Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

Month: May 2015 (page 1 of 2)

Straight and Narrow–Deep and Wide

I have a guest voice for you today. I think you’ll like what she has to say.

Straight and narrow – deep and wide

by Val Gonzalez

The slender, stony track, perilously steep, led to a constricted gate in a rock wall. My shins were bruised, my knees skinned, my entire attention focused on each step.

I awoke with a permeating revelation. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

I, too, am a recovering fundamentalist. I was taught that following Jesus meant following all the rules. Well-schooled in the King James Version, I was instructed not to question. The result of this training has been a lifetime of fear. Because, you see, I have questioned. I have doubted. I have sinned in varying magnitudes setting off minor tremors and the occasional major seism.

In the midst of such a temblor and the accompanying spiritual crisis, I had a revelatory dream in which I was climbing a mountain. In that vision, I was scrambling boulders to the left of the path, on the very edge of the precipice, trying to keep up with my spiritual teacher. On the far right, there was a broad, smooth road that hugged the slope, full of travelers. When, finally, my teacher paused, I called, “why are you so close to the edge?” Smiling, he waved his arm toward the abyss. I had been so intent on the trek, I’d only been minding my steps while he was skipping like an antelope. I had missed what was now splendidly obvious. “Unless you get close to the edge, you’ll miss the view.”

I’ve explored many faiths and, at times, practiced none at all, but I’ve decided to follow Jesus. Now, due to my track record and complementary suffering, I think I’m something of an expert: Rules don’t always reflect the respect, mercy and loving kindness at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. So, my spiritual journey is an individual journey. The straight gate and narrow path won’t allow the security of the herd. It’s a lonely, unsure way. It’s messy; impossible to navigate without stumbles and setbacks.

But, I aim to stay as close to the edge as possible. Because, when I breathe into my fear, and allow courage to swell and love to win, boulder-skipping becomes easier, compassion simpler, and, honestly, that view! It’s heavenly.

Val Gonzalez is the Executive Director of Terra Studios. I met Val at a workshop at the Village Writing School in Eureka Springs . Check out Val’s site at

The Coercion of the Past

On a trip to Mt View last weekend, I took along a mindless page-turner to help me relax and wile away the hours on the front porch of the Inn at Mountain View. Michael Crichton’s Timeline, is a novel about time travel in which four contemporary researchers are transported back to the late 14th century. For me, Crichton is usually boring for about fifty pages as he tries to build some kind of believable setting/background for the tale he is about to tell, and then he turns on the suspense. This book, though it might be boring for more than fifty pages, eventually turns into a good vacation read, 500 pages you can burn through in a day or two.

BUT I was really struck by this little nugget buried on page 359, spoken by the character who is financing all the experiments in time travel:

“We are all ruled by the past, although no one understands it. No one recognizes the power of the past . . . .

“A teenager has breakfast, then goes to the store to buy the latest CD of a new band. The kid thinks he lives in a modern moment. But who has defined what a ‘band’ is? Who defined a ‘store’? Who defined a ‘teenager’? Or ‘breakfast’? To say nothing of all the rest, the kid’s entire social setting–family, school, clothing, transportation and government.

“None of this has been decided in the present. Most of it was decided hundreds of years ago. Five hundred years, a thousand years. This kid is sitting on top of a mountain that is the past. And he never notices it. He is ruled by what he never sees, never thinks about, doesn’t know. It is a form of coercion that is accepted without question. This same kid is skeptical of other forms of control–parental restrictions, commercial messages, government laws. But the invisible rule of the past, which decides nearly everything in his life, goes unquestioned.”

Okay, Michael Chrichton is not a great literary stylist, but those thoughts about the power of the past–the coercion of the past, the invisible rule of the past–are pretty provoking. If someone had said those things to me when I was eighteen, I would have laughed. I was autonomous, in control, and immortal. The past had little to offer and absolutely no impact on me. The future was mine for the molding, and forward was the only direction I looked.

Now, as a 67-year-old retired English professor and writer, I feel more acutely the power of all the things Chrichton mentioned above, but even more so the coercive power of genetics. We are coerced daily by those diabolical double helixes of nucleic acids, handed down by great-grandfathers, great-grandmothers, grandfathers, grandmothers, fathers, mothers. We swim in a shifting nucleotide that pulls one way and then the other. We don’t understand why we do half the things we do. We are like the poor Apostle Paul–“For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.” The human condition.

Ah, well. As a good Episcopalian, I say embrace it. Learn a new stroke. Swim on.

Looking Deeply

In his book Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh quotes Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” Then he says, “‘Be still’ means to become peaceful and concentrated. The Buddhist term is samatha (stopping, calming, concentrating). ‘Know’ means to acquire wisdom, insight, or understanding. The Buddhist term is vipasyana (insight, or looking deeply). ‘Looking deeply’ means observing something or someone with so much concentration that the distinction between observer and observed disappears. The result is insight into the true nature of the object.”

The object of most of Thay’s writing seems to be to encourage us to “look deeply” into every moment of our lives. Also, “Looking deeply” seems to be the object of the practice of meditation in both the Buddhist and Christian traditions–the conscious effort to see into the true nature of life, of love, of God. But meditation as a method of spiritual growth might be seen as something we do not only when we sit in silence and focus our attention (as in “be still and know”), but also a way of doing everything we do. Being mindful, looking deeply at every act. This, it seems to me, is the only way to “pray without ceasing”–the prayer of looking deeply into each moment of our lives. Not a prayer of words, but a prayer of being.

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