The occasional observations of Carolyn Kephart, writer

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Deep Sweet Ineffable

6:15 PM PST, November 22, 2008

Peace happens in the most impossible places. This past summer, at a crowded downtown Kyoto shopping arcade between a reggae-themed clothes stall and a hyper-hip music store blaring a conjoined brain-shred of Burning Spear and Infected Mushroom, I discovered a Buddhist temple tucked away down a little path, its presence indicated by a marble pedestal supporting a sutra-incised granite prayer wheel that spun effortlessly beneath my reverent fingers, summoning the Unseen. At the temple fountain I performed the ritual hand-washing, then slipped off my shoes and ascended the smooth wooden steps to the sanctuary. As was often the case at the dozens of shrines and temples I visited in my two weeks in Japan, I had the place to myself. The tatami matting comforted my weary tourist feet, grounding me to serenity. Only a few yards away music still thudded from the teeming mall, but I no longer heard it. I was far elsewhere, in a place I cannot describe, but which was far more immediate to me than the world I returned to, refreshed and at rest, a little while later.

I put together a butsudan once I got back to the States, to commemorate and re-live that rescuing tranquility. Japanese butsudan are exquisite objects, but they can seem too much like dollhouses for gods--a profusion of gilded lacquer and ornamentation as costly as the owner can afford, with expensive ritual food offerings and rare flowers and images meant to be worshipped. I'm not sure the Buddha would have approved, prince though he was. So I took a little yard-sale table and spray-painted it black, and placed it in the southwest corner of my reading room--that direction is special to me, since it evokes the Four Corners--and above the table I hung a batik picture of Kwannon, the goddess of mercy. On the table I arranged the following objects:

A dish full of mostly blue-and-white porcelain shards collected during my trip. It's very common to find bits of broken offering bowls and cups around shrines and Shinto graves; earthquake tremors or misadventure are most likely to blame for the breakage, since vandalism seems virtually nonexistent in Japan (with the exception of Western-style graffiti around Tokyo's Shinjuku ward, where Lost in Translation was filmed--why is it that the rest of the world seems to choose the worst things about America to emulate?). I grouped the shards around a simple holder enclosing a stick of the kind of incense sold only at shrines, thick, slow-burning and divinely fragrant.

A wooden statuette of the type called the Weeping Buddha, face buried in and hidden by agonized hands, knees bent in fetal angst instead of the customary crosslegged attitude.

A little brass handbell from India, thrillingly sweet and clear at even the slightest ring, that my grandmother borrowed from me for my great-grandmother's use during her final illness; one of the very few things I possess from my past.

Pebbles collected over many years from many countries, and a 27-bead mala of rose quartz and jade that I made myself.

A vase to contain fresh sprigs of the evergreen cherry laurel that grows around the house, reminding me that winter can't kill everything.

Every morning I stand at my butsudan and ring the bell, and drape my mala over my hands and make the sign of the wai, and bow my head in reflection. I don't pray because I can't, but my hopes tend to take the following shape:

May I be grateful for this day, and live it as well as I can.
May I perform some action that makes a good difference.
May my creative energies be focused to their sharpest, and find their best expression.
May I always cherish others for their kindness, and remember that harboring ill will weakens the soul.
May I be mindful that of all qualities, arrogance is the most injurious, and the ability to forgive the noblest.
May I always recognize delusion and avoid it, and may those now in error do the same.
May I never forget that only the end of the world is the end of the world.

I then think of people and situations I'm especially concerned about, hoping the best for them; and then I bow twice and proceed with the rest of my day, wishing it might be tinged by the ritual. To my grateful surprise, it very often is.



Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Scribbling Itch

12:21 PM PST, November 15, 2008

November is, and has been since 1998, National Novel Writing Month. According to recent studies, many more Americans are writing instead of reading, and no wonder.

One of Paul Simon's songs begins with the feeling observation "When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school/It's a wonder I can think at all." By the same token, when I consider the fiction I was forced to read far too soon in that ill-remembered milieu, I can't blame anyone for not cracking a book after graduation. Wuthering Heights and The Scarlet Letter I especially recall as sheer torment, inflicted by the overworked bored on the restless apathetic, taught in a total vacuum with no attention paid to the utterly foreign worlds in which they were set, or the life and times of the authors who created them. What astounds me most is that these books and others of their dour ilk are still being forced upon luckless high schoolers in the same sullen, context-free manner decades later, in a milieu that has changed so much that the name Miranda no longer evokes a brave new world or even Huxley (another author I read far too soon), but instead a cop-uttered formula. Incredibly, it's still a self-perpetuating given that no one voluntarily reads a novel after high school, and since this sole brush with literature will be the last, it needs must be forcibly administered like bitter medicine. For all too many the loathing engendered lasts a lifetime...a stunted, light-deprived lifetime. Some disturbing information can be found at this site, beginning with "1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives." I won't go into the 1/3 of the population that doesn't graduate at all.

