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Powell's Q&A

David James Duncan

Describe your latest project.
In nonviolent but deep disagreement with a so-called "Christian Right" that believes (like the "Muslim Right") that God judges and punishes and that they themselves speak for God, I've written a book called God Laughs and Plays.

The book is a collection of what I call "churchless sermons" united by my belief that the way of life preached and embodied by Jesus in the Gospels is meant to be an example to Christians. This way of life is apolitical and uninterested in distinctions between Left and Right. It is free of media machinery including TV and its debased evangelism. (Jesus is an acoustic mystery, not an electronic one.) Jesus scorns riches and embraces the poor; he blesses peacemakers, not war-makers, he asks us to love and serve neighbors without distinction, as did he when defending tax men, Samaritans (i.e. "foreigners"), bartenders, and the noble prostitute Mary Magdalene. I hold that Jesus' words and example order Christians to "do good" even unto enemies, and to serve creation and humanity "on earth as it is in heaven." I hold that via the line "the kingdom of heaven is within you," Jesus places the spiritual goal within us now, to be sought, found, and embodied here and now, not in the Sky at the time of an Apocalypse.

I chose the title God Laughs and Plays because in my day-to-day life as a human being, and in my imaginative life as a writer, the best deeds and work spring out of a spirit of play. Of course much good work and good writing is in response to pain. But the banal little words "play" and "fun" have definitions that can broaden and deepen to address pain: to allow real sorrow, pain and joy to come as they will, open oneself to each in turn, and respond to them via deeds, or the truest words one can set down on paper, is the truest "fun" and "play" I know. The lightheartedness born of such playfulness colors our interactions with others so profoundly that I've come to consider lightheartedness one of the crucial shades in the spectrum the religious-minded might call "the light of God."

In defense of this lightheartedness I point out in God Laughs and Plays that the de facto political party embodied by the so-called "Christian Right" has lost sight of the way of Jesus, with devastating results for the entire planet. I touch on various Bush administration policies, fire and brimstone preachers, fascistic agendas, environmental devastation, and diplomatic and military debacles. The difference between my book and the recent truckloads of "anti-Bush screeds" and "Christian bashing" though, is that I'm both an apolitical creature and a spiritual one. I've never belonged to a party, or even been a Sierra Club member, though they publish two of my books. So I don't contrast the "Christian Right" with "liberalism" or "progressivism" or any other "ism." I try, on the contrary to help the reader grow more aware of their own inner life by contrasting the current ruling party with my own lifelong contemplative and literary experiences, and with my lifelong heroes, the mystics. With John of the Cross for instance, who said, "I trust in God that He will make you very happy." Or Mother Teresa, who prayed, "May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in." Or Mahatma Gandhi, who asked, "Why is it only Christians who cannot see the nonviolence of Jesus?" Or Meister Eckhart, who said, "Be as sure of it as you are that God lives: at the least good deed done here in this world, the least bit of good will, the least good desire, God laughs and plays."

If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Regular-Guy Mystic: The story of an East Multnomah County Smart-Ass Who Ended Up in Love with Love

What fictional character would you like to date and why?
I would date my wife, Adrian Arleo, who is as fictitious as all the rest of us, in that she is a cosmic illusion (I'm a real Hindu on this issue). But she also happens to be my love and the mother of our children. So dating fictional women would be frictional.

If you could choose any story to live in, what story would that be? And why?
Sorry to sound like such a boringly grateful bastard, but as with the last question, I'd choose the life I've led at the time and in the places and with the same people among whom I've led it.

I believe in reincarnation and in an ultimate divine union, too, however. So in the end, I reckon, we'll get to live all the stories there are. Endlessly.

I could be wrong about this, but it's a beautiful thought to me.

Offer a favorite passage from another writer.
I love this question. Literature is a paradox in that it's a triumph of concentration and willpower by an individual, but also very much a collective creation. The yearning of large groups of people create what physicists might call "a field effect." Writers are simply the individuals, among these groups, whose gift is language, so that when they contemplate the "field effect" that everybody is feeling, we get to read about it.

