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Saturday, November 11, 2006

a detour into a tribute

I don't know -- maybe it's because the Democrats won the American House of Representatives and the Senate over the last few days, and we have a chance to re-establish the principles outlined in the Constitution (not to mention Habeas Corpus), or... well, whatever it is, I'm in a good mood despite the on-going wacky factors in my life lately -- establishing a spiritual community in the midst of America is not, emphatically NOT, all it's cracked up to be! enough to try the patience of a sai.... well, never mind.

my point: I'm feeling good, a little nostalgic, and someone on a digital discussion group happened to ask me about one of my favorite subjects, Robert Heinlein. and another of my favorite subjects -- his 1964 novel called "Stranger In A Strange Land."

I'm a huge Heinlein fan from way back. I think someone first handed me his 'future history' -- an incredible anthology -- when I was 14 years old. I read one short story, was completely and thoroughly and utterly hooked.

I didn't stumble into Stranger in a Strange Land until I was almost 20. that book was one of those epic, life-changing 'aha!' books for me. so much so that I still re-read it, like maybe once a year or so. just to visit the characters, who've become like family over the years, and also to revisit Heinlein's prescient look at human society and the politics of power, and for the unbelievable depth of humor and divine tragedy (and awesome Missouri one-liners) in the story.

that book is quite a classic -- I can't tell you how many people I've encountered in my life who were stunned and then transformed by reading it.

the beginning, I think, is kinda kludgy and dense to read -- but once the story starts rolling, yow. I still have trouble putting it down, am happy to read until the dawn is breaking! -- even though I know the tale all too well and how it all turns out in the end.

I've even read it -- in entirety! -- out loud to a couple people in my life. (mostly boyfriends who didn't like to read much!) cover to cover.

I think it's one of those books that every human being should come into contact with -- or at least, every American should, or maybe the entire populations of Western industrialized nations should.

I grew up in Missouri, as did Heinlein, and one of his heroes, Mark Twain, and I recognize the wry humor and shrewd, laser-sharp observation of people and their habits/behaviors/motivations that one of the characters, Jubal Harshaw (in many ways, Heinlein's alter ego) exhibits. it's super-familiar, and comforting, to me.

I certainly don't wanna spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it -- but I have to say if any one cultural reference has kept coming to mind in all the years I spent around a miraculous spiritual master in India, it is the miracles and the spiritual universality and the unconditional love that the characters in Stranger in a Strange Land finally demonstrate.

when I read the book the first time, I was appalled that people 'just don't live like that!'

it made perfect sense to me, the whole thing, and was exactly how I wanted to live my own life. (which led to a lot of problems in my twenties! since very few people, as I discovered, have similar ideals about humanity and its capabilities...)

I especially longed to be surrounded by people with developed spiritual abilities and the capacity to demonstrate miracles by transforming or creating matter from, apparently, nothing.

having lived in an environment in India where full-scale miracles happen often -- suffice it to say the fictitious experiences described in Stranger were exceeded a thousand-fold, for me, in my own life.

Heinlein himself was a crusty, grumpy guy who just loved to write. he was an invalid a lot of the time (tubercular) and mostly an isolated character. his friends and colleagues were the folks of sci-fi legend; Ray Bradbury, Asimov, Ted Sturgeon, etc. he adored his wife and spent most of his life with her, traveling around the world when his health permitted.

his own spiritual inclinations are something of a mystery -- although he was a voracious reader and the span of his knowledge does show up in various commentaries on world religions in Stranger; commonplace enough now, one can only imagine how radical this book was, on many fronts, in 1964.

I do know a great Heinlein anecdote (he spent the final years of his life about 5 miles from my home, in the same mountains here in Santa Cruz, so one hears things now and then about him) -- of all his books (and MANY are unbelievably genius works on par with Stranger), Stranger in a Strange Land prompted tons of fan mail, especially in the '60s when people were having their minds blown by the concepts in it.

one local woman wrote him a letter, gushing (as one would be prone to do) about the depth of the book, asking if he had some 'special channel' or way of getting his information about the universe and how things work, spiritually -- and Heinlein wrote her back saying that if she paid money for the book, he was happy because he got a royalty, and if it entertained her on top of his getting a percentage of the sale, then he was doubly happy. period.

he wrote to entertain, and didn't have any illusions about his role as a writer.

(nonetheless, in my opinion, he was a kind of amazing soul -- a little extraordinary character who was very much in touch with 'the universe', whether he knew it consciously or not. and none of his works underscores this more than Stranger in a Strange Land. Time Enough For Love is another in that league, as is The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.)

okay, it's late and I'm just ridiculously long-winded.

I'll end with a quote from Stranger:

"he's as sweet as a stolen kiss and as weird as suspenders on a snake."