Hearing Virginia Woolf in Buddhism Class

(Italicized text from The Waves by Virginia Woolf)

The young monk sinks easily into the asana, or lotus, position. He is Caucasian, tall and thin with large dark eyes and a friendly smile. I guess him to be in his thirties. Over a plain, long-sleeved cotton shirt, he wears the traditional Tibetan Buddhist robe—a maroon cotton cloth wrapped across the left shoulder and another wrapped around his waist, floor-length. His short black hair is in a tight knot at the center of his crown, sleek as if gelled to control stray curls. Before him, on the tiny puja (prayer table) sits not an ancient scroll in Pali or Sanskrit but a laptop. The glowing Apple on its open cover seems especially incongruous; I wonder if he is ever tempted by all the seductive fruit of the Internet. Continue reading

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Review: Obselidia

Obselidia coverI agree with Virginia Woolf who said that nothing thicker than a knife’s blade separates happiness from melancholy. My favorite films waver between humor and sadness and take my imagination to surprising places. I recently discovered a gem of a small-budget indie film that met those criteria, the 2010 feature debut of writer/director Diane Bell. Obselidia has a quirkiness and strangeness about it, something of Oscar & Lucinda’s compulsion and restraint, chance and divination, and Angels & Insects’ lapse into Victorian Darwinism. It also has a bit of the Renaissance’s cabinet of curiosities. Continue reading

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Review: The Woman with the Five Elephants

The Woman with the Five Elephants
Director, Vadim Jendreyko
Country: Switzerland/German
Released 2010

Die Frau mit de 5 Elefanten

Svetlana Geier, the subject of Vadim Jendreyko’s documentary The Woman with the Five Elephants, is an example of how one’s passion can bring order out of chaos. Geier spent twenty years translating Dostoevsky’s five great novels, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Devils, The Brothers Karamazov and The Raw Youth. Geier, until her death in 2010 at age 87, was considered the preeminent translator of Russian literature into German. Those five translations, completed in 2007, the elephants of the title, were the defining achievements of her life. Continue reading

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Library Dispatch – Winter Sanctuaries

It was chilly in Rothrock Used Books yesterday—the checkout desk is just a few feet from the front doors, and the wind gusts were frigid.  Traffic was unusually heavy—I suspect libraries are busier on cold days because it’s a place to get warm without having to spend money or being accused of loitering.  The book shop had a steady drift of customers because this month, January, is bag sale month, a plastic grocery bag full of books for $5.

A tall, thin woman in jeans and a down jacket filled her bag with first readers, thin illustrated paperback books used primarily by first graders.  I assumed she was a teacher supplementing her classroom library, but she said she was buying them for her brother who is a Trappist monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.  She said she hoped the readers might be useful in his work with a group of visiting Vietnamese monks who do not speak English.

“We were just there after Christmas,” she said.  “Boy, was it cold…the Abbey sits on a rise, and the wind was fierce.”

Her comment made me think of the documentary Into Great Silence filmed at the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps and the long harsh winters the Carthusian monks endure.  Kentucky winters are surely mild in comparison…although Thomas Merton, the contemplative mystic and prolific spiritual writer who spent 27 years at Gethsemani, mentions in his journals many zero and below days.

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Photo credit: Lilly Lewin

I asked the woman what work her brother does at the monastery, and she said he works in the mailroom.  “It’s what he does on the outside, too.  He’s worked several years for the Postal Service in between.”  She sensed my unspoken question.  “Oh, he doesn’t know…,” she trailed off, her smile one of helpless affection.  “He comes and goes.”

Tonight, I look out at the empty icy streets, at the frozen mist rising from the river and think about the monks at Gethsemani in their tiny spare cells with the wind whistling outside the walls, about the brother who can’t decide and the sister who tries to be a bridge between his two worlds.  I think about my late husband who spent a weekend retreat at Gethsemani once in search of something:  an answer, a sign. Most of us are probably looking for that in one way or another, all wondering who or where we’re supposed to be, never quite at home in the here and now.

Even Merton, after more than two decades at Gethsemani, still felt alien and exiled among people with whom he had little in common.  The year before he died he spent two retreats at the Redwoods Monastery on the northern coast of California and felt, he said, unutterably happy, as if he had come a very long way to where he really belonged.  He felt an immediate rapport with the European nuns and was enthralled by the giant redwoods.  Upon seeing again the spindly pines and cedars of Kentucky, he said, “I must go back.  It is not right that I should die under lesser trees.”  He didn’t go back, nor did he die in Kentucky but in Bangkok that same year (1968, age 53) where he had gone to participate in an interfaith conference.  He had just come from visits in India with the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist leaders and was looking forward to final stops in Japan to explore Zen.  Merton had studied Eastern religions for several years, and there is speculation that he wished to remain in Asia as a hermit.  Perhaps he got his wish and is still there on some other plane for which there are no maps.

