The Secrets of the Universe

Earl Vickers

Last night I caught part of an episode of Bill Moyers' new show, The Language of Life. It's about poetry. I've never much appreciated poetry unless it had music along with it (and vice versa), though I do like Blake when he's not too obscure, and bits of Eliot and various other folks. Usually, though, the thought of poetry conjures up Ernie Kovak's effeminate poet character. Or I think, Why doesn't he just come out and say it? In English. In prose. This is the same part of me that responds to dance by thinking, Why don't they just screw?

Perhaps I'm missing something.

Anyway, the show included an interview with Coleman Barks about the Sufi poet Rumi. Barks told an anecdote from a time when he had gone to Turkey to visit the Rumi museum. He went to a restaurant and ordered bottled water in his Tennessee-accented Turkish. The waiter looked at him incredulously and asked him to repeat his order. He did so, and the waiter laughed and went over and got one of the other waiters and had him repeat the order once more. Both of them burst out laughing. Soon the whole kitchen staff was standing around laughing as they listened to his request.

He didn't know what the problem was, why everyone found this so funny. Then he saw a bottled water and pointed to it, and they all laughed even harder when they realized what he really wanted. Finally someone explained that he had been asking for "the secrets of the universe."

Rumi is a lot like that.

I'd heard Coleman Barks tell this anecdote once before, in a New Dimensions radio interview, when I was living in Costa Rica. I was getting ready to make a short trip back to the states. A friend of mine, in an ill- advised fit of nostalgia, declared "I'll be your slave for life if you'll bring me back some Koala Water." She wanted the Apple and Black Currant flavor. When she saw how much I liked the idea of having a slave for life she tried to back out of it, but I had witnesses.

When I went back to the states I spotted a copy of Joseph Campbell's book, The Power of Myth. I read a few pages at random — each paragraph seemed full of truth, beauty and wisdom. My friend's favorite subject was mythology, so I knew the book would be the perfect gift, plus I would get to read it for myself. So I bought the book and the Koala Water.

I went back to Central America, bearing gifts. Reading the book on the plane, I was repeatedly awed by Campbell's genius — the book truly seemed to contain the secrets of the universe, in casual, everyday language. I wrapped the presents and invited my friend over, but before she could open them, I insisted on telling her a story: Barks's story about the bottled water and the secrets of the universe.

Pointing to the presents, still wrapped, I said, "One of these packages contains an ordinary bottle of water (with added flavoring, carbonation, and sweetener). The other contains the secrets of the universe. There have always been those who would sell themselves into a lifetime of slavery for the secrets of the universe, but only you would do so for a bottled water."

She immediately went for the Koala water and started gulping it down before even looking at the book. I'm not sure she ever got around to reading it.

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