Islands

There are themes touched upon in Part I, “Collage Dream Memories,” and expanded in Part III, “Islands.”

On page 8, two major themes are symbolically presented—death and forgiveness.

“His whispers spilled holy words on the stairs as his feet thumped grand periods after each.

Bro ther … mo ther,

Bro ther … mo ther,

Bro ther … mo ther,

in …

the …

night …”

How do you come to grips with sudden death (in this story, a brother) with dark secrets and forgiveness (a drunken mother)? Both themes are explored in Parts I and III. Death is first introduced in the opening dream and its brief meditation with all that the character “Joseph” sees at the end of the dream. What he sees are all the dissolving elements of matter, and he asks, “But was it nothing?…” It could be the next thought is nihilism, but instead he wakes up to reality. This reality in Buddhism is conventional reality, which may tend to be perceived as always present—eternalism, the extreme of nihilism. This is further explored in Part I in a series of questions concerning the death of Joseph’s brother, Emil. An actual “meditation on emptiness” is briefly described in section III, pages 201-203.

The forgiveness of the drunken mother is found emerging in the monastery stories of Part III through the loving nature of the monk Tenzin and the story of the gift of a coat. The concept that all sentient beings were once your mother is a powerful one in Buddhism. This theme is brought out in a humorous story involving the tiniest monk, the Abbot of a renowned monastery, and a fly. What Joseph rejects in Buddhist logic (pages 149-160), he finds in the humor, love, and compassion of the monks at S____ monastery.

On the road to forgiveness Joseph asks (page 150), “Could he call himself the prisoner of existence?” That may be a question for us all.

From the disillusion at the end of Part II is born the spiritual journey in Part III. A section in the last chapter, “The Jewel,” is alluded to in early fragments of the couple’s dream book on page 5. Brief stories in “The Jewel” retell the entire book of Jewels of Change as a Buddhist allegory within Victoria’s dream. Is Jewels of Change a well-disguised Buddhist allegory that the reader may only recognize at book’s end and all a dream hinted at in the beginning in the dream book? Parts II and III are born from personal experience, and perhaps at the end points of all our lives, looking back over the arc of its beginning, can be found a Buddhist allegory as I have, or set in some Greek or Roman myth, as might others.

The theme of beauty is never obvious, as little in this book is. For Joseph (page 199), “Buddha emerged as an artist whose art rose to the height of spiritual mastery…All of us, each one, owned some part of the Buddha of Beauty within. As it was for Joseph, so it was for everyone. For Joseph it was to set the Buddha free.” And as it is mentioned, Joseph has been writing some sort of Book of Life—it is his setting the Buddha free.

On page 201 there is a brief discussion of past lives, a hint of the title’s meaning, and its relation to beauty.

Emil’s death came between two events that remade his world. Less than a year after Emil died, Joseph went to past-life therapy sessions. He reasoned that if he, Joseph, lived before, so too would have Emil. He realized that the truth or falsity of past lives rested in no reality so firm as to be touched. He could feel and see those selves so strongly he knew them as well as all those lost selves in his present life. Whether Joseph was an ancient Tibetan warrior, a European bowman of the Dark Ages, an old Indian fisherman yogi, a French swordsman betrayed by a woman he could not see, or a dumb girl listening to opera, they told him a story as if it were so. For Joseph, the truth could only be, as if it were so.

There was one vision, a sense of what life was for him. It seemed when the French swordsman was killed, he saw the crumpling body drop. The self that rose was an old Indian yogi. Joseph then saw nothing. He felt bodiless, formless, and floated. He saw a design above him, as if on a ceiling. He scanned it, taking it in. The design was intricate, mathematical, possessed him, yet floated like a cloud in the sky. Joseph said to his guide, “I know it. I know it now! I can see it! It’s like an Escher. Do you know Escher?”

“No,” the guide answered.

