By Charles Johnson
Reviewed by Victoria Starr Marshall
When Chuck Johnson called me to tell me that his Fall 2018 3rd Act essay “Advice to Emery” was the inspiration for a new, upcoming book, I was elated. His original essay is a heartfelt gem of life lessons that Johnson gifts to his grandson, and to us.
“Looking at the problems I see in the world around me,” he writes in the essay, “I realize that there are so many things I want to say to him (Emery) about the goodness, truth, and beauty that life offers. And I want to warn him about the dangers, too, all the minefields I feel he should stay away from in order to know happiness and avoid unnecessary suffering.” Johnson continues: “As I think about all I might say, I suspect that the highlights I’ve learned from circling the sun 70 times can be reduced to 10 simple ideas.”
Grand expands on these 10 ideas as Johnson, a professor emeritus, award-winning novelist, philosopher, and Buddhist masterfully weaves his wisdom of years into warm and generous advice.
Chapter 2—each chapter represents one of the 10 ideas—is titled, “Life is not Personal, Permanent, or Perfect,” wise words to help our grandchildren navigate life and, for us, to navigate these COVID-19 times. Johnson writes, “Just as his circumstances must change during his life, so must Emery understand that he can always change his life to fit new circumstances and reinvent himself.” And I love the example Johnson gives: “There is a time-honored word for this flexibility in life: Jazz. That unique contribution to American music and culture contains, in theory and practice, the importance of improvisation …” With the changes and challenges thrust upon us these last months, we are all needing to do more improvising right now, and I can’t think of a more positive way to frame a response than living a Jazz moment.
Grand was written before the coronavirus pandemic. In his recent interview with Peter Kelley in UW News, Johnson shares, “The advice about how to deal with change, loss, and impermanence in the 10 items I compiled for my grandson is something we are right now experiencing palpably. The specter of death and disease, and our fragility as well as resilience as human beings, is dramatically on display every day.”
In Grand, Johnson reminds Emery that, “What we know is always vastly outweighed by what we don’t know and may never know, and we really do live our lives in the midst of great mysteries.”