Perhaps there are no answers, at least none that we are capable of discerning.  Maybe we should try to become our own geography, supposing, as Merton said, geography to be necessary at all.  Maybe the signs are so ordinary we discount them, the things we experience every day, the river and the mist, the library where the poor come for Internet service and the homeless to get warm.  Where a woman comes to buy teaching books for her spiritually conflicted brother out of love.  And maybe that is the answer:  the heart the true sanctuary and love the one thing that all the mystics agree is the way to find God within ourselves.

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Elegy for Chilhowee Park, Knoxville, Tennessee

In old photographs they stroll
in Sunday finery on summer afternoons
before the Wars like ghosts
in their Victorian summer whites
on dirt paths that curve between
boathouse and mineral spring.
Sometimes they float in wooden canoes
on Lake Ottosee or gather
in front of the cupolaed stone
to hear violin and German bassoon.
That time-shrunken structure
is the only trace of your old allure,
the lake’s algaed depths stirred now
only by ducks and migrating geese,
as placid and timeless as the first leaves
of autumn drifting like silent notes
across the bandstand’s marble floor—
a people, a place, a world no more.

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Discovering the Past in Le Marais, Paris

It does not seem to me, Austerlitz added, that we understand the laws governing the return of the past, but I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like, and the longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead, that only occasionally, in certain lights and atmospheric conditions, do we appear in their field of vision.
W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

I don’t know who said, “The past is always with us,” but nothing could be truer than in the Marais, the historic Jewish Quarter in Paris.  It is one of those Old World locations where the past and the present converge, where one’s sense of self is challenged by being forced to weigh one’s life against the events that made the present possible.  I and two friends rented an apartment in the Marais earlier this year, on Rue Chapon which dates from 1292, a street originally called Street of the Cock, not for the bird but a name of derision given to a synagogue there under the reign of Philip IV, La Maison de la Société des Capons. One of the oldest structures in Paris, in fact, was one street over, the Nicholas Flamel house built in 1407 on Rue Montmorency.  Somewhere beneath Chapon are the bones of Carmelite nuns whose convent was founded there in 1617.

Although the apartment had been thoroughly modernized, it retained the original massive, unpainted ceiling beams.  Many of the buildings in that section date from the seventeenth century and were abandoned by the nobility for the more upscale Faubourg St. Germain area when Louis XIV moved the royal court from the Louvre to Versailles in 1682.  A steady decline continued into the nineteenth century.  The grandest old Marais residences became museums and hotels, the rest were subdivided into apartments like ours on Rue Chapon.  With affordable housing, the Marais soon became a commercial district, attracting artisans and the working poor and, later, waves of immigrant Jews fleeing persecution in Russia and central Europe.

Rue Chapon, Paris

Today, Rue Chapon is primarily known, as it has been known for over two hundred years, for its wholesale purse trade.  In a travel book published in 1842 titled How to Enjoy Paris, the author mentions a M. Langlais-Quignolot, No. 10, Rue Chapon, who “executes orders for London on a most extensive scale for net gloves, purses and reticules….  [and] has lately brought into vogue some most beautiful little purses called Rebecca, being exactly in the form of the pitcher with which she is represented at the well; their appearance is most ornamental, and although very small they distend so as to hold as much as most ladies would like to lose in an evening at cards.”  Today, the street is home to several Chinese purse wholesalers, their small windows displaying vogue designs in colored and natural leathers.

But on this trip, I was not interested in shopping; I was interested in the area’s history, particularly during World War II.  I had just read two books about this period, Tatiana de Rosnay’s novel Sarah’s Key about the Vel d’Hive roundup of Jews in Paris on August 16 and 17, 1942, and The Journal of Hélène Berr, begun at age 21 when she was a student of Russian and English literature at the Sorbonne and ending with her and her parents’ arrest on March 8, 1944.  During my stay on Rue Chapon, I never entered the door at street level and walked up the three flights of worn stairs without trying to imagine the Jewish families who might have lived in the building during that dark period.

ImageMy imagination was fueled, too, by the memorial plaque above our street entrance. 

Photo courtesy of Léa Maillet

The plaque stated, in rough translation, that “on August 14, 1944, a meeting was held in this building between Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, the regional chief of the FFI (French Forces of the Interior), and the French police and the decision made for the entry of the police in the insurrectional struggle for the liberation of Paris.” The FFI was the formal name of the resistance fighters who lead the insurrection five days later which culminated on August 25 with the arrival of American troops.

It’s hard to imagine the City of Light during those six days, to think that tanks flanked the entrance to Notre Dame and that explosives were wired to the Cathedral towers as well as ancient bridges and other major sites such as the Eiffel Tower, the Arc d’Triomphe, and the Louvre.  Hitler had given orders to destroy Paris, but Gen. Choltitz, the commander of the German forces, officially the military governor of Paris, refused to reduce five thousand years of history to rubble.  In a 1964 interview, Choltitz explained, “If for the first time I had disobeyed, it was because I knew that Hitler was insane.”

