Monday, March 26, 2018

White Tears

"On your record deck, you played the sound of the middle passage, the blackest sound. You wanted the suffering you didn’t have, the authority you thought it would bring...Then came the terror when the real darkness first seeped through the walls of your bedroom, the walls designed to keep you safe and dreaming. And finally your rising sense of shame when you admitted to yourself that you were relieved the walls were there. The shame of knowing that you would do nothing, that you would allow it all to carry on."

White Tears by Hari Kunzru is a strange, challenging, compelling book. I almost returned it to the library after the first 50 pages because it seemed to be yet another book about socially-dysfunctional, weirdly-obsessive white guys. The writing and the development of the plot kept me going. That's the author's gift, I guess:  to compel me to read a book I think doesn't interest me that actually ends up interesting me. In the end, the white guys are just the vehicle, the cheval, for a story about lost blues musicians, the danger of obsession, futile white guilt, mass incarceration, cultural appropriation, and the powerlessness of being outside of the ruling oligarchy that is America.

Reading it made me feel a little crazy: obsessive and guilty and miserable about both our past and our present. I wonder if people who didn't grow up in the south surrounded by blatant racism and hyper-aware of their own ancestors' roles feel the same kind of pervasive guilt about the past that I feel when confronted with these truths. It feels horrifying and crippling, and I don't know what to do about it. Where does the guilt of the ancestors end and my own guilt begin? For I also am relieved that the walls are there for me, and I too am riding the easy waves instead of fighting the current.

This book was well-written with many deep, affecting themes woven into a short narrative, and the plot will keep you guessing until the end. Honestly, I'm still not 100% sure what actually happened and what didn't. It's definitely not a feel-good book, so if you're looking for that, look elsewhere, but in my opinion, it's worth reading, studying, absorbing. This post feels unfinished because I feel like this book is not finished with me yet.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

White Rose, Black Forest

photo by Amy Brandon

"You are privileged to read these words so many are barred from. And why are they barred? Because the Nazis know that their real enemy is the independent thinker."
 from White Rose, Black Forest by Eoin Dempsey

I don't read on Kindle as much as I read print, but a few weeks ago, a friend recommended White Rose, Black Forest  by Eoin Dempsey to me, and when I went looking for it, Amazon First Reads seemed liked the best way to get it.  I don't know if I'll stick with the program, but I thought I'd give it a try.  If anyone has had any experience with the service, tell me what you've thought.

White Rose, Black Forest was an entertaining read.  At first I wasn't sure I was going to stick with it, because it begins with a girl contemplating suicide, and I just wasn't sure I was up for that kind of book.  Turns out, it's pretty much the opposite of that kind of book. Here are some key elements:

  • a remote cabin in a snowy wood in the Black Forest in 1943
  • a strong female protagonist who happens to be a Nazi dissident
  • the daring rescue of an enemy spy by said protagonist
  • the enemy and the dissident snowed in alone for weeks
  • the dissident's ex-boyfriend, now a Gestapo officer
  • an escape attempt through the snowy woods with a stay in a cave (I love a cave) 

What will happen? Read it and find out. While much of the plot defies belief, it is an entertaining, escapist story, and if you're like me, a break from reality will be much welcomed. Also if you're like me, you will have to try your best to ignore how quickly and underhandedly Hitler's Fascists took over Germany in the 1930s.  Scary stuff.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Alone Together

photo by Amy Brandon

“So many of us are reaching out, hoping someone out there will grab our hands and remind us we are not as alone as we fear.”  ~Roxane Gay

A little over a year ago, I started working part-time and from home. For the first time in my life, my days are neither full of other people nor structured by any outside influence. Think about how strange that sounds. I don’t think my life has been like this since before kindergarten. I expect that would be true for most of us. It’s been like learning to be a different person. More properly, I suppose, it’s been like learning to be fully myself. I absolutely love it, but unforeseen learning curves have presented themselves.

One of the hardest questions I’ve had to ask myself has revolved around the questions of solitude and community. How much solitude is too much? How is community defined anyway? When I feel, as I often do, that there is no such thing as too much solitude, I begin to second-guess myself, to doubt my goodness as a person. What kind of misanthrope just wants to stay home all the time? But then when I do go out, I find both my social skills and my patience with what passes for entertaining interaction these days have atrophied to the point of being almost useless. And how about community? Is spending time with my husband community enough? Does online community count? Do I have to force myself to go out and do things I don’t necessarily want to do just to meet the requirement of being a well-adjusted person? Because here’s the thing, the days I feel the most well-adjusted are the days Ken and I are home alone together all day. Is that solitude or community? Maybe our cultureal expectations for what passses as well-adjusted are not right for some of us. I don’t know. I don’t have answers here, just hunches based on my own recent experience.

