"GROWING UP GAME" from Living by Water
This is my most published essay, reprinted in countless anthologies. It is the first piece of non-fiction I ever published. "Growing up Game" marked my shift from primarily a novelist to also an essayist and memoirist.
photo: John Raushes ELK in Colorado snow, 2014
One of my earliest memories is of crawling across the vast continent of crinkled linoleum in our Forest Service cabin kitchen down splintered back steps, through wildflowers growing wheat-high. I was eye-level with grasshoppers who scolded me on my first solo trip outside. I made it to the shed, a cool and comfortable square shelter that held phantasmagoric metal parts; they smelled good, like dirt and grease. I had played a long time in this shed before some maternal shriek made me lift up on my haunches to listen to those urgent, possessive sounds that were my name. Rearing up, my head bumped into something hanging in the dark; gleaming white, it felt sleek and cold against my cheek. Its smell was dense and musty and not unlike the slabs of my grandmother's great arms after her cool, evening sponge baths. In that shed I looked up and saw the flensed body of a doe, it swung gently, slapping my face. I felt then as I do even now when eating game: horror and awe and kinship.
Growing up those first years on Plumas National Forest station high in the Sierra Nevada near Oregon was somewhat like belonging to a white tribe. The men hiked off every day into their forest and women stayed behind in the circle of official cabins, breeding. So far away from a store, we ate venison and squirrel, rattlesnake and duck. My first rattle, in fact, was from a diamondback rattler my father killed as we watched, by snatching it up with a stick and winding it, whiplike, around a redwood sapling. Rattlesnake tastes just like chicken, but has many fragile bones to slither one's way through. We also ate rainbow trout, rabbit, and geese galore. The game was accompanied by such daily garden dainties as fried okra, mustard greens, corn fritters, wilder lettuce (our favorite because of that raw, blackened bacon), new potatoes and peas, stewed tomatoes, barbecued butter beans.
I was four before I ever had a beef hamburger, and I remember being disappointed by its fatty, nothing taste and the way it fell apart at the seams whenever my teeth sank into it. Smoked pork shoulder came much later, in the South; and I was twenty-one, living in New York City, before I ever tasted leg of lamb. I approached that glazed rack of meat with a certain guilty self-consciousness, as if I unfairly stalked those sweet-tempered white creatures myself. But how would I explain my squeamishness to those urban sophisticates? How explain that I was shy with mutton when I had been bred on wild things?
Part of it, I suspect, had to do with the belief I'd also been bred on: We become the spirit and body of animals we eat. As a child eating venison, I liked to think of myself as lean and lovely just like the fast deer. I would never be caught dead just grazing while some man who wasn't even a skillful hunter crept up and conked me over the head. If someone wanted to hunt me, he must be wily and outwitting. He must earn me.
My father had also taught us as children that animals were our brothers and sisters under their skins. They died so that we might live. And of this sacrifice we must be mindful. "God make us grateful for what we are about to receive," took on new meaning when we imagined the animal's surrender to our own appetites. We also used all the animal, so that an elk became elk steaks, stew, salami, and sausage. His head and horns went on the wall to watch us more earnestly than any baby-sitter; and every Christmas Eve we had a ceremony of making our own moccasins for New Year out of whatever father had tanned.
"Nothing wasted," my father would always say. Or, as we munched on sausage cookies made from moose meat or venison, "Think about what you're eating."
We thought of ourselves as intricately linked to the food chain. We knew, for example, that a forest fire meant, at the end of the line, we'd suffer, too. We'd have buck stew instead of venison steaks and the meat would be stringy, withered-tasting. In the animal kingdom, as if seemed with humans, only the meanest and leanest and orneriest survived losing their forests.
Once when I was in my early teens, I went along on a hunting trip as the "main cook and bottle-washer," though I don't remember any bottles; none of these hunters drank alcohol. There was something else coursing through their veins as they rose long before dawn and disappeared, returning to my little campfire most often dragging a doe or pheasant or rabbit. We ate innumerable cornmeal-fried fish, had rabbit stew seasoned only with blood and black pepper.
This hunting trip was the first time I remember eating game as a conscious act. My father and Buddy Earl shot a big doe and she lay with me in the back of the trap-draped station wagon all the way home to Missoula, Montana. It was not the smell I minded, it was the glazed great and dark eyes; the way the head flopped around crazily on what I knew was once a graceful neck. I found myself petting this doe, murmuring all those graces we'd been taught long ago as children. Thank you for the sacrifice, thank you for letting us be like you so that we can grow up strong as game. But there was uneasiness in me that night as I bounced along in the back of the car with the deer.