It is harder still to imagine Paris during the four years of German occupation.  When Berr began her journal in the spring of ‘42, the occupiers, to her, seemed little more than background noise.  Her academic and social patterns continued for a few months unbroken—she attended classes and lectures, met friends in the library and courtyard of the Sorbonne, attended concerts at the Trocadero, accepted and extended invitations to teas, played violin in a small group of talented musicians.  She was falling in love.  But by summer increasingly flagrant acts of oppression made the reality all too clear.  While her friends and their families and members of her own immediate family were fleeing to the free zone in southern France, Berr chose to stay with her parents and grandmother.  Quickly, her world shrunk as more and more liberties were forbidden.

On July 16 and 17, 13,152 Jewish men, women, and children were arrested and taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver, an indoor winter sports arena, and held there for five days before being deported to internment camps such as Drancy and then on to extermination camps.  On July 15, Berr wrote in her journal, “Something tragic is about to happen.”  On July 18th she wrote: “Some of the children they took had to be dragged along the floor. In Montmartre there were so many arrests that the streets were jammed. Faubourg Saint-Denis has nearly been emptied. Mothers have been separated from their children…. In one neighborhood, a whole family, the father, the mother, and five children, gassed themselves to escape the roundup. One woman threw herself out of a window. Apparently several policemen have been shot for warning people so they could escape. They were threatened with the concentration camp if they failed to obey.”

A Paris publication reported:  “The Vél d’hiv looked like a scene from hell. Eight thousand Jews were camping there, living literally in their excrement, with nothing to eat or drink for three days. Men died. Women gave birth. The clamor raised prevented the neighborhood’s residents from sleeping for three nights.”  There were also suicides.

Berr immediately volunteered with the UGIF (Union Générale des Israélites de France, or General Organization of Jews in France) to help with the children allowed to leave under the protection of the UGIF.  But the UGIF had facilities only large enough to hold 4-500 of the 4,000 children, placing them in homes, monasteries, and orphanages.  Berr and her parents were arrested on March 8, 1944 and deported to Drancy.  On March 27, her 23rd birthday, she was deported to Auschwitz.  In November she was transferred to Bergen- Belsen where she died a year later, just 5 days before the camp was liberated.  Her journal, kept by surviving members of her family after the war, was published in 2008.

I was in Paris the summer of 2004 when the city was celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of its liberation.  A photography exhibit of over 100 enlarged, framed, black and white portraits recounting the Normandy and Provence landings leading up to the liberation, the arrival of American troops in Paris, as well as the reconstruction of France was affixed to the iron fence surrounding the Luxembourg Gardens.  The sidewalk was crowded, the people, many of them old enough to have experienced those historic events, many of them with teary eyes, moved slowly, quietly past that floodtide of giant images.  Those images and those faces brought tears to my own eyes.  I was reminded of something American novelist William Faulkner said:   “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

This July 16, to mark the 70th anniversary of the Vel d’Hiv roundup, a new exhibit opened in Paris’ city hall.  The exhibit, “The Vel d’Hiv Raid: the Police Archives,” is the first public opening of these historic documents.  Berr’s journal, like Anne Frank’s diary, intentionally written to preserve history for future generations, is sure to have been a motivating factor behind this exhibit.

Walking along those winding, ancient streets in the Marais which press upon so many layers of historical sediment, I often felt that I was the ghost, a visitor from the future walking unseen among the dead, trying to learn the lessons they could teach me, especially how to find meaning in everyday experience.  Berr found meaning even while living through horror.  She wrote: “And then there’s the sympathy of people in the street, on the metro.  People look at you with such goodness it fills your heart with inexpressible feeling….  As the misfortunes are heaped up, this connection deepens.  Superficial distinctions of race, religion, social class are no longer the issue—I never thought they were—there is unity against evil, communion in suffering.”   But it came at the expense of so much loss.  And she also wrote, “The only people who can be happy must be those who do not know.”  But if you could choose, would you choose happiness over not knowing?  Sometimes, I think that the only way the dead see the living is when the living feel suffering across time.  In the Marais, you will not come away untouched—by something, by someone—and it will feel like a gift.

Le Marais, Paris, photo by Judy Loest, all rights reserved

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Pink Petals on a Black Bough

Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.
–Georgia O’Keefe

The prevailing question for me at the moment seems to be how to live with moral responsibility to the environment.  Not just the large, cumbersome concept of the environment as a whole, but every day the question narrows to the smallest aspect of my personal life.  It’s the consequence of living in an age of relentless and synapse-clogging information, much of which makes claims on my conscience but is beyond my ability to act upon in a meaningful way.