A few months ago I was asked to be involved in a small group based on the idea of a “Circle of Trust,” as defined by Parker Palmer in his book A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. I didn’t stay with the group, partly because I didn’t want to have to shower and dress and drive an hour round trip in the dark to go, but also partly because I don’t think I am ready for that level of openness with others right now, but that’s a different issue. What I did do was to buy the book and begin to read slowly through it. Just tonight, as I was contemplating emailing the group leader (who is also a pastor) and asking him for help with the questions I mentioned above, I picked up the book instead and came across this passage:

“If we are to hold solitude and community together as a true paradox, we need to deepen our understanding of both poles. Solitude does not necessarily mean living apart from others; rather, it means never living apart from one’s self. It is not about the absence of other people -- it is about being fully present to ourselves, whether or not we are with others. Community does not necessarily mean living face to face with others; rather, it means never losing the awareness that we are connected to each other. It is not about the presence of other people -- it is about being fully open to the reality of relationship, whether or not we are alone.”

I love that passage, but I feel like I don't quite fully understand it yet. Last Wednesday night my son and I were having a conversation about what we should and should not expect from our relationships with others, both friends and partners, and some of his words helped me begin to broaden my understanding a bit. He said that we don’t need to expect a lot from most of our friends, if we have one friend or partner who is truly a reliable emotional partner to us. He said that what each of us needs is consistent, meaningful interaction with one person we trust, someone we feel free to be our true selves around. If we have this, we don’t need a lot of interaction with other people, but when we don’t have it, we feel driven to look without forethought and sometimes almost desperately for it elsewhere, and usually don’t find it because it is such a difficult thing to develop between two people. I had never formed that thought, but it explains a lot of the drama and distraction of periods of my own life when I felt that kind of connection lacking, as well as a lot of the drama and distraction of other people’s lives I watch from a distance.

As I said, at this point, I don't have any answers even for myself to most of these questions, but I am going to try to be more attentive to my own inner voice telling me what I need, even if that's just to sit on the porch with the dogs and watch the birds. Having fully internalized the puritanical, capitalistic work ethic of our society, that kind of need makes me feel selfish because I don't feel like I am contributing to society. I struggle with this a lot, but something I saw last week on Facebook, of all places, helped me re-frame my thinking:

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Rough Notes on Lila

I’m going to try something different with this post. This post is going to be an unedited version of the notes I made while I read Lila by Marilynne Robinson.  I started this blog to help me remember the books I have read, and I’ve found that I’ve worried too much about perfecting the product and not enough about recording my thoughts about the books. So in this post, I’m going to be less of a perfectionist about the post and more true to my original intent. Following are my unedited notes about Lila by Marilynne Robinson from my journal in the order I wrote them.

Undated:  This books is a balm for the overactive mind and weary soul.

1/23/18:  I’ve just read the scene in Lila where John Ames baptizes Lila. I think these may be five of the most moving, most perfect pages I have ever read. It cracked my hardened heart right open. Love, conciliation, grace, peace, remission. Remission? What does that mean? Remit like payment?  Like a bill has been paid? The remission of sins -- I’ve never really thought about what that means before. Is that true? Is that a thing? Is it even possible? Because if it’s true, it changes everything. If the remission of sin is true, then that changes everything. And if I choose it to be true for me, then maybe it becomes true. I must think on this more. Maybe this is where hope comes from. If the birthplace of hope is in the remission of sin, then not having been acquainted with the concept of the one, no wonder I have been unable to have the other.

1/27/18: Talked some with Ken about the above and about how I feel that if this concept, the concept of the remission of sin, is true, then that pretty much negates anyone’s right to judge another person.  If your bill has been paid without your own participation, then hadn’t you better just be glad for that and keep your nose out of everyone else’s business?

