The Razor’s Edge, W. Somerset Maugham (1944)

“I’ve been reading a good deal. Eight or ten hours a day. I’ve attended lectures at the Sorbonne. I think I’ve read everything that’s important in French literature and I can read Latin, at least Latin prose, almost as fluently as I can read French. Of course Greek’s more difficult. But I have a very good teacher. Until you came here I used to go to him three evenings a week.”

“And what is that going to lead to?”

“The acquisition of knowledge.”

“That doesn’t sound very practical.”

 

 

razorThis is my first book by W. Somerset Maugham and I found it to be a compelling narrative with a theme that is close to me. It is a book with a large cast of characters, but by weaving them in and out of each other’s lives Maugham keeps them familiar to us. We watch as their individual fortunes rise and fall affecting all around.

The story begins just after WWI and centers on Larry Darrell and his childhood friends. He is the only one of his group who fought, joining the Air Force to train as a fighter pilot. Traumatized by seeing his best friend killed, when he returns home he is unable to resume his carefree life as a member of the upper class. Set to marry his long-time love, Isabel, and live the conventional life of his class, his experiences during the war have changed him in ways that make that life impossible. He is full of questions about the meaning of life and no longer feels comfortable in the Chicago of his childhood. With inner demons demanding attention he embarks on a life of study and manual labor in France and Germany and to India where at the feet of gurus and into ashrams he spends several years. Confounding his friends with his voluntary poverty and perpetual study, he refuses to reign in his voracious quest for answers.

As the years pass and Isabel loses her ability to wait for him; as the offers of employment dry up and the words of wisdom from well-meaning friends fall on deaf ears, Larry remains undaunted. At its heart this is the story of one man’s spiritual journey, but it is also that for all the characters who experience existential crises in the life choices they make and in the way their lives unfold.

Maugham, who plays himself in the story, met Larry just after he returned from the war at a party given by Isabel’s uncle Elliott. As a writer, he comes to Paris often. His meetings with Larry make him the perfect go-between keeping all at home informed of Larry’s whereabouts and progress on a quest they cannot understand.

Maugham structures the narrative so that he runs into the characters accidentally on streets, in restaurants, at events as a device for “catching up.” He is the older, trustworthy, non-gossipy family friend. They pour out their trials and tribulations to him, their decisions, their changes of heart or circumstances, whether their hopes are attained or dreams dashed.

That Maugham plays himself in this story had me confused. Is this a fictional account of a true story? If so, does his presence make it nonfiction? Or are the characters fictional in order for Maugham to expand on the real point of the book—the quest for the meaning of life vs. living a conventional material life, and as a vehicle that showcases the new Eastern spirituality that had become so popular in the West?

My confusion forced me to learn more about Maugham to see if that might shed some light.

Maugham was involved with some of the major players and organizations that brought Indian religion and philosophy to the States in the late 19th to mid 20th centuries. Swami Vivekananda and the Vedanta Society, Paramahansa Yogananda and The Self-Realization Fellowship were well-known messengers of this new spirituality. They lectured throughout the United States and Europe to packed houses making positive impressions everywhere. Maugham uses himself in the book as a sort of messenger not only between Larry and his friends, but as Larry’s sounding board, foil, and inquisitor to his spiritual journey. By forcing Larry to explain himself through their conversations he becomes the transmitter of this spirituality to the reader.

As a new reader of W. Somerset Maugham I thoroughly enjoyed his style of writing and telling of this story. He is asking us to think about what makes a meaningful life and the struggle between material desire and spirituality. Is Larry the better person for his choices and Isabel, who refuses Larry’s life of poverty, the villain? Is a life of inner exploration superior to that of outer conformity to convention? Or does there have to be a choice between the two? A universal conundrum for sure.

________________

My Edition
Title: The Razor’s Edge
Author: W. Somerset Maugham
Publisher: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc.
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1944
Pages: 258
Full plot summary

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Nonfiction Friday: Out On a Leash, Shirley MacLaine (2017)

Many of my friends who have passed on come to their human companions in dreams. They press their furry selves against their human friends with all the warmth they can muster; they nudge and paw until their masters wake up. They do it to remind their human loved ones that nothing ever dies. Love just changes form. Terry

 

LeashI am a big fan of actress/dancer Shirley MacLaine and the books she writes about her spiritual adventures. Her first book, Don’t Fall off the Mountain, played a big part in guiding my younger self’s spiritual exploration. She is not a guru and does not want to be. She is just a gal who wants to feel connected to the Universe and wants to be open to its secrets. She writes honestly of her humanness, her mistakes, doubt, anger and her overwhelming desire to learn.

