Craig Smith is an author and web designer, a translator to and from dead languages, the well-respected and well-read author of the blog Notes from the Dreamtime, the translator of The Inclusive Bible and a shaman. Even better than that, he is my exceptionally good friend.
Craig has been interviewing interesting characters for some time now. But no one has interviewed him. While I could not believe such an oversight, I sought to correct it. The result is below.
Late Monday night, Adam emailed me and asked, “So who’s doing your interview?” I replied that he was the first to offer. On Tuesday morning, these questions appeared in my mailbox. I replied that he was the cruelest human on the face of the planet.
His questions both terrify and exhilarate me, which I guess means they’re good ones.
1. You spend much of your time, it seems, as an editor. Thurber once wrote about editing, “Editing should be, especially in the case of old writers, a counseling rather than a collaborating task. The tendency of the writer-editor to collaborate is natural, but he should say to himself, “How can I help this writer to say it better in his own style?” and avoid “How can I show him how I would write it, if it were my piece?”
Do you prefer to be an editor or collaborator? Or do you play both roles or either role depending upon with whom you are working?
The latter. It depends entirely on the writer.
A good writer—that is, one who has a strong writing style and a good command of the language—needs minimal editing. Then the task is to find overt mistakes (which the writer in haste simply didn’t notice), and occasionally smooth over rough passages where the writer’s intent doesn’t come through clearly. I am very careful not to change their style, and yes, it’s very much the role of a counselor.
The vast majority of writers fall into a second class. They’re not great writers, they’re just writing as a means to an end. These I take a heavier hand with. For a while I got a reputation for being able to cut a piece in half without the writer even realizing he or she had been edited—”You make me sound so good!” is a comment I’ve heard more than once. For them, I honor the writing style they’re trying to establish, but which they haven’t quite succeeded in creating. For them, I am definitely more collaborative.
Occasionally I come across bad writers. Honestly, I want nothing to do with most of them. I don’t want to read them, I don’t want to correct them, I just want them to go away. A few are on the bubble, and if I like the individuals at all, I absolutely want to show them how I’d approach it if it were my piece.
2. You once traveled, though shortly, rather extensively across the U.S. Whether you were in search of something, drawn by something, or leaving something may be of debate, but travel you did, and you wrote about it rather extensively in your blog before stopping short. Many of your readers might think you stopped before a revelation or just at the point you found a portion of your travel unresolved.
A Zen monk once asked, “It is the same moon outside and the same person inside, so why not sit?” Does location really make a difference or is it the process of transition? What did you gain? What did you lose? What is stuck? Could you have done as well staying at home? Does changing location change the person?
“Many” of my readers? Really?
Did I stop just before some major revelation? I didn’t think I did, but maybe you’re right. I had gone all revisionist on it in my mind; I thought I had stopped writing about the trip shortly before I took that long break between last December and this April, but it turns out my last Big Trip post was in March of 2007. I was shocked when I realized that.
Let’s see, when last I left the story, I had just visited Little Bighorn and was heading toward Bozeman. And I guess I do view Bozeman as the gateway to the most significant part of the journey. It doesn’t feel like I’m afraid to dig deep and expose something important, but my behavior may be telling another story. I’ll have to look at that.
That said, each trip post takes a long time to write. At the time I remember thinking I wanted to do some lighter, faster, easier posts, to take a little break. But you and Indigo have rattled my cage long enough; I’ll have a new Big Trip post next week.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but that trip changed everything for me. You know how a lot of people personify Nature, talk blithely about the Web of All Being, and speak of divine immanence as being “the Goddess”? I knew all that, intellectually, but on the trip (somewhere in Washington, if I recall, but I haven’t checked my notes in a while) I had a palpable experience of it.
Does location really make a difference? I have no doubt that it’s possible to have any important growth experience in any number of ways. The same truth keeps knocking on our house until we let it in; sometimes it comes in by the door, sometimes through a window, sometimes down the chimney or up through the floorboards.
But for me, it was important to go out on my own, with two thousand bucks in my pocket (and no credit cards), in a car that really wasn’t all that road-worthy, to follow a quiet but insistent tug in my heart—a “calling,” if you will; to camp out in the national forests and wildernesses, searching for some essentially spiritual experience, rather than trying to go sightseeing; to be utterly alone with my thoughts and the world for an extended period of time. All of which I don’t think I could have gotten sitting at home.
