This time it was Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy. It doesn't matter what we read all that much anymore, because whatever it is, we'll spend about fifteen minutes talking about that and then turn to whatever else is on our minds. This sort of disregard for the text, I've come to appreciate, is the mark of a truly great book group.
Anna set the tone. "I'm sixty-two and I don't need to impress anyone: Nietzsche is OVERRATED!"
We all agreed that while the man is a twisted genius, his notion that Euripides killed tragedy, that his nineteenth century world was, at best, a decayed remnant of the Alexandrian Age, and that the best hope for civilization at that point was German culture in general and Wagner in particular, was kind of hard to take seriously. Trevor might have stood up for him, but he had a cold and wasn't there.
Wes and Anitra told me a story once about a Seattle haiku contest in which another friend named Reneene Robertson nearly got herself killed.
"Kurt Cobain," she began, "had two blue eyes." The audience, they said, was in the palm of her hand. She could have said almost anything after that, and they'd have thrown roses.
"One blew left, one blew right."
The room collectively growled. Reneene was off the stage in a flash and looking for the door.
To insult the blessed memory of Euripides, the edgy champion of the outsider, within our group is similarly risky. If Friedrich were to have the misfortune of standing there before us, we'd have gone all maenad on his overwrought German ass and ripped him limb from limb.
Except for Mary. She's a Buddhist.
Which brought us to the subject of Paris Hilton. Stephan was struggling to grasp the meaning of her cultural ascendancy. Her fame, he said, was based entirely on her status as a beautiful rich heiress who hangs out with other beautiful rich famous people. The nothingness of her celebrity was more than he could handle.
Paris Hilton apparently carries a chihuahua around with her, and insecure young women have taken to emulating this. If ever you see a teen-aged girl in six inch heels carrying a chihuahua, he said, you have Hilton to thank.
Mary offered that this was the perfect opportunity for us all to practice wise mind. This is the Buddhist idea that the ego-laden distinctions that separate us are illusory. Even Paris Hilton, she said, was united with us in the oneness of the universe, and our judgments interfered with our ability to grasp the true essence of Paris Hilton.
Stephan and I agreed that we could live with this. The chihuahua thing, so far as we were concerned, relegates her to complete Otherness, no matter what the fucking Buddha says.
Later that night, having calmed down, I found this meditation on wise mind in a book by Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun.
Being compassionate is a pretty tall order. All of us are in relationships every day of our lives, but particularly if we are people who want to help others—people with cancer, people with AIDS, abused women or children, abused animals, anyone who's hurting—something we soon notice is the persons we set out to help may trigger unresolved issues in us. Even though we want to help, and maybe we do help for a few days or a month or two, sooner or later someone walks through that door and pushes all our buttons. We find ourselves hating those people or scared of them or feeling like we just can't handle them. This is true always, if we are sincere about wanting to help others. Sooner or later, all our own unresolved issues will come up; we'll be confronted with ourselves.
Roshi Bernard Glassman is a Zen teacher who runs a project for the homeless in Yonkers, New York. Last time I heard him speak, he said something that struck me: he said he doesn't really do this work to help others; he does it because he feels that moving into the areas of society that he had rejected is the same as working with the parts of himself that he had rejected. ...
That, in a nutshell, is how it works. If we find ourselves unworkable and give up on ourselves, then we'll find others unworkable and give up on them. What we hate in ourselves we'll hate in others. To the degree that we have compassion for ourselves, we'll have compassion for others. Having compassion starts and ends with having compassion for all those unwanted parts of ourselves, all those imperfections that we don't even want to look at. Compassion isn't some kind of self-improvement project or ideal we're trying to live up to.
When Things Fall Apart
When Things Fall Apart