In this book, she learns through her dog Terry, a Rat Terrier, with whom she is extremely close. Terry experiences life as a wise Yoda-type character who tries to impart that wisdom to Shirley, which she seems to understand until her fears get in the way. Through Terry, Shirley sees all the love, the joy, and even the tragedy the Universe has to offer that really isn’t a mystery or a secret if she can just open herself up to living life in the present as dogs do.

I find myself wanting to surround myself with animals. I want birds in the house, and I want a cat; because of Terry, I would be happy living with a menagerie. It’s wonderful to relate to living things that don’t speak, that don’t judge, and don’t blame. They are always an instant removed from timelessness. They point the way to a state of being we humans can only aspire to. Shirley

The book alternates monologues between Shirley and Terry who muse on life, death, UFO’s, Shirley’s choice of acting roles, and how to get along with the other dogs/people in your pack/life. They talk to and about each other and how Terry’s death, after almost two decades together (this is not a spoiler), though unbearably sad was a gift to Shirley in what it taught her about life after death.

Not only am I biased in favor of any of MacLaine’s writing, I loved bigears (2)this book just a little more for its canine heroine, who is the same breed as my Jess and from whom I learned a lot. Jess really does do Downward Dog…it’s not my imagination!

_____________________

My Edition
Title: Out on a Leash: How Terry’s Death Gave Me New Life
Author: Shirley MacLaine
Publisher: Atria Books
Device: Hard cover
Year: 2017
Pages: 258
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love, Dewey’s Nonfiction Reading Challenge

National Poetry Month, James Weldon Johnson’s, The Creation (1927)

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I inherited my grandparent’s library. Many of the books have their signatures and a date and in a few volumes one has gifted it to the other with “Love, Eli” or “Love, Lorraine.” I cherish these.

Every once in a while when I am looking for something to read or rearranging shelves aIMG_5087 title strikes me that I missed or hadn’t felt a pull to in the past. As I looked for something to end National Poetry Month I found this book and a piece that made me pause. I read it all the way through and frankly was sobbing at the end.

In the Hebrew Bible, I love the first chapter of Genesis and the way God is described making the world. Johnson takes those first verses and amplifies the personification of God, of God’s love for his Creation and the care and consideration of what he made and how he exclaimed, “That’s good!”

Johnson’s words affect me specifically because I have always seen Nature as God Incarnate. And in modern America we are killing off Nature, God’s Creation,…well, that’s a post for another time…I am sure these feelings of mine contributed to my reaction.

When you find someone else’s words that speak so deeply and directly to you it is a joy. This is long. Skim if you want, but it’s worth reading all the way through.

 
newport.jepg

 

 

The Creation

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I’m lonely—
I’ll make me a world.

And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That’s good!

Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said: That’s good!

Then God himself stepped down—
And the sun was on his right hand,
And the moon was on his left;
The stars were clustered about his head,
And the earth was under his feet.
And God walked, and where he trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.

Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas—
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed—
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled—
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.

Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around his shoulder.

Then God raised his arm and he waved his hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And he said: Bring forth! Bring forth!
And quicker than God could drop his hand,
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said: That’s good!

Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that he had made.
He looked at his sun,
And he looked at his moon,
And he looked at his little stars;
He looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I’m lonely still.

Then God sat down—
On the side of a hill where he could think;
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I’ll make me a man!

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in is his own image;

Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen.      Amen.

jwjohnson

To learn more about James Weldon Johnson, you can read his biography at the Poetry Foundation website.

 

______________________
The Book of American Negro Poetry. Edited by James Weldon Johnson. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922, 117.

#BloggingTheSpirit

Gabriela Mistral: Chilean Poet, Educator, Diplomat and Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

mistral

 

April is National Poetry Month and I want to share a few works of a poet I just discovered, Gabriela Mistral (April 7, 1889—January 10, 1957). She is the first South American author to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature (1945) and I hope I am in the minority of those who have never heard of her!

Pure luck brought her to my attention when a character in a telenovela I am watching that is presently airing on Chilean television quoted her. (“The universe changes in an instant and we are born in a day”). I found this profound and wanted to find out more about her.

