Nebraskan author and poet Barbara Schmitz's memoir 'Path of Lightning: A Seeker's Jagged Journey' is a beautifully moving spiritual, autobiographical account where, true to its name, she trudges along the zigzagging path leading to a soulful awakening. An illuminating personal voyage which begins in Norfolk, Nebraska, amid the unassuming Midwestern prairies of America, the memoir takes the readers along, across continents where they partake in the unforgettable, transcendental mystical experience of the author. The book, published by Pinyon Publishing in 2012, also available in Amazon, has been critically acclaimed for documenting the beauty, the mystery of Schmitz's inner spiritual quest in a fine, heartfelt narrative.
Former Writer-in Residence at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, she won a Nebraska Arts Council Grant in 1997, and is currently a staff of The Caravan of the Beautiful (Sarasota, Fld.), teaching writing to spiritual seekers.
In this interview, author Barbara Schmitz, also a professor Emeritus of English at Northeast College, speaks about her intense journey of self-discovery that she accomplished with writing the book. She also comments on her poetic persona, and on the inward and outward journey to the mystical orient, her meditative, reflective journey without a map, her tryst with the Naropa Institute in Boulder, and her experiences as a Sufi teacher, among other things, which form the crux of both this book, and also her spiritual persona.
Lopa Banerjee: Hello Barbara, first let me congratulate you for your stupendous body of literary work, your publications in premiere literary journals including Prairie Schrooner, Nebraska Review, South Dakota Review, Iconoclast, Kansas Quarterly, and in anthologies, including Nebraska Presence, and Times of Sorrow, Times of Grace. Also, your poetry publications, including the award-winning How Much Our Dancing Has Improved (Backwaters Press, 2005) have established your name as a seasoned, well-grounded poet of contemporary America. Would you say you are more of a poet with courage and zest to portray the emotional, spiritual world around you, or an essayist/memoirist unfolding the beauty and also banality of our human life? Do both these aspects of your persona complement each other, and if so, how?
Barbara Schmitz: I believe you are asking if I am more of a poet than a writer of creative nonfiction. The concise form of poetry is where I feel I am naturally best. Path of Lightning started as vignettes and my early readers urged me to tie them together, to do a more encompassing narrative. My poetry has been described as making the ordinary extraordinary—some of this comes from my spiritual training and working to be in the present much of the time. Also, studying with Allen Ginsberg encouraged me to take on my life. I do love metaphor and my psychic readings come out as rhyming poems with lots of metaphor.
Lopa Banerjee: The title of the book 'Path of Lightning: A Seeker's Jagged Journey' and also the narrative is very evocative of a subtle, organic spiritual quest, which begins right at the moment you begin to narrate your Catholic upbringing in Nebraska and in course of the narrative, takes the readers to both an inward and outward spiritual journey of self-awakening. Can you tell me about your literary and spiritual journey of writing the memoir, what inspired you to carry this journey forward?
Barbara Schmitz: I found myself writing about visiting tombs with Shahabuddin (my spiritual teacher) on various trips and sort of dismissed that writing with—“Who would want to read about that?” The book in present form took off after I was asked to visit a Multicultural class at Northeast College and speak about belonging to the Sufi Order of the West. I found myself beginning with my first communion in the Catholic Church and in the midst of answering questions remarked, “It’s a good story!” Suddenly I realized the journey to where I was spiritually WAS a good story and I began writing to tell it.
Lopa Banerjee: Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of 'Prozac Nation' has famously quoted about memoir writing: "In every sunny life, a little rain must fall", which, to me, sums up the purpose of memoir writing in that the splinters and shards of our sub-conscious persona, the slivers and chunks of our little epiphanies of life find a deep, organic voice in memoirs. Do you think it is true in case of 'Paths of Lightning', and how?
Barbara Schmitz: Well, much of my writing process involves invoking the unconscious—I write quickly, not lifting the pen from page. I try to let my writing come from some other place than my thinking brain. I often take off on someone’s line of poetry and just go. I used to teach Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and archetypes in my mythology class. I pay attention to my dreams. I think writing is always reworking little bits and pieces of unresolved “stuff”. Toni Morrison says it’s the sand that gets in the oyster that creates the pearl.
Lopa Banerjee: The memoir intersperses prose and poetry right from the start where you write a short tribute to your spiritual teacher Shahabuddin, and then continues in different points in the narrative, along with citations from various other poets, including poet laureate John Neihardt, and also poems from your own poetry collections, commenting on universal human experiences, like making a child, among other things. What was your idea behind such an experimental narrative, and how do you see the poems in the context of your mystical experience in the book?
Barbara Schmitz: One friend who is a freelance editor read my book as a favor. She had edited many memoirs. It was she who suggested that the story would be much richer if I included some of my poetry and I seemed to have several poems—especially about the travels-- that were appropriate for certain spots. Chogyum Trunpa, the guru at Naropa Institute (fled Tibet at the Chinese occupation and got a Ph.D. in psychology at Oxford) said if meditators are going to speak about the enlightened state, they are going to have to speak in poetry because there is no way to describe that experience in ordinary language. He was a poet as well.
Lopa Banerjee: In the prologue of your memoir 'Path of Lightning', you write in one place: "It seemed a delightful synchronicity that my parents and my Sufi teachers gave me a name that related to the power of lightning." How would you say your Sufi name, Vajra, brings you closer to your own path of lightning? How would you connect the name of the memoir to this name and also to the esoteric experiences that you take us along?
