Thursday, March 4, 2010

Troubled Lives

[image: Spring White Tara, a painting by Mayumi Oda]

I am at last back to work, writing fiction. I don't know what confluence of events made me come home from acupuncture ten days ago, sit down, and start writing. I have been incubating a novel for over two years, but writing only little bits of it, as if I could peek through a slit in the fence and see just one sliver of the garden. But now it started to arrange itself and flow. With this came the idea that I would spend from 10:00 to 12:00 a.m. Mon-Fri on it. Wham, I had work to do. It filled my life considerably.

It is spring. And I just had two spaced EPO shots to push my red blood count back up into normal range. It doesn't take much to make me happy.

Happiness, that's an interesting subject to me now as I study what plot is, what makes a story interesting. The excellent book I am working with shows how happiness is a boring story. What is interesting to us is desire that meets obstacles.

How can this not be of great interest to a Buddhist? Desire is said to be the very root of our suffering. In meditation, we practice watching it come and go. In our actions off the cushion we hope to become less attached to getting our way, to more fluidly inhabit the life we are in. That could be what happens to my protagonist, a young woman whose dreams have not yet been realized. She could appreciate her husband as he is, accept that she is dying much too young of cancer, deeply feel her disappointment and not become attached to it, become friendly to the loneliness she feels after diagnosis. When these things, or some of them anyway, are accomplished, you have reached the equilibrium that existed before the diagnosis, or maybe a better place. It should be satisfying, but the condition of peace and happiness is not very interesting.

Fictions give us the common troubles of humanity defeated, resolved, over and over again. What a pleasure this is! My grandson knows Star Wars I has to end with certain characters alive, because they appear in Star Wars IV. This is very satisfying to a kid, because he is safe with the trouble. Just so the fairy tales of our childhood, mine anyway, in which someone will recognize the princess inside us, the buddha nature. (I believe princess stories these days have advanced a little from that passivity.)

We are not so sure in fiction for grownups. Right now I have written a passage that seemed to me to want to be the ending. If it is, it may be realistic, but it is not what I would ideally want for a dying woman, to be primarily comforted by fantasies. Yet to be a fiction writer is to be involved in creating these alternate realities, fantasies for a reader to live in for a while.

The book says the only authentic ending to every story is "John and Mary die." It is the ending to every life. My protagonist is no Buddhist, is in fact someone who has left the Christianity of her youth behind, and that is a sad fact in her life, having no church to turn to now.

From a Zen point of view, we each want "enlightenment," a state of being in touch with reality, having a certain equanimity, a certain wisdom that helps us accept what life throws at us (Praise and blame, gain and loss . . . ) I don't know anyone who is "fully enlightened," if that means not being affected by the weather.
[The sun is out here this morning! The snow is melting! What a lift. Please melt and let the crocuses come up.]
But we may have some enlightened understanding. We may even know that we ourselves will die, and do not know the moment. A great many people don't know that until a diagnosis or an instantaneous event, a stroke, an accident, including my character. We have our assumptions about the future. My character is in her early thirties. Of course she is not going to die until she is seventy or eighty. People in her family have long lives. That's how we think.

What would make a story a Buddhist story without ever saying the word? How can the dharma come in to help her, say? In my favorite Buddhist story, "The Golden Mix," the buddha who changes everything simply listens to one of the characters. Nothing special. Where in my character's life is this person? Maybe the kind surgeon's assistant who sends her a personal Christmas card. Actually, you can find yourself surrounded by kind people when you are very ill.

I am playing with the iamge of my character sitting at home with a quilt she is basting together in her lap, not moving, looking out the window a bit at a barren ordinary back yard. Doing a kind of meditation. Well.

Anyway, this is where I've been.

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