The most recent object of soul searching is an orchid purchased on impulse at the grocery store in early December, one of those small, common, three-dollar hybrids with a ten-dollar Greek name, Phalaenopsis, which means resembling a moth.  The five-inch plant came with four candy-pink blooms and two tiny buds at the end of the stem.  I’ve never owned an orchid; they always seemed too close to the vanity that resulted in tulip fever and too high-maintenance, something akin to a cashmere sweater or an exotic-breed pet. But the instructions on the little plastic stake made it sound so simple:  indirect light, medium temp, slightly damp moss.  I placed it near a window and on cloudy days, kept it under a lamp. Since its moss seemed a little tired, I gave it a fresh layer pinched from nearby woods.  Every couple of days, I held it under a slow drip from the filtered water spigot until the moss was minimally moist.  About once a week, I gave it a drop or two of diluted plant food.

Soon, the two tiny buds began fattening like rhubarb-colored hearts.  After three weeks, the larger bud formed a white seam along its north-south circumference.  By Christmas morning, the seam had split open and by noon, the white and pink petals had unfurled.  All the shiny, clever gizmos coming out of Silicon Valley could not have compared to that quiet and astonishing gift.  On into evening, it continued to widen.  Now, into the first of March, it has seven blooms and a new bud. The blooming season for orchids is winter to spring; the test will be whether or not I can facilitate a second blooming.

I can’t describe the satisfaction of watching each bloom’s slow fulfillment, like witnessing a mysterious incarnation.  I don’t think even a degree in botany could explain the miracle of plants.  In a culture which seems intent on reminding itself of its impermanence with its thrall to short-lived objects, the thought that orchids date back 76 to 84 million years gives some perspective to human enterprise.  This precise date was discovered only twelve years ago when a chunk of amber was dug out of a mine in the Dominican Republic by a private amber collector.  Scientists found orchid pollen fossilized on the back of a bee encased in the amber.

Still, beauty, mystery, and miracle aside, an orchid in a condo seems perversely out of context—how long can a plant, especially an exotic one, thrive or even survive in such an unnatural setting?   It’s like the question that has nagged as long as I have lived with indoor cats.  Haven’t I diminished their lives, both in span and richness, by keeping them from their natural habitat?  I have no answer for that, only more questions.  What, in today’s overpopulated and mechanized world, is considered a natural habitat for cats?  My cats have all been shelter cats; wouldn’t their urban lives have been much shorter if left to their own devices?  Does the seeming happiness and health of my cats compensate for the genetic potential denied them?

Knowledge can be a paralyzing thing, like having far too many clothes to cram into available closets.  Some days I am drunk and dazed with the immensity and complexity of the world; on others, I feel overwrought by the sheer intelligibility of it all.  I am reminded of my mother, just a generation back, who, as a child and then as young wife and mother in the Thirties and early Forties, did not have access to scientific knowledge.  She lived in the rural Appalachian hollows of southwest Virginia where there was no library, no book mobile, no television, no newspaper delivery, where very few could afford a telephone, a magazine subscription, books, or travel.  She did not know that the vanilla extract she bought from the door-to-door Watkins salesman and used in every cake and cookie she made (her cookbook was a Watkins cookbook) came from an orchid.  She had never seen, nor possibly ever heard of, an orchid.  She could not locate on any map Madagascar, the country in which Watkins claimed its vanilla pods originated.  And, yet, she knew more about nature, about growing cycles and pollination of the plants in her immediate proximity, even if she didn’t have the vocabulary, than I ever will.  She, by necessity, lived close to nature, not distanced, as I am, by endless third parties.  I, with my three-dollar Kroger orchid which probably originated in an automated nursery in Florida, have merely the illusion of living with nature.

Can an orchid, then, for me, ever be more than a token gesture, at best a constant reminder of personal obligation to live smaller and make better lifestyle choices whenever I can?  And can that be enough, given how much I know?  I stare at the orchid, and its phalanx of pink faces seems not without a judicial aspect, their open magenta mouths with palates puffed with golden powder offered up like a gift I can only refuse.  I may coddle it all the ways in which I am capable, but I cannot do the one thing Creation promised, I cannot bring it a bee.

