pages, a bookmark left behind by whoever was last to read to it.

The note was wrinkled and faded but still a treasure to me.

When I discovered Dostoyevsky I came to consider him as the father of existentialism, and through him I learned to love Dickens, who Dostoyevsky considered to be the greatest author of all time.

It has been one hundred and forty years since Dostoyevsky went down into the dirt, his influence has not waned, and we have not changed, his insight into the dilemma of human existence remains, I think it is even more pertinent in this—the digital age.

Ursula K. Le Guinn – Author, Hero

It has been three years since this great woman and thinker moved on to the next world; she was a hero of mine.

The first book of hers I read was a novella titled The Lathe of Heaven, a science fiction book, but it was so much more. Through this short piece she spoke to me about the nature of reality, the function of consciousness, of what it means to be a human being.

She took the title from the writings of the Taoist, Chuang Tzu (book 23, paragraph 7):

To let understanding stop at what cannot be understood is a high attainment. Those who cannot do so will be destroyed on the lathe of heaven ~

Her book, which both dramatized this sentiment and recapitulated this warning took me outside of myself and allowed me to see the whole-world in a different way.

I was fifteen years old at the time, and without realizing it I found that I had been introduced to Taoism (the esoteric tradition), which provided me with a perspective that would subsequently shape the future course of my life.

I read many other books and articles written by this great lady. When I was in the Navy I found great comfort in the Earth Sea Chronicles, a series of four books in which she introduced a hero whose greatest enemy was himself, but not himself exactly; his enemy was the specter and shadow of guilt that most, if not all, human beings carry with them, because we are unable to ask for and accept forgiveness for the things we have done that have hurt or harmed those near to us, even their adversaries, because we are not able to forgive ourselves.

These books were so simple and brief that they could really be seen as fairytales for children to read, and indeed they can be read on that level, but her stories were so masterfully crafted that adults will find them even more engaging for the depth that is present right below the surface.   

Three years ago this great luminaries departed from our world, leaving a legacy of literature to light the way for us.

We need this light more than ever; if we liken our civilization to a garden the garden we live in has been long under shadow. The fruit of our progress has been drying on the vine, fellowship and common purpose have suffered accordingly. We need these heroes, women and men like Ursula Le Guinn to light the way, to bring us to the edge of the cloud of unknowing, to usher us into the mysteries that are hidden in the mist.

Doris Lessing – Author, Nobel Laureate

I first encountered Doris Lessing’s writing when I was serving in the Navy, stationed at the Naval Hospital at the Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, North Carolina.

I plucked one of her books off the shelf in the library, having no idea who she was or how significant her work had been to twentieth century literature.

The book I selected was from her science fiction series, Canopus in Argos, I took the first book in that five part series off the shelf, titled: Shikasta and I read it over the next few days.

Reading Shikasta filled me with a kind of existential pique. Her characters were so real, the questions they grappled were profound, especially to me at that time in my life, and the response she gave to those questions moved me.

Through her characters she addressed the philosophical questions and fundamental truths that mattered to me most:

What is the nature of reality?

What is the purpose of existence?

What is the meaning of life?

Doris Lessing did not attempt to answer these questions the way that a philosopher would, by presenting a set of propositions with arguments for and against, laid out in a treatise or an essay.

She presents them in narrative, through the choices her characters make and the consequences they face, and the way they reflect on them.

I soon discovered how influential she was in English departments all around the world. Every literature major I met was familiar with her famous work, The Golden Notebook.

As I read more deeply into her collection, I found myself more interested in her examination of more subversive topics, Memoirs of a Survivor, Briefing for a Descent into Hell, and The Good Terrorist.

It was then that I discovered how much of a radical this woman had been, and I was grateful to have been able to encounter her through her literature.

She won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007.

Given First – 2020.11.17

Stan Lee – Genius Creator and Mythologist

Let’s talk about Stan Lee; I cannot possibly state the significance of the debt I owe this man.