What was uneasy is still uneasy—perhaps it always will be. It's not easy when one really starts thinking about all this: the eating game, the food chain, and the sacrifice of one for the other. It's never easy when one begins to think about one's most basic actions, like eating.
Why should it be that the purchase of meat at a butcher's shop is someone more righteous than eating something wild? Perhaps it has to do with our collective unconscious that sees the animal bred for slaughter as already doomed. But that wild doe or moose might make it without the hunter. Perhaps on this primitive level of archetype and unconscious knowing, we even believe that what is wild lives on forever.
My father once told this story around a hunting campfire. His own father, who raised cattle during the Great Depression on a dirt farm in the Ozarks once fell on such hard times that he had to butcher the family's pet lamb for supper. My father, bred on game or their own hogs all his life, took one look at the family pet meat platter and pushed his plate away. His siblings followed suit. To hear my grandfather tell it, this was the funniest thing he'd ever seen.
"They just couldn't eat Bo-Peep," Grandfather guffawed.
And to hear my father tell it years later around our campfire, it was funny. But I saw for the first time his sadness. And I realized that eating had become a conscious act for him that day at the dinner table when Bo-Peep offered herself up.
Now when someone offers me game, I will eat it with all the qualms and memories and reverence with which I grew up eating it. And I think I'll always have this feeling of hunger, horror, awe, and kinship. And something else—full knowledge of what I do, what I become. Lean and lovely and mortal.
"Growing Up Game" originally published in The Seattle Weekly, 1990, reprinted in many college textbooks.
Here's an excerpt from my novel, Duck and Cover, which The New York Times chose as a "Notable Book of the Year." The novel is now available in ebook.
ANYWHERE BUT HERE
Transmigration in the heart of Dixie.
I first wanted to be a Buddhist when I was a hip seeker in 1960s Berkeley—a world of street mystics and ragged seers that was anti-matter to any dogma, whether political or religious. Raised in a Southern Baptist family, we were nomadic, following my father’s forestry work, in exile from the South. I hid my fascination with world religions. After all, I was the only liberal from generations of Republicans and teetotalers. Mix that with my father’s Native blood and I had no genetic tolerance for alcohol or acid. I either fainted or fell asleep. So my drug of choice was meditation.
I didn’t know I was meditating. I just thought everyone had a daily capacity for rapture—ecstasy over the eucalyptus tree’s healing fragrance, wonder at the fierce backyard cougar so tenderly carrying her kit, awe at a flying squirrel. But my natural buoyancy sank during my sophomore college summer at the University of California, when my father triumphantly marched our whole family from Berkeley to Georgia as if returning to the Promised Land. He told me, “If you want to return to the University of California . . . please make sure this summer that everyone is happily settled here in Georgia. It’s up to you.”
It seemed a Sisyphean task. Having moved around every other year, I’d never been a popular girl. But I’d tried to adapt to wildly diverse fashions, dialects, and customs. If I didn’t find a way to pass here, I would be trapped in this Georgia purgatory. Miserable, I tried to both hide out and fit in.
But everyone in this Southern theocracy was holy and righteous and on the lookout for lost souls like me. I was a suspicious sinner from a sun-drenched West Coast where Vietnam draft dodgers and easy love were sure signs that The End Times were upon us. To my Georgia neighbors, I was a hippie, with tiny dark blond braids and pierced ears. I had overly bright blue eyes that even my Berkeley friends said looked like I had dropped acid and never come down. Plus, my best friend in Berkeley, Kit, was a Jewish/Kabbalistic/Buddhist who was “going straight to hell,” according to my mother, “unless you can save her.”
My salvation was in great books, not the one and only Great Book. A teacher had suggested that I might be “a bit of a Taoist” because “first and foremost, it’s a philosophy of nature and humor.” Or maybe, she suggested, I’d be drawn to Buddhism. After some informal study, I decided that Buddhism resonated with me best. I had witnessed enough hungry ghosts in the Haight-Ashbury to believe in all those bardos. But on the other hand, I was particularly taken with the concept of the soul’s transmigration—more a Platonic, pagan, or Hindu notion.
All that summer in Lilburn, Georgia, I believed I was enduring a “realm of woe.” I was in such cross-cultural shock, so deeply disoriented that I hid my favorite spiritual text, The Book on the Taboo of Knowing Who You Are, under my mattress. I was afraid that Mother would discover this sacrilege and I would be forever exiled from my beloved Berkeley. If I had to transfer to the University of Georgia, I believed my nineteen-year-old body might spontaneously combust.