“What did you gain? What did you lose? What is stuck?” Tough questions. I gained an understanding of the living, nonphysical energy that interconnects everything in the material world. I gained a hunger for greater personal and physical freedom. I opened the door just a bit to becoming more authentically myself and less what others expect me to be. I lost a parochial worldview, a limited image of who or what God is. I guess I’m still stuck in Comfortville (I laughed as I typed that, because everything in my life seems the opposite of comfortable): I don’t need to risk my life, physical or emotional, right now. I’m all initiation and no completion. As one of my favorite (and one of your least favorite) poets, T.S. Eliot, wrote:
Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act . . .
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow.
3. It has been argued that cues for discrimination that are obvious, such as gender or color, are of greater import than those which are not, such as religion or gender preference.
Is this so? Has discrimination affected you and, if it has, has this been your choice to reveal what could be occult and accept the discrimination as burden?
I don’t know that obvious cues for discrimination are of greater import as much as simply inevitable. When you can’t hide, the bigots have a more obvious target.
I came out in 1982, at the age of 26, shortly after my father’s death. I used to describe it as feeling a cloud of judgment over me had been lifted. In time I came to feel that my father had been a convenient excuse for my not being true to myself. On the other hand, when we decide it’s time to make a change in our lives, I think we probably use whatever tool or trigger is at hand to aid us.
For me it was all tied up (as just about everything is in my life) with my spiritual journey. I was wrestling with the realization that the God I knew intimately and the God of conservative theology (and much of society) were in conflict with one another. I knew that my God valued truth in the inner being above all else, so I knew I had to speak the truth about my sexuality even if it meant being damned for eternity: to save God, as it were, I had to be willing to give up God. And the moment I did, I knew that love and acceptance and was the ultimate truth, and nothing else mattered.
I can’t say I’ve faced a lot of discrimination. Some of it is because I’m not terribly fey (though I’m not terribly butch, either), so many people just assume that everyone is straight unless they announce otherwise. And I don’t wear buttons or have gay bumper stickers, and I tend not to announce it unless or until it comes up naturally. On the other hand, I tend to correct people if they make invalid assumptions about me, because (a) it’s nothing I need to keep quiet about, and (b) it’s no big deal. The older I get, the less I care what anyone thinks. To quote that old philosopher, Popeye, I yam what I yam.
In the ’80s, I lost dozens of gay friends or acquaintances—thirty-two to AIDS, one to a gay-bashing incident, two to drug or alcohol abuse. That was pretty awful. And I’ve seen lots of discrimination; I just haven’t been on the receiving end, except for having a few bottles (and epithets) hurled at me. Annoying, but not that big a deal—just some drunken rednecks.
So I don’t feel much of a burden, honestly. I once had a dream in which I was standing at the creation of the world, and God said, “This time, would you like to be straight instead?” I thought a minute then said, “No thanks, I’m quite happy the way I am.” It was a very satisfying dream.
4. Your religious and spiritual experiences are not quite within what we might call the common American experience. How do you define your present spiritual life? How have you come to where you are? Do you find your spiritual life effective? If so, are you more a spiritual materialist than purist—in other words, do you practice to build ego or to gain something, regardless of what that might be, or for the practice itself? Where do you think you are going with it?
I am an animist because I see all natural phenomena as alive. I’m a pantheist because I see God as synonymous with the material universe. I’m a panentheist because I see God as interpenetrating every part of nature and extending timelessly beyond it as well. I’m a Christian because for me Jesus is God enfleshed, and teaches us how we too can become God enfleshed. I’m an adopted Jew, a God-fearer who learned Hebrew to read the Bible in its original language because I wanted to know what YHWH was really saying. I’m a Buddhist because of the life and teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama, and the silence, and the kōans, and the still point. I’m a Hindu because I revere Ganesha. I’m a Yoruba because I was visited one night by the orisha Shango, the sky father, the god of thunder and ligntning. I’m a pagan because I honor the natural rhythms of the earth, the sun, the moon.
But beyond all those classifications, I am a shaman, because shamanism, stripped of its cultural overlay, is simply a toolbox. It’s how the human brain naturally accesses nonordinary reality. It’s plugging into the way the body and the psyche can be balanced and healed. And it’s what underlies all human religion and spirituality, the barebones of our Selves, if you will.
How have I come to be here? Wow. I guess it’s just a straightforward process of following where my heart and spirit have led me. I would say it’s a combination of the theological and psychic shattering that my coming out afforded, and working through decades of chronic depression until I came to understand myself and God (or spirit or the Universe or whatever terminology you want to use) and the world in a radically different way.
I’m not sure what an “effective” spiritual life would be. Does it give me comfort or meaning? Yes, definitely. Does it make my life work better? Yes and no. It doesn’t make me more “successful,” particularly as the world defines success, but it gives me tools to deal with many of the challenges I face, and gives me a context with which I can understand the world better. But I can’t honestly say I practice it as a means to an end, as a tool to get something or become something.