Against a wall and down from the design there was a work of art in a frame, a ceramic, jewels tumbling, throwing out light in an infinite number of luminous rays, moving, from black holes of darkness to wonder of all things bright. He knew it at once as the essence of his world. It was moving, changing, always transforming itself. He could never recapture it, for whatever it was once, it would never be again. All the grand designs on the ceiling went there; all those miraculous and precise forms became lost in the appearance of change. The only thing Joseph could come away with was the impermanence of all and how beautiful it all was, and maybe it was beautiful just because it could never be again.

On pages 151-152 there is a narrative on the symbol of the swastika briefly discussed in a previous blog, “Why I wrote this book.”

In Buddhism was reality a matter of perception or one correct view interpreted by four schools of thought? A dark coiled object on a road formed the classic Buddhist question. Was it a snake or a rope? A new form of that question emerged from the ancient symbol of a swastika woven into a thangka hanging over the edge of the altar.

Joseph saw it under electric candles that now seemed dimmer. He looked down at the projections of his fingers, the world mountain and islands, then up again at the swastika, its strong, angular lines as if in motion. Just what did this symbol mean?

Recently, that became a question when a Kalmuck man, removing his shoes, entered the temple to explain the form’s significance to the barefoot reporter and photographer who were doing a story on community and temple.

The ancient Indian symbol meant well-being, a benediction. A holy sign the Kalmuck related and said the Nazis had twisted the arms from its original right-angled position.

No, the reporter retorted, voice adamant. Surely it means perverted madness. It must be removed for a photo. Voices grew louder. Discussion rose to argument. Finally, the reporter tapped the camera carrier on the shoulder, and in a flash they were gone.

Joseph steadied the mandala formed by his interlocked fingers, the great center mountain and the four islands of the four directions. He looked up at the altar and pondered the sharp right-angled arms of the swastika.

The woven cloth thangka held what the Kalmuck did not reveal and the reporter did not know, that an artist, one of the first, created the earliest swastika and revealed it to the world as the wild gander in its awesome and mysterious migration. In the appearance of motionless form this early artist captured an instant of the wild bird in flight. Yet, the form, at rest, vibrated a paradox, in a sweep—the constant of change.

The world mandala in Joseph’s hands remained at rest while he stared at the swastika. Suddenly, Joseph imagined features growing the holy horror.

Then he blinked. The swastika remained still, movement captured in an instant at rest.

At the end of “The Jewel,” the book’s last chapter, page 218, “Four geese lighted upon the lake, having flown from long ago through a dark night.” So ends their flight. And the book. A different take on age-old themes.

 

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Passion’ Fairy Tale

The word novel may mean not known or experienced before—new. Jewels of Change moves rapidly. The first part, “Collage Dream Memories,” is sparse, tragic and taut, with a surreal ending, almost like a Greek tragedy. The second part, implied by its title, is a fairy tale, yet comes at reality from a different perspective, both tongue-in-cheek, paradoxical, with a sense of “the lie to the truth,” as Picasso said of art. The third part, while a skeptic’s spiritual journey, is also a path to a new understanding where compassion and love triumphs over the skeptic’s logic.

The structure of the novel lays down the form for the entire work, of which the reader may not be aware. In the beginning, the quote of five lines from the Vajracchedika (Diamond Cutter), a Buddhist text which is quoted on page 16 here, is the essence of the book. In fact, each of the elements mentioned—i.e., lamp, dew, etc.—are scattered in the text. The three parts’ titles and chapter names foretell events that follow in the chapter or part. For example, “Collage Dream Memories” set time in non-linear sequences for effect, such as presentments, flashbacks, and incidents where readers know what characters do not. If I were a painter and only had three colors to describe this book, it would be black, red, and yellow—the progression through each part from death, to life’s passions, to spirit.

