A few pages into this “Zen cautionary tale,” the dramatic stakes are set high and our attention is arrested when its main character, Edward, barely manages to extricate a piggy hand-puppet from the jaws of a neighborhood feline — just as the interloping cat tries to slink out Edward’s side door.
We soon learn that Edward is a revered Northern California spiritual master and teacher who, on this day, is preparing to drive a few hours south to give a talk.
In “real life” he is known as Edward Brown, the equally revered Zen Buddhist teacher and author of the beloved Tassajara cook books.
So begins Brown’s intimate, revelatory and often laugh-out-loud funny novella, which is enhanced by the knowing illustrations of Margot Koch and released this month by San Francisco’s Missing Links Press.
Readers are as grateful as the piggy puppet, named Ponce, when Edward keeps him at his side for the rest of this gently taut adventure tale, complete with a mid-life love story, a near-tragic climax and an emotionally and spiritually rich dénouement. The book’s heart center belongs to the rescued pig puppet. As narrator, Ponce adeptly moves between the voice of Ed’s wounded child-self to that of the grown-up Edward — who in turn shows up alternately as Edward the venerable Zen master or “Eddiebear” (Ed’s childhood nickname) — the flawed human being for whom centeredness or masteries of any kind are moving targets.
When Ponce speaks as the young Edward, whose abandonment issues stem from having lost his mother at the tender age of three, Brown makes us feel how that loss formed him and still fuels the 60-something’s foibles and frustrations, as in this scene when Ponce expresses Ed’s satisfaction when Margot compliments his cooking:
This pleased Edward quite a bit because if she liked his cooking enough Edward supposed that she wouldn’t leave, and that would be a good thing not to be abandoned, though, of course, he’d have to keep on cooking.
Brown uses this juicy biographical material to dole out more than pop psych. Ponce’s insights run deep and wide, too, as when he muses on the challenge Zen Ed faces “teaching enlightenment to people not especially interested in waking up.”
Even in relationship it seemed that people often aimed to not relate. They’d say, “I like your act, do you like mine, too? You do your act with me, and I’ll do my act with you. Okay? Is it a deal?” Let’s get together and not actually meet, shall we?”
Oh my, I thought, as I brought the book into my lap for a moment of uncomfortable self-reflection.
To provide comic relief from such truth-telling, narrator Ponce is also charged with regularly tossing Ed off his pedestal. Here, in preparation for the appearance in Santa Cruz, Ponce watches impatiently as “the master” carefully selects, folds and packs his proper Zen wardrobe, including the mandatory “white jiban, beige kimono, dark brown obi, and a handsome stick,” noting:
Check, check check, if you were going to be a Zen person, it was important to be masterful and nothing says masterful like fine robes. Unfortunately Edward’s were getting to be threadbare, especially if you looked closely, so everyone knew that he was over the hill just like his robes, a teacher that some conceded, ‘might be good for beginners.’
For me, there was identification and surprise in Ed’s Woody Allen-esque “meltdown” as he multitasks himself into distraction on his way out the door. As I try to insert meditation into my morning routine — before the coffee, Tweets, and Facebook postings that typically launch me into the work day — I have flashed more than once on one of the book’s most reassuring messages: that we are all beginners.
For Edward, the character, a lack of mindfulness could take a serious toll as he begins the drive to Santa Cruz. A jammed Marin commute brings about a chain of events that force him to confront his own mortality, and highlight his shortcomings as a friend and protector to Ponce (who is, after all, the abandoned Eddiebear).
And yet, all may not be lost. Despite Ponce’s immediate, terrifying predicament, seemingly abandoned by Edward and stuck in a dark, cold place, our piggy puppet discovers that by changing his perspective, by looking “from the center of the sparkle,” there is a glimmer of light and promise of another, perhaps more enduring rescue.
Mindfulness and Mental Health
I recommend Ed Brown’s By All Means to anyone — teens and up — seeking inspiration for a more mindful, less stressful life.
More germane to the mental health community, I believe By All Means can provide valuable comfort and support to anyone struggling with a mental disorder — in themselves or a loved one. Writing from the perspective of someone with lifelong depression, and as a parent to an adult child with depression, I can attest that those of us who are dealing with the symptoms of a mental disorder face one daily, constant, and fundamental task: to manage our minds; and, when pulled away by scary, negative thoughts, to step back from the precipice of hopelessness and despair that can engulf us.
Like Eddiebear and Ponce, we each carry emotional wounds into adulthood – wounds that can make dealing with difficult symptoms, and thoughts, all the tougher. But, like the characters in this honest and insight-packed book, we absolutely can acquire and commit to a set of practices – call them spiritual or therapeutic, it doesn’t really matter – that will help us find a way out.
As a beginning student of mindfulness student and meditation, I am struck by the similarities between the techniques I’m learning to gently tell my mind “get back to you later” while attempting to focus simply on my breath, and those I’ve been given in cognitive-behavioral therapy to manage negative self-messages and obsessive thoughts. In both cases, the primary technique used is to observe without making negative self-judgments; in other words, to practice kindness with ourselves.
So I recommend this book as one way to gain new perspective and help that process. As always, I also suggest you talk to a friend or a mental health practitioner if you are having a tough time.