Forgetting the Words, Finding the Words Redux

Nancy Flynn Apostrophe Blog Archive, Wisdom, Writing

The Apostrophe Blog

Musings on Writing and Life.

Photo by 雅皮.

The purpose of a fish trap is to catch fish. When the fish are caught, the trap is forgotten. The purpose of a rabbit snare is to catch rabbits. When the rabbits are caught, the snare is forgotten. The purpose of words is to convey ideas. When the ideas are grasped, the words are forgotten. Where can I find a person who has forgotten words? That person is the one I would like to talk to.

—Chuang Tzu

Sometimes in these archives, I find a post that still seems to offer wisdom for preoccupations of the current moment. This one is dateline December 2008, already fifteen years ago, the year we moved into the home where we still live today—

It was a bustling Thanksgiving—holiday company, touring the city, meal preparations and seemingly endless clean-up, outings to two movie matinees (Man on Wire and Milk) about events that took place in the 1970s, and a deliberate avoidance of stampeding shoppers and downtown crowds.

Lately, whenever I have a week like this—and we all do—I all too easily abandon my routine and lose my way with words. So finally having time as my own again, I’m diving in trying to remember—what was it again I said I wanted to be doing? Creative writing? Hello?

This morning, determined to blaze my way back to words, I stumbled upon the quote that began this post. It’s from Chuang Tzu, the Chinese philosopher who lived in the 4th century BCE. Thirty-plus years ago, when I was first in college—the era when Philippe Petit walked on a wire between the Twin Towers, Richard Nixon resigned, and Harvey Milk, an openly gay man, ran for the San Francisco Board of Supervisors—I stumbled on a New Directions book called The Way of Chuang Tzu translated by Thomas Merton. My friends and I were always looking for the answers back then; in no time, it seemed we switched to the questions instead.

Chuang Tzu was the historical spokesman for Taoism and its founder, Lao Tzu. We all know about that guy  thanks to a rash of contemporary books based on the concept of the Tao (often loosely translated as The Way)—a search on Amazon.com using “the tao of” yields 65,967 results—from The Tao of Pooh to The Tao of Warren Buffett.

What I remember about reading Chuang Tzu way back then was that his words (in necessarily flawed translation, of course) offered perspective, helped one to step back, to turn the kaleidoscope of life just enough so that you not only remembered but made your way to what, in my view, most matters in life: wisdom in the joy of simply living. Sure, it’s more complicated than that and scholars of Taoism and Chuang Tzu and Chinese history in general would be horrified, I’m sure, at my “take-away” lesson from these philosophical writings, let alone how Wikipedia boils down Chuang Tzu’s basic tenets:

—Everything is everything.
—There is no good or bad, only thinking makes it so.
—The world around us may be perceived as an illusion from our senses, our experiences, and our interpretations, thus illusions are irrelevant to conclude a definite right or wrong way.
—Death is just a passage of the illusion of life.

In philosophically-inclined poetry and poetically-infused prose, Chuang Tzu offers commentary on a little bit of everything: the rich and the poor, the ignorant and the wise, the blind and the seeing.

Great knowledge sees all in one.
Small knowledge breaks down into the many…
Pleasure and rage

Sadness and joy
Hope and regrets

Change and stability
Weakness and decision

Impatience and sloth:
All are sounds from the same flute…

And I’m sitting here worrying about finding my way back to words? Why not simply begin? Observe, record, no judgment, stop the foolish oppositional thinking, no more churn with the what-is-right and what-is-wrong? That’s when I unearthed what’s below, written a few Novembers ago, the simple list of a simple capturing of details from an ordinary drive down I-5 back to our Corvallis house on fourteen acres in the foothills of the Coast Range after day after day of rain, rain, and more rain:

The sun a white bright a hole in the clouds that looked like a cover of shredded cotton, slowly burned away.

The road surface dry, whirr of tires on asphalt, and the iridescent green of the iris, tulip, berry, and grass fields along the highway after a month of soaking in wet.

Puddles and much more than clouds are reflected in them for the first time in weeks: muddy sheep, the branches of hazlelnut tree and every-which-way tangles of raspberry canes.

How in one day, the vistas that are the wide Willamette Valley return, showing off the foothills of the Cascades, peeking up peaks, snow-capped of course. The Coast Range is back, too, in the beauty that is the entire valley with its mountains on either side, three-dimensional and shimmering.

Everything made by humans is at the exits, along the side of the road—whether shopping, food, gas, or motels—all chains, all ugly, all seeming so much the same. I feel momentarily cheered by the existence of one property, south of Salem, a haphazard collection of algae-greened trailers and wooden outbuildings, pens for animals perhaps, really quite beaten down. But still, in black spray paint letters on the side of one trailer facing the highway, the words “Don’t bother asking, not for sale.” Millions of dollars rejected in favor of what? principle? tradition? home?

While inside the car, I pretend there is still beauty and hope. Woo sanctuary when I dial the iPod’s wheel, settle on Led Zeppelin II’s “Lemon Song.” A favorite from 8th grade so the music is in my cells almost, it’s that familiar. Listening to the words, I realize how many are sexual—why weren’t my parents concerned about that?—and wonder, did I know that back then what the song was about or just feel it, visceral and unstated, adolescent hormones astir?

Which then leads to reflections on if/when I ever felt happy. Long ago times in the foolish flush of new love? Before all the hard knocks and disappointments and rounds of grief? And did I decide, consciously, to give up all that mercurial yearning or did it simply happen with this living of a life, the way it unfolds, day after ordinary day?

The rest of the day the only time I spoke to another flesh-and-blood person was when I asked for a ticket for a 3:40 movie matinee. Words found inside silence once again.

Forgetting the words, finding the words. Not a poem yet, but a beginning, beginnings. The place we forever return to, the place we forever start.

Nancy Flynn
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