The Sufi in You, The Sufi in Me

For a couple of years, I took classical guitar lessons. Once a week, I arrived at my teacher’s house, obediently left my shoes on his front porch, and sat with James in chairs arranged in the middle of an empty room, Feng shui, he said, facing south into a single music stand, while in another room, unseen, his partner exercised on a mini trampoline. James was fond of what he called Sufi sayings, and used them to convey guitar techniques. In our first lesson, James asked me what I was after. I had already been playing the guitar for years, a kind of folk jazz free-lick fingerstyle, but I wanted to learn something about music theory, better learn the fretboard, and better read notes.

“Playing classical guitar,” James said, “is not about musical theory. And once you get the notes, you don’t think about them, any more than you think about individual letters when you read a text. The theory is in the work, placed by the composer. What the guitarist does is technique.”

James frowned at my guitar. I had a better guitar at home, I told him, but a steel string folk guitar, unsuitable for classical playing. And I had a three quarter size nylon string acoustic, but it didn’t hold tune. “Get rid of all those guitars,” James said, “and get a good instrument, the best you can possibly afford. You play an instrument to make sound.”

Then James asked to see the fingernails on my right hand, and he took a steel file to them, and then sanded the nails smooth with a fine piece of wet and dry sandpaper. The rest of that first lesson was spent learning how sit and hold the guitar, how to breathe and relax the shoulders and neck, where, James said, I appeared to carry all my stress and tension.

Regarding the care of fingernails, I mentioned to James I was playing on a city co-ed softball team, where I might wreck his fingernail work. “If you are a good softball player,” James said, “you won’t hurt your nails. Fielding a ball is technique.”

James was an excellent guitarist, but he had difficulty performing in public. One day, James informed me he was moving away. He was giving up the guitar and going into typing. He was going to be a typist. He was passing me on to another guitar instructor. I was never sure if his move to typing was true or if he was using a kind of Sufi-like koan to send me a message about my guitar playing ability. In any case, I was not dissuaded; I thought about composing a piece for typewriter and guitar.

“What have you learned in your time with me?” James asked, in our last lesson. “That I want to play the guitar beautifully,” I replied. “You already can play beautifully,” he said, “but you are a poor listener.”

img_20170102_141921I thought about James, recently, reading through Heart of a Sufi: A Prism of Reflections (Arch Ventures Press, 2010), about Fazal Inayat-Khan (1942-1990), also known as Frank Kevlin, a name Fazal invented in an effort to circumscribe his legacy as grandson to Pir-o-Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan, who was instrumental in broadening awareness of what Fazal apparently preferred to call the “Sufi Way” around the world. The book is a high quality, sewn bound hardback, and includes black and white photographs, and informative appendix matter (contributor profiles, bibliography, glossary, website links). The primary content of the book consists of anecdotal, testimonial, and essay-like pieces contributed by people who knew Fazal as students or followers or were community members, particularly of Four Winds, a kind of commune located near Farnham, UK, and which was Fazal’s home for a time.

The text is, then, an oral history. Twenty-one writers contribute experience with Fazal profiles primarily, it seems, from the 1970’s, a time when interest in communal life and alternate inquiries into how one might live flowered in many countries around the world. The book will be of interest to researchers working on oral histories, religious or spiritual movements, charismatic leaders and followers, or the period in and around the 1970s – as well, because Fazal was a trained psychotherapist, researchers interested in therapy fields as well as the functions of the mind and its potential spiritual energy or in foundations of learning and being and becoming.

What I learned of Sufi from James amounts to about as much as I learned of guitar, which is to say that I am not a good listener. But the Prism of Reflections text is a good read for those interested in experiencing vicariously the era noted for gurus, spiritual quests, alternative life styles and approaches to religious and spiritual questions. The book is not an attempt to convert readers to any kind of Sufi practice. Its purpose seems to be primarily a vehicle to remember and give tribute to an influential teacher while describing his impact on the individual. Little attempt is made to venerate or hold Fazal up as a saint. And indeed, my own general skepticism of movements and teachers was catalyzed by some of the anecdotal evidence presented.

For example, there is this conversation with Fazal related in one of Ashen Venema’s pieces:

“After the Earthing event at Four Winds Fazal invited me to stay on, with a condition,
‘You must at all times do as I say.’
I was speechless, and held his gaze for what seemed an awesome long time. He must be joking, I thought, he can’t be serious. I did not know then that Fazal’s teaching respected doubt, deeply, as the true measure of one’s faith. I struggled for a tactful answer. All of a sudden Fazal smiled and winked an eye. He didn’t have to say a word. I trusted the light of intelligence in his eyes” (49).

