Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

fellow travellers

I like that phrase "fellow traveller", although the context in which I learned the phrase is the "left but not fully Communist" sense with all those post McCarthyesque richer meanings, which really detract a bit from the image of the phrase I wish to apply. I use "fellow traveller" as a concept within to mean the ability to roll along with any set of folks of congenial good spirits and ideas I can understand, even if,in fact, I do not subscribe to their ideas and beliefs at all. Last weekend I showed remarkable restraint at the "under 5 dollars" bookstore. I imposed a "3 book maximum" upon myself, even though I was carrying more than the requisite 15 dollars. In addition to a guide to "Good Fiction" (notable, as these guides often are, for its catty intentional omission of greater authors in the midst of inclusion of lesser, making it an exercise in "did they really leave X out and include Y?"); a book of science fiction pulp paperback cover art by Di Fane, I found a charming biography of the Scots poet Robert Burns.
I'm a fair way into the biography.I find that I'm entirely dissimilar to Robert Burns, but I wonder, even across the centuries, if he might not have been an interesting fellow to know.

Mr. Burns' high spirits landed him in what cartoons call a "pickle" quite a few times in his early life. He had a lust for life which included a lust for women he did not marry in an era before birth control was widely used; this caused complications of a rather biological nature for him. I pause sometimes and reflect how modern life would be if the local kirk still had the "Fornicators' Court" before which Mr. Burns regularly found himself called. Burns' rise to the Scottish "national poet" from the most unlikely humble agricultural origins fascinates me, especially as the biographer makes the point that all his most remembered works, other than "Tam O Shanter", were in his self-published first book of poems, put out when he was 27. He's a curious man, of whom history remembers enough to render him human and interesting, and yet shrouded in just enough fog to still seem elusive and alien. Perhaps the only modern figure of whom he reminds me is what Bill Clinton would have been like without that east coast education. In Arkansas, so often, we revere and admire those eastern and western institutions of higher learning, but regret that one cannot go "off to school" and come back in one piece. Tuition? Twenty thousand dollars and one soul, per annum--or so it seems sometimes. Perhaps if Mr. Clinton had gone to the University of Central Arkansas, we would be short one president but gifted with one lusty, great poet.

But I digress. I notice that I feel a kinship with so many people and ideas, even though their ideas differ so much from my own. Let's take practitioners of the work "A Course in Miracles", for example. I do not believe that Jesus inspired a New York shrink named Helen Schucmann to write down his new revelation, which, it turned out, combined a fair bit of the gnostic New Testament apocryphal writings with a fair bit of 19th and 20th Century new age ideas into its "new revelation". I do rather like the way that writer Marianne Williamson, a practitioner, termed herself "a bitch for God" in light of the way her fiery temper contrasted with the nurturing teachings of her faith. I cannot seem to get through the Course itself, as its writings place a stress upon a way of thinking I find dissonant with those bare rags of belief I fancy as clothing my soul. Yet, the ideas do dance around a bit in my head, and I have often found that I am quite comfortable trading ideas with practioners of this form of faith, whom I consider "fellow travellers". We do not believe many of the same things, really, but there's still something I can share in those ideas. Similarly, I lack a literal belief in nearly every New Age idea, and further lack a metaphoric belief in many concepts I associate as "New Age", and yet I travel very well with those folks, too. With their distant cousins the New Thought folks I find much to discuss, though I would not consider myself a New Thought practitioner at all. I grew up in a very conventional southern protestant environment, and I am always at home with the Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians of my childhood, though I do not believe in many doctrines around which I grew up. Even when I go to the Unitarian Universalist church, at which I feel most at home these days (though my recent attendance would suggest it's more a weekend getaway once in a while, sadly), I find that I am more traditional in my beliefs than many. I'll never forget the amusing interlude at our church in California, when the Problem of God arose. You see, the minister, a near-deist theist, had the temerity to choose hymns and sermons which mentioned that particular deity. The atheists among us protested strenuously. How could they sing the Lord's song when their spiritual landscape made him foreign? I have a lot of sympathy for that view, by the way, which I suppose makes me a fellow traveller with atheists and agnostics. Yet I also gave a talk at my church from the pulpit (one of 3 lay folks that week) in which I urged religious tolerance for us poor theists. Sometimes I wonder if I'm the only remaining essentially Trinitarian Unitarian. By the way, speaking from the pulpit was really a charge, and if I only had a Call from God and a few years of seminary, that would be great fun. The problem with this sentiment, though, is that I never saw God appear on the Road to Damascus or manifest under a Bodhi Tree saying "this is the Way--now go have fun with it", so I am afraid my sentiment comes from the wrong place.

