22: “Enough Words of Power” (Le Guin & Wodehouse)

        “Maybe we’ve had enough words of power and talk about the battle of life.” -Ursula Le Guin

        In one of P.H. Wodehouse’s wonderfully silly books, he has a poet named Rocky. One of Rocky’s poems starts like this (and apparently Wodehouse thinks we don’t need any more of it, because this is all we ever get):

        “Be!
        Be!
        The past is dead.
        To-morrow is not born.
        Be to-day!
        To-day!
        Be with every nerve,
        With every muscle,
        With every drop of your red blood!
        Be!”

        After quoting the poem, Wodehouse goes on to explain that sooner or later Rocky is going to inherit some money from an aunt, and when he does, “he meant to do no work at all, except perhaps an occasional poem recommending the young man with life opening out before him, with all its splendid possibilities, to light a pipe and shove his feet upon the mantelpiece.” We’re meant to chuckle, and I, at least, chuckle. But then I wonder. I like the very-American “live!” idea that Wodehouse is mocking, and isn’t the rich future-Rocky just being lazy?
        Well, yes. But also, no. For one thing, that pesky word “just” is almost never accurate–it usually serves to narrow down a whole situation to one consideration, and most of life doesn’t work like that. Besides, Ursula Le Guin doesn’t say that life isn’t ever a battle, she says we may have talked about it that way too much. That perspective, the power-perspective, certainly tempts me. Sometimes the solution might be to be stronger, to soldier on. But there are other ways to look at life. Sometimes the solution might be crying, or trying a different route then the one you’d planned. Sometimes there might not be any solution at all.
        When I was younger I kayaked with my family (and it terrified and inspired me). One kayak paddle company has the slogan, “Paddle Like a Predator.” And I knew some people who faced the river and the roar of the rapids like that: like predators, and they clawed their way through the waves. My mother called another strategy the “buddha boy” approach: feeling the currents of the river, feeling how, most of the time, the current was going a way that you could go, too. Paddling like the river was a friend or a playmate or a teacher or a mystery, to be followed, listened to, and worked with, instead of prey to be captured or another lion to be fought.
        We know about the battle, about power and struggle; but how else could we look at the river before us?

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