Fair enough, but something a bit creepy lingers with that “at all times do as I say,” which he apparently said to others also. And the passage above might leave the reader, as many of the pieces in the rest of the book also might, with a cryptic experience. At the same time (and of course, as several contributors seem to suggest, the anecdotes may say as much or more about the writers than about Fazal), the memoir-style remembrances seem honest and balanced in their critical approach. Ashen goes on to say:

“The Sufi family was and is an enigma, a spicy mix of characters with little in common. We could have come from different galaxies…Groups reveal to us our place in the human family, reflect the warring crowd within our individual psyche, where we struggle towards a dynamic balance and optimal functioning in a complex world. Groups quicken the process of psychological integration – and, ultimately, the freedom to be what we are already” (49-50).

Later in the book, though, I came across this, a bit shocked and surprised:

Principles relating to the customer

  • Serve our customer
  • Satisfy our customer
  • Service and maintain our customer’s products
  • Delight our customer” (128).

In context, a section on the meaning and strategies of leadership, the principles are not at all jarring – I mention it here to help illustrate the wide spectrum of approaches the contributors took to remembering their experiences with their teacher. Fazal himself seems to have been somewhat isolated or even alienated by his own persona as potentially viewed and distorted by others. As a kind of celebrity, he seemed aware there would be students who would not necessarily benefit from a mentor they filled with their own projections. But in that sense too, the book acknowledges the difficulties inherent in the entire enterprise.

There is great value in this kind of book, a collective memoir remembering a time, place, and person influential in helping shape the direction of individual lives and responsible for the continuity of group efforts that will no doubt be compromised by the vicissitudes of individual needs and desires as principles move through changing environments and meanings and time. The book may serve as an introduction to further studies, as its bibliography and glossary make clear. The book is learned and credible, and will be valuable to specialists and researchers of various topics, but again, its greatest value to the general reader is probably in the diary or memoir like diversity the individual contributors bring. The book is engaging precisely because it’s readable. These are very interesting people, people who have struggled with self and meaning, direction and efforts to contribute to something larger than their individual awareness might project. And many of the anecdotal pieces are down to earth descriptions of the man Fazal and his work and time. Taken as a whole, they create an oral history biography.

And if you find, after reading the book, there does not appear to be a Sufi in you, you can always pick up the guitar.

Heart of a Sufi – Fazal Inayat-Khan: A Prism of Reflections (2010), Arch Ventures Press, Edited by Rahima Milburn, Ashen Venema, and Zohra Sharp.

img_20170102_142010

Silence, Memory

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In Nabokov’s “Speak Memory,” remembrance becomes a narrator, and narrators are not to be confused with authors, even (perhaps especially) non-fiction narrators, and often not to be trusted, as memory is often impeachable. Narrators are often unreliable. To remember is to be mindful, to call to mind. The writer must silence memory, then speak.

Mindful of what? Who calls to mind? “Remember the time…,” someone asks. “Yes, the Angelus bells had just finished ringing. It must have been noon. I remember the dying echo of the bells. Not dying, falling, as if the bells were still with us, but silent, as indeed they were, and they would ring again, and that would recall dinner.” Is memory an angel come to incarnate? Memory made flesh. Well, made story, anyway. Memory is not words, has no language. Look Homeword, Angel.

Memory is partial. Fragmentary. Unfinished. Abandoned for the present. And memory is partial in the sense of being one-sided. Memory favors. What happened to the trees as the bells passed through their leaves? How did they taste, the thick iron rings? Did your ears ring through the afternoon? Could you feel the bells in your bowels? Something else called to mind. Did you touch the bells?

Memory is revisionist, as in historical revisionism. Memory is a time machine that can move in only one direction. If we were not mindful at the time, of the time, how can our later memory be accurate at all? So we put memory in the third person, and we recall instructions, how things were made and can be made again, how to ride a surfboard or a bicycle, how to write.

“At the time in question, he simply was not very mindful of what was going on around him. Still, he insisted on certain memories.” These would be memories he needed now to continue.