Here are not one but four passages that helped me tune in the "field effect" that God Laughs and Plays tries to articulate:

"There is another world, but it is in this one."
W. B. Yeats

"Knowledge is erotic."
Jane Hirshfield

"Worrying is praying for what you don't want."
Chris West

"Suffering is the superiority of man over God. We need the Incarnation to keep that superiority from becoming a scandal."
Simone Weil

What makes your favorite pair of shoes different from the rest?
My Patagonia wading shoes are different from my others in that they have felt soles and fit over waders, and so allow me to walk comfortably for hours in and out of cold moving water. What this does to a walk is pretty amazing. Two days ago, for instance, I crossed a muddy channel that no one in regular shoes could possibly have crossed without getting their shoes sucked off. This brought me, still warm and dry, to a magic island. I then walked miles up through this island, which reminds me of some glorious deer park where the Buddha would hang out — herds of literally a hundred or more whitetail deer fleeing in the distance. Wild turkeys. Moose. Many many kinds of birds. Big serene Ponderosa pines. Great horned owls and bald eagles in the cottonwoods. Aspen groves with white bark, growing in "fairy rings" because the entire grove is a single organism that encloses you as you enter.

At the upper end of this walk I reached a favorite stretch of river where I hooked and after a long time landed a twenty-four-inch brown trout. This is a rare fish. A one in a ten thousand fish, maybe. A trout this big and powerful, in fast water, remains invisible for the longest time as you play it. On the end of a sensitive rod, this invisible life feels as though the kingdom of heaven is hidden inside the river and you have hooked into the kingdom and it's electrocuting you with a strange feeling that enters your hand and shoots up your arm and soon fills your whole body. It is indescribable to finally capture and briefly hold such a wild, shining creature in your hands, then quell its fear by returning it to its kingdom.

Combining such walks with my love for contemplative literature, I trudge along in my favorite shoes, on the way back to my little truck with the Live Aloha bumpersticker, thinking about the saints and mystics. Catherine of Siena, for example, said, "All the way to heaven is heaven." On the face of it, I was thinking the other day, this is an insanely optimistic statement that flies in the face of a ton of our grimmest experiences. Yet Catherine of Siena was no fool. Nor was she sheltered. She lived in a time of hatred, and she made her outrageous statement even though half of Italy and beloved members of her family were killed, during her early childhood, by the Black Death.

Catherine owned no felt-soled wading shoes, I was thinking, and so maybe took no Magic Island walks. But my theory is that she walked around feeling as though she was playing a fish like my Magic Island Brown Trout anyway. Catherine of Siena, it seemed to me in my favorite shoes the other day, somehow hooked an invisible and interior fish that somehow connected her to kingdom and electrocuted her daily with joy.

And you know what? I believe what I was thinking in my best shoes on my magic island the other day. I believe Catherine was playing such a fish. I believe we are, too. And hope we grow ever more vividly aware of it.

Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
A young woman named Jessie Harriman, from West Virginia, read and liked my novel The Brothers K, and planned to have me sign it for her when she attended a conference in Seattle, where I was scheduled to speak. What she didn't know is that a writing teacher of hers in Virginia is a friend of mine, and told me of her plan in a letter. The same teacher sent me a couple of Jessie's student essays — and she is a brilliant young writer.

Fast forward to Seattle, where I have given a talk and am sitting at a table signing books. A young woman I've never seen before arrives with her Bros. K and asks in a West Virginia accent if I will sign her book. I reach into my briefcase, pull out her essay, and say, "Sure, if you'll sign your wonderful essay for me."

So she did. So I did, too. We autographed our work for each other simultaneously. And became friends. And found out we're both feeling a lot of the same "field effects." As a result, you'll find Jessie Harriman in the opening pages of God Laughs and Plays saying, "The way I see it, a mystic takes a peek at God and then does her best to show the rest of us what she saw...."

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