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The instruction manual

/ 10:00 AM July 10, 2011

Two weeks ago we flew to a neighboring island in bad weather. It was all we could do to pray as the plane swayed from side to side, dropped sharply with loss of altitude and rose up when it rode on a swell of air.

In the conference room of the hotel, when we sat for the first lecture in the seminar-workshop, for which we had risked our lives to attend, I remembered that, during the ghastly plane ride, as the rest of us closed our eyes in resignation, my companion kept talking about burial insurance in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. He was really just whistling past the graveyard, but his effort at being cheerful only increased the terror of the lady sitting behind, and the speed and intensity of her prayers.

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During the second lecture, I slipped into woolgathering again. I thought of the day before, how, after we arrived, tousled up by the hair-raising flight and grateful for being back on the ground, a companion and I made a quick visit to a school I attended years ago. The statue of St. Clement still stood in the front yard of the college building, which was now used by a government agency for its offices. I could still hear the songs from the musical “South Pacific” pouring out of the second floor. There before dinner we would hang out as the prefect played records on a hifi.

Now I was in that city again to listen to the lectures. But perhaps the speakers were too businesslike for my taste and I am one enamored of indirections, and really what control does one have over the flow of one’s thoughts?

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This tendency towards distractions, this is not unique to me. I find it best expressed in John Ashbery’s poem “The Instruction Manual,” in which, instead of working on the manual that he is commissioned to do, the one speaking in the poem fantasizes about Guadalajara in Mexico.

As I sit looking out of a window of the building I wish I did not have to write the instruction manual on the uses of a new metal.

I look down into the street and see people, each walking with an inner peace, And envy them—they are so far away from me!

Not one of them has to worry about getting out this manual on schedule.

And, as my way is, I begin to dream, resting my elbows on the desk and leaning out of the window a little,

Of dim Guadalajara! City of rose-colored flowers!

City I wanted most to see, and most did not see, in Mexico!

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And then he sets out to talk about the public square of Guadalajara, the band playing Scherezade, the flower girls, the booth where girls in green give out green and yellow fruit, all imagined, of course—the couples parading, the lovers, the families—until he realizes that he still has an instruction manual to write.

How limited, but how complete withal, has been our experience of Guadalajara!

We have seen young love, married love, and the love of an aged mother for her son.

We have heard the music, tasted the drinks, and looked at colored houses.

What more is there to do, except stay? And that we cannot do.

And as a last breeze freshens the top of the weathered old tower, I turn my gaze

Back to the instruction manual which has made me dream of Guadalajara.

For me the time to daydream is during seminars as in Ashbery’s poem it is when one faces the prospect of writing an instruction manual. Still I hope to be fully awake at certain times, such as when someone is personally speaking to me, especially if that someone is God, whose still, small voice is heard in the silence in which nothing stirs but the breeze, and the pages of Holy Scriptures being leafed through.

Such is the message that I gather from the Parable of the Sower.

“A sower went out to sow.

And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil.

It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep, and when the sun rose it was scorched,

and it withered for lack of roots.

Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it. But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit,

a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.

Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

Path, rocky ground, thorns, rich soil? The fate of the seed depends on where it falls, and because this relates to the mind, what counts is the attention I am willing to give.

Which I admit was not much during the seminar. Because mostly I was looking away, and at one point at the people in the pool beside the conference room, and wondering why they were clambering out and running away when the rain fell.

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