2/11/18: In a world of this kind of grace, there is no place for “the spirit of self-destruction and nonbeing” (Dostoevsky) because that spirit often turns outward into judgement, cruelty, and destruction of others, all of which is antithetical to “salvation” or the “remission of sin.” If your own mistakes are wiped away, then there should never be any place in your heart for judgement of others, because judgment implies superiority.  If you ask people straight up if they think they are better than others, they will say no, then they will proceed to live their daily lives as if they do, in fact, believe this very thing. But really, this “remission” thing is always a choice. You have to choose it to be true for you, first by forgiving yourself, then by accepting forgiveness from others, which changes the way you look at things and gives birth to hope.

When your only experience of life has been of its bleakness and meanness (like Lila), then you are only able to see bleakness and meanness.  What you are unable to realize is that it is possible to forgive yourself. You are unable to see any path to wholeness. Any language of redemption and remission sounds overused and otherworldly, out of your frame of reference, so you just reject outright any exploration of the true meaning of or possibility of those concepts. Conversely, if your only experience of life has been ease and acceptance, you accept those concepts without ever really being able to grasp what they mean, I think.

2/14/18:  This may be one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.

2/18/18: Lila’s rescuer, Doll, is not a Christian but behaves and lives more like Jesus than do most church folk, although Robinson does not make the church folk in her story unlikable or judgmental or ungiving. If anything I would say Robinson is more than fair in her portrayal of church folk. Matter of fact, the entire “gypsy” group Doll and Lila join remind me somewhat of the lives of Jesus and his disciples. These people are outcasts with no knowledge even of religion, yet they live in harmony and care for one another even though they aren’t all blood relatives, at least until the going gets too rough for survival. Doll never puts herself first. She trades any chance she has for her own life to save Lila, who is not even her kin. She is humble and always “turns the other cheek” to hide the burned scar on one side of her face.

Boughton and his beliefs, to me, epitomize one of the main problems with organized religion.  He sits in his safe, warm, comfortable house, out of the weather,well-fed, loved, supported, coddled, and respected. He surrounds himself with a well-worn belief system, applying it to all, regardless of circumstance. He almost alienates Lila completely with his views on the afterlife. My view has always been why would you spend your time worrying about something (the afterlife) which you cannot truly have any certainty of, especially in reference to other people? Particularly if those views are going to hurt and alienate people in your life who need love and acceptance. Maybe I misunderstand Boughton and need to re-read him a little, but he seems to have a pretty rigid, exclusionary interpretation of the scriptures.

The Reverend, on the other hand, seems too good to be true. To have lived his whole life in a small town surrounded by people who both agree with and respect him...well, it’s hard for me to believe he would end up as open-minded as he is. He did suffer a tragic loss as a young man, and tragedy does tend to open one’s mind. But the perfect love, perfect acceptance, perfect understanding that he offers Lila, who has had so little of any of those things in her life, defies belief. It’s a beautiful love story, but in real life, people are never that loving, understanding, or accepting.

2/26/18: After posting this, I realized I had said very little about Lila herself. Ironic, given that part of the reason I loved this book was that I identify so much with Lila. Maybe that needs to be its own blog post. We'll see.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

O How We Howl

photo by Amy Brandon

We are a broken people. The majority of the phone calls we get are from people we don’t know and don’t want to speak to. The majority of the mail we get is from people we don’t know and don’t want to hear from. Somehow we have convinced ourselves that digital interactions with people who check in with us on their own schedules are enough for us, that we don’t need to take the time to cultivate the living, to build non-digital relationships with others who, at times, will interfere with our own busy schedules. After all, we have hundreds of friends available 24/7 at the stroke of a computer key. Few of us , including me, seem to have the capacity any more to be real-life, in-person, on-call friends to one another in these times of digital ascendancy. It’s a lot easier to like a post or type “I love you” or “I’m praying for you” than it is to sit across from another person and let her pain assault you while you drown in your own helplessness. And we wonder why the most vulnerable, the most broken and isolated among us, break in horrific ways we don’t understand. We have neither the time, the patience, nor frankly, the interest, in being the right kind of friend, the saving kind of friend, any more. That is the hard truth. That is not the truth of the Bible we all like to say we follow.