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Seeking Stillness

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clean air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it. Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved–as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds–because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there.”  –Wallace Stegner

 

The holidays are past, now to begin the quiet descent into winter, the chance to burrow deep into books and memory, to see if the mind, so accustomed to dogpaddling in the shallows, has forgotten how to go slower, deeper.  I never make New Year’s resolutions, but my goal for 2012 is to seek out stillness, of both mind and body.  The best route to that, I think, is in nature.  I find immeasurable gifts in the most unlikely plot of blighted earth. My spiritual guide this year may be a mud turtle.  On a sunny day in November, I discovered Eastern river cooters, freshwater turtles, basking in the sun in a nearby creek that flows into the Tennessee River.  I think they are cooters, but I am vastly deficient in the sciences—they could be pond sliders.  They are small, only three or four inches long, and are totally camouflaged when sitting on half-submerged limbs and logs.  They are extremely skittish and always see me before I see them—I only hear their tiny plops, no louder than a small pebble, as they dunk back into the water—but if I stand perfectly still for five minutes or more, they will very slowly emerge and creep back onto the limb.  I don’t know why this is so satisfying, why the sight of this tiny creature creeping like an arthritic geriatric onto a rotting limb in a stinking creek and craning his wizened neck toward the sun should be so mesmerizing.  All I know is that it is very calming and uplifting.

photo by Gary Loucks

Eastern River Cooter, photo by Gary Loucks

These turtles make me think harder about what it means to live with moral responsibility for the environment.  They, along with writers who grapple with difficult moral choices or point out the damage and, yes, the criminality of vain, money-inspired development will keep me mindful.  The great environmentalist Wallace Stegner called this kind of writer declared enemies of their society.  Stegner, who founded the creative writing program at Stanford and taught the likes of Wendell Berry, Thomas McGuane, and Edward Abby, said, “There has hardly been a serious or important novel in this century that did not repudiate in part or in whole American technological culture for its commercialism, its vulgarity, and the way in which it has dirtied a clean continent and a clean dream.”

I am fortunate to live in a city where bits of wilderness are within easy walks, spots that have not yet caught the calculating eyes of developers, what I like to call original dirt.  Despite the fact that many of our creeks are neglected, that they are often polluted, stagnant, and uninhabitable to most wildlife, they are, for those very reasons, more compelling than traditional recreational spots. They still retain remnants of a long history, a history that I and all other humans are connected to in the most fundamental way.  This little mid-crusted turtle dates back 250 million years—surely, he can teach me more about connectedness than Facebook.  Stegner said rightly that we have lived too shallowly in too many places.  So much of our society is focused on fun.  Places that are touted as tourist attractions are usually artificially manipulated to provide entertainment, externally generated pleasure that feeds the need of illusion and not the deeper hunger for self-generated contentment.  There is an imbalance between fun and contemplation, like a diet with too much sugar. To know a place deeply is to feel an obligation toward it.  Maybe watching turtles is a way to live more deeply in the place I call home, an East Tennessee river valley that, like most American cities, is quickly losing its original contours, sometimes in soul-crushing ways.  I am speaking of Mountaintop Removal which is happening on Zeb Mountain only an hour’s drive from here.

Stillness can still be found, but it is very hard to find silence. I feel blessed to have grown up in the remote rural community of Snowflake, Virginia, and remember the silence of those woods and ridges along Big Moccasin Creek.  As Stegner says in the quote above, I will always have that memory, it serves as a standard to remind me how much we have lost in terms of real sanctuary.   Lyman Ward, Stegner’s protagonist in Angle of Repose, reflected on the profound silence of his grandparents’ life on the American frontier in the 19th century, before electricity, compared to his own time.  “1970,” he said, “knows nothing about isolation and nothing about silence.”  His list of modern electrical conveniences has only multiplied in the forty years since; and, although our clever inventions, ever smaller and more sophisticated, may no longer smell of oil or coal and make jarring noise, each has its own buzz, hum, beep, or ringtone that, taken together, have now reached a drone so bothersome that we have had to create yet another machine, a white noise machine, to mask it.

I have always admired those for whom solitude in nature is more than just an occasional spiritual practice, who shape their lives around those moments.  I have a friend who is a kind of freelance corporate psychologist.  He helps ease employee anxiety due to economic or industry-based transitions and mediates departmental conflicts for small and mid-sized companies in the Southeast.  Because the work is often intense and emotionally draining, he makes his own rules of engagement.  He chooses his clients and his hours and will only take on contracts he can reasonably drive to.  And he drives there slowly on back roads, occasionally stopping to explore places of local interest.  For many years, he drove an ancient postal delivery truck that, even floor boarded, could probably not have exceeded his preferred speed of fifty-five.  He would often tack on an extra day to fish some river, always tossing the catch back in.  He knows intimately all the major rivers and most of their tributaries within a five- or six-state circumference and, in his many hours of solitude along their banks, has thought long and deeply about himself and his relation to them.

Few of us, though, can take credit for whatever good impulses we may have.  It is possible my friend is just as self-motivated as I am, using nature as therapy, a way to calm our anxiety over the horrors of the daily news, the constant thrum and babble of people and machines, the pain of personal loss, and the guilt of simple human inability to care deeply for anything.  We have reached a point in history where our guilt, often a great motivator for good, must encompass the environment.  More and more, we live surrounded by disposable-everything.  We are pinched and pulled at every turn by the monster of retail that invades public space, makes us feel deficient in order to sell us the things it determines we are deficient in but which turn out to be the things that leave us feeling most bottomed-out.  Nature is the only true counter to the vast meaninglessness of what Stegner called our termite lives, the most visible and accessible source of renewal when we feel most hopeless.  Every green growing thing, every unfolding petal and mud-crusted turtle is a perpetual marvel of the world, ever renewing proof that we are part of something greater than all of our vain and transient creations.  I look forward to the new year, to seeing where these inward journeys may take me.

