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Book Review: The Great Western Divide by John Spivey

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The Buddha once delivered a sermon by holding a single flower aloft. Kashyapa saw the flower and smiled. He understood as the others only puzzled and because of this became the first Zen Patriarch.

As with much of BlogCritic author John Spivey’s hypnotic, multi-dimensional tale of personal redemption, this riddle offers us a way to also cease being one of the Living Dead. The Great Western Divide is a story of immense beauty and power, ebbing and flowing like a river, bending and heading back when meeting a barrier, rushing frantically through rapids or over cliffs to form a waterfall, or barely discernable through dry river beds.

There are multiple narratives woven through this tale interspersed with Native American, Zen, Confucian, Tao, and other religious or philosophical thoughts. Spivey proclaims none of them as Truth but rather offers them as lessons and guides to live life fully and completely. It is fascinating to watch — and perhaps engage in — the weaving of this tapestry without at first having a clear sense of the end product.

Spivey is a gifted writer. He is a master storyteller, creating characters and drama simply and effectively, reaching a critical point and then moving on only to return at the appropriate time later to continue the story. The same is true with his multiple narratives and themes which are taken to a critical point, only to be temporarily abandoned while he works on another pattern in the tapestry. In effect, he skillfully lays emotional, intellectual, and spiritual traps for the reader to sustain suspense.

He clearly understands the power of nouns and verbs over needless adjectives and adverbs. He has the ability to not only create a powerful and visual sense of place, but also shows, rather than tells the importance of place to his journey.

And while he is brutally honest with his personal suffering, struggles, and yearnings, he isn’t seeking sympathy, but rather uses them as motivation for his search. He describes without self-pity his family’s long and difficult history in California, just north of Sequoia National Park, but he never succumbs to the cheap writer’s trick of manipulating the reader emotionally. His path through the pain of his past is offered as an example of how others can make the same journey.

Spivey’s thesis is simplicity itself. “Is your mind abundant? How has it come to its present state of being? Is it full of the nuance and fluidity of life or is it rigid and barren, painful and lonely?” He seeks nothing more than to find out who he truly is. One of his martial arts teachers once told him that anything studied can be a Way, but if the end isn’t an understanding of who you really are, then “it’s just clever behavior. Clever, clever monkey business. Do you really Know, or are you just clever?”

To him, the lack of spirituality in the business world turns most of us into clever monkeys. There are myths and stories about the way of the king, the way of the warrior, the way of the priest, scholar, and farmer, myths and stories that explain how their social roles can lead to a spiritual path. But there are no myths or stories about business people. “Perhaps it’s because there is no motivating principle of being of service to the people and to the truth beneath the surface of things. It’s all very, very clever monkey business.”
Spivey’s lament is the lack of spirituality in modern life, that linear thinking and literalism have replaced spirituality as the dominant forces. It doesn’t matter to him which myths or symbols one uses to discover one’s spirituality; it matters greatly that, without them, we are “The Walking Dead.” Too many of us are not whole. We are comfortable in neither camp, and we’ve “left so many little pieces of ourselves behind as we have drifted through the landscape of our lives.” The task he has set for himself and challenges us to undertake is to go back and find all those shards to recreate who we are and present one face to the world.

[ADBLOCKHERE]One can argue about myths and stories, but it hard to disagree that our society is shrinking from one that encompasses land and people, a sense of place and of community, to one that concerns only ourselves, frightened because we long to control and dominate, but find it increasingly impossible in a world that refuses to obey linear, rational thought.

It would be unfair to describe the various narratives — it would rob the reader of the joy of discovery, of watching the tapestry woven into a complete whole, but there is one element of Spivey’s quest that needs to be related. There is a refreshingly selfish quality to his tale, and it’s worth quoting at length if for no other reason than to reveal a master writer at work:

If you have not made it through the demon night and faced the darkest of things, then as you walk down the street and notice some disheveled haunted person at the margin of life, stop and bow silently in their direction. In your mind ask for forgiveness. The darkness that you have ignored, your fear compounded with all other fear, echoes and vibrates through them. They suffer in part for you, for your unresolved sins.

I cannot be fully enlightened till everyone is. We share a common mind. As free as I might be from my own fear, I am still privy to your fear, to everyone’s fear. I work to keep my mind clear. It is far easier if we did it together.

The Great Western Divide is not another New Age Manifesto, filled with rigid, solipsistic, or meaningless philosophies, healing gems, or pet rocks. Personally, I hate New Age blather and treat it as a collection of lies spread by modern-day hucksters looking to make a quick book.

At the heart of The Great Western Divide is a simple message of self-discovery, but Spivey understands too well that finding oneself in the modern world is a complex, painful, time-consuming task. If one is receptive, the first reading will begin to create life change, and it will become a book that one will return to again and again for guidance.

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About Mark Schannon

Retired crisis & risk manager/communications expert; extensive public relations experience in most areas over 30 years. Still available for extraordinary opportunities of mind-numbing complexity. Life-long liberal agnostic...or is that agnostic liberal.
  • Mark, I just finished reading this amazing book, and you captured its essence wonderfully. I thought about writing a review also, but I could never do it the justice that you have accomplished. And you’re right, the receptive reader will return again and again.

    As I was reading, I underlined certain passages the resonated with me, and the moment I was finished, I went back to re-read all that I marked.

    One of the underlying messages that stood out for me was at the very beginning:

    “Everything you need to know is spread out at your feet and scattered throughout your life”

    Such a simple message, but so profound. To think that we may spend a lifetime searching, and all that we needed was right before us the entire time.

    Anyway, I could quote the whole book to demonstrate my amazement, but I’ll save it for another time. Great review!

  • Chantal,

    Thanks. You’re making me blush. The credit goes to John. Now if we can only get some publicity for the book & get it’s sales up!

  • Mark…..

    Everyone here on BC should buy it, that goes without saying. I’ve already recommended it to many of my friends, and refuse to lend my copy, so I think most will purchase also.

    And the good thing is, a few people, some here in Ohio, and also my brother in Texas have already heard about it.

    The more we talk about it, the more will hear.

  • I am deeply touched by your review Mark. Thank you for reading my book at such depth. Thank you also Chantal.

  • You’re welcome. It is a wonderful book.

    and I owe you an e-mail regarding how to promote it, but I was away last week & am a little jammed now, but I’ll get back to you soon.