Le Quin’s “Lying It All Away”

Ursula K Le Guin’s No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters deserves a lot more attention than I’m going to give it, but since  “Lying It All Away” does a better  job of clarifying some of my current attitudes toward society than I can do myself, I couldn’t leave the book without one more blog entry.

Although I was old enough to have heard the speech by President Truman that Le Guin cites at the beginning of her essay, I didn’t hear it because we were too poor to have a TV and I was far too busy playing in the yard with my Fort Apache set to listen to any presidential speech.

I’m fascinated by this historical snippet from the New York Times’s “On This Day” feature: On October 5, 1947, in the first televised White House address, President Truman asked Americans to refrain from eating meat on Tuesdays and poultry on Thursdays to help stockpile grain for starving people in Europe.

I have no memory of going without meat on Tuesdays and poultry on Thursdays as a kid, but that might have been because we were already eating salmon that we had caught two or three nights a week.  Just because I didn’t hear Truman’s speech doesn’t mean my family didn’t share Truman’s concern for those less fortunate than us.  My parents had both lived through the Depression and my mother would tell us how her father would put food out in the alley behind the garage to feed his neighbors who didn’t have a steady job like he hadd. Although we had very little money when I was young mom contributed to the Salvation Army regularly. In other words, we were always conscious of those who didn’t have as much as we did — and we certainly didn’t have much ourselves by today’s living standards. 

Le Guin contrasts Truman’s speech with the current state of America:

At the time, the request was laughed or sneered at by some and ignored by most. But still: can you imagine any president, now, asking the American people to deprive themselves of meat once or twice a week in order to stockpile grain to ship to hungry foreigners on another continent, some of them no doubt terrorists? Or asking us to refrain from meat now and then to provide more grain to programs and food banks for the 20,000,000 Americans living in “extreme poverty” (which means malnutrition and hunger) right now? Or, actually, asking us to do without anything for any reason?

As far as I can tell, the only thing politicians demand of us today is that we sacrifice our kids’ and grandkids’ future so that our ECONOMY can continue to expand — and they can be re-elected.  

According to Le Guin this unwillingness to sacrifice anything for our fellow human beings is part of a larger moral problem:

I have watched my country accept, mostly quite complacently, along with a lower living standard for more and more people, a lower moral standard. A moral standard based on advertising. That hard-minded man Saul Bellow wrote that democracy is propaganda. It gets harder to deny that when, for instance, during a campaign, not only aspirants to the presidency but the president himself hides or misrepresents known facts, lies deliberately and repeatedly. And only the opposition objects.

I suspect you could easily substitute “lying” for the word advertising, at least considering how closely she ties it to the lies told by Romney and Obama.  It used to be that being caught telling a lie could lose you an election, today, even more than when Le Guin wrote this, lying, particularly  repeated lying, may get you elected.

I’m not sure Le Guin is correct when she argues that Obama didn’t have to provide false figures and make fake promises to get elected:

What was appalling to me about Obama’s false figures and false promises in the first debate was that they were unnecessary. If he’d told the truth, he would have supported his candidacy better, as well as putting Romney’s faked figures and evasive vagueness to shame. He would have given us a moral choice instead of a fudge-throwing match. Can America go on living on spin and illusion, hot air and hogwash, and still be my country? I don’t know.

It’s pretty clear that “spin, illusion, hot air and hogwash” have carried the day in recent elections. I’d like to think that will change in the future, but after Trump’s election I have my doubts.  I’ll have to admit that I haven’t listened to a single presidential debate, but that’s because I really put very little credence in what  candidates promise. I trust commercials even less.  Instead, I look at what they’ve done in the past, because that’s the only realistic way to judge what they will do in the future.  It’s hard not to be disappointed in the leaders we elect when they are unable to fulfill the promises they made while running.  On the other hand, how many products we buy every live up to the advertisements that convinced us to buy them in the first place?

Businesses have mastered the art of advertising, the art of convincing people that they need products they didn’t know they wanted and assuredly don’t need.  Small wonder that they’ve found ways to use the techniques they’ve perfected over the years to influence our elections. As Le Guin notes: 

What if some president asked those of us who can afford to eat chicken not to eat chicken on Thursdays so the government could distribute more food to those 20,000,000 hungry members of our community? Come off it. Goody-goody stuff. Anyhow, no president could get that past the corporations of which Congress is an almost wholly owned subsidiary.

Our politicians are so beholding to those who help them attain office that they are afraid to stand up to them even if it’s obviously in the nations’s best long-term interest.

Le Guin believes this unwillingness to sacrifice to help others is tied in with our country’s resistance to taxation.

