7 October 2010

New. The Daily Meeting

Daily meeting

I'm going to start calling it the Daily Meeting. At the end of the day, Maria and I go out to the barn, and the animals come running. The donkeys love to commune with Maria, and the cats usually come out for some rubbing. I'm going to call it the Daily Meeting and put it up every day, because it will make you smile and touch your heart. Me too.

In the barn, a friendship

Fanny, Minnie

Minnie is pretty sweet for a barn cat, and Fanny is pretty sweet for a donkey. I often see Minnie rubbing up against the donkeys, but I rarely have the right camera or the right lens. I was happy to catch this friendship this evening. Of all the things that happen on the farm, seeing these animal friendships spring up is the most touching. I think if you love them, they love back.

Spirit guides

Spirit guides

Because of the novel, I am being exposed as a mystic/spiritualist and this is so. In the last few years, I have come to believe in the nature of dogs and other animals as spirit guides. They enter our lives for a reason, and they leave for a reason. While here, they guide us to places we cannot go ourselves, open doors for us if we let them, take us on paths we are too dim or fearful to go on ourselves. My dogs are spirits. Rose led me to my life on the farm, Izzy brought me deep into the souls of humans on the edge of life, and Lenore taught me how to love purely and without judgement or condition. My spirit guides.

Writer’s life: Rationality vs. Mysticism

Cemetery in the rain

Writing is strange sometimes. You hole up writing something very personal and interior, then send it out into the world for other people to look at, accept or reject, and mull. They call it putting it out there. A very interresting time. Literary reviews are always a bit narrow for me – one person's opinion either way. I can't complain about reviews, I've had lots of good ones. But most reviews, I find, are about the reviewer, not the book, one narcissist to another. I like the new trend toward many user reviews because I see a broader perspective, pro and con,  a more natural one, and to me, more revealing.

Like me, user reviewers don't know what they are supposed to think, so they are free to think. We live outside the tent, and are most comfortable there. It's the Beavis & Butthead thing, one of the bedrocks of my life – because I am stupid, I am free.

And increasingly, I find that these new and thoughtful critics often know more about my writing and intent than I do. And new forms of media – like this one – give them the opportunity to speak and be heard.

Sometimes, these reviews just are luminous,  and penetrate. One, yesterday, came from Jennifer Bowman, and it popped up in a few lines on Facebook, and it was so startlingly perceptive that it crystallized much about myself and my own writing. That is a rare and precious thing.  Bowman wrote that she liked the very conflict one critic didn't like about my novel. She thought one of the themes that popped up frequently in my books was my very personal conflict between rationalism and mysticism. I am always railing against emotionalizing and anthopomorphisizing, even as I am doing it, then catching myself and pulling back.  This is what separates and connects me to so many of you. This back and forth.

It was that tension that she found interesting. "Life is complex," she wrote me. "What I enjoy most about your work is your willingness to let it be so, and to allow for ambiguities and apparent contradictions. That's what enables that compelling interplay between rationality and mysticism. It's a good way to write, and a good way to live. I look forward to reading this new book."

Wow. To me that is first-rate literary criticism. As I read this, I thought of my constant exhortations to remember that dogs are just animals, and not to turn them into something else. This from a man who sat up at the top of the hill reading St. Augustine to his dogs in the middle of winter. And who in his darkest hours sang "You light up my life" to a Lab puppy in the middle of one freezing night after another. I have claimed the rational side of self in recent years, but never owned up to the other. I consider myself outed.

You got me, Jennifer, nailed it.  I am a crazy mystic  – who else leaves his family and runs off to a farm in middle-age to find himself with a bunch of dogs, sheep and donkeys? – trying to life in a ration world, and I seek some kind of rational ethos in which to live. Not easy to find, but fascinating to seek. And I suspect Jennfer Bowman will be interested in "Rose In A Storm" because she caught the point of the book without even reading it – a story that explores the boundaries between the rational mind of a working dog and the mystical, irrational, spiritual nature of life when one runs headlong into the other. That's the point, and she is the first person, including the writer, who saw it so clearly. No other reviewer, not even those who love the book, saw that. Not sure I did either, until now.

To me, the best kind of literary criticism isn't about whether or not the reviewer likes or dislikes the book – I mean, who really cares? – but that focuses on what the book is about, what the writer is seeking to do. People can, of course, make up their own minds about books and don't need others to tell them what to like.  Increasingly, in fact, they resent that – just check out the reviews on Amazon for Jonathan Franzen's new book "Freedom." Or for "Rose In A Storm."

Jennifer caught the heart of my challenge and my dilemma, what is most interesting to me, as well as interesting to her. And that happens so rarely I can name the times it's occurred after nineteen books. It is great to be praised – and the novel is getting a lot of praise. Best to be understood.

We need rational selves to function in a complex world. We need to know our mystical selves as well, because it is the path to love and magic and hope, the real point of life. Sometimes, animals can guide us there because their world is very mystical to me, and so unlike ours. So many thanks to Jennifer Bowman for respecting my work, and thinking about it so clearly and articulately. I am very grateful. And hers is one review of "Rose" I am eager to read.