Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Guest Author: Louis Alan Swartz

I want to thank Jenai for the opportunity to come here as a guest. I recently wrote and got published a book called Constructed of Magic and Other poems on the Immortality of the Human Spirit. I wanted to communicate  a bit about some of the experiences in my life that led to my writing this book.

In 1962 when I was 20, I was sitting in a class at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, I had the thought that I needed to go out and see the world. It was right at the very beginning of the school year. I walked from the class to the Administration Office and asked for my tuition money back. Surprisingly, I got no resistance on this. With those funds in hand I went to New York and purchased passage on the Queen Mary to England. For the next ten months I travelled through Europe, Africa and the Mid-East.

I knew that I was looking for something but I didn't know what it was. As I moved through Europe the thing that struck me most intensely were the cathedrals. I remember sitting in Salisbury Cathedral in England all by myself on a weekday with almost no one around marveling at the stain glass windows with the afternoon sun shining through them and the high vaulted ceiling. How much work this had taken to build this magnificent structure with no power tools, no cranes, not even trucks to haul the stones? It was all done by hand. It took hundreds of years to build them, generation after generation. As I visited these cathedrals I became progressively aware of a presence or force or power that I had not seen before. It did not translate into a religious belief. But it engendered an awe in me that has remained.

From Italy, I took a ship to Alexandria, Egypt. One evening I was taking a walk through Cairo and I came across an area of houses that was quite dark. There was no gate or entrance to this area so I walked in. There were rows and rows of darkened houses. Some were modest, some were opulent. I could see flickering lights within the houses. Tombs were also visible inside the houses. I came to realize that this was The City of the Dead. Each of these houses was a place of burial for the family who owned it. The more luxurious houses were home to the more wealthy deceased. The flickering lights came from the cooking and heating fires made by squatters who made their homes within these houses. Strangely, in the center of the City there was a brightly lit cafe. I went inside and ordered a coffee. I was unsettled by what I had seen. I understood that these houses were intended to somehow give the deceased some purchase on immortality, somehow they could be visited and weren't "gone forever". It was not until years later that I found why the City of the Dead had been so disquieting to me.

I returned to University. A few months before I graduated, I became very upset. The upset stemmed from the fact that I realized I had no idea why I was living. I knew I was supposed to get a job and get married and have children. But I didn't know why and it profoundly troubled me. I read. I asked people about it including my mother who said she didn't know why she was living and if I found out could I please let her know. A friend of mine at college saw that I was super upset. She gave me a book to read. It was The Duino Elegies by a German author who wrote at the beginning of the 20th Century named Rainer Maria Rilke. As I read the book I became increasingly cognizant that spirits existed. The awareness did not extend much beyond that. It did not extend to the thought that I was a spiritual being. It was simply that spirits existed. The moment I got this concept I calmed right down. The upset left me. I was peaceful.

About 8 months later I went to India in the Peace Corps. As I got to know the Indian people I found that each and every one of them had a certainty that they were spiritual beings. It was not a big deal to them. They had lived before and would live again. It was almost, "So, what's the big deal?" As I spent time with these people I became happier and happier. Even to the tiniest village, off the beaten track with no electricity, to a man , to a woman, this was the certainty---I am immortal.

Then I understood why I had calmed down in college with Rilke discovering that spirits existed. I also understood why I had been so disturbed in  The City of the Dead. It was simply that immortality had nothing to do with the body. In India, when you die they burn your body to ashes and that's that.

These experiences led me to a lifelong interest and search on the subject of the immortality of the human spirit. I noticed that when individuals and societies had a firm certainty on their own immortality and the immortality of their brethren they tended to be kind and benevolent and usually nonviolent.

Constructed of Magic is an attempt to communicate my thoughts and impressions on the immortality of the human spirit through the aesthetic medium of poetry.

About the book:

Constructed of Magic and Other Poems on the Immortality of the Human Spirit is a refreshing collection of poems that explore the beauty of who we are as spiritual beings. Our ability to love, dream, create futures, even die with dignity are all part of who we are and why we are here. These poems don't pretend to give final answers to any of the big questions about life, but they do help us to look and come to our own understanding. 


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