A Cat’s Memoir

A Cat's Memoir– I’m going to write a memoir!
– You’re speaking of flash fiction, I presume?
– No. I want to tell your story.
– My story?
– Yes, Joe says it’s the writer’s job to tell the stories of cats without voices, and you don’t seem to have a voice.
– Joe? Who is Joe?
– Joe is this really cool cat hep blogger at The Coming of the Toads, all about cool cat lit cult stuff, poetry and jazz, the ocean and deep silence. You would dig it.
– And is this Joe cat credible and reliable? What does this Joe do for a living?
– I don’t know. I think he may not have a life, so he doesn’t need to worry about all that. I think he might be a fictional character.
– And who is behind this fictional Joe?
– I’m not sure, his memoirist, I guess.

Notes on Experience, Story, and Voice

Joe Linker Pizza Face by Emily“The idea that everyone has a story to tell (which underlies the notion that anyone can write since all a writer needs is a story) is strictly correct,” Jenny Diski said, writing in the London Review of Books (7 Mar, 21) about Marco Roth’s memoir, “The Scientists: A Family Romance.” Well, Henry James thought so, anyway. Continued Diski, echoing James, “If you were born, you’re in there with a story.”

“Every talk has his stay,” James Joyce said. But does every story have a voice? Is the writer’s job to tell the stories of those without voices? Is the critic’s job to decide how long the voice’s stay is welcomed, if at all? Not if Joyce had anything to stay about it: “Why? It is a sot of a swigswag, systomy dystomy, which everabody you ever anywhere at all doze. Why? Such me” (FW, 597). But even if one has a story with an illuminating voice, should one talk? And once one starts talking, must one tell all? Well, maybe not all, there are time and space constraints, after all. Ah, and there’s the rub, what to tell, and what to withhold.

Memoirs, like all forms of writing, have narrators: is he, or she, reliable? What have they left out? And even if they’ve tried to put everything in, there’s the problem of point of view. Would the story tell of the same experience related from another’s point of view, someone else who was witness? A memoir doesn’t contain fictional characters, but real people, but to the reader who has never met them, they may feel and sound like characters. The characters speak, but are their words reliable? The memoirist creates a set, described, composed, like a family photo album, and adds tone, the attitude toward the experience, all drawn with words that suggest as well as denote. And there is that slippery, mercurial ball of memory we always seem to be chasing after. We might call that ball ambiguity.

And writing in the March 18 New Yorker, Adam Gopnik says, “Thanks to the Internet…anyone can write” (21). The assumption is that not everyone should. All these amateur bloggers serve up knuckle balls to the professional writer, though the proliferation of adult amateur softball leagues doesn’t seem to hamper the work of pro baseball players. How many family garages or basements sport bands? That they don’t all reach Nirvana doesn’t invalidate their experience, as much as it might hurt our hearing. Why is the amateur spirit more tolerated, if not enjoyed, in music, arts and crafts, gardening, cooking, and sports (golf, anyone?) than in writing?

Henry James, in his essay “On the Art of Fiction” (1894), talks about experience, and answers a question about whether or not one individual’s experience might be more valid and valuable than another’s when it comes to writing about that experience. James is speaking of fiction, Diski of memoir. But memoir might be the most flagrant of fictions, since it attempts to disguise its narration as truth. But what makes any experience worth writing and reading? For James, the more cloistered a life’s experience the more opportunity for close reading of that experience. The only requirement is that one pay attention: “The young lady living in a village has only to be a damsel upon whom nothing is lost to make it quite unfair (as it seems to me) to declare to her that she shall have nothing to say about the military…The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it – this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, ‘Write from experience, and experience only,’ I should feel that this was a rather tantalising monition if I were not careful immediately to add, ‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!’”

Maybe everyone has a story, but not everyone has a voice, but through certain kinds of experience one might discover one’s voice, the expression of which might be realized in writing. But the expression of one’s story might also be realized in music, nursing, or plumbing. Maybe the writer’s job is to tell the stories of those without voices. But a more instructive way of thinking about experience, story, and voice might be to say that the writer’s job is to reveal voice where story is found in any one individual’s experience (not necessarily the writer’s), so that a reader might enjoy a kind of reading epiphany, realizing it’s the significance of their own experience being reflected. The reader hears her or his own voice. One need not be a writer, or a reader, to experience one’s own voice. But first we must find our voice, and where will we find it amidst all the wrack and ruin, the dry brine, the commercialism and the consumerism and the garbage sloughing like wax dripping from our ears, and deep in our ears a muffled sound like gigantic iron church bells echoing? But if indeed that’s our experience, how should it be voiced, or should we keep it silent?