I wonder, sometimes, if I am not like that minister in the Evelyn Waugh novel who, while cruising (on a metaphoric ship of Fools)with his fellow passengers, assures all that every way of thought is really the same, if we only truly understood each other. Waugh savages, of course, this cloth-headed thinking by a man of the cloth. But although I try not to commit that clergyman's error, I do find that I am at home with so many belief systems that I become a fellow traveller with almost anyone kind and truly searching. I have some sympathy, as well, though, with what I consider a Tao-ist saying, but which may be one of those much-later New-Age things disguised as taoism--"if any person tells you that is the Way, then that is surely not the Way".

One of my LJ friends made the point to me lately (and I'll keep names out of it, as I'm just giving my inference, and may have misread) that for all that, most folks are on the "wrong path" and few are on the right one. The part of my mind which is scientific (BA physics, you know--gets me through dinner parties when I am out of ideas--"hey, let's talk about *entropy*!") agrees with the proposition that one theorem is right, and many are wrong. But my heart tells me I am at home with so many people of good will, what'e'r their creed may be. Tell me about your faith or want of faith, certainly, as I enjoy conversation during dinner, but show me your love in your service.

Sometimes I think that the revolutions are all spent, and like the "low rent rendezvous" in the song "Third Rate Romance", the lack of fulfillment reduces everyone to saying things like "I'll even say I love you, if you want me to". So many times I read the writings of revolution against faith and tradition that seems to me largely historical in this highly religious post-religion age. The battles for God and against God seem to me largely over, and yet it's like the old-time Battle of New Orleans, fought, because of poor communications, weeks after the war ended. It's not that the "big questions" are all solved; it's just that it's become clear that until a lot of "little questions" like avoiding global annihilation and genocide are solved, the big questions may have to wait a bit.

But I do not write, really, to convert anyone to my own magpie theology. I know when a certain type of potential new client asks me "are you Christian?", meaning "are you fundamentalist?", I must answer "not in the way you mean", and so often I feel that my ideas, like those of many, straddle too many fences to have internal consistency. Like lots of people, I feel sometimes that I am a Christian who does not believe many things that Christians believe; I am an admirer of the synthesist western-style Buddhist faiths who nonetheless finds solace in none of the Buddhist disciplines; I am an agnostic who believes; and I am a tremendous devotee of New Thought, virtually a devotee but for the fact that intellectually I don't believe in most of its core principles. I don't ask the question "is there God?" because for me the answer is always "yes", but I also don't worry if my answer is cultural rather than factual.

Doris Lessing's novel "The Golden Notebook" uses as its protagonist Anna Wulf, the novelist whose attempts to synthesize her past, her Communism, her love life, and her dreams into one workable life ultimately completely succeed and wholly fail. At the novel's end, she quits the Communist Party, and declares she is joining the Labour Party, the metaphoric end of her effort to find herself through her passion for politics. I think "The Golden Notebook" a significant novel in many ways, but I love that image--the notion, in effect, that 'at the end, I joined the Labour Party and got on with life'.

I place a great deal of value on what I call the "small virtues"--
kindness, a happy home, integrity, and simplicity. I love reading theology, and trying to search out a vision of the big things. But when it all shakes out, whatever light is within, whether some divine inspiration or just individual conscience, surely manifests in how one lives. I think the decades of rebellion against "middle class values" and "working class values" merely proved how precious they could be when lost.

I guess I will permit myself the thrill of exploration, of tasting values and ideas much spicier than my own mundane imaginings. But I will not forget that I only travel along the path for a while with such folks, and that the progress this particular pilgrim must make is a lot more about being kind to the people in my life and being good about my commitments and goals than about working out the perfect theory for Life, the Universe, and Everything (the sequel, that is--the square root of 43).

I've enjoyed reading so many poems by so many people who embarked on the 100 poems project. I'll do most of my writing on weekends, and I'll not post most of my poems (unless I sidejournal, which I might), so my output will be less LJ impressive. But I notice that what I like about reading others' poetry is that sense that I am drenched, for a moment, in another's life and way of thinking. This is a form of baptism, if you'll pardon the blasphemy. This is a way of travelling along, and maybe understanding.

But for all my fellow travels, I want to remember that my life exists beyond the world of ideas. I have people to love, things to do, and goals to set and achieve. I don't want to figure out how to define my soul, and yet promptly lose it when the sands ran out of the hourglass and my 5 talents are buried in that gumbo-like Texas clay. I want to travel lightly, in good company but travel well. I don't want to just dream about what my trip could be like--I want to travel.

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