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Lions Roar : March 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2008 56 thought in writing we build up the details and create a pic- ture of who we are? This is exactly the problematic trick. You can be told what materials make a hand—the skin, the fine bones, the nails, the persnickety thumb—but then all the ingredients fuse and explode. Whose hand is this? A leap happens. Allen Ginsberg became a huge figure who changed the face of poetry. Notice, too, it is not only Allen Ginsberg the man, who created himself, but also his work that met the moment—he ignited with his time. Some- thing dynamic happened. We don’t live in a vacuum. That extra ingredient—the flint snapping across the rough edge of our era, the day the news broke, the flavor of our decade, our generation— makes the spark spring up. You never talk just for yourself. A whole flame shoots through you. Even if you’re not aware of it, even though your sorrow, your pain, is individual, it is also connected to the large river of suffering. When you join the two, something materializes. When Bob Dylan sat in the third-row first seat in B. J. Rolfzen’s English class in Hibbing High School, his public school teacher had no idea that this quiet boy would, two years after he left his family at eighteen, write some of the best songs of the twentieth century. Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan were brought up thousands of miles apart. Bob Dylan had stable middle-class parents. His father sold electrical equipment, stoves, refrigerators to iron ore miners in Northern Minnesota. His mother belonged to B’nai B’rith. But “none of this accounts for” Bob Dylan. Dylan took a leap into another life. As an adult fourteen years older than Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg heard Dylan’s songs and knew the torch of inspiration, of freedom, had been passed on to the next generation. We each are endowed with original mind, which is like a river under the visible river, unconditioned, the imme- diate point where our clear consciousness meets the vast unknown; yet we’ve blown smoke screens to cloud it. Fake images, false illusions. When Allen Ginsberg sat down one night in his twenties to write what was really on his mind, he replaced the rhymed poesy he’d learned from his father and from school. That decision was the beginning of one of the most famous poems in our language. Imagine! The power of writing what’s truly on your mind. What you really see, think, and feel. Rather than what you are told you should think, see, and feel. It causes a revolution—or at the very least, a damn fine poem. Raw material is poured into a burning vat and some- thing different comes out. Maybe in past generations when people didn’t leave home and raised their children near their parents in the same town where they grew up, and if your father was a steelworker, you became a steelworker or if your mother was a secretary, you became an office manager, you might not have had the luxury of wondering about yourself. You might not ponder how A became B and produced C. It might all have been obvious. But I bet that even a third-generation physician on his way to work in his hometown who suddenly notices the glint off a parking meter, stops still and questions, “Who am I?”, and is left in this swirl that doesn’t make sense. One lives and then one dies? Who thought this scheme up anyway? We go back to our past to piece things together. “I always loved coffee ice cream, roast beef, and hopscotch.” It still makes us happy to remember these things, but how did they lead to moving from the sprawl of a city on the East Coast to listening to mourning doves on a dead branch outside our kitchen door in the vast West? Can we turn around fast enough to catch a glimpse of our own face? In some ways writing is our attempt to grasp what went on. We want an answer. We want things to be black and white, to be obvious and ordered. Oh, the relief. But have you noticed, it doesn’t work that way? We live more in the mix of black and white, in the gray—or in the brilliant col- ors of the undefined moment. Can we bear to hang out in incongruity, in that big word, paradox? How did I end up with the partner I have, the chil- dren that sprang from me? How can I love my father, who betrayed me? This isn’t a call to ditch it all, even though noth- ing makes sense. Instead, don’t reject anything—the person who did something unforgivable, the white rose at the edge of your driveway, the split pea soup you never liked. There are no great answers for who we are. Don’t wait for them. Pick up the pen and right now in ten furious minutes tell the story of your life. I’m not kidding. Ten minutes of continuous writing is much more expedient than ten years of musing and getting nowhere. Include the false starts, the wrong turns, the one surpris- ing right thing that happened. A lot of it is ungrabbable— but you might sense an aroma, a whiff of something. Always in writing at the back of words are no words, behind you is nothing. That nothing holds us up. Embrace it. In 1997 at the age of seventy, Allen Ginsberg heard from his doctor that he only had a short time to live, and he cried. Then sitting in his hospital bed he picked up a pen and Don’t exclude anything. Go out between breaths. MAR 52-57.indd 56 MAR 52-57.indd 56 12/19/07 2:14:35 PM 12/19/07 2:14:35 PM