I was already halfway there in the suffocating heat. At night we had to sleep with wet sheets wrapped around our burning bodies. No wonder hellfire and brimstone are so vivid a threat in the Deep South; it might as well be the weather report. I began to consider that the Buddhists got it right in their Niraya realms—their hot and cold hells. How could the Buddha have believed that being incarnated as a human being was fortunate? Had he ever been to Georgia?
My only escapes that summer were swimming in the nearby Yellow River and grocery shopping. The Winn-Dixie was an oasis of cold air and many choices. I would loiter in the aisles, scanning shelves until I fell into a cool and meditative calm. It was during one of these reveries that I had an epiphany that offered a chance for a virtual flight: What if I could transmigrate my soul into some other unsuspecting shopper?
I could become a happy person who skimmed by believing what everybody else around me did. Chameleon-like, I could assimilate spiritually and not be so odd. Isn’t that what satisfied shoppers did? They followed the Blue Light Special to a nirvana discount; they didn’t worry about the suffering lingering in the side aisles.
One afternoon in this labyrinth of groceries, I finally found my spiritual target: A young, well-dressed mother with her toddler cooing away in his cart seat as she scanned the Bird’s Eye frozen vegetables. She held a tiny clicker device that counted off the prices of each icy package she tossed into her cart: creamed corn, okra, and french fries. How sensible she seemed. How normal and certain of her path. This woman must exemplify the Buddhist belief that we are lucky to be born human. She was obviously not a misfit or wanderer like me. I bet she never got lost in the supermarket like I did.
With all my might I willed my soul to lift out of this renegade body and drop into the young mother’s blissfully ordinary life. I had read about “walk-ins”—those souls who swooped into other people’s bodies. So I would be a “shop-in.” She would get two souls for the price of one. And I would no longer have to suffer being myself.
Maybe it was the jittering trance induced by the fluorescent lights or the frigid whoosh of the frozen foods glowing off glass doors—suddenly there was a shimmer between me and the happy shopper. For just a nanosecond, I seemed to hover above the aisle, gazing down on a teenage girl in tie-dye t-shirt with a peace symbol necklace; next to her was the Georgia housewife with tidy bouffant and a madras pleated skirt. Perhaps it was simple disassociation, but I felt my soul floating freely above my body. I believed that I might succeed in this supermarket transmigration of souls.
But then the happy shopper astonished me. Violently she shook her head as if fending off a hive of invisible bees; she stomped her feet on the linoleum. She tore up her grocery list and threw her handy clicker-counter on the floor. Her toddler began to holler. Not just the hiccup-studded cry of babies, but a ghastly, banshee wail.
A loudspeaker announced, like God, “Clean-up on aisle five.”
Stock boys arrived with mops and a sloshing bucket of suds. But how could they clean up tears? The young woman was weeping inconsolably. In Berkeley, as the designated, clean-and-sober driver I had seen acid trips and peyote journeys gone bad; but this woman’s despair was so deep, so real that it shook me to my senses. Abruptly, I was plopped back into my body there in the frozen foods.
Quickly, I was at the woman’s side. “It’s all right,” I said in the softest voice. “It will be all right.”
“How do you know?” she demanded.
She was right. I didn’t know. I didn’t know anything.
Both she and her baby were howling now like some ancient tribe singing those ululating shrills, like speaking in tongues. These were sounds of pure grief, pure loss. Soul loss.
I understood then, that the first rule of the Buddha was true:Everybody suffers. My Buddhist friend, Kit, must also be right. There was no way out but through the suffering. Our high school pecking order had taught that to Kit; this supermarket breakdown revealed it to me.
Right there in the Winn Dixie, I would have become a Buddhist, except for this bewilderment: Had my soul actually transmigrated into that happy shopper to ignite her own misery? Or was it just a coincidence that we both suffered simultaneously? Perhaps my Buddhist friend was right and this was some dharma practice—to see my own and another’s suffering as a call to compassionate action. And I should have committed to work for the benefit of all sentient beings. But I did nothing.
At the end of the summer, I did get back to Berkeley because most of my family had successfully settled into the church and the culture. I was free to go. To this day, they all still live in the South.
But these three decades later, I’ve happily made my home in the West, specifically the spiritually fluid water world of Seattle. I still wonder about that Georgia supermarket encounter. I never did succumb to Buddhism, though recently I joined 55,000 other seekers in welcoming the Dalai Lama to our Seattle football stadium for the “Seeds of Compassion” conference; but I’m still uncomfortable with any priestly hierarchy.
