This Passing World: A Personal Odyssey
It seems almost axiomatic, if paradoxical, that most people need some kind of trauma, disaster, catastrophe, or highly unusual, extraordinary event to get them to look at themselves honestly and consider what is truly important in this world. For some, it’s a life-threatening disease or accident; for other, it’s some sort of difficulty in relationships; for others it’s the death of a loved one; and for some it’s an existential crisis born not of events and circumstances in the world but from the depths of their own hearts and minds. The list of events and situations that can shake and perhaps shatter a comfortable, inherited worldview or philosophy is probably as long as there are people in the world, be these as painful as contracting cancer or as simple as a pebble striking a stalk of bamboo in the moonlight.
Whatever the roots of the transformative event, momentous or mundane, and its exact nature, complicated or simple, or its duration, long or short, the effects of these psyche-shattering events are always similar: a revaluation of values, a discovery that the world is not exactly what you thought it was, and neither are you what you thought you were. The world as you knew it before the event is forever gone; your life is unalterably and permanently changed.
For poet and sometimes philosopher David Pendarus, the central character in This Passing World, that life-altering experience was a two-year stretch, from 1972-1974, in a Greek prison. The arrest came at an especially inopportune moment, during an extended honeymoon in Greece. Pendarus’s relatively carefree life of literature, poetry, travel, adventure, and romantic love ended abruptly in the isolation of jail cell in a foreign land. Deprived of freedom, thrown in with a group of international ruffians, robbers, murderers, and ordinary outlaws, not to mention those poor souls swept up in the dragnet cast by a repressive, despotic military junta, Pendarus is forced to reconsider his life, to examine closely the people, circumstances, and choices that brought him to that Greek slammer. Most importantly, he was forced, or afforded the opportunity, to ask that most important philosophical and spiritual question: “Who am I?”
Two years is a lot of time to think, to contemplate the course of a life that brought Pendarus to that Greek prison. In a series of memories, reflections, dreams, and spiritual questions, all arranged in a decidedly non-linear way, he reviews how he journeyed from the piney woods of Georgia to the rainy forests of Douglas fir in Oregon. There were many people and stops along the way, including an extended stay in the turbulent streets of San Francisco during the height of the countercultural revolution of the Sixties. In fact, one way of approaching this novel is as a narration and examination, from an individual point of view, of the Sixties. Most of the major themes of that massive, unprecedented social upheaval are in this novel, especially the radical dissatisfaction with and rejection of received wisdom, methods, assumptions, cultural norms, and orthodox behavior. Those of us of a certain age who lived through this social, political, psychological, and yes, spiritual tornado of a decade will find familiar characters in Cauble’s novel. They’re all there, with all their honesty, earnestness, confusion, pain, hope, and faith in the possibility of change for the better. And for Truth.
Central to both the countercultural revolution of the Sixties and Pendarus’s (Cauble’s?) part in it is the radical change in male-female relations, another manifestation of the mysteries of love. For Pendarus, this is far more than the merely sexual, the so-called Sexual Revolution, although that is there too. The button-down, repressed, anxious Fifties, an age when men and women occupied completely different, segregated zones of life that did not communicate, were gone, over, never (we hope) to reappear. Something new was being born. The man-woman thing is hardly new, of course; it’s as old as the human race itself. But the young men and women of the Sixties were breaking new ground. Through the eyes, minds, and souls of his two central characters, David and Angelina, and a host of other men and women that float in and out of their lives, Cauble explores the emerging, changing relationship of men and women with elegant honesty and sincerity. New variations on an ancient theme emerge from the swirl of rapidly changing attitudes, roles. The result is a beautiful symphony, a tribute to women and the men who love them.
Beneath and above all the sometimes confused, sometimes desperate, sometimes painful, but always hopeful searching for new ways of connecting with each other, most of the men and women in This Passing World are deeply concerned with finding an authentic, viable form of spirituality, something different, more real, more meaningful, more relevant than the institutional forms of religion they grew up with. Beneath all the drugs, the sex, the music, the radical politics, was an earnest desire to find a transcendent dimension in our human life, something that gives meaning and purpose to an individual life. The characters in this novel are spiritual seekers, especially David Pendarus, the imprisoned Odysseus of this journey of spiritual discovery. Yes, they were mostly unconscious and unaware of that fundamentally human urge, and yes, sometimes, even usually, they looked for love and truth in all the wrong places, but the motives are pure and sometimes so were the results. Sometimes these seekers found, more or less, what they were looking for.
Some readers may dismiss the forms of spirituality in This Passing World as impossibly New Agey, but if they look more deeply they will see that the searching and the discoveries of the characters in the novel are not all that different from more conventional religions. Is David Pendarus’ authentic spiritual experience in that jail cell in Greece essentially different from that of Saul/St. Paul on the road to Damascus, or the Buddha’s enlightenment beneath the fig tree 2,500 years ago, or the illumination of Jesus on the cross, or the earth-and-heaven shattering spiritual experiences of hundreds, perhaps thousands of mystics from around the globe and in every century? I don’t think so. The language of literature, especially poetry—both present in this novel—is basically the same, pointing to a Light that transcends the cares, concerns, sorrows, suffering, and sadness of this passing world of shadows, this dream within a dream, while at the same time infusing everything in that very world with its Truth. We are, as I’ve heard it said, not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience. In the end, we are indeed all Beings of Light.
In the presence of death my mind has reached its limit and found a new freedom. Disillusioned, I rediscover a deep form of hope. Hope, as opposed to illusion or optimism, is not a prediction of things to come, nor is it redemption from something my small ego considers dreadful, nor is it a special knowledge revelation of a hidden future. To hope is to finally recognize the limits of my ability to comprehend the Power that has, is, and will bring all that is into being. Beyond that, all I can do is trust that inexhaustible mystery we all touch when we discover our spirit provides our best clue to the nature of Being.
Remember to look for heaven in a wild flower, and an eternity in an hour.
Friend, teacher, artist, carpenter, and fellow traveler