It’s All One Story

Photo: Ploughshares

We are readers, my partner Dave and me. And given the current sheltering at home circumstances in the world, we are, like many others, ingesting even more. (When a friend called us “a pair of bloody whales”–referencing their prodigious ability to filter and digest 8,000 pounds of krill every day–I had to admit being flattered by the analogy!) 

Filtering is a skill for sure, but so is retention. And that is where I have no prowess. People who knew Susan Sontag often refer to her steel trap memory, how she could reference whole passages from books she had read years earlier. But as our weaknesses can be the window into our most authentic selves, my retentive shortfall was the very reason I started writing on Slow Muse in the first place. If I don’t get it down, it’s as good as gone. So this site became my commonplace book, my external hard drive. What I am figuring out now is that “shorter but more frequent” may be better suited for the times we are in.

If you haven’t read The Overstory by Richard Powers, I hope you will. It isn’t my nature to be prescriptive or programmatic—too many books, too little time. But every once in a while a universal donor book appears, and The Overstory is one of those.

In her review of the book Barbara Kingsolver wrote, “People will only read stories about people, as this author knows perfectly well. The Overstory is a delightfully choreographed, ultimately breathtaking hoodwink.” Yes, this is an exquisite literary invitation to consider what it means to be part of the larger fabric of life, to no longer live as if we are separate from the rest of the living world. Connectivity goes so far beyond the human family.

It has been two years since The Overstory was published, a year since it won the Pulitzer Prize. And I am still thinking about it. A lot.

In a recent interview in Emergence magazine, Kinship, Community, and Consciousness (also available as a podcast,) Richard Powers is open and candid about how this book came to be and how the writing of it changed his life. The entire interview is worthy reading/hearing.

The extract below was chosen to share because it hits on a few concepts that have been ongoing themes for me, ones I have written about frequently on Slow Muse. These are wise words from Richard Powers about awe, fear and humility, and he is speaking with particular clarity right about now.

Awe as an emotion is close to other emotions that we’ve been taught to be deeply uncomfortable with. Awe and fear are not that far from each other, and our whole culture is based upon the attempted annihilation of fear, the myth that we can somehow make ourselves safe…

The other emotion that awe is very close to is humility. The realization that there is no separate mode of existence, that our very lives are dependent upon the lives of others, over which we can have no control, and the renunciation of control is something that does not come easy to us. It’s not simply sufficient to be appreciative or amazed or delighted by the immense diversity and fecundity and ingenuity and inventiveness of other living things. To be truly filled with awe, you also have to be aware of your own transience, your own ephemerality, your own relative insignificance in this huge community. Those aren’t easy for us—to go from the lord and master to just another member of a big community. That’s a tough lesson. That’s a tough step.

17 Replies to “It’s All One Story”

  1. Shorter and more frequent is fine with me – I always enjoy your insights. And I, too, loved The Overstory – one of the all-time great novels.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks Dara for your words. And of course you are an Overstory fan. All the best.

  2. Love the social distancing wisdom of the trees above your overstory. Be well.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Exactly why I chose that image! I went through all my tree photos–I have thousands–but none did it as well. My ever observant friend!

  3. how’s emergence magazine?
    best thing i’ve seen on the web for a looooooooooooooong time… since Arthur Versluis’s ‘Esoterica’, in fact.

    thanks for this.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Yes, new to me but some very good content. Thanks so much.

  4. Bonjour Deborah,
    What about a poetic suggestion -hope it’s not off topic – that might also be a meditation guidance exercise about the feeling we have of our own transience, awe, or fear?
    It is a very short poem that reminds me of some haïkus from Richard Brautigan. This one is from Eugene Guillevic (in: Art Poétique) :
    “A program
    For today :
    You are flower
    And you see
    The bee coming in”.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      This is so epigrammatic and quixotic, I am delighted that you posted this here. I welcome any and all.

  5. Sloan Nota says:

    Deb, when my friend in Oregon said she was going to read Overstory I figured I didn’t need to because I’d already read The Secret Life of Trees. Light dawns. I’ll get it. Thanks.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Having read (and loved) both, yes. Each is necessary. xoxo

  6. Diana R Johnson says:

    I loved, “a pair of bloody whales”–referencing their prodigious ability to filter and digest 8,000 pounds of krill every day–I had to admit being flattered by the analogy!) both parts! It made me laugh! I recall those mounds of books lying about your home in various stages of read, and it makes me laugh to know that you enjoy who you are.
    Richard Power’s words get straight to the heart of it, Universal connectivity!
    With loving kindness to All

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks Di. All true. Books, books, everywhere. And that is so comforting right about now…

  7. Tom Litster says:

    Deborah, this is a wonderful novel. Thanks for alerting me to the interview you reference.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      I am not surprised you agree on this book. Thank you!

  8. Jill Blanchard says:

    Deborah, thanks so calling attention to this most important book and for finding the perfect description for “The Overstory.” For me, I think not only a “universal donor,” but an eternal one as well. So many passages act like a yoga practice, bringing you through a period of exercise, working muscles and perfecting positions, and then, bringing you to a final period of rest. I practice a little yoga and a little Powers almost everyday.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Jill, You were the one who, in her wisdom, wrote to me about this book when it first came out. I owe you an endless thank you for that sharing. Thank you also for your words here.

    2. Jill my copy just came. All along I thought it was nonfiction about trees. Now I’m ready to dive in. Much appreciate your comparison to yoga.

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