That’s What I’m Talking About

Sunset and Storm Clouds Over Sawtooth Ridge, Yosemite, 1972Some unrecorded number of years ago, struggling to come up with ideas on how to present to our readers, I wrote in About This Webite” that “I am finally content and happy in the backwaters of unread America, examining root causes …”

I compared the virtual summitlake to a very real place in the high country they call Summit Lake, a place where the occasional stranger treks through our lives and leaves something of value behind.

I wrote:

It’s quiet up here at this lake. I like it. This place seems to have a thousand moods and seasons, and even as that cloud passes overhead, the mood of my meadow changes by the minute. Now, as the evening breeze picks up in earnest and the orange sun begins to sink below the western range, is a good time to remember that, as my perceptions change from this meadow, it’s still the same lake.

In another essay, “Black Elk Speaks” , I wrote:

Black Elk said that he did not ever tell any one person all of his vision, until the very end, but only little pieces of it to any one person, because if you did, it would lose its power and would not work for you. Missing from this are the ideas of growth and change, but even these come to us unevenly, and we can mark these periods like rings on a tree.

As I said, people do not come by here often, but sometimes, when they do, they pick up a thread I may have dropped years ago. Like those who have the training and patience to read the rings on a tree, we learn a little more about this place we are visiting, and you know, we’re all guests here … including me.

So here we have this idea of a lake, not just a concept of the body of water itself but the idea of a lake, which is why we capitalize it and call it the Lake. Summit Lake? Tahoe? Winnipesaukee? It may make a huge difference to me, but no difference to you. A fisherman, a small child with water wings, a backpacker, a family that has been coming back here summer after summer for generations: they all bring different paraphrenalia, expectations, and traditions, but it is the same lake.

Take the family that summers here, and knows the best picnic spots, the lightly traveled fishing trails that encircle the lake (unnoticed by that casual day user, toward whom we privately affect airs of smugly proud superiority).  They know where the white triangular cotton sails of the dingy best billow with the breezes that flow across the water, and where the moss-filtered hillside trickle is that fills the water cooler bottles with clear, cold, pure spring water. This is also the lake of their grandparents. It holds out few secrets. To this family, every rock and boulder relates to some event in the family history, but the rich collection of memories, as wonderful and instructive as they are, is not the lake. Grandpa, smoking his pipe on the porch at dusk,  understood this:

“Sit here, and just close your eyes for a minute. You have seen the lake. Now, just listen to it.”

The sounds have a life of their own: the crickets, the birds settling down for the night, the waves lapping against the sand. Somehow, the youngster understands: we are not just part of the lake. It is a part of us. At this moment, either statement is just a different way of saying the same thing.

This short essay is just to remind us: have fun, but revere the lake. We are part of the local history of the lake, but it is also a part of us, more than most of us take the time to realize.

The Lake is everything that you see, hear and experience, but you have to know how to look. Eastern mysticism? Think again. Western philosophers have struggled with the question “but what, really, is the Lake?” Wrong question. I can describe to you how one would build a mighty dam, or how the beaver builds the humble but effective wier of twigs and branches … but who can describe how to see a lake?

In my personal view there is no secret process that would gradually be revealed to you, at some price you might be unwilling to pay. Everything is already there, on the surface, waiting to be seen. Or, perhaps in your past you have seen parts of it in the rings of the trees, welcoming another who sees that becoming a part of the big picture just means letting go of the alders and cottonwoods and the fall leaves floating in the still of the pond: they ARE part of the picture, but the lake is everything.

But I would not be surprised to see things I never noticed before. To be honest, I can always tell you not to read too much into all of this, and to look for what you see without the artifice of vanity and personalized interpretive embellishment. Robert Pirsig wrote that if you wanted to learn how to fix a motorcycle, learn how to think like the motorcycle. I was the wise guy who at first thought he was just being funny.

Secretly, I have always known that whenever we should get a chance to share with a genuine Master our own vision of the Lake, the very nature of his construction will require him to throw T.S. Eliot back at us:

To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.”

— The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

As long as we are throwing Masters around, there is value in going back to the ones who also saw it clearly on the more fundamental level, and said so better that I: let me share with you a couple of passages that still electrify me. And then you, all the visitors to this lake, this place here, tell me: is there really something here that does not meet the eye? Has it not been here all along?

From Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig, 1974:

[Phaedrus] felt that the solution started with a new philosophy or he saw it as even broader than that — a new spiritual rationality — in which the ugliness and the loneliness and the spiritual blankness of dualistic technological reason would become illogical. Reason was no longer to be “value free.” Reason was to be subordinate, logically, to Quality, and he was sure he would find the cause of its not being so back among the ancient Greeks, whose mythos had endowed our culture with the tendency underlying all the evil of our technology, the tendency to do what is “reasonable” even when it isn’t any good.

From Learning To Fly, P.H. Liotta, 1989:

The wilderness was born in my refusal to listen to the silence. Now I believe that every human, if only once in a life, should turn back to whatever she or he can take up of the remembered earth … To forget whatever small and precious things one has learned, to believe they are foolish things really, only the beginnings of understanding or the remnants of some acquired education, to discard one’s particular way of sight as surely as Picasso did in his first flight in an aircraft, when he looked down to the earth and muttered absently to himself, Cubism. Everyone should see the earth from such fractured angles, to be so uncertain of the certainty of one’s existence. Everyone should image existence without the presence of the self, to remove every thought of one’s own life from the equation; and only by doing that can one begin to believe the sureness and the truth of one’s own life.

Matterhorn Canyon, Virginia Canyon, Shepherd Crest, Yosemite 1972. This panorama takes in a few hundred square miles.
In the English Lit classes I believe they still teach us to take paragraphs like that apart.  Pay attention, class. Why did the author say it that way? Indeed, what do you suppose he meant, “fractured angles?” Why would he say we should forget the small and precious things, only to re-inject them anew into the sureness and truth of life?

While the students are set to learning how to diagram sentences, some of them are learning how to understand themselves. Is it possible the instructor understands that? I’m pretty sure the real point’s not what we think an author meant, but what we get out of it. Aren’t you?

“What we get out of it”: the classroom instructor is right here, vindicated in his knowledge that the student who digs gets the higher marks, and probably, the better lifetime. On the surface, Pirsig and Liotta seem to be saying epistemological opposites:

Pirsig rued the tendency to strip value from reason, the dualism that allows us to say “this is what the thing is, and that is what it means to us, and we need not be concerned with how you reconcile the two”.

Liotta is saying, immerse yourself in the experience of the this, and leave all your accumulative that out of it.  Once we grasp that existence thrives in absence of the personalized trappings of the humans who trample the forest floor, we are finally free to reinvest or reinvent our values to enrich our personal existences.

Liotta’s remarkable book is filled from cover to cover with the richness of personal evaluative content, so my vote is that he is not saying evaluative asceticism is a required destination, but a terrifically useful stepping stone. To learn how to evaluate reality, you must learn first to identify it, and that is a tremendously riskier task when you have to tote a week’s supply of intellectual baggage. Just listen to the lake.

I think Pirsig and Liotta took profoundly different routes to saying very similar things. Pirzig drilled down through thousands of years of academic strata to find out what was left when you separated out the sediment of prejudice and predisposed opinion and political alliance. Liotta took the more direct method of looking out the metaphoric aircraft window and seeing nature’s designs without us in the picture.

By either route, how do we get to Pirsig’s “Quality?” That would be a much longer essay … but once you have the methodology for thinking about it, you see that “Quality” can’t just be an after-market add-on. It has to be engineered in from the very first draftsman’s sketches. Like the Lake, the finished product of Man has to be true to its nature. Before you can design a motorcycle that’s a pleasure for us to ride, you have to design a system that takes good care of the needs of the motorcycle.

Concerning quotes such as I cite from Pirsig and Liotta, how can we know when we’re just grabbing snippets from the masters and reapplying them to our own contexts and purposes?

The words are theirs. The concepts we carried away from them are ours now (or should be, if we have thought about them) — not in the sense that one is ever free to misappropriate originality, but in the greater sense that, to the best of our ability, we have lived them.

But that’s still too convoluted. As in life, simplicity comes at the end, not the beginning.

At the end of this stem-winder, you drop by the lake, and you take in the view. You see one thing. I have been here for a while, and I may have seen something else. To take home with us forever the actual beauty of the lake, we don’t need a communally synthesized composite view of what everybody has seen.

It’s still the same lake. It’s just not about binding arbitration and spin doctoring. You walk away with what you put into the process. And you own it.

That’s what I’m talking about.

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