Barbara Schmitz: My Sufi name is Vajra which means in Tibetan Buddhism, “transformation by the lightning bolt.” It also means “diamond-like clarity.” I think my name suggests to me to get on with it, quit whining and take on the work with alacrity. I don’t know if I’ve uncovered its full meaning to me yet. I used to teach a writing class in my attic and when I suggested the students give a reading, they decided their group needed a name and they named themselves the Vajra Writers—which I thought was appropriate for the clear, present, and to-the-point writing they were doing.
Lopa Banerjee: You also talk with great details about your tryst with the teachings of Indian saints, including Paramhansa Yogananda, which, according to my understanding, paved the way for your discovery of transcendental meditation. The book details the journey in an absorbing narrative, but I would want you to add a bit of your meditation and spiritual experiences here for the readers of this interview. How fulfilling has the experience been for you?
Barbara Schmitz: The biggest benefit of the Sufi breathing practices and wazifas (mantras) I do daily is the lessening of the noise in my mind. I am much more able to be present and not thinking about something else, somewhere else, although my critical brain has a way to go on that yet. I am more able to see beauty and be aware and awake to my life and surroundings. I hope I am kinder and more compassionate, my heart feels more open.
Lopa Banerjee: ‘In Part Four: On The Path’, you write: “My mother never did discuss my Sufi practices or any aspect of my spiritual life with me once I revealed to her that I no longer went to the mass….” In context of this narration which comments on the conflict over religion between you and your family, how would you say that you envision the mother-daughter relationship portrayed in the book?
Barbara Schmitz: I hope I presented the struggle both my mother and I had over our differing spiritual perspectives. We loved each other deeply but she was unable to accept that I left the teaching she had given to me. I was not able to make her understand that I didn’t “leave” it—I had just added something that made more sense and was more meaningful for me. Only at the end of her life did she accept that I was “right with God.” And, then, as I describe in Path, she visited me through Shahbuddin in one of our retreats—from the other side after she had passed on.
Lopa Banerjee: The readers also see the very interesting, intriguing travel memoir aspect of the book, encompassing your experience with the teeming Indian life in the Himalayas, Ladakh and your tryst with the hard, fragile life in the mountains of North India. There are the cultural, spiritual lessons unfolded on the way as you recount your travel experiences in Turkey and Bali. Even food, life in the fringes are integral parts of this journey. The account of the intensive spiritual seminars complements this journey with vivid, elaborate narration. How would you say this experience of the orient has shaped your spiritual persona?
Barbara Schmitz: Since the 60’s I had always dreamed of going to India—that’s what the “hippies” and spiritual seekers did then. This was even before meeting Shahabuddin and beginning my Sufi path. When I finally got there, on a tiny trip with Shahabuddin’s wife, I might have missed it, but after someone asked me at home if I found what I was looking I recalled the vision of a beautiful raven-haired women in a cobalt blue sari crawling out of a cardboard box (her home in the Baste, the worse ghetto in Delhi), shining the most radiant eyes I’d ever seen on me and saying “Asalaam ale cum” (God be with you) and going on down the street. That was it!!
Lopa Banerjee: After reading the entire narrative journey of ‘Path of Lightning’, one can safely say that Shahabuddin, the spiritual teacher has been an anchor in your voyage throughout. What epiphanies do you think you have derived from his Sufi teachings? A letter addressed to him towards the end of the book speaks of an inexplicable, intimate spiritual experience of yours. Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired that letter?
Barbara Schmitz: I was having some doubts about him as a teacher—a wealthy friend of mine felt manipulated and used by him. Her stories were enough to make me call up some of my own doubts of things he’d said and done that had left me questioning. The letter was written after reading some of his teaching about becoming the other suffering person. Some friends were visiting and telling about their struggle and troubles with their teenage daughter—suddenly I became my neighbor and understood her from “inside her!” as he had explained in the teaching and my husband was playing Moonlight Sonata on his piano and my whole puzzle and doubt fell together and I understand he too was another human being with flaws but the best teacher for me.
Lopa Banerjee: One last thing I am very curious to know, which has something to do with your insight as a poet, memoirist and also as a teacher of both literature and spiritual expressions. Considering the fact that the globe has really been a little village in the wake of the internet, and also social networking, what role do you think an author plays in the virtual space? Do you think it is possible somewhat, to connect with your readers literally, and also esoterically, via your writing in any online journal, anthology, or any other plausible form in the online media?
Barbara Schmitz: I think we as writers, spiritual teachers, and human beings indeed are going to have to learn to connect in virtual space and real time. We must connect with each other! I need some help learning computer, internet skills. Any volunteers?
Thank you, so much, Lopa for your deep reading and insightful questions!
Barbara Schmitz’s memoir ‘Path of Lightning: A Seeker’s Jaged Journey’ is available as a paperback at Amazon.com and also at the website of Pinyon Publishing, USA.
The Amazon link
The link at Pinyon Publishing
Interviewed by Lopa Banerjee...
She is a writer/translator and poet based in Dallas, USA. She has co-edited 'Defiant Dreams: Tales of Everyday Divas' published by Readomania and has also joined in as their resident editor. Her unpublished memoir 'Thwarted Escape' has been a First Place Category Winner at Journey Awards hosted by Chanticleer Reviews and Media LLC. She has received the Reuel International Prize for Writing and Literature (translation) for 'The Broken Home', her first solo translation of Rabindranath Tagore's much acclaimed novella 'Nastanirh', available in Amazon. Her poetry, stories and essays have been widely published in literary journals and anthologies. She has a background in English literature and journalism both in India and in the US.