Tuesday, January 12, 2010



“There’s a lot to learn

From wasting time

There’s a heart that burns

There’s an open mind.”

-Neil Young

I suppose it’s only natural to ask, ‘why write a book about spirit houses?’ What is it about these San Phra Phum that intrigued me enough to go to all this trouble? The original answer was simple and unrefined: “There was no book on the subject, so heck, I’ll just go and make one.”

Using such business speak, - “filling a niche in the market” - is often justification enough to shut down most questioning in America. That was the classic response that would excuse me from family obligations in the past. Parents push so hard for their kids to exhibit self sufficiency. It has become counter productive to question the workaholic’s now established place as the modern martyr of the family. As long as we’re “doing business” it’s amazing what we can get away with both ethically and morally in this undeveloped society of ours!

Such thinking only gets you so far. Toward the end of my sojourn in Thailand, I visited “Asia Books” in Bangkok . Low and behold, there were, not one but three books on Spirit houses right there on the shelf. My heart sank for about an hour, until I poured through the one that I felt obliged to buy and I noted how cold it left me. For the time being, the niche theory had life!
It’s a rare person who senses the simple value in what one might be drawn to do for no particular reason. Traveling to collect the raw data for this project, I convinced myself (and those around me) that because I was going to fill this “niche in the market,” I was on some kind of self-imposed business trip. I hoped I was on they way to entering an elite class of men -“authors”- the sort of person who can buy cool camera equipment and write it off on my taxes and so forth.

In retrospect, the niche myth was merely, paraphrase Plato, a (not so) “noble lie” that kept myself moving forward on a mission that I had no real idea about. Is “just because” reason enough? Perhaps. I still don’t know the intricacies of either the motivation or process by which what you have in your hands came about. Maybe it’s a lovely accident. In the past, whenever I have been so directly driven like this, a perfect answer has eventually presents itself. Like Dan Morris says, “sometimes you shoot an arrow at one target and hit the bulls eye of another.”

A great example would be buying my home in Austin, just south of the river near downtown. I didn’t want to drive all the way out to my lake house after late night domino games in town - not the soundest of motivations for investing in real estate. But fate had other ideas; in the house next door, where two ladies named Patti and Autumn were living. Patti is now my beloved wife.
“In a land there’s a town,

And in that town there’s a house,

And in that house, there’s a woman.

And in that woman there’s a heart I love,

I’m gonna take it with me when I go.”

-Tom Waits

The rest is history, present and future. Now there’s a spirit house - a San Phra Phum of the heart. That sounds all poetic but never mind. I’m not cool enough to care any more. I’m fond of the idea. But I have to check myself. My first epiphany regarding this “inner spirit house” occurred near the end of my research trip. I was suspicious of it, because the old me would have jumped on the idea too - it might just be the “hook” needed to help sell these pages. Perhaps the metaphor would make it a more Oprah friendly book? There is tension between the concept existing as a poignant metaphor, or just being a vehicle for colonizing an ancient tradition for a modern audience, impressing it into service for lazy minds.

Jet lagged and homesick, I thought I might not really want to write a book anymore, at least not without a good or noble reason. What’s this need for a product? I have no palette for cheap wine made only to sell. That would have demanded so much energy than I was willing to give to an undefined project. I felt a little burnt out on it all. Besides, there already was a “product.” I had blogged over 30,000 words during my trip, enjoying an on/off conversation with family and friends whose comments had helped sustain the vision. That blog is still there:www.spirithousesafari.blogspot.com. Having written online in such an organic fashion, it seemed that actually publishing a book was a rather finite concept.

However, what is great about a book, is that it is a document that doesn’t require electricity, or an internet connection, or a mouse. That’s important, especially if you are in a place like Myanmar, a place where sadly this book would never be allowed – not for the foreseeable future at least. One cant curl up with an e-reader under a tree, or discover a forgotten world from a dusty laptop abondoned on a shelf. But then why justify it anyway? “There’s a lot to learn from wasting time” and “just because” is always enough.
Ben Livingston, Austin, Christmas 2009

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