It all comes back to that ineffable Call, the music from the Piper at the Gates of Dawn. I’m like a dog snuffling the air, forever following the scent, wherever it may lead.
5. We all have traits that are annoying. Some of those traits, when found in another, are deal-breakers and we simply cannot abide them. What traits can you simply not abide in others? Which traits mean “I’ll not deal with that person,” and why? Which traits send you running? Of those traits, how much of each is found in you?
When I was a good deal less self-confident (and those of you who know me well will be rolling on the floor by now, because you know that deep down I am a mouse afraid of his own shadow), I was in a relationship with someone I believe has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. One day he gave me a collection of Jane Kenyon’s poetry, and told me to read a poem called “Biscuit”:
The dog has cleaned his bowl
and his reward is a biscuit,
which I put in his mouth
like a priest offering the host.
I can’t bear that trusting face!
He asks for bread, expects
bread, and I in my power
might have given him a stone.
He didn’t need to say so, but I knew I was that dog to him. And more often than not, I was given a stone instead of bread. Much has changed in me since then, and such cruel treatment—toward me, or toward anyone, frankly—is intolerable, and provokes a fierce reaction from me.
I can’t abide liars, though I understand the impulse all too well: the need to protect oneself at all cost, even when telling the truth might be so much easier in the long run.
And yes, the cruelty and the lying that I hate: both of these are parts of me. I don’t know that I hate them because they are in me; I know that I have worked hard to overcome them in myself, and so perhaps I am like an intolerant ex-smoker. I don’t know.
I am impatient and short-tempered with people who give poor customer service (I used to teach classes in how to go above and beyond expectations when dealing with the public). And I am intolerant of people I call “willfully ignorant,” who seem defiant in their lack of education or gentility. Perhaps this intolerance is a form of intellectual snobbishness, but I hope it’s because I love the language so much that when people abuse it, it’s like spitting on something sacred.
Occasionally I’ll run across people whose “vibe” makes me want to either run away or (more likely) do them bodily harm. I can’t explain it. It’s nothing they’ve done or said, really, or maybe it’s everything they do and say. It’s a reaction so visceral and so strong that I have to step outside myself and say, “What in the world is that about?” So far I haven’t found an answer.
6. Tell me about poetry. You say you are not a poet. Why have you said this?
Payback is so unbecoming, Adam.
I am not a poet because I am clumsy at it. (And don’t tell me that lots of people say they are poets who write perfectly wretched poems. Just because a mouse is in a cookie jar, it doesn’t make him a cookie.) I can sometimes shape prose with enough felicity that it sings; poetry needs a much sparer touch, which I don’t often have. Generally the best I can do is take a prose poem and break it into shorter lines.
What I think I do have is a poet’s heart. I think Deloney is a natural poet, despite the fact that his poems always look like paragraphs. Indigo Bunting sometimes comes up with phrasings that are breathtaking. I can see poetry in words. I can even edit poetry pretty well. But I think my natural element is prose. Maybe I just need a larger canvas to say what a poet can express in a few brush strokes.
7. We each have ways we make others suffer. Most of the time this is inadvertent or, at least, not on purpose. How have you made others suffer? Was any of it purposeful? How have you made yourself suffer? Are you doing so now? How and why? To what end?
I have been cruel. I don’t know if my cruelty made them suffer, or if they just shrugged it off. On the other hand, our actions have far-reaching consequences, and even acts of charity may have caused suffering, while acts of deliberate meanness may have brought someone to a new and better place.
I have certainly wanted to make a few people suffer, to make them feel what they put me (or others) through. I have wanted them to have a taste of their own medicine.
But me—ah, that’s the person I have been the cruellest to, both deliberately and inadvertently. I have a running tape in my head (I guess we have to change that metaphor now, don’t we? No one uses tape for recording things anymore!) that tells me what an enormous failure I am, how I always let everyone down, how I never live up to my potential, how stupid and petty and worthless I am. I think I am starting to hear it as old, worn-out programming, and I am trying to say “No, that’s not true,” and replace it with something that heals those old self-inflicted wounds.
Why is that programming there in the first place? Some of it stems from my childhood molestation. Most people who are abused spend their lives trying not to feel dirty and worthless. Some if it is habit—we keep repeating the things we’ve heard repeated over and over; we don’t question, don’t object. We’re sheep at heart, especially when the critical voice in our head is our own. We just say, “Yes, you’re right,” without questioning it. One of the blessings of meditation is that you get to see your thoughts as just thoughts, without attaching any value to them. You get to look at them dispassionately, then decide if you want to keep them or not. So I’m trying to rewrite the old self-destructive script, and I’m making progress. But I don’t know that I’ll be finished anytime soon.