While clearing blackberries today with my new best friend, a cordless chainsaw, I thought about how I’m losing all sense of proportion.
Thank heavens. I just hope I can keep going until every last bit of proportionality is lost. I feel like I’m halfway there, but the fact that my mind can spit out an expression like “halfway” shows how far I have to go.
This afternoon I took a break from the blackberries to eat some lunch and get the mail. A letter had come from a book reviewer to whom I had written a plaintive query: “Why haven’t you reviewed ‘Return to the One’ when it is so obviously an important book that your readers should know about?”
He told me that his editor wants him “to keep his column confined to basically ‘general audience’ books” and that he wouldn’t be reviewing my book. I spent a few minutes rehearsing eloquent counter-arguments until I realized that I’d never talk with this reviewer, nor his editor.
If they don’t think there is an audience for one of the best-written books about one of the most important Western mystic philosophers, to hell with them. And to hell with all of the other reviewers who have ignored “Return to the One” so far. That’s the attitude I took with me as I returned to my blackberry labors.
Ever since Christmas, when I got the chainsaw as a gift from myself, I’ve been spending a lot of time clearing blackberry brambles. There’s a lot of other things I could be doing, and indeed should be doing, but I’ve been ignoring them. I like getting dirty (and bloody). I like freeing willows, ferns, and other oppressed vegetation from their blackberry prisons.
As it was getting dark today I finished clearing this rotting stump from a tangle of vines. I felt really good. I like to imagine that the ferns felt good too.
It can take hours to clear a small blackberry-infested area on our newly-acquired five acres. I have no idea what the cost-benefit ratio is of what I’m doing. I don’t think there is such a ratio. What is the worth of revealing a marvelous mossy log that we will enjoy looking at every time we walk by?
I don't know. Nature makes me lose all sense of proportion. When I’m pulling blackberry vines off of a tree, at that moment it strikes me as the most important thing in the world to do. And so it is.
Often I’m embarrassed to tell the truth when people ask me, “How long did it take you to write your book?” I mumble something like, “Oh, a few years. It was a lot of work.” For some reason I don’t want them to know how much time I put into the book, and how little I’ve gotten back—in terms of money, sales, recognition, that is.
I looked in my thick “Return to the One” correspondence file just now to remind myself of when I started pondering Plotinus. It was June 1996. Eight years from vague idea to concrete published reality. I didn’t work full-time on the book, but my labors deserve a grander description than “a lot of work.” Words fail me. Let’s just say, “It was more work than you can imagine.”
So, today I’m clearing blackberries and thinking about what I put into the book and what I’ve gotten out of it. Input: eight years, thousands of dollars, dozens of manuscript drafts written and rewritten, dozens of scholarly books read and analyzed. Output: a few hundred books sold, a few obscure reviews published.
And would I do it all over again? Of course. Those “inputs” and “outputs” are bullshit. They don’t begin to describe what I put into the book and what I’ve gotten out of it. Even more: really, there isn’t any difference between the two. Input, output. Cost, benefit. Cause, effect.
I have no idea where one begins and the other ends.
Somewhere in the midst of those crazy, unproportioned eight years I made a vow. To Plotinus, and to me. To a long-dead Greek philosopher and to a still-living Oregon writer. I vowed that I would write the best, the truest, the clearest book about Plotinus’s teachings that I could.
If other people liked it, fine. But I cared a lot more about whether Plotinus liked it. And whether I liked it. I’m not sure about Plotinus; I am sure about me. Eight years of work, two readers to please in the end. The work and the pleasing—they all blend together. There’s no way to tell how proportional something is when you can’t tell one side from the other.
I took a photo of my blackberry clearing area today. The setting sun was behind me. I could see a shadow of me taking a photo of my shadow. It struck me that I’m as unsubstantial as that one-dimensional Brian projection. Fifty years, five years, five months, five days, five minutes, or whenever from now the blackberry clearer is going to be no more.
Where is the proportionality in that? I’ve spend a lifetime working on being me, and then…what? The known of my life bears no proportion to the unknown of my afterlife.
Compared to that (there I go again, still trying to hold onto proportion), it doesn’t matter whether I’m writing a book or clearing blackberries. Whether anyone reads the book or if the blackberries grow back. Whether what I’m saying right now makes sense to anybody else or if it sounds like gibberish.
There’s freedom in losing all sense of proportion. Maybe the only real freedom.