 

 

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Montaigne and the Sweet Death

Everyone wishes for his own good death and envies the rare ones that seem to qualify. Of all the deaths of people I have known, the one I envy is that of my mother’s best friend Phyllis. She had spent most of the day in her flower beds, weeding and mulching and thinning her Boston ferns. For some months, she had been experiencing some dizziness while working in the sun but ignored it. Gardening was her passion. That evening after her husband had gone to bed (they always retired hours apart), she sat down in her rocker to watch a late TV movie. The next morning when her husband saw her there, so peaceful, he thought she was still asleep. How awful for him but how good for her.

My idea of death has changed somewhat after reading the French philosopher Montaigne. I was led to his Essays by Sarah Bakewell’s thoroughly engaging introduction, How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, the winner of this year’s National Book Critics Circle Award. Bakewell made Montaigne so appealing I had to know more, and I have not been disappointed. Michel de MontaigneOne test, they say, of great literature is that it passes the test of time. Montaigne’s Essays was a bestseller over four hundred years ago and is still amazingly accessible and relevant.

As Bakewell says, he is likeable. How can you not like someone who tells you right up front that to read his book would be a waste of your time? His writing style is so personal, as if were speaking to a very close friend, you, telling you about his inadequacies, his laziness, his poor memory, his small penis. You feel you know him and that he knows you, you want to visit his castle in the Dordogne and walk through his library in the tower where he spent so much time thinking and writing and look out at the views he saw: the garden, the courtyard, the segmented fields through the seasons. If he were alive today, there would be countless women trying to insinuate themselves into his life as did Marie de Gournay, who was so successful he adopted her. In many ways, he reminds me of Charlie Chaplin, his brilliance most visible in the way he endeared himself to his readers by his complete ease in acting silly, of guilelessly reflecting back to us our own humanity.

Montaigne reminds us time and again that he was far from perfect, but he seemed to possess many of the qualities we most admire. Even his self-absorption is admirable because its impetus was self-improvement not self-aggrandizement. You guess that someone so gallant, so accepting of himself, so blessed with sociability, affability, humility and generosity, could surely help you become a better person. Certainly less troubled about your own end. He took Socrates’ maxims “Know thyself” and “The unexamined life is not worth living” to heart. Inscribed on his library rafters were these and other Greek and Latin quotes from his favorite books. The one at the center reads, “I do not comprehend. I pause. I examine.” He found that holding a microscope on himself and dissecting his moods and motivations, his flaws and fears and doubts with a pen was therapeutic. Instead of running from his demons, he laid them inkerized upon the page and boldly probed them, an exercise which weakened their power over him and allowed him to live more fully.

Montaigne did not equate title and wealth with superiority over the common man. He thought most humans incapable of clear judgment because of their pretensions, and he was determined not to have any. ‘I prefer the company of peasants,” he said, “because they have not been educated sufficiently to reason incorrectly.” He thought that most of our problems in life stem from vanity. If he were alive today, he’d be the guy who, even though he’s office manager, is not above making the morning coffee. He would be the perfect travel companion: the guy on the train who strikes up a convivial conversation with the baggage handler, who is as inquisitive about the life of laborers in the field as of monarchs in the castles, and who follows no strict itinerary and will detour at the slightest inducement. When in Morocco, he would not be hunting down an American hamburger but a supply of saffron to replicate the native dishes back at home. Because of his feelings toward animals, he would be vegan and, in memory of his beloved cat, bequeath half his fortune to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. He would be a statesman, never a politician, which means, alas, he could not exist today because, apparently, it is not a world in which a statesman can be bred.

Even though Montaigne developed the courage to look closely at himself, he didn’t start out that way. He, too, came to the Greek and Roman philosophers the same way I come to him—wanting help with a fear of death. Like Montaigne and most of us, it’s not being dead I fear, but the getting there. Montaigne initially believed that in order to accept death, one must prepare for it by thinking about it a lot. Seneca and Lucretius, though, said that it’s foolish to let fear make your life miserable; learn instead how to live. If you have lived well, your death will be easy. Montaigne reached that conclusion himself,n but it wasn’t due solely to Seneca and Lucretius; he had personal concrete evidence. At about age thirty-six, he had a near fatal fall from his horse. According to Bakewell, his companions who carried him home “later told him that he was vomiting blood and clawing at his chest, violently, as if to tear himself from his body.” This physical state was in dramatic opposition to his mental state which he remembered as being one of “infinite sweetness.” From then on, he was convinced that dying was nothing to fear. Nature takes care of dying; one should focus instead on learning how to live.