When did it become impossible for our government to ask its citizens to refrain from short-term gratification in order to serve a greater good? Was it around the time we first began hearing about how no red-blooded freedom-loving American should have to pay taxes?

Those who have the most to lose from high taxes, businessmen who earn astronomical salaries compared to their employees,  have tried for years to convince voters that taxes are un-American, a means of stealing from those who deserve what they’ve earned in order to give it to those less deserving.  They’ve obviously done a good job of convincing voters because those most likely to benefit from tax changes are often the greatest opponents.

Le Guin feels that these changes have taken place because citizens have become short-sighted and are unwilling to think about the consequences of their actions:

It appears that we’ve given up on the long-range view. That we’ve decided not to think about consequences—about cause and effect. Maybe that’s why I feel that I live in exile. I used to live in a country that had a future.

Le Guin’s essay made me  suspect that I have lived in exile even longer than she did.  After serving in Vietnam and later working as a caseworker, I began to question almost everything I had learned before I became an adult. Perhaps simply growing old in a rapidly changing world is a form of alienation. 

Ursula K Le Guin’s​ ​No Time to Spare

A few months ago I read an article on Brain Pickings that suggested E.E. Cummings’  Miscellany and Ursula K. Le Guin’s No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters  were two books that inspired creativity.  Having been in dire need of creativity for quite awhile now,  I decided to buy both.  Since I like Cummings’ poetry, I decided to start with with his book.  Trying to read his essays turned out to be absolutely excruciating;  the essays seemed the diametrical opposite of his poetry.  I couldn’t finish it.

Undaunted, I started Le Guin’s No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters. I didn’t know much about the author except that she writes fantasy/science fiction novels.  It turns out the book is a collection of short essays she posted to a blog for several years; I fell in love with the book.  I even regretted that I didn’t know her blog existed when it was active.  I would have loved to write about some of the topics she talked about and see how other early bloggers would reply. 

The topics in No Time To Spare range from tales of her cat Pard to the sorry state of our Nation. I’m a dog person, not a cat person, but I even found myself enjoying reading about her cat.  She brings an original view to everything she writes, even the topic of  “old age,”  a subject I’m already quite familiar with. 

Le Guin discusses old age in an essay entitled “The Diminished Thing.”  Most of us who are older and in, relatively, good shape have probably heard this:

A lot of younger people, seeing the reality of old age as entirely negative, see acceptance of age as negative. Wanting to deal with old people in a positive spirit, they’re led to deny old people their reality. With all good intentions, people say to me, “Oh, you’re not old!”

I’ll have to admit that I might have fallen for that line — more than a few times, I’m afraid — because I work out to stay in as good of shape as possible.  On the other hand, I complain to some of my older friends who work out that I work out twice as hard as my son/grandson and I’m lucky if I’m in half the shape they are.  

Le Guin argues that old age is an “existential situation:”

Old age isn’t a state of mind. It’s an existential situation. Would you say to a person paralyzed from the waist down, “Oh, you aren’t a cripple! You’re only as paralyzed as you think you are! My cousin broke her back once but she got right over it and now she’s in training for the marathon!” Encouragement by denial, however well-meaning, backfires. Fear is seldom wise and never kind. Who is it you’re cheering up, anyhow? Is it really the geezer?

No matter how much I may want to deny it, old age is more than a state of mind.  No matter how hard I try  I can’t get back into the shape I was when I retired at 57, much less the shape I was at 22 and training daily.  I’m not planning on any more five-day-long backpacking trips.  No amount of exercise — no amount of rest —seems to make that tightness in my hip go away.  I’ve finally reconciled myself to some of the physical limitations of being 77.  

Thankfully, Le Guin doesn’t see aging just in terms of loss:

Of course diminishment isn’t all there is to aging. Far from it. Life out of the rat race, but still in the comfort zone, can give the chance to be in the moment, and bring real peace of mind. If memory remains sound and the thinking mind retains its vigor, an old intelligence may have extraordinary breadth and depth of understanding. It’s had more time to gather knowledge and more practice in comparison and judgment. No matter if the knowledge is intellectual or practical or emotional, if it concerns alpine ecosystems or the Buddha nature or how to reassure a frightened child: when you meet an old person with that kind of knowledge, if you have the sense of a bean sprout you know you’re in a rare and irreproducible presence.

Le Guin is, herself, proof that an old person can be a “rare and irreproducible presence.”  All you need to do to convince yourself that aging can be positive is read this book.  I can’t imagine a better model for what we can all hope to become as we age.