In the midst of the horror and pain of this week, I finished reading Lila by Marilynne Robinson. Lila is a beautiful book. It is art of the kind that redeems humanity. As I’m sure you know if you’re reading this blog, I don’t review plots or discuss character development.  I hope you’ll read the book for that. But I do want to say that this book spoke to me in a particular way as I was able to identify so completely both with Lila’s logic and with her dysfunction. The one question Lila continually asks her husband, who is a minister, is why do things happen the way they do? Throughout the book, he evades the question until toward the end when he finally says what I discovered a long time ago. Some things just don’t lend themselves to being asked why. There is no fair, there is no deserve, sometimes there is no over-arching logic available to a human brain.  You can see where this line of thought could lead to nihilism.  Personally I think that is the lazy way out.  To keep trying to love, to keep working for peace, to keep hoping, these are the hard ways out. These are the paths of the brave.

No man is an island.  I’m pretty sure several famous people stressed this on several occasions over the course of written history, but we seem to do a fine job of forgetting it.  I struggle personally with this because I don’t like or need a lot of people. The truth, though, I think, is that most of us don’t need hundreds of friends. We need one friend, one friend who will hear us when we howl and who will be there to absorb that howl and to help us find our way out of it so the howl doesn’t overwhelm us all in the end.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Am I My Shadow Self?

photo by Amy Brandon

I realize this may sound strange, but I’ve waited until I was 50 years old to figure out who I am.  Some of the waiting was my fault; some was not. 

The first issue I should address is the who of who I am discovering myself to be.  This may be offensive to some of you. I prefer cats, dogs, and birds to most of the people I know. (If I’ve lost you here, you should probably stop reading.) Most of the time, I prefer silence, books, animals, trees, flowers, and mushrooms to people. Sometimes I think maybe I am a reasonably intelligent person, and then I find myself staring for hours at the birds on our feeders. I would go into debt to buy land for these birds, if my husband would let me.  This is not a sign of intelligence as we understand it. So you can see why I often doubt myself. For most of my life, I was told these qualities made me not likeable to the people around me.  The worst insult in my culture is “she's just not a people person.” This continues to be a problem. I’m pretty sure it will be until I learn to “fix that shit,” which, let’s be honest, at this point probably is not going to happen. I’ve given it (fixing that shit) a good go for 50 years though, which is why I still don’t quite really know myself.

 I go through periods of feeling like a kick-ass human being and periods of feeling particularly fragile and isolated. During recent months, mostly I’ve felt the latter. Through one of my current books, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd, I discovered May Sarton, specifically, her Journal of a Solitude. From the first entry in this journal, I felt like I was reading my own thoughts. First and foremost, I discovered that I am not the only person who goes “up to Heaven and down to Hell in an hour,” and for whom, all too often, “every meeting with another human being has been a collision. I feel too much, sense too much, am exhausted by the reverberations after even the simplest conversation…the deep collision is and has been with my unregenerate, tormenting, and tormented self.” I can’t bring myself to delve into or elaborate on this journal right now.  I need more time with it, time to buy my own copy, mark it up, meditate on it.

Concurrent with my reading of The Dance of the Dissident Daughter and Journal of a Solitude, I also have been working through The Portable Jung edited by Joseph Campbell, Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, and Lila by Marilynne Robinson.  The intersection of thoughts and ideas in these works has felt eerie and has helped me begin to understand the underlying truth of Jung’s collective unconscious, the revelation that some things are true, whether or not we understand and accept them. I wonder if maybe this truth is what some of us call God.

I spent my childhood and adolescence pleasing my parents. I’ve spent my adult life shaping my children, who have turned out to be more than I could have ever wished. Now it’s my turn to find me.  I don’t think I could have better companions for this journey than the people whose works I am currently reading.  I just hope that in finding myself, I don’t lose others. That seems to be the danger, the narrow line women are asked to walk.  Find and acknowledge yourself or continue to prioritize everyone else?  Is this asked of men?  Why is this ever asked of anyone, regardless of gender?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

How Can You Talk If You Haven't Got a Brain?

photo by Amy Brandon
“I don't know, but some people without brains do an awful lot of talking, don’t they?”
The Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz
Once a year, when I was a child, The Wizard of Oz would come on the one TV set we had in the house.  This was before streaming, or recording, or any other way of watching The Wizard of Oz, so it was a BFD. Everyone watched it; everyone loved it.  Except me.  I did not love it.  I could not watch it.  I tried, but I was already on the edge of the couch ready to bolt when the house fell on the witch, which is pretty early on and fairly important to the plot.  The menace of the grasping trees pushed me over the edge and out of the living room. This scenario was