But dying, like living, is unique to each individual, and Montaigne, although a Skeptic, became the eternal optimist concerning death. Could his theory possibly hold true for all deaths? I think my father had the death Montaigne came to believe in. My father had Bright’s disease, and one night, at age 43, his kidneys shut down. Death came in no more than ten minutes. He never seemed to be in pain and, after the initial fear of losing his sight, seemed calmed and comforted by some vision. “I see my sweet Jesus,” were his exact words. He was not a religious man, had never attended church. I continue to believe that Jesus was the only word in his vocabulary that came closest to what he was seeing. I don’t know what he saw, but I believe that whatever it was, it was infinitely sweet.

But then there was the very painful death of a favorite older cousin. He died at age 68, his body knotted and twisted by forty years of rheumatoid arthritis, a disease not uncommon among Korean War veterans who had spent so much time sleeping in and wading through rice paddies fertilized with human feces. He was in a wheelchair for the last twenty years of his life. By his early fifties, my mother was sewing Velcro closures on his shirts because he was no longer able to manipulate buttons. The ravages of the disease and the years of meds resulted in heart disease. His daughter said he screamed for interminable minutes before he died, before paramedics arrived with morphine. That was troubling to imagine, because he was always a smiling, soft-spoken man who never complained, never mentioned his infirmities. Montaigne, who said that the highest form of wisdom is continued cheerfulness, would have called him wise. Such a good man who had suffered so much should have had an easy death.

Montaigne himself, according to personal accounts by his wife and a good friend, did not die the way he might have wished. He had suffered for years from painful kidney stones and, at age 59, one failed to pass and infection set in. Without antibiotics, his body swelled, including his throat, which, too, became infected. To the observer it was a torturous way to die, but if Montaigne was right, his mind had already detached from his body and had entered that state of infinite sweetness. The physical manifestations of the dying process were only the body’s reflexive reactions; what registered in the subconscious, or perhaps at the soul level, was only a soft drifting toward sleep, a sedating-like euphoria invisible to witnesses.

Montaigne tells us to reflect on everything and regret nothing. He said that so many people who are near death despair that they are being cheated out of time, prevented from gaining some great victory or witnessing an important event such as a child’s graduation or marriage, when their only business at that moment should be with themselves. “For my part,” he wrote, “I am, thanks be to God, at this instant in such a condition, that I am ready to dislodge, whenever it shall please Him, without regret for anything whatsoever.” Of course, he added, “We are all born to action. I would always have a man to be doing, and, as much as in him lies, to extend and spin out the offices of his life; and then let death take me planting my cabbages, indifferent to him, and still less of my garden’s not being finished.”

So far, Montaigne hasn’t lessened my fear of death, but I can’t imagine any words, in today’s frenetic pursuit of diversion and achievement, more comforting than his. If I am not lucky enough to dislodge while chopping vegetables, sitting at the computer thinning an essay, or scooping out the litter box, maybe the “how” doesn’t matter. Even if he was wrong about Nature taking care of our dying, he was right about one thing: “Seeing [that] we are threatened by so many sorts of death, is it not infinitely worse eternally to fear them all, than once to undergo one of them?”

Like Montaigne, I tend to forget most of what I read. Likely, if someone asks me a year or two from now for an example of his excellent advice, I won’t be able to say. But I will remember the feeling of acceptance I have while reading Montaigne, that it is okay to feel ridiculous, to doubt, to have poor judgment, to pursue some frivolous and vain activity; of not having to adapt myself to his company with explanation, apology, or dissimulation. If there is any residue left of him, I hope it is the muscle memory of the Ah-loose-breath moment that came from reading this: “Who­ev­er shall consider, as in a painting, that great im­age of our moth­er Na­ture, in her full majesty and lus­tre, who­ev­er in her face shall read so gen­er­al and so con­stant a va­ri­ety, who­ev­er shall ob­serve him­self in that fig­ure, and not only him­self but a whole king­dom, no big­ger than the least touch or prick of a pen­cil in com­par­ison of the whole, that man alone is able to val­ue things ac­cord­ing to their true es­ti­mate and grandeur.” It relieves you of having to try or pretend to be something you are not while, at the same time, making your imperfections integral to something bigger and grander. That, in itself, will be a gift of infinite sweetness.

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The Magnitude of the Magnolia

I love flowers for their treachery
their fragile bodies
grace my imagination’s avenues

without their presence
my mind would be an unmarked
grave.

–from The Spring Flowers Own by Etel Adnan

May, my favorite month, the month of ambrosial blossoms—jasmine, honeysuckle, catalpa, clover, and magnolia, the flower Neruda loved, comparing it to a wave, a seagull, an onion (an onion??). Onions aside, he celebrated the magnolia’s perfume. That nose jolt of heady, honeyed air always makes me stand still and take long, deep breaths, fully present.