I have never really fit in or found refuge in any one spiritual group or tradition. Instead, I remain a Taoist rambler, a Buddhist sympathizer, with a hint of pagan and animist—born to always go between. Yet I have found faith in one Buddhist tenet that endures for me: be here now. Gratitude for this life has become my religion.
This piece is adapted from Peterson’s new memoir, I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth.
A La Recherché du Cheese Perdu
Pimento Cheese sandwiches are the petite Madeleines of my childhood. My mother is a splendid Southern cook who taught herself "from scratch." The first time she made chocolate chip cookies as a girl, she proudly mixed the sticky batter and then deposited a thick mound of chocolate-studded dough onto a cookie sheet. She watched through her General Electric oven's glass window and waited patiently for the little mountain of dough to separate into two dozen perfect cookies.
When my mother married — after an exciting stint as a World War II telegrapher on the Wabash Cannonball railroad — she followed her brand new Betty Crocker cookbook with some inventions of her own.
"I was determined to fatten your father up," mother tells the story. "After all, that was my job back in those days. That, and having you kids."
She took to her recipe books with the same zeal with which she had aced Morse code — a language she remembers to this day. By the time I, her firstborn conceived on the honeymoon, was eating real food, my mother's counter boasted a handy metal file of index cards with recipes begged, borrowed, never stolen. Her archives were a gold mine coveted by other cooks. The colorful little tabs were labeled with complimentary dishes:
East Indian Chicken and curried sweet potatoes
Sausage cookies and sweet pickle ChowChow
Barbecued butter beans and hot, wilted lettuce
Peanut-butter fruitcake, cherry and pineapple fudge
Divinity spiked with black walnuts.
These specialty nuts Mother bought from a black market of housewives in Georgia. She would clandestinely receive a burlap sack of these smoky, almost bitter nuts. Their shells were so hard she flopped the bag on our driveway and ran over them with the family station wagon to crack them open.
Continue reading at this Lost magazine link:
Opening chapter, from Brenda's memoir,
I Want to Be Left Behind, published in ORION magazine, "Saving Seals."
Our duties in this world, and beyond
“WITH 9/11, the blessed countdown for the Rapture has begun,” my neighbor George informed me almost casually.
He caught me off guard. After decades of giddily anticipating the end of the world and getting no response from me, most of the true believers in my family have stopped asking if I’m ready to be swept up in the Second Coming. Plus, this was the last place I expected to be proselytized. George and I sat perched on driftwood, keeping watch over a seal pup that had hauled up onto our backyard Salish Sea beach. Because most Seattle city beaches are barricaded by concrete sea walls, these natural beaches are precious to harbor seals, a place where they can give birth, nurse, rest. Every spring through September, mother seals leave their pups here while they fish. Staying the official one hundred yards away as required by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, we neighbors keep watch on the vulnerable pups in shifts of usually four hours. It’s a startling stretch of time together with people we usually whiz past in our busy lives.
“Hmmmmm,” I answered in a whisper, hoping that my neighbor would lapse into the companionable silence we usually enjoy together while seal sitting, as we call our beach communion. “Hand me the binoculars, will you?”
This pup was about two feet long, round and robust, its speckled fur camouflaged against the rocky beach. It was breathing regularly, with no yellow discharge from its mouth or nose — all good signs, according to Kristin Wilkinson, the expert on marine mammal strandings from NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) who gave us our training. We didn’t see any wounds, such as orca bites, propeller gashes, or bullet holes. But he could have suffered some internal injuries. Only careful observation and time would reveal his fate. If the pup is injured or doesn’t leave the beach after forty-eight hours, we call NOAA, which may send someone to remove it to a rehab shelter for treatment. Though Washington State has a thriving seal population, 50 percent of juveniles do not survive their first year, and every seal season we neighbors witness at least one or two seal pup deaths.
George and I were sitting second shift, after Mike, our “poet laureate of seals,” and Suzanne, a labor and delivery nurse who is particularly adept at reading the newborn seal’s body language. Can he lift flippers and head in the agile “banana position” to scan for predators and mother? There are twenty-four of us who patrol several beaches. We keep a phone tree and Internet contact, and when someone spots a lone pup, whoever is available heads out to keep watch. Our most important job as seal sitters is to politely shoo dogs and overly curious people away from the pup, partly because diseases are communicable among the three species. We also chat with other neighbors and passersby, and educate them in seal etiquette. If the mother returns and finds her pup surrounded by too much human activity, she may abandon her baby.
“This pup looks plump and healthy, don’t you think?” I asked George in a whisper.
