I keep a record of the books I read on the social media site Goodreads. I don’t really interact there. I essentially do it because I like the page that shows all the covers of the books I read, slowly growing, one at a time. It pleases me. In a life of very few measurable accomplishments, it’s cool to see a visual representation of the pleasure I’ve found in books.
The other night I added a recently-read book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, by Pema Chödrön. It’s a Buddhist work I’ve had recommended to me many times, and I finally got around to reading it. What struck me, though, was that when the page displayed it showed references to the book by members of my Goodreads friend list. At the very top of the list was a review from my good friend, Ron Scheer. It was an odd coincidence, as he posted his review within a couple exact days of my update, only five years prior. And my post was only two weeks after the two year anniversary of Ron’s death on April 11, 2015. There is a beautiful remembrance of Ron at his website by another friend of mine, David Cranmer (the first person to ever publish my fiction, in fact). You may read it here.
This is Ron’s review of the Chödrön book, and it is spot on:
I was just finishing this book in September 2001 when the events of 9-11 turned the world upside down, and things truly fell apart. There suddenly were all the vulnerable feelings that Pema Chödrön encourages us to embrace: fear, sorrow, loneliness, groundlessness. And in the days of shock and grief that followed, there was that brief and abundant display of “maitri,” or loving kindness, which emerged in waves of generosity and compassion for one another. For a while, we were in the world that she points to as an alternative to the everyday routine of getting, spending, and constant activity.
It is nearly impossible to summarize or characterize this fine book. In some 150 pages it covers more than a person could hope to absorb in many years, if not a lifetime. We may know the Buddha’s famous insight that human pain and suffering result from desire and aversion. But few writers have been able to articulate as well as Chödrön the implications of that insight in ways that make sense to the Western mind. As just one example from this book, her discussion of the “six kinds of loneliness” (chap. 9) illustrates how our desires to achieve intimacy with others are an attempt to run away from a deep experience of ourselves. Our continuing efforts to establish security for ourselves are a denial of fundamental truths, which prevents our deep experience of the joy of living. Our reluctance to love ourselves and others shrivels our hearts.
Chödrön invites us to be fascinated, as she is, by paradox. On hopelessness and death (chap. 7) she writes: “If we’re willing to give up hope that insecurity and pain can be exterminated, then we can have the courage to relax with the groundlessness of our situation. This is the first step on the path.” She gets us to acknowledge our restlessness (even our spiritual restlessness) for what it is, something we do instead of simply paying attention to ourselves in the moment and to what happens next, without judgment or preconceptions.
In addition to this book, I recommend acquiring one or more of her audio tapes and hearing her voice as she speaks before audiences. For all the high-mindedness that may come across in descriptions like the one above, or what you might take away by reading the cover of her book, Chödrön is down to earth and unpretentious, speaking in her American accent (don’t let the appearance of her name fool you) and with a self-effacing sense of humor. Her message is in her manner, as much as it is in what she says.
This is a book to buy and read, and reread at intervals, for it is always new, always speaking to you exactly where you are, right now.
Ron was a kind and gentle man who was, in many ways, something of a mentor of mine, despite the bulk of our interactions occurring online or via email. I’m reminded of him often when I am looking something up on this site and find a comment from him on a given post. I was fortunate to have met him in person when he was in Missoula in 2011 for a conference on western fiction, a topic he was a true scholar of. I miss him, and given the wide net his kindness and curiosity cast, I’m certain I’m not alone in that.
Here we are together that October Saturday in 2011. I’m shorter of hair and much less beardy than I am now, and today’s version of that vest betrays even more mileage than my face currently does. Ron, though, looks as I will always remember him, smiling under his cowboy hat.