Born in a small village in the Andes Mountains of Chile, Mistral had an extensive career as an educator, poet, and diplomat; her diplomatic assignments included posts in Madrid, Lisbon, Genoa, and Nice.

She is an emotional and lyrical poet and her poetry is characterized by a persistent and mystical search for union with divinity and all of creation.

I think it is for this reason these three poems particularly draw me. All three speak of spirituality, Nature and a person at ease in conversation with the Divine.

A note on translation: I do not know Spanish, the language of Gabriela Mistral’s work, but these translations are by Doris Dana, her friend and heir to her papers and estate. I am sure they do Mistral justice.*

 

“Serenity”/”Suavidades”

When I am singing to you,
on earth all evil ends:
as smooth as your forehead
are the gulch and the bramble.

When I am singing to you,
for me all cruel things end:
as gentle as your eyelids,
the lion with the jackal.


“Time”/”Tiempo”

DAYBREAK

My heart swells that the Universe
like a fiery cascade may enter.
The new day comes. Its coming
leaves me breathless.
I sing. Like a cavern brimming
I sing my new day.

For grace lost and recovered
I stand humble. Not giving. Receiving.
Until the Gorgon night,
vanquished, flees.


“Eight Puppies”/”Ocho Perritos

Between the thirteenth and the fifteenth day
the puppies opened their eyes.
Suddenly they saw the world,
anxious with terror and joy.
They saw the belly of their mother,
saw the door of their house,
saw a deluge of light,
saw flowering azaleas.

They saw more, they saw all,
the red, the black, the ash.
Scrambling up, pawing and clawing
more lively than squirrels,
they saw the eyes of their mother,
heard my rasping cry and my laugh.

And I wished I were born with them.
Could it not be so another time?
To leap from a clump of banana plants
one morning of wonders—
a dog, a coyote, a deer;
to gaze with wide pupils
to run, to stop, to run, to fall,
to whimper and whine and jump with joy,
riddled with sun and with barking,
a hallowed child of God, his secret, divine servant.

I don’t pretend at this time to know more than a scant few details about Mistral, since in discovering her, I have mostly concentrated on reading her poems. I know that while she had fulfilling and important career successes in education and political diplomacy, she had many personal loses and sorrows, including the death of a nephew she raised as a son. Her poems reflect this.

Since today is her date of birth, I am hoping the Internet will point me to others who know more. If she is new to you, maybe you’ll want to search around as well.

For a nicely detailed biography of her life, including excerpts from her work, I found her entry at The Poetry Foundation to be quite meaningful.

___________

Selected Poems of Gabriela Mistral, translated and edited by Doris Dana. Johns Hopkins Press: Baltimore, 1971.

“I thank You God for most this amazing day…” e e cummings

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i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

 

ee cummings (October 14, 1894 – September 3, 1962), the man of lower case letters and eccentric punctuation. The word order in his poems, too, is different: personal, idiosyncratic, experimental.

This poem sings the spirit of nature for me, although I didn’t understand it all until I came across a recording of the man himself reading it. His intonation, the breaks and pauses…How many times does it happen that one can hear a classic poem read by the poet long dead in his own voice?

 

 

#BloggingtheSpirit

Connecting Post for #BloggingtheSpirit

paradise

 

Hello! Welcome to Blogging the Spirit.

Here is the connecting post. You can use the comment section below to submit the url of your offering. And I encourage you to use the hashtag #BloggingTheSpirit on Twitter and Instagram so we can find you, too.

Thank you for participating!

~Laurie

Connecting Post for #BloggingTheSpirit

paradise

 

Hello! Welcome to Blogging the Spirit.

Here is the connecting post. You can use the comment section below to submit the url of your offering. And I encourage you to use the hashtag #BloggingTheSpirit on Twitter and Instagram so we can find you, too.

Thank you for participating!

~Laurie

The Last Sunday of the Month: Blogging the Spirit

Blogging the Spirit: Adventures in Spirituality on the Last Sunday of the Month

 

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jewish3celticcross hinduatheism - Copyompentagramisisdarmawheelnorsemyth2totempoleflyingspaghettimonster

 

How do you connect to God? Are there practices or pieces of art or music or liturgy that evoke this relationship?

Is there a book or poem that ‘gets you’ every time, or a writer who sparks you in those hard moments?