Final Comments on Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea

I was surprised how much I found about Kakuzo OkakuraThe Book of Tea online. It has obviously been the subject of considerable research. Luckily, that research frees me from feeling I have to give the work its full due. Others have already done that. All I want to do here is to point you in the direction of the work, and you can explore it as deeply as you desire. These passages are simply those that helped me to helped me to crystallize my own thoughts or to see Taoism and Zenism in a slightly different light.

As an outsider, I think I’ve generally interpreted the Tao literally as the Way, the path, and not how Okakura explains it here:

The Tao is in the Passage rather than the Path. It is the spirit of Cosmic Change,–the eternal growth which returns upon itself to produce new forms. It recoils upon itself like the dragon, the beloved symbol of the Taoists. It folds and unfolds as do the clouds. The Tao might be spoken of as the Great Transition. Subjectively it is the Mood of the Universe.

Of course, this is not a new idea to me. I’m pretty sure that I would have agreed with Emerson when I read “Life is a journey, not a destination.” The INTP in me certainly tends that way, but somehow I never read the Tao Te Ching in quite that way.

Though I’m not unaware that it’s ironical an English major should grow weary and distrustful of words, Yakuza points out another reason I’ve probably been attracted to Zen writings.

To the transcendental insight of the Zen, words were but an incumbrance to thought; the whole sway of Buddhist scriptures only commentaries on personal speculation. The followers of Zen aimed at direct communion with the inner nature of things, regarding their outward accessories only as impediments to a clear perception of Truth. It was this love of the Abstract that led the Zen to prefer black and white sketches to the elaborately coloured paintings of the classic Buddhist School. Some of the Zen even became iconoclastic as a result of their endeavor to recognise the Buddha in themselves rather than through images and symbolism.

Looking back I suspect I have long favored concrete poetry that focuses on images rather than philosophical poetry that gets caught up in words. That tendency has simply been reinforced as I’ve aged. Now, sitting in quiet meditation for 20 minutes seems more refreshing than reading a work of philosophy for 20 minutes, or, worse, two or three hours. The first Asian art I discovered was Sumi, which I loved, but I was greatly disappointed when I discovered that an Asian Art museum I visited contained mainly classic works.

This passage from Okakura somehow reminded me of Walt Whitman, another long-time favorite.

A special contribution of Zen to Eastern thought was its recognition of the mundane as of equal importance with the spiritual. It held that in the great relation of things there was no distinction of small and great, an atom possessing equal possibilities with the universe. The seeker for perfection must discover in his own life the reflection of the inner light.

It would be hard to find a better description of The Leaves of Grass than this.

I’ve always thought that my taste in home furnishings was closest to Danish Modern, or perhaps Shaker, but perhaps it runs even closer to Japanese:

To a Japanese, accustomed to simplicity of ornamentation and frequent change of decorative method, a Western interior permanently filled with a vast array of pictures, statuary, and bric-a-brac gives the impression of mere vulgar display of riches. It calls for a mighty wealth of appreciation to enjoy the constant sight of even a masterpiece, and limitless indeed must be the capacity for artistic feeling in those who can exist day after day in the midst of such confusion of color and form as is to be often seen in the homes of Europe and America.

As much as I like my photographs, I’ve never hung a single one on my walls because it always seems to me that there is too much already hanging there. I’ve gradually come to the conclusion that the solution is to buy and electronic frame that will change the photos before they become invisible to me or to my guests.

Although I think of my house as an evolving organism, changing to suit my needs, I like the idea that a house is “only a temporary refuge for the body.”

Zennism, with the Buddhist theory of evanescence and its demands for the mastery of spirit over matter, recognized the house only as a temporary refuge for the body. The body itself was but as a hut in the wilderness, a flimsy shelter made by tying together the grasses that grew around,–when these ceased to be bound together they again became resolved into the original waste. In the tea-room fugitiveness is suggested in the thatched roof, frailty in the slender pillars, lightness in the bamboo support, apparent carelessness in the use of commonplace materials. The eternal is to be found only in the spirit which, embodied in these simple surroundings, beautifies them with the subtle light of its refinement.

The more I read Okakura’s The Book of Tea the more I wondered if Emerson and the Transcendentalists could have been influenced by Taoism and Zennism. I never did find an answer to that question, but I did find a link to a book entitled “The Tao of Emerson: The Wisdom of the Tao Te Ching as Found in the Words of Ralph Waldo Emerson.” So, even if he never read about Taoism or Zennism, Emerson’s ideas obviously paralleled much of what they were saying.

Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea

I’m not sure what inspired me to read Kakuzo Okakura’s The Book of Tea, but I’m glad I did because it was more interesting than the title first suggested, at least to me. After reading it I would even like to experience a Tea Ceremony, something that would never have considered doing before reading the book. With that title I probably wouldn’t have started reading it if wasn’t free on Kindle, but once I started reading the sample I was hooked.

Needless to say, the book does much more than merely describe a formal tea ceremony. It explores the complex relationship between Taoism and Zen, while contrasting certain aspects of them. Okakura’s definition of Teaism

Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.

also reveals that the book, written in 1906, sees both Taoism and Zen from a modern perspective, as revealed through phrases like “sordid facts of everyday existence” and “this impossible thing we know as life.” No wonder Eliot and Pound were attracted to his book.

Early on Okakura traces the Taoist/Zen evolution of Teaism back to its beginnings.

Among the Buddhists, the southern Zen sect, which incorporated so much of Taoist doctrines, formulated an elaborate ritual of tea. The monks gathered before the image of Bodhi Dharma and drank tea out of a single bowl with the profound formality of a holy sacrament. It was this Zen ritual which finally developed into the Tea-ceremony of Japan in the fifteenth century.

Though no longer a Zen ceremony, the Tea-ceremony retains the sense of sacredness from those early beginnings. What was most interesting to me, though, was how that sacredness was transferred to the mundane aspects of preparing and drinking a cup of tea:

Tea with us became more than an idealisation of the form of drinking; it is a religion of the art of life. The beverage grew to be an excuse for the worship of purity and refinement, a sacred function at which the host and guest joined to produce for that occasion the utmost beatitude of the mundane. The tea-room was an oasis in the dreary waste of existence where weary travellers could meet to drink from the common spring of art- appreciation.

In a sense, the religious ceremony became an expression of art, as in the Art of Tea. Removed from the strictly religious setting, the ceremony reverted to the artistic tendencies of the Taoists, which makes perfect sense after Okakura points out the difference between Zen, Confucianism, and Taoism:

But the chief contribution of Taoism to Asiatic life has been in the realm of aesthetics. Chinese historians have always spoken of Taoism as the “art of being in the world,” for it deals with the present–ourselves. It is in us that God meets with Nature, and yesterday parts from to-morrow. The Present is the moving Infinity, the legitimate sphere of the Relative. Relativity seeks Adjustment; Adjustment is Art. The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings. Taoism accepts the mundane as it is and, unlike the Confucians or the Buddhists, tries to find beauty in our world of woe and worry. The Sung allegory of the Three Vinegar Tasters explains admirably the trend of the three doctrines. Sakyamuni, Confucius, and Laotse once stood before a jar of vinegar–the emblem of life–and each dipped in his finger to taste the brew. The matter-of-fact Confucius found it sour, the Buddha called it bitter, and Laotse pronounced it sweet.

Reading Okakura’s distinction was an “aha” moment for me, instantly revealing why I have always been drawn more to Taoism than Buddhism. Philosophically, the hardest part of Buddhism to me is the idea that life is “bitter” and our main goal is to overcome suffering. Perhaps that also explains why “sweet-and-sour” is my favorite kind of food, and my favorite life motto, which I don’t really have, is “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

Perhaps what I most liked about The Book of Tea is that it constantly reminded me how little I know about Taoism and Zen:

A special contribution of Zen to Eastern thought was its recognition of the mundane as of equal importance with the spiritual. It held that in the great relation of things there was no distinction of small and great, an atom possessing equal possibilities with the universe. The seeker for perfection must discover in his own life the reflection of the inner light. The organisation of the Zen monastery was very significant of this point of view. To every member, except the abbot, was assigned some special work in the caretaking of the monastery, and curiously enough, to the novices was committed the lighter duties, while to the most respected and advanced monks were given the more irksome and menial tasks.

This appeals to the craftsmen in me — the feeling that a particularly fine cabinet I have made has more than just material value. To a certain extent, I feel the same way about photographs I’ve spent a lot of time on.

The perfectionist in me can also identify with the Zen idea that actions should be done perfectly.

Such services formed a part of the Zen discipline and every least action must be done absolutely perfectly. Thus many a weighty discussion ensued while weeding the garden, paring a turnip, or serving tea. The whole ideal of Teaism is a result of this Zen conception of greatness in the smallest incidents of life. Taoism furnished the basis for aesthetic ideals, Zennism made them practical.

I failed a woodworking class at a young age because I refused to rush through projects, finishing them rapidly and producing quantity not quality. If I was planning a board I wanted it perfectly square and smooth, nothing less. I can’t always live up to those ideals, but they’re always a part of me.

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