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Sunday, November 22, 2009


air bellows tree

The Master gives himself up

to whatever the moment brings.

He knows that he is going to die,

and he has nothing left to hang on to:

no illusions in his mind,

no resistances in his body.

He doesn't think about his actions;

they flow from the core of his being.

He holds nothing back from life;

therefore he is ready for death,

as a man is ready for sleep

after a good day's work.

-Tao te ching #50

Flipping through a beautiful copy of the Tao te ching, one illustrated with Chinese paintings and translated by Stephen Mitchell, opening the book randomly to see which verse I happen upon, I saw, 'The Master gives himself up to whatever the moment brings.' Immediately Jr came to mind. This is what it was about Jr that helped him master everything he put his mind to. He was wholly present with whatever the moment brought.

No illusions in his mind, no resistances in his body, was Jr again. He knows he's going to die, and he has nothing left to hold on to. I stared at the white paper with these words printed on it, held by surprise to find Jr described in the Tao. Not when I think about it, but surprised because I didn't have time to think about it. There it was. He didn't think about his actions; they flowed from the core of his being. Precisely. Jr didn't perform premeditated action except at work. Making decisions, he followed his feelings foremost.

He held nothing back from life, therefore he was ready for death. He went face forward into every moment as it came along. His bearing was calm as pond water while he cut up and pulled pranks, told and laughed at jokes, bought and sold tractors and parts, operated a "bull-noser" with artful skill and picked bluegrass banjo. He understood water too. I've found not many people understand water, but Jr understood it very well. In a sense, he lived his life like water, like in the first line above, gave himself up to whatever the moment brought. It was how he made his music and how he lived his life.

Jr never asked that anything or anyone be anything other than what and who they are. At age 24-25 he was working with a construction company in Decatur, Georgia, working a gang of twenty-some black men. He liked them all and they liked him. When one of them killed another, Jr testified in court on his behalf that it was self-defense. He said that after working with those men, getting to know them as men, he came to respect them and appreciate them. He never was one to down black people after that experience. I don't expect he was before, either. The Browns of Browns restaurant Jr held up as high as anyone he knew in the department of respect and appreciation. Jr measured a man by his character, not superficial matters such as pigmentation, financial worth, how important he was. A man was just a man in Jr's way of seeing.

As a man is ready for sleep after a good day's work. Yes, Jr did put in a good day's work. He worked until he was 80, sawmilled into his late 70s, sawmilled the old-time dangerous way. He loved sawmilling. Jimmy Gibson told me he saw Jr almost fall onto the turning wheel, but caught himself in time. Jr told me of different sawmillers he's known who have fallen on the blade, got an arm or hand cut off, killed in one way or another. He told me about JC Kemp, a banjo picker from Buffalo township in Ashe County, who almost cut his arm off. They put his arm back together and he can continue to pick, just not as good as he could before.

That was Jr's issue too, not as good as he could before. The day he slapped the side of the spinning blade to get a measure of its temperature, it peeled the palm of his left hand off in a nanosecond. Skin-graft on the side of his left leg. Noting the banjo was excellent physical therapy to bring his fingers back. But he never was as good as he was before. This doesn't mean he wasn't any good. He could pick the fire out of the banjo. Don Reno was his favorite banjo picker, but he played more like Earl Scruggs. Bluegrass musicians will tell you audiences prefer the Scruggs style picking to the Reno style. Yet the musicians tend to prefer Reno.

I never would have imagined I'd find a description of the Master in the Tao te ching that could be titled, Wiley P. Maxwell, Jr. (1922-2009). I understand that it could easily be that a verse of the Tao could describe Jr. It's just that I'd never allowed myself the presumption to suppose it might be. This description of the Master tells why I came to regard Jr a Master I was guided to in a Grasshopper kind of way to learn something from this man about the Way.

I learned plenty and served him as I would an official Master. I only told a few people I know that I suspected this to be the case in my time of knowing Jr. This verse of the Tao confirms for me what I've been believing about him. I had the impression that other people saw me staying with Jr a detour from my own path. I saw my time there my path. It was nice to see that I was on my path. I'm so grateful for the entire experience of knowing Jr, I feel a need to honor him for who he was. He continues to be present tense in my mind. I won't argue with it. I'd just as soon it be that way anyway.

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