I rarely encounter a blooming magnolia tree without remembering my mother-in-law, the quintessential Southern woman. Despite having lived the last fifty years of her life in Tennessee, she never stopped pronouncing her r’s like h’s. She grew up in Tallahassee but was always quick to point out, “I was bohn in Chahleston, and ouh family is descended from Govnuh Bull, the first govnuh of South Ca-uhlina.” She was especially proud of her membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, perhaps because it compensated for the sorority she was cheated out of as a young woman.

At first, I didn’t think she was keen on the idea of having me for a daughter-in-law. I was not in the same social class. My mother was a working widow with a sixth-grade education who had never heard of the DAR, and, even if she had, wouldn’t have been impressed. As for me, I was a little uneasy in the presence of a woman so meticulously groomed, so well-versed in Emily Post etiquette, afraid of using the wrong fork or of spilling something on all that linen or creamy carpet. She was the only woman I had ever known who hosted teas, owned a mink stole, and employed a housekeeper.

But she was not a reader, and that fact alone soon made me feel superior. Only a non-reader, I thought, could hate having Ophelia as a middle name, Hamlet’s fair Ophelia who inspired all those beautiful Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Libby was the only name she acknowledged. Still later, when I was mature enough to realize that biology rules everything and that who we are is mostly luck, I was more understanding of her literary apathy. I believe she may have had, like all of us on that troublesome continuum, a mild form of ADD which caused her to avoid tasks that require sustained concentration. As I came to know her better, I also realized that she and I had something fundamental in common. Our fathers died when we were teenagers, and there was not enough money to send us to college. Because of that, we became adept at reinventing ourselves through our innate talents, for me art and literature, for her social graces. She wasn’t a reader, but she had refinement, classic taste, and a joyful personality and was popular and admired in her small town in East Tennessee.

Her favorite perfume for as I long as I knew her was L’Air du Temps.L'Air du Temps parfum Nina Ricci launched that fragrance in 1948 to commemorate the end of WWII and to capture ‘the spirit if the times’ which marked a return to optimism, elegance, and romance. A frosted glass dove perched on the stopper, symbol of peace and love. Libby would have been 29 then, a young wife with a five-year old son (my future husband) and a husband establishing a career as an electrical engineer. After piloting a fighter bomber during the war, he earned an engineering degree with honors in only eighteen months. Like many starting from scratch, there was no wasting time.  She probably wasn’t able to afford that fragrance for several more years, but it was in her sights as surely as the success her generation knew would come with hard work and frugality.

I can still see her spraying it on the insides of her wrists and saying, “I feel so rich.” She said that often, whether wearing a new outfit, tasting a rich dessert, or opening a birthday or Christmas gift, but I don’t think she ever really did feel rich even after my father-in-law’s engineering firm became successful. Maybe it was just her generation, but she rarely bought anything that wasn’t on sale. My husband used to joke about how her kitchen counters were always covered in paper towels spread to dry for re-use. I can’t imagine her ever buying the expensive L’Air du Temps parfum, certainly not in the Lalique bottle created in 1951; I only remember her using the eau de toilette.

When I met her, L’Air du Temps seemed a bit old-fashioned to me, like Shalimar and Chanel No. 5. I was into White Shoulders and Estée and, later, Je Reviens, Paris, and Rive Gauche. I was fickle where perfume was concerned but now realize that all the fragrances I have loved are, like L’Air du Temps, florals, all formulas rich in Southern white flowers—gardenia, jasmine, magnolia. Over the years, I saw my and Libby’s taste overlap in other areas, not just in perfume—we both loved finding bargains, beautiful old-fashioned things, hot tea, Chopin, fresh flowers—and we were both born in May, our birthdays four days apart. I no longer wear perfume because 95% of the chemicals used in affordable fragrances today are synthetic, mostly toxic compounds derived from petroleum, and I doubt Libby ever knew about the cheaper reformulation of L’Air du Temps in the 80’s; but I miss wearing them. And I miss Libby.

She was socially active until the very end when she suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage alone in her assisted living apartment. She was 82, had been a widow for fourteen years, and was dancing the night before she died. Certain things will always remind me of her—peignoirs and Daniel Green bed slippers, porcelain eggs and demitasse cups, Limoges china and Hummel angels, Jif Peanut Butter, saltines and instant grits (which she carried with her whenever she traveled)…and, of course, L’Air du Temps, her signature perfume, and the fragrant month of May.

It comes on like a flower from the earth
advancing with decisive aroma
up to the magnitude of the magnolia;
but this flower from the depths already burst
brings along all the light ever abolished,
all the branches that never burned
and all the spring-source of whiteness.

–from The Wave by Pablo Neruda

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