We might read something and question the author’s authority, the authority of his or her voice. But the author of the writing should not be confused with the speaker of a narrative. Even if the writer who tells us the “I” of her poems is indeed her own voice, and that is the reason she writes, to describe her world, her reality, using her own voice, we still might think in terms of author and narrator, not necessarily the same. How does the writer decide what to put in and what to leave out of her poems about her reality? That decision making is the process of narration. Because as authors of our own narratives, our own stories, we still create characters, even if we call those characters ourselves, as in the memoir. This is why I said above that the memoir is perhaps the most flagrant of fictions.

Maybe no one has a voice, and we are all voiceless. We might all have stories, but we are all helpless, writers and non-writers alike, to voice those stories. This is why we keep writing, why there is no end to storytelling, amateur as well as professional. Earlier this year, a couple of houses on our block replaced their sewer lines to the street. I watched the workers and the job progress. I had done this kind of work with my father, years ago, and I marveled now as I did then at the simplicity of the technology, which has not changed much over the years. “Just remember, shit runs downhill,” my Dad said, handing me the shovel to dig a sewer pipe ditch. “That it do,” he said, concluding his short story, the voice of experience slowly dripping off as he walked away to more complicated, but no more important, matters on the job.

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Janet Groth’s The Receptionist: A Reflection

The receptionist receives. Receives what? An education, a memoir. One purpose of a memoir, a narrative of memory, might be to raise eyebrows, for it’s a tool to talk back, to reflect not only on what was taken in but to evaluate and tell on the givers, the repellers, those who dismiss, to give back some sass. One may also be received, received into, into the club; but not in Janet Groth’s case. Miss Groth, to use the New Yorker office convention of the time, was the receptionist on the writer’s floor for a little over two decades, and, never having been promoted or published or even encouraged, finally left, graduating on her own terms, storing the education for a later memoir, much later – 30 years later. Groth’s memoir has already been discussed by those in the know, but here’s a view from a different coast.

Why was Miss Groth never given “a better job” (224) at the magazine? She offers four possibilities: 1, nepotism; 2, lack of Ivy League connections; 3, lack of submissions (only three in twenty-one years, an output Joe Mitchell would however have understood); and 4, she was kept a receptionist because she was a kept receptionist – she was good and that’s where they wanted her. None of these explanations by themselves sound all that convincing, but maybe all taken together they amount to a decision deferred that becomes the dream deferred. And receptionist, in the world of business, is a feminine noun, while what’s needed to push the business forward is a masculine verb.

For a memoir to be successful, the main character must be a dynamic character; she must change from the beginning to the end. Throwing her change into relief are all the static characters she receives over time, characters that don’t change, but that remain their dismissive selves throughout, and the photos of static characters are rarely charming or lovely, and may even offer unflattering profiles.

When I think of memoir, of the self-important profile it proclaims, I also think of P. G. Wodehouse’s “Heavy Weather,” wherein “…the Hon. Galahad Threepwood, brother of the Earl of Emsworth and as sprightly an old gentleman as was ever thrown out of a Victorian music-hall, was engaged in writing the recollections of his colourful career as a man about town in the nineties, the shock to the many now highly respectable members of the governing classes who in their hot youth had shared it was severe. All over the country decorous Dukes and steady Viscounts, who had once sown wild oats in the society of the young Galahad, sat quivering in their slippers at the thought of what long-cuboarded skeletons those Reminiscences might disclose.”

Not to worry in the Wodehouse world, for Galahad has already sent a note to his publisher:  “Dear Sir, Enclosed find cheque for the advance you paid me on those Reminiscences of mine. I have been thinking it over, and have decided not to publish them after all.” But what then develops is indeed a bit of nepotism in the publishing world as the memoir in question becomes a pig to nobble, even as there are real pigs to nobble as the plot unfolds.

We don’t know what Groth has held back, of course, but she wants to persuade us she’s told most of the story. That story is not only about a receptionist, but about an existential (she confides she once wanted to be a female Camus) question: shall we be defined by the roles received from our parents, where we come from, or from our employers, our tribe or our set, or will we, like Huckleberry Finn, “light out for the territory” and define for ourself what it means to be ourself, refusing to receive any other’s limiting or corralled view of us? Yet what of the receptionist who can’t stop receiving? Who will tell her memoir?

The Receptionist: An Education at The New Yorker,” by Janet Groth. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012. 229 pages.

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