Part II, “Passion’s Fairy Tale,” recalls the past as a disappearance of Joseph’s wife and retrieval of time lost. In Part I the flashback is first encountered as the character Joseph enters a pool and is pulled by his aunt from bath water some half century before and enters a birth into another world. As a fairy tale enchants, so too does Part II attempt to create a spell which draws the reader into the fairy tale that is passion. At the same time disappearance becomes the trigger of retrieval, an erotic flashback beginning the stream of time which is the past. The dreams which begin Parts I and II are of death and disappearance, respectively. Is there a connection? An old friend, whom I know for half a century, at a recent dinner party brought home the connection. At one point in the conversation we were talking about friends and family who had died. Over a half century there were many deaths for us both. He suddenly turned to me as if startled by a revelation and said in astonishment, “But where do they go?” His eyes were wide in disbelief. In a certain sense, only understood perhaps with age and much experience (he is 76, a year older than I), we will all disappear from the eyes of all who remain.

In the center of Part II and the book itself is the chapter “Chiaroscuro,” from the Italian “bright-dark.” The chapter is visual, atmospheric, and, as conceived, divides the book between these two forces. After the darkness of death and into the battleground of passion, there was hope, a triumph of light. Joseph and Victoria’s vignettes personify this battle, the first part with Joseph’s disappointments and irony and Victoria’s frivolous interludes which nevertheless move toward light as the very last word in that chapter suggests—”Victoria,” a signal that she has once again returned to herself after playing the role of Aphrodite in playful, provocative ways suggesting a movement toward harmony and light.

Yet, this tale of passion forms attachment and is due for a fall; disillusion overtakes the couple in Part II’s last chapter, “Across the River Styx.” In the previous chapter, “Harmony’s Conflict,” there is a section where Joseph beckons Victoria and playfully suggest that she, the devil’s mistress, enter his world, a Dante’s Inferno set with playful enticement. Neither knew how Dante’s famous line—Abandon every hope, you who enter here

…and how often is it we enter a portal, a door, or path that brings us to the unexpected and the unknown?

Excerpt from “Passion’s Fairy Tale, “ “Harmony’s Conflict”:

She walked on the dirt road past rows of tall hedges out to the street. When she arrived in front of the house, she stopped at the rose trellis where rushed an outpouring of sweet odors.

Trillia’s apartment was dark. A light glowed from the third floor window brighter on this north side.

She saw Carlos, who lived on the first floor, staring at her, his cigarette burning a red glow in the dark. She knew he loved her. He told her one night when she came down the stairs alone. That night she smiled gently, his kiss a brother’s.

“Hello,” he said as she walked toward the door. “Reminds me of nights in Cuba. Beautiful. It really is. Like you.” He reached out, and their hands touched. She stopped briefly.

“I’ll see you, Carlos,” she said and went through the open door. Trillia’s light shined at the top of the stairs, and Victoria walked to the second landing past Trillia’s closed door. The apartment door to the third floor opened to the entranceway. She stopped.

“Who dares enter here?” A voice shot down the stairs.

“Who do you want?”

“The devil’s mistress.”

Victoria smiled. Above the door she saw a large piece of oaktag, a lintel, and, along both sides, two long pieces, beams. The oaktag formed a portal through which she must walk to ascend the stairs.

In a bold print, words appeared obscured in dim light:

Once every thousand years, cloven footed,

horns of able thrust, Satan

returns to desert earth, having

left his palaces of fire beneath

Jerusalem and the River Styx.

He beckons with curled finger his

waiting mistress and speaks his only words,

Abandon every hope, you who enter here.

Through the portal, the devil’s mistress saw the source of an immense glow, an endless shower of soft yellow light. At the top of the stairs stood a tall, white wax candle. Long lines of white in rolling beads and streams dripped and flowed from its hot, burning tip.

“Oh!” the mistress said aloud, “your candle looks so hot.”

She could hear the devil’s laugh, “Because it is.”

She closed the door behind her and latched it.

She walked up the stairs. To the side of the candle, the devil lowered a large bowled glass filled with rose.

“From Ironbound,” the devil said, “birthplace of the devil’s desire.”

She took the glass lightly from his hands, looked through the bottom of it, and saw the surface silver-red and burning. “Be careful, devil,” she gently chided. “You’re making the wine burn.”

“It’s hell’s firewater,” he said.

“What will it do?”

“Part the waters in the Sea of Galilee.”