Still, there's hope. Lots of people survive high school with their love of reading intact, as I did. Like many others, I look forward to at least a minor renaissance with the upcoming presidency. A holistic approach to literature might come into fashion, thanks to the Internet's invaluable ease of access and wealth of resources that make learning an at least physically effortless pleasure, and galvanize independent spirit of inquiry. Miranda just might rediscover that dream she believed in -- I re-read Brave New World recently online, and it was terrific. I only hope that a Google search someday finds her Shakespeare version in less than the few hundred entries it currently entails.

A wealth of sites offer the entire world's best reading at no cost, and here are three of my favorites:
The Digital Book Index


Tuesday, September 30, 2008


1:11 AM PDT, September 30, 2008

Now and again I'm asked if I use specific people as templates for the characters I write about. I always reply that I prefer to create people that I wish existed.

The closest I've ever come to basing fiction on reality happened some years ago, when I participated in a collaborative fantasy tale on a now-defunct forum. The other writers were so incredibly good--I've never seen such varied talent assembled in such quantity before or since -- that it was a privilege to join them. I contributed a storybook princess who embodied the most predictable features of the quintessential Mary Sue. Stunning good looks, a quick way with a sword, a deft hand with Rachmaninoff...she could have easily been insufferable, had it not been for her constant run of abysmally bad luck. I remember it being said that people felt too sorry for her to hate her.

What I most liked about my princess was getting the chance to be her. She was not demonstrative, but she felt deeply. She loved beauty. She was gentle and generous and brave. She could no more betray a confidence than she could lay bare the secrets of her heart -- an obstinacy not conducive to happy endings.


Sunday, September 28, 2008


12:35 PM PDT, September 28, 2008

I've been following the presidential race this year as impartially as I can. For a keen and compassionate understanding of the crucial importance of this kind of detachment, I offer Father Joseph S. O'Leary's gentle essay, which compares two great belief systems in a political context.

Instead of the loaded language of a handshake, perhaps the contenders in the struggle might consider this gesture, which respects both one's person and one's privacy.

"The first duty of love is to listen." ~Paul Tillich


Friday, July 04, 2008

Russia With Relish

5:07 PM PDT, July 4, 2008

While browsing about in the local Blockbuster last week in search of surprises, I chanced upon Russian Ark, set entirely in the Winter Palace of Catherine the Great, now the Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, and "filmed using a single 90-minute Steadicam sequence shot," according to Wikipedia, which I consulted immediately after viewing. The camera meanders and gyrates far too quickly through many splendid chambers and several periods of expensively costumed history, guided by an oft-flummoxed and frequently exasperating old man dressed in circa 1830s garb. Thanks to Wiki, I learned that the gentleman was the Marquis de Custine, and that Russian Ark had portrayed him with an injustice that, now that I'm better informed, seems almost criminal.

You can find anything on the Internet, and I soon located Astolphe de Custine's two-volume travel journal, La Russie en 1839. Since I've visited St. Petersburg and the Hermitage, love most things French and relish well-told anecdotes, I found de Custine unputdownable. Far from being the clueless buffoon of Russian Ark, the Marquis comes across as a man of great cultivation, discretion and ironic charm. Many of his observations struck me as having particular relevance for our own time, like this one that describes France during the Revolution, yet seems only too well suited to the current state of arts and letters:

"La lutte entre le bien et le mal soutient l'intérêt du drame de la vie; mais quand le triomphe du crime est assuré, la monotonie rend l'existence accablante, et l'ennui ouvre la porte de l'enfer."

("The battle between good and evil sustains interest in the drama of life; but when the triumph of crime is assured, monotony renders existence unbearable, and boredom opens the gates of Hell.")


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Idling with Edith

6:14 PM PDT, March 25, 2008

Now that ABNA's laid to rest I've been clearing my palate via Project Gutenberg, reading whatever strikes my airy fancy. In the past few days I've read Sheridan LeFanu's Carmilla, a vampire tale contemporary with Bram Stoker's Dracula; the unsparingly frank memoirs of the Countess Palatine Elizabeth, who was sister-in-law to Louis XIV; some of Robert E. Howard's endearingly overwrought Conan yarns; French accounts (all approving) of life in harems; and Lady Betty Across the Water, a formulaic but delightfully fizzy romance involving a young English aristocrat coping with us Yankee barbarians at the turn of the 20th century.