I never met him in life, but I hope to see him beyond, the Mists, past the Western Shore, on the other side of the Rainbow Bridge, walking in the Green Fields.

Stan Lee colored my imagination, painting it in the ubiquitous three-color-process that was the standard format of comic books when I was a child, drawn on the cheapest—acid washed paper that money could buy.

He taught me and millions of other kids, that with great power comes great responsibility. He taught us that it is always okay to punch a Nazi, in fact, it is the duty of free people everywhere to fight against tyranny, but it is the responsibility of American’s in particular to stand up against the forces of Hate and divisive Nationalism, of Fascism whenever and wherever it rears its ugly head, and he taught us to look for it in our own backyard.

Stan Lee introduced everyone who read his comics to the classical world of Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus, as well as to Einstein and Heisenberg.

He showed us that the fight for civil rights included all people, and that we had better look around us, take stock of our friends, and make sure that we include in our group those people who are different from us, the marginalized and the meek.

Stan Lee schooled us that even mutants should be loved and respected and protected from the forces of a world fears them, from those who would seek to persecute them.

He told us in no uncertain terms that we should identify with them, the outcast and the disenfranchised, the alien in our midst. He insisted that we have an obligation to secure their rights, by any means necessary.

Stan Lee opened my eyes to the cosmos, through his imagination I took flight, I went surfing with the Alien, journeying through the heart of a black hole in an effort to understand the meaning of life, the nature of reality, and the purpose of existence. I

In the final analysis he told me that I had to be comfortable with the fact that there is no answer, that the galaxy and the universe itself is cold and indifferent, but that human beings don’t have to be. We do not have to follow our appetites, or be consumed by them. We are free and we have a choice. He taught us that the greatest thing we can aspire to, is to love and be loved in our turn, that friendship matters more than power, more than beauty, more than gold.

Stan Lee, was the bard of our day, overflowing with the gift to inspire; it was his super-power.

Excelsior!

Given First – 2020.11.12

Miles Davis – Musician, Bandleader, Artist and Knight

I purchased my first jazz album in 1986, Round Midnight by The Miles Davis Quintet.

I had been encouraged to listen to jazz by a man named Howard who I met Uptown, in Minneapolis, and who has remained a friend throughout my life.

I had a couple of other Miles Davis albums in a collection of records I shared with my friend Josh, Bitches Brew and Kind of Blue, it was through these albums that my eyes were opened to this uniquely American art form, and to Miles Davis, who remains its greatest practitioner, having transformed the genre numerous times throughout the course of his life.

I saw him play at the Orpheum theatre in Minneapolis, in 1988. My mom and I went together with my Josh, outside of the venue we talked with a couple of other friends of ours from the neighborhood Sean Pike and Greg Fox

Even though this was not my favorite era of his music, it was the greatest performance I have ever seen and I regret that I missed an opportunity to see him play a second time, in 1991 shortly before his death.

In 1993 I was on a flight from L.A. to D.C. and the man who had been his bass player, Joseph “Foley” McCreary sat next to me on the plane. I was wearing a T-shirt with Robert Johnson printed on the front, Foley’s had a depiction of Miles. I told him that I had seen him play, he told me that he was on the stage that night, we talked for a couple of minutes before he tuned me out, but he gave me a copy of his recent release, Seven Years Ago, Directions in Smart Alec Music, which featured a tribute to the memory of miles and some unbelievable guitar work by Prince, and he got off the plane in Ohio.

During that trip I picked up a copy of Miles’ autobiography, co-authored with Quincey Troupe. It was fascinating.

Miles dished up all the good stories on everyone he ever played with, it was a deep lesson in American history. He didn’t pull many punches, including critical reflections on himself.

By 1993 time I had fallen in love with the album, Sketches of Spain, I was not surprised to read that Miles considered this the most difficult album he had ever recorded. He offered an anecdote about it in his biography, saying that an old Spanish cattleman had listened to it, and when it was finished he felt compelled to go out into the field and fight a bull, that is how deep this music spoke to the Spanish soul. 

