For A While We Were In The World

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.

We spoke instead of things that mattered, like motorcycles and women and the places we loved.

Are you a fan of James Crumley? Then dig this: The following is an excerpt from a guest post by Ralph Beer of my friend Ron Scheer’s excellent blog, Buddies in the Saddle. Check it out:

the-last-good-kiss-coverThere was more to Jim Crumley than most folks saw, at least at first. It took a while before he’d let people in. I was fortunate enough to spend time with Crumley outside the usual Missoula writers’ scene, which could get cheesy and inbred. We once drove from Montana to New York City together to attend to bookish affairs that involved agents and editors and going to lunch. Jim and I cut wood at Annick Smith’s place near Potomac, and hunted mule deer at my Dad’s ranch, where Jim used his father’s old lever-action to kill a couple nice bucks. The summer I spent in Missoula working on a novel, we’d get together in the afternoons and drive the backroads, smoking a little of this and that, sipping cold beers and talking. We didn’t talk much about books or writing. We spoke instead of things that mattered, like motorcycles and women and the places we loved.

I never met Crumley, though I did see him around town. I’ve never met Ralph Beer either, but will definitely order his essay collection. Neil McMahon, mentioned in the essay, I have met, and he is a great guy. Hope to cross paths with him again. Speaking of Neil, he has released his early horror novels as eBooks. They are well worth checking out, as are his detective novels.

Friends Come, and Then They Go

Still recovering from a very busy stretch this past weekend. The Montana Festival of the Book, an event I look forward to each year, was happening. Simultaneous this year was the Western Literary Association conference. The significance of these two events is that two good friends I’ve made in the past year or so would be in town; fellow blogger and friend Ron Scheer (also a frequent commenter in these parts) would be up from LA to attend the WLA conference. He teaches writing at USC. In addition, Bonnie Jo Campbell would be here to attend the Festival of the Book where she would be on a panel and also one of the trio of readers at the closing Gala Reading at the Wilma Theater. Julia and I had met and spent time with Bonnie earlier this year, so we knew what to expect (Irreverence. Wine. Donkey Talk. Mayhem.) But I’d never met Ron in person before, so didn’t really know what to expect.

Turns out Ron pretty much defines gentleman. We met at the Wilma after the Thomas McGuane reading Thursday night (which was fantastic; McGuane read his recent story from The New Yorker called “The House On Sand Creek” and it was a riot) then headed down the street to The Missoula Club for a couple beers and a Mo Burger. As has been common with many folks I’ve met, it was like we’d been friends forever. It was just a great time. Saw him again early Saturday morning when he stopped by the market to meet Julia.

Friday afternoon Julia and I picked Bonnie up at the airport. Later that night we attended the fancy author/reader meet and greet at the Florence Hotel. That was a lot of fun. Bonnie is just great to be around. We also met and had a blast hanging out a bit with Kelly Kathleen Ferguson, who went to school in Missoula and now teaches at OU in Athens, OH, which happens to be one of my favorite towns (and not just for being the hometown of the mighty SKELETONWITCH; new album out in North America today!). We also spent some time chatting with Jenny Shank, another writer I’d been looking forward to meeting. Then we wrapped up the evening downstairs at the wine bar in The Red Bird with more friends over wine, beer, and tasty appetizers. It was a whirlwind evening, and it was a lot of fun. Bonnie has all the pictures from that shindig, though, and she better hook a brother up.

Saturday Bonnie and I inhabited the front row at the short story panel “When Less is More — The Short Story” (which included Glen Chamberlain, Alan Heathcock, Shann Ray, and Melanie Rae Thon), after which it was lunch at El Cazador, then back to the conference for her panel, “I’m in a Western State of Mind — the Novel.” She was worried about her inability to say anything brilliant. She was excellent. She shared the stage with Jonathan Evison, Joe Henry, and Jenny Shank.

Saturday night Bonnie killed it at the Gala Reading. Here she shared the stage with nonfiction author Mary Clearman Blew, and Montana Poet Laureate Sheryl Noethe (who was really, really awesome). I managed a couple decent shots.

Bonnie flew out early Sunday morning, but Ron hung out until evening. We took him up to the Bison Range, and the weather couldn’t have been better. I still have some work to do on the photos I took, but here’s a shot of Ron standing on top of the world, with the mighty Mission Mountains behind him.

It was a great weekend. The sad part is that we won’t be able to hang out with any of these new friends again anytime soon. We’ll miss them.