The last story led me to Eliot Gregory's Worldly Ways and Byways, a collection of American essays written for the Idler, a magazine similar to our own Vanity Fair, during the year 1897. Gregory's observations combine upper-crust anecdotery with Puritanical carpings in an oddly charming way, and I was much diverted by descriptions of life in the last throes of the Gilded Age; but what struck me most was a passage from the essay "Living on Your Friends," describing the idle young men of good family who spend their lives cadging free dinners, yacht cruises, opera tickets and other necessities of life:

"So far, I have spoken of this class in the masculine, which is an error, as the art is successfully practised by the weaker sex, with this shade of difference. As an unmarried woman is in less general demand, she is apt to attach herself to one dear friend, always sure to be a lady in possession of fine country and city houses and other appurtenances of wealth, often of inferior social standing; so that there is give and take, the guest rendering real service to an ambitious hostess. The feminine aspirant need not be handsome. On the contrary, an agreeable plainness is much more acceptable, serving as a foil. But she must be excellent in all games, from golf to piquet, and willing to play as often and as long as required. She must also cheerfully go in to dinner with the blue ribbon bore of the evening, only asked on account of his pretty wife (by the bye, why is it that Beauty is so often flanked by the Beast?), and sit between him and the “second prize” bore. These two worthies would have been the portion of the hostess fifteen years ago; she would have considered it her duty to absorb them and prevent her other guests suffering. Mais nous avons changé tout cela. The lady of the house now thinks first of amusing herself, and arranges to sit between two favorites."

This paragraph so perfectly describes Lily Bart from Edith Wharton's House of Mirth that I can't help but think it inspired the novel, which came out in 1905. All the smart set read the Idler back then, and Wharton was so much a part of that heirarchy that its social complexities finally drove her to a nervous breakdown.

Lily's problem was, of course, being far too handsome.


Friday, January 11, 2008


10:31 AM PST, January 11, 2008

I've always loved those black and white movies from the 30s and 40s where men wear hats and women wear gloves, and where dead bodies, if they're around at all, are never shown.

One of my favorite moments in It's A Wonderful Life happens early on, when Mary (Donna Reed) receives a letter at the prom, then instantly turns to the people at her table and asks, in the most winningly natural tone, "May I?" before opening the envelope.

James M. Barrie best defined the essence of this compelling quality, charm: "It's a sort of bloom on a woman. If you have it, you don't need to have anything else; and if you don't have it, it doesn't much matter what else you have."

When I think of charm in a man, I remember Humphrey Bogart's rare, boyish, dazzling smile.


Saturday, January 05, 2008

This Sense Most Essential

4:58 PM PST, January 5, 2008

For sheer utter torment that teaches a lesson, a speck of grit under a contact lens can really be an eye-opener.

I have extreme congenital myopia, near-sightedness so bad that without glasses and contact lenses life’s one big blur. If you sat three feet away from me and grinned your widest, I wouldn’t be able to gauge your facial expression with my naked eyes. It amazes me that people can wake up in the morning and actually see the world around them clearly from the get-go.

Back in the days when my condition wasn’t correctable, history suffered—the emperor Nero, whose well-documented affliction made him paranoid to the point of insanity, is a notable example. Even when remedies came along, rulers didn’t use them since use implied weakness, and thus Louis XVI, though expert at the meticulous craft of locksmithing (he could focus to a couple of inches, as I can), had no way of judging the expressions on the faces of his courtiers or the citoyens, with disastrous results; it didn’t help that his wife Marie Antoinette was blind to all save her flatterers. Robert B. Edgerton, writing about the Crimean War in his book Death or Glory, notes that “Eyeglasses were worn by a few officers at this time, but many hopelessly near-sighted officers were so vain that they chose to do without them”—certainly an enhancement to calamity. In the present day it’s by no means unusual, so I hear, for near-sighted members of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) to forego their wonted eyewear during re-enactments no matter what; I can only imagine how many tent-ropes get tripped over.

I’d probably have been a very different, no doubt happier person had I been born with perfect vision, but time has made me a counter of blessings. Bad sight beats none at all, and a childhood as Four Eyes made me fulfill the stereotype to the hilt, giving me the infinite world of books in return. As the old song has it, wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now.


Thursday, January 03, 2008

If Beauty Is Difficult, Then...

5:36 PM PST, January 3, 2008

One of the first phrases I learned long ago when taking classical Greek was Plato's Χαλεπὰ τὰ καλά, beauty is difficult. Those words mean more to me the longer I live, and I considered them yet again on this first day of yet another new year.

If beauty -- meaning the search for it, and the understanding of it, and the love for it -- is indeed difficult, does that mean that the reverse is true as well, and that ugly is easy?


If you write, as I do, try writing something really disgusting sometime. Plumb your seamiest depths and just have at it. You'll be astonished, perhaps frightened, at how effortless it is, how the words gush like a burst sewer onto the page. Your gorge will be rising in no time, and you'll turn away shuddering at the wrong you did to your soul. If you don't, I pity you with all my heart.