In 1988 Miles Davis was knighted by the King of Spain, inducted into the Hospital Order of Saint John of Jerusalem, otherwise known as the Knights of Malta and Rhodes, and two months before his death he was knighted in France and inducted into the Legion of Honor.

In his biography he mused that being knighted allowed him to enter seventy some different countries without having to pass through customs.

In 2008 I was taking classes at Saint John’s School of theology, in Collegeville Minnesota. I was in the kitchen early one morning when one of the monks was coming through the tunnel from the monastery, which is famous for its music studies program.

The monk was humming the tune for Bye-Bye Blackbird, one of the songs from that first Miles Davis Album I ever purchased. I caught the tune and named it as the monk was passing by me.

He gave me a questioning look, and I informed him about my discernment. He had no idea what I was talking about, informing me that it was the tune of a song written in the era of the troubadours, between the 10th and 12th centuries, and was associated with the Cathar Heresies of Central Europe…that made me smile.

Given First – 2020.09.28

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien – Author

I learned how to read novels by reading Tolkien.

 

My mother had a beautiful edition of The Hobbit, hard bound in a green case with gold leaf and gilt pages. There were lovely illustrations in the book, and maps drawn by the author himself.

 

I pulled it off the shelf when I was in the third grade and I read it. Then I read the Lord of the Rings, followed by the Silmarillion, his Unfinished Tales edited by his son Christopher, and then a biography of the man himself.

 

Before I began to read his other works, I began to re-read those books. I read them all, many times over: eight, nine, ten times.

 

I remember a sensation I had on my third time through the Silmarillion, I experienced a heightened sense of understanding that came to me because I had become a better reader. It wasn’t just that I was re-reading the same material, but my vocabulary had expanded and I was able to comprehend more of the material.

 

The picture was filling in and the world that Tolkien created was coming to life.

 

I added his smaller lesser known works to the corpus of material I consumed, when I was still in the seventh grade I read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Beowulf. These works resonated with my other reading interests, such as the collected and various tales of King Arthur, they also put me in touch with the broader tradition of the Viking sagas.

 

Then I began to read books about Tolkien and Middle Earth written or compiled by other authors, The Tolkien Companion, the New Tolkien Companion, along with various encyclopedias, bestiaries and anthologies depicting the arms and armor of Middle Earth.

 

Reading Tolkien put the idea in my head that I wanted to be a writer. Reading his work over and over again gave me a deep appreciation for the care and the craft he put into the work of devising his fantasy world.

 

Through Tolkien I came to have an early appreciation for the power of myths, their malleability, and the potential that we have as creative people to fashion our own myths and communicate them to the broader world.

 

Through his writing Tolkien dramatized the basic conflicts he saw at work in our civilization, conflicts between the bucolic and pastoral life with the forces of industry that seemed to be destroying the planet, the disasters of modern warfare and the suffering they visit on the world.

 

The collected stories of Middle Earth are a form of social criticism that is more relevant than ever in the twenty-first century.

 

Tolkien 

 

Given First – 2020.09.02

Dajian Huineng – The Sixth Ancestor of Zen

Huineng lived between the mid-seventh century and early eighth century CE. He is the author of the Platform Sutra and is the principle proponent of the doctrine of sudden enlightenment.

 

He was a Chinese Buddhist of the Southern Chan school, which became known as Zen Buddhism when it moved across the waters to Japan.

 

Huineng was a lay person, according to the legends which pertain to him, upon reading the Diamond Sutra he attained a state of perfect enlightenment and was able to expostulate his understanding of the teachings of the Buddha to Hongren, the Fifth Ancestor of Zen. Even though Huineng was considered to be an uneducated barbarian Hongren chose him as his successor over the monk who had been groomed to fulfil that role.