Do you find this connection through trees, the changing of seasons, the cycle of the moon?

 

In a previous post, I discussed the desire to expand my mostly classic literature blog to reflect the variety of books I read. A brief exchange in the comments regarding religion and spirituality has prompted me to create an informal monthly event shared across social media.


Books, Art, Photography, Music, Poetry, Liturgy, Creativity

Some suggestions: a book review, a personal post on a particular practice, share a photo or piece of art. Is there a word or phrase or passage from your liturgy or spiritual books that you find beautiful? Does a particular melody or a song connect you to God every time you hear it?

If you don’t believe in God or religion but you are inspired by life share, too.

Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Atheists, Pagans, Heathens, Druids, Wiccans, Tree-Huggers, Mother Nature Lovers, Those-Inspired-by-Life. Everyone is welcome!

The Mechanics

We can find each other with the hashtag #BloggingTheSpirit to use on Twitter and Instagram and other social media. I will also put up a connecting post on my blog at 12am (PDT) on the last Sunday of the month where you can use the comment section to share the url to your post.

Please share this post on your blog, Instagram, Twitter, wherever you have social media, if you or someone you know is interested.

On the last Sunday of the month:

~post to your blog or wherever you have social media and use the hashtag #BloggingTheSpirit on Twitter or Instagram
~come here for the ‘connecting post’ which will be my only post on that day and share the url to your offering in the comments
~click on various urls that interest you and make connections

See you on September 24th!
~Laurie

Questions: therelevantobscurity@gmail.com

Penguins and Golden Calves, Madeleine L’Engle (1996) #BloggingTheSpirit

An icon should give us glimpses of our God who is both immanent and transcendent, knowable and unknowable. If an icon becomes more important to us than what it reveals of God, then it becomes a golden calf….

 

pengguinsPenguins and Golden Calves: Icons and Idols in Antarctica and Other Unexpected Places describes L’Engle’s trip to Antarctica when she was 74 years old and the encounters she had with the small, crested Rock Hopper Penguins. She uses the image of the golden calf and her experience with the penguins to illustrate the difference between idols and icons. Like the Israelites, who turned the golden calf into idol worship instead of the worship of God, the penguins became to her an icon that opened her up to experience of God; an icon is the window to that connection.

Madeleine L’Engle, who died in 2007, was a well-known believer in Christ, who often ran afoul of ‘establishment’ Christianity by continuing to question and to seek that which made her uncomfortable in her faith. But her nonfiction has always struck a chord in me, as I am attracted to believers of all kinds who struggle to make sense of their tradition and especially, like L’Engle, see a bigger picture. Books like this mirror my own questions and struggles with spirituality, religion and belief.

It is not flippant for me to say that a penguin is an icon for me, because the penguin invited me to look through its odd little self and on to a God who demands of us that we be vulnerable…Whatever is an open door to God is, for me, an icon.

Because L’Engle uses penguins (penguins?!) as an icon to God, I was intrigued from the beginning and it articulated for me why I find it so easy to connect to God in nature and not in a building. I am never so connected to the experience, love and beauty of the Creator than when I am walking the bluffs overlooking the ocean, hiking the trails of the nearby mountains or when watching a lizard slither across a huge rock in the desert.

There are parts of liturgical services that in the words and rituals, I do see beauty and sincerity. I love getting caught up in words, in turns of phrase, of ideas written just so. And in a moment of public prayer or thanksgiving, I am often caught up in a sea of emotions. But once I leave the building, they are gone. And once I glimpse a hummingbird flitting over a flower or a flock of birds in v-formation it is only then that I can sincerely praise God.

I think we have totally complicated God and what it means to worship. The first thing God did, according to the Bible, was to create the world. Pagans stopped there, while the rest went on to create golden calves, complicated and alienating ways of worship, erecting walls of concrete to hold services, and sadly, making theologies with a total disregard for the Creator’s creation. How ironic!

So, even if we understand that praying through icons is not idolatry, why do we mortals need icons? Icons are not adequate, nor are sunset and moonrise and star-filled skies, though they are icons of God’s creation. Perhaps we need icons because of the very inadequacy of our ability to understand God….

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My Edition
Title: Penguins and Golden Calves
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Publisher: WaterBrook Press
Device: Hardcover
Year: 2003
Pages: 271
Plot summary

#BloggingTheSpirit