“I sure hope so,” he murmured.
Suddenly, a foghorn moaned in baritone blasts, and the seal pup shuddered. He lifted his head, his black eyes huge, his tiny ear slits opened wide, listening.
“That’s how it’ll happen, you know,” George said quietly. There was a note of triumph in his tone. “The trumpets will sound, and we’ll be lifted up far away from here.”
For a moment I considered not engaging in this loopy, no-exit dialogue. But we had a lot of time and a seal pup on our hands.
Read more of "Saving Seals" at this Orion magazine link:
photo: Robin Lindsey: http://www.robinlindseyphotography.com
Best-selling children's book, selected for Scholastic Magazine's Book Fairs, voted a "Top Science Book of the Year" by National Teachers Association, and a finalist in the Beverly Clearly Children's Choice Award 2014-2015. Vote here:
Originally published in Seattle Times, Friday, April 29, 2011 at 3:17 PM
A provision in a federal budget bill signed into law this month takes wolves in several Northwestern states off the Endangered Species List. Guest columnist Brenda Peterson says that returning management of wolves back to states could have dire consequences for habitat and other wildlife.
Special to The Times
WHEN Congress delisted the gray wolves in their recent budget cuts deal, I remembered the great conservationist — and one-time wolf hunter, Aldo Leopold — writing in 1949: "I was young then, full of trigger-itch. I thought that because few wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise."
But when Leopold watched the "fierce green fire dying" in the eyes of a female wolf he had just killed, he had a revelation: "There was something new to me in those eyes," he wrote. "After seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view."
In one moment of cross-species connection, Aldo Leopold's assumptions about wolf management changed. He realized he had too narrowly focused his sights on hunting — not habitat. His worldview had been limited to the needs of one human species dominating the whole ecosystem. The dying wolf taught Leopold what we teach our children: To share. Home. Habitat.
Leopold never killed another wolf. Instead, he devoted his life to conserving this much-maligned and scapegoated species. Leopold would have celebrated the successful wolf-reintroduction programs in this country that are a model for the whole world. Farsighted and wildly popular, the wolf-reintroduction programs in Yellowstone and the northern Rockies provide more than tourism income. These top predators also restore balance to elk and deer populations, which have long overgrazed grasslands.
Wolf biologist Cristina Eisenberg at Oregon State University and author of "The Wolf's Tooth" studies the wolves in Glacier National Park. She says that since wolf reintroduction in Yellowstone, scientists have documented "rapid recovery of over-browsed aspen, willows and cottonwoods, stream bank stabilization in eroded streams, and a dramatic increase in biodiversity of songbirds."
"Wolves are keystone predators who nurture the entire ecosystem," Eisenberg explains. "If we eradicate wolves or lower their numbers, the whole system will grow impoverished and collapse."
Read on at the link above.
continue reading at this Lost magazine link
Interview with Ursula LeGuin on her translation of the Tao de Ching:
the feminine and the Tao: an interview with Ursula K. LeGuin
by Brenda Peterson
Brenda: Your new rendition of the Tao de Ching strikes me as a very direct, pragmatic, and poetic classic. It is scrupulously fair and embracing, not addressed, as are previous translations, to Rulers or Sages or Masters. In your introduction you write, “I wanted a Book of the Way accessible to a present-day, unwise, unpowerful, perhaps unmale reader, not seeking esoteric secrets, but listening for a voice that speaks to the soul.” With that intent, how did you work on your Tao?
Ursula: Since my twenties, I’ve been working on these poems. Every decade or so I’d do another chapter. I don’t know Chinese, but I drew upon the Paul Carus translation of 1898 which has the Chinese characters followed by a transliteration and a translation. This was my touchstone for comparing the other translations. The Tao de Ching, though very old, is accessible because the Chinese characters haven’t changed. One Chinese character can mean so many different things, and as you know, the meanings have changed. Every reader has to start anew with such an ancient text.
Brenda: In Thomas Cleary’s book Immortal Sisters: Secret Teachings of Taoist Women he notes that Lao Tzu, if he ever existed, had a female teacher. You wrote that you wanted to make a version of the Tao de Ching that doesn’t limit wisdom to males. Given the centuries of male interpretation from which you drew you revision, was this a difficult task?