 

Huineng’s Platform Sutra recapitulates all the major teachings of Chan Buddhism including the Diamond Sutra, the Lotus Sutra and the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana.

 

Huineng taught “no-thought” and the purity of the “unattached mind” which comes and goes freely, functioning fluently without any hindrance.

 

Be mindful!

 

The principle of “no-thought” does not mean that a person is not thinking, but that in the state of “no-though” the mind is a highly attentive to its immediate experience, unentangled by the exigencies of the past or the expectations of the future.

 

The state of ‘no-thought” is understood as a way of being, wherein the mind is open, non-conceptual, allowing the individual to experience reality directly, as it truly is.

 

Huineng criticized the formal understanding of Buddhism which suggests that the individual must devote themselves to a life of quiet contemplation, likening it to the same trap that the Gautama Siddhartha the Buddha sought to free people from when he taught them that they did not have to endure innumerable lifetimes and countless rebirths before they can be free from the wheel of life.

 

Huineng’s teaching on sudden enlightenment is a doctrine of liberation such as that taught by the Buddha when he instructed the people that they could experience immediate release by following the five-fold path.

 

The Buddha was a liberator and Huineng cast himself in the same mode.

Huineng taught this: When alive one keeps sitting without lying down. When dead, one lies without sitting up.

 

Observing that: In both cases, one is a set of stinking bones!

 

Asking the most important question: What has any of it to do with the great lesson of life?

 

When I was given my first Koan to meditate on, my teacher offered me the old cliché:

 

What is the sound of one hand clapping?

 

In the spirit of Huineng I understood the Koan to be meaningless and I replied: There is no sound.

 

He insisted that I answered to quickly, suggesting that I must meditate on the Koan further, which was unnecessary because in speaking from the immediacy of our experience we are able to understand that one hand does not clap.

 

HuiNeng 

 

Given First – 2020.08.28

Alexander Solzhenitsyn – Author, Nobel Laureate

Solzhenitsyn is the greatest Russian author of all time, even greater than the master Dostoyevsky, and believe me when I say it, this is not a trifling estimation.

 

I first encountered his classic novella, A day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich when I was in my late teens. It was just a little book, it could be read in an afternoon, but it was heavy and it was deep.

 

In my early twenties I was still heavily involved with reading other parts of the Russian cannon and I was slow to get to Solzhenitsyn’s other writings, like the famous Gulag Archipelago for which he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, when I came to it, I found it life changing.

 

Solzhenitsyn thought of the Archipelago as more of an exercise in journalism than literature, he was surprised by how well it was received, though he should not have been because its principle achievement, was to personalize the gulag experience which he was able to do because he himself had been a victim of it.

 

He put a human face on all of that collected suffering which touched the lives of every citizen of Russia and the Soviet Union, in one way or another.

 

Solzhenitsyn was born in Russia, in 1918 just after the Bolshevik Revolution. He served in the Russian Army during World War II. In 1944 he was decorated for valor in combat, and Awarded the Order of the Red Star, but in 1945 he arrested for saying derogatory things about the government in his personal letters to a friend, after which he spent eight years in the gulags.

 

Surviving World War II and the Russian gulags is itself a heroic feat, and his status as a Nobel Laureate is another thing that marks him as a person of significance, but what makes Solzhenitsyn a hero is his insight into human nature and his profound ability to communicate that insight through the power of prose.

 

In my late twenties and early thirties I began to read other books by him, October 1914, and The First Circle. I was awed by the way in which he could present the myriad of forces; sociatal, intellectual, spiritual and emotional that comprise an individual’s motivations, and shape their intentions, he portrayed the movement of those currents in a way that made poetry out of the lives of characters…even the most ordinary lives, even the most heinous and cruel, and because he was so adept at humanizing the characters in his novels, he allowed his reader to expand their own view of the world so that it included his, and the reader is made a better person for having read him.

 

Solzheinitsyn

 

Given First – 2020.08.03