Ursula: When you gender the philosopher and when you talk only about Kings and Sages – though technically that word is non-gender – I do believe that most readers immediately see an ancient person with a beard. A bit like God. And since I had taken this book to my heart as a teenage girl, it obviously is a book that speaks to women. Lao Tzu feminized mysteries in a different way from anybody else. These are not “feminine mysteries,” but he makes mystery itself a woman. This is profound, this goes deep. And the most mystical passages in the book are the most feminine. This is something women need, I think, and long for, often without knowing it. That’s undoubtedly one reason why all my life I’ve found the Tao de Ching so refreshing and empowering.
Brenda: Yes, a real classic. Give that one to Hillary Clinton, the rest of us will read yours. Another thing that came through very strongly in this rendition, was the humor, your humor, Lao Tzu’s humor, a philosophy of nature and humor. I laughed out loud when I read your note on Number 53 “Insight”: “people wearing ornaments and fancy clothes,/carrying weapons,/drinking a lot and eating a lot,/having a lot of things, a lot of money: shameless thieves.” And your comment was “So much for capitalism.”
Ursula: You know, in general, Lao Tzu seems to be pretty cagey, and a line can mean five or six different things, and then he just comes straight-out and says something, bang! Like that. It took me a bit by surprise.
Brenda: And yet you also note that Lao Tzu was not a dualist or an aesthetic like Henry David Thoreau. You say that Lao Tzu, though often sounding like Thoreau in his philosophy of nature, was kinder. You wrote “When Thoreau says to distrust any enterprise which requires new clothes, I distrust him…Lao Tzu knows that getting all entangled with the external keep us from the eternal, but he also understands that sometimes people like to get dressed up.”
Ursula: Americans have this tremendous Puritan streak, and it’s about a mile wide in Thoreau. I love Thoreau and Thoreau was a kind of Taoist, but then there’s the puritanism. I’d been thinking for years about that line about new clothes. There’s a difference. Lao Tzu does understand innocent vanity.
Brenda: Doesn’t that go along with Lao Tzu’s three treasures which you interpret as mercy, moderation and modesty? Don’t you think that humor requires a certain modesty?
Ursula: Modesty is a very unfashionable word, isn’t it? Partly because it was demanded of woman and not of men, which is why a lot of womankind of flinch when you say “modesty.” But when you degender it, it really is a lovely characteristic.
Brenda: Given these Taoist definitions of power as trust and goodness, and the tenets of mercy, moderation, and modesty have you ever imagined, perhaps in your novels, a society that was Taoistic?
Ursula: All of my writing has been deeply influenced by the Tao de Ching. And in Always Coming Home I did imagine a Taoist society in the Kesh people of a distant future, whose culture flourishes on the Pacific Coast. But I’m not as anti-technological as Lao Tzu by a long shot.
Brenda: One of my favorite of your renditions is Number 47, “Looking Far”: “The farther you go/the less you know.” You write that Lao Tzu’s point was “it’s the inner eye that really sees the world.” And your own inner eye has imagined the world so many times over in novels and poetry. Do you want to talk a little bit about this inner eye and how it discerns deeper than reality?
Ursula: As a novelist I was told you’ve got to go out and get experience. And there’s some truth to that. Most of us don’t have a lot of fiction to write until we’re heading on to 30. You have to do some living. But it isn’t wandering around and driving cattle and working on boats and all those manly jobs that authors always used to put on the back of their book covers. I think the “get experience” rule made a lot of us women feel really crummy, because what have we got? Maybe college, and a couple of kids, some stupid job, and a lot of women didn’t even have jobs at that point. None of that counted as “experience” because it wasn’t’ experience. This is why I mention both Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson in the note to that poem. It’s what you do with what you got. It’s the eye that’s seeing. It doesn’t much matter what it sees, if the eye is a seeing eye. And if it isn’t a seeing eye, then of course, you can wander all over the world like some of those poor souls on tours, with eyes that have never learned to see at all.
Brenda: Lao Tzu’s insistence on the inner authority of this discerning eye is an antidote to those of us drowning in an Age of Information. His philosophy is also a balance to the media obsession today with the cult of personality, self-consciousness, and ego. Can you talk about this?
Ursula: Lao Tzu says things like “Don’t be controlled by love. “ He says that people who don’t cherish their own bodies can’t look after other people effectively. It’s a bit shocking. Lao Tzu is anti-altruist. That’s pretty clear. Altruism and egoism are just two sides of one coin to Lao Tzu: either you look after yourself, or you turn away from yourself and look after others. Lao Tzu says no no no, that’s not where it’s at! That’s the wrong choice! You have to do both.
Brenda: Is this what you meant when you wrote that for Lao Tzu “Nature and its Way are not humane because they are not human” and that “Followers of the Way, like the forces of nature, act selflessly?” (pg. 9)
Ursula: Nature is definitely not humane. And Lao Tzu says we should be like Nature. We should not be humane either, in the sense that we should not sacrifice ourselves for others. Now that’s going to be very hard for Christian readers to accept, because they’re taught that self-sacrifice is a good thing. Lao Tzu says it’s a lousy thing. This is perhaps the most radical thing he says to a Western ear. Just don’t buy into self sacrifice. Any more that you would ask somebody to sacrifice themselves for you. There’s a sort of reciprocity – that’s the only way I can understand it.
Brenda: And it’s not self sacrifice without a reward because the reward is in heaven.
Ursula: Yes, if you are Christian or Muslim, there’s a reward. So I find it morally puzzling and a little suspect. Whereas Lao Tzu is kind of scary.
On the other hand, I think that’s why he talks about how to govern and what society should be like. Because if society weren’t so incredibly rotten, with so many poor people, you wouldn’t have the kind of misery that calls for a saint. I’m not faulting Mother Teresa. Yet I’d be happier with her if she’d somehow gotten to the root of things, the causes of wealth and poverty, which is where the heart of the problem is.
You know Gandhi was certainly not a Taoist. Yet in some respects – despite his enormous activism and his probably enormous ego –I can fit him into Lao Tzu’s world. Because Gandhi struck at the root. He struck at inequality. He wanted the society to make itself better. And he did it by the most modest means, because he refused violence.
Brenda: So who do you think would be in the true spirit of the Taoist way, someone like Mother Teresa who consciously does noble deeds which have their heavenly reward? Or someone in battle who in an unselfconscious moment of mercy falls on a hand grenade and saves everyone around him?
Ursula: Well, that’s the kind of thing that soldiers in battle and workmen at work are always doing. The do the next thing because that’s the next thing to be done. It’s simply a sense of duty and responsibility –two more unfashionable words!
Brenda: Do you think that Lao Tzu, along with being subversive to politics, power structures, and dogma is also subversive to mainstream religions?
Ursula (laughing): Well, Lao Tzu didn’t have a god. The Tao is really an action rather than a person. And it’s an action in which everyone can share. The more you share, the more you approach what a theist or deist is going to call ‘union with Godhead” –although this is not in Lao Tzu’s vocabulary. It is interesting that he is a Goddess mystic. However, there’s also the practical bit in Lao Tzu for the non-mystic. He does offer a good wide range.
Brenda: Well, I think your version of the Tao de Ching is, as you say, the most demystified mysticism that I’ve ever read, and that’s why I think it’s comforting and accessible.
Ursula: I certainly didn’t want it to be mystifying. I don’t think Lao Tzu did either, except occasionally where he’s deliberately hiding things. But he wanted his teachings to be a followable Way – while stating firmly from the beginning that you can’t follow the Way.
Brenda: During your own long study of the Tao, how has it helped you in your own life and work?
Ursula: It’s become so deep in me, it’s so much a part of my fiber and my work, it’s certainly influenced some of my life choices. I’m not Taoistic enough, but I try to let things happen and then if they happen to say “Yeah, that’s the way it was supposed to be.” It has been a guide. But always a guide toward not trying to be in control. Trying to accept the fact that one is not in control. But that if you go along with things they’ll probably go along in the right way, in a way you can’t understand at the time. And since I’m always trying to take control, I need Taoism to prevent me from trying to control everything.
Brenda: Another of your interpretations I admired was from Number 58 “Living with Change”: “The wise…they are the light that does not shine.” In the Steven Mitchell translation, he reads this line as “radiant but easy on the eyes.”
Ursula: A phrase like “easy on the eyes” drives me mad. Its an advertising phrase. It’s got just the wrong aura or implication about it.
Brenda (laughing): Can you imagine a Taoist advertising agency? “Buy this if you feel like it. If it’s right. You may not need it.”
Ursula: There was an old cartoon in The New Yorker with a guy from an advertising agency showing his ad and the boss is saying “I think you need a little more enthusiasm Jones.” And his ad is saying, “Try our product, it really isn’t bad.”
Brenda: As a product of two thousand years, the Tao has certainly proven itself an enduring spiritual text.
Ursula: It is impressive and touching, isn’t it? That this weird little book has just gone on so sturdily. All through Chinese history. It was written, during a really bad period in China’s history, the Warring States period. Society then was much less reliable even that our own. And in the middle of it, here comes this book that seems not very comforting, that seems to put everything at risk – and yet it does give comfort in a bad time. Even now.
Brenda: And that bad time in Chinese history had to do with the orthodoxy of the state Confucianism?
Ursula: War was the problem, war, violence, injustice. But Confucianism did control Chinese society so strongly that I suppose this book was necessary. The orthodoxy had grown so rigid that you had to have this anarchist Lao Tzu setting off his little firecrackers.
Brenda: Why do you think, in any time or culture, people are often comforted by orthodoxy?
Ursula: That’s an interesting question. I’m thinking about McDonald’s. It’s very important, for one thing, that McDonald’s wherever it is, be exactly the same as it is everywhere else. So that people don’t feel foreign, and they don’t feel like fools. They know how to order. All this is intensely comforting, because the world is really very much more threatening than most of us want to admit. And going into a strange restaurant for most of us takes a certain amount of courage, if you don’t know how to order. But the thing is, if you do go into an unfamiliar restaurant and you do get something in a foreign language and like it – then you’ve enlarged your comfort zone. And if you just always go to McDonald’s your comfort zone is so narrow and pitiful.
You know, I think people are very brave, and are often a lot more frightened than they’re allowed to admit. Life is much harder to live for most people than we want to admit. And so many things take a summoning up of courage. It makes one’s own life a little bit easier when you can acknowledge that. I love the poem Number 76 which talks about dead things that are still and rigid, so strong and invulnerable – whereas live things are very tender and easy to break. As I said in that note, “to be alive is to be vulnerable.”
Brenda: I think my favorite is still Number 43 “Water and Stone.” You read this famous passage as “What’s softest in the world/rushes and runs/over what’s hardest in the world.” Isn’t this what we’ve been talking about with the feminine – that ability to be vulnerable and just to slowly work away at something, like water abrading and shaping stone over time?
Ursula: I would add one little footnote to what you just said. I totally agree that for those of us who feel ourselves to be vulnerable, soft, and feminine, it can be very cheering to be told that “the stiff tree is felled.” If we just hand in here and wait them out, the big boss men will eventually wear themselves away. I think small people need to be told that.
Brenda: You’ve written elsewhere that the rise and fall of society is based on battles and heroes as opposed to just simply the enduring life of offspring and farming and continuing on. Isn’t this a different way of looking at history?
Ursula: Yes, it’s the continuity in which the real life is.
Brenda: Can you think of an example of this, that what is softest in the world rushes and runs over the hardest – and example from everyday life or one of your books?
Ursula: One of my recent books is called Four Ways to Forgiveness. It’s a science fiction book. It’s about a pair of worlds in which slavery was a major element of society. We come on these worlds just as they’re beginning to emerge from slavery. There is a revolution on one of the planets where the slaves actually overthrow the mastery. We never see the revolution taking place in these stories; the people that I chose to write about are all essentially powerless. One of the stories is called “A Man of the People.” He joins the women, they sing, and they lie down on the railroad tracks. The use essentially non-violent Gandhian methods. They do by not doing. What I was trying to show was that the gentle people wear out the hard ones.
Brenda: How does knowing this particular Taoistic tenet help us in our own lives?
Ursula: Lao Tzu is very relevant at a time like ours. We’re in one of those big yin-yang movements, and the yang is so extreme. But then it will do what all extremes do, it’ll suddenly begin turning into the opposite. There’s another part of Taoism that we haven’t discussed that is part of my view of the world – extremes always do implode and begin to turn into the other thing.
Brenda: Taoism’s sense of paradox reminds me of the wonderful Rumi poem, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field, I’ll meet you there.” Can you imagine Lao Tzu meeting Rumi in that field?
Ursula: He certainly is out there talking with Lao Tzu – probably giggling wildly.
Brenda: Flowers wouldn’t even have to be planted to rise up in that field. Any last thing you might like to say to our readers about your lifelong work on the Tao de Ching?
Ursula: This book as given me a great deal of happiness. And I hope some of that comes through.
The Taoists say there are great lessons to be learned from a calm and happy spirit. In on of her final notes, LeGuin writes that Lao Tzu is saying, “Enjoy your life…live in your body, you are your body; where else is there to go? Heaven and Earth are one. As you walk the streets of your town you walk on the Way of Heaven.”
Brenda Peterson is an author and nature writer. Her latest books are, Build Me An Ark, A Life With Animals and Sightings, The Great Whales Mysterious Journey. The Feminine and The Tao interview with Ursula K. LeGuin is forthcoming in the new book Face to Face: Women's Stories of Faith, Mysticism, and Awakening due out from Farrar, Straus, & Giroux in Aug. 2003. Her recent translation of the Tao Te Ching is out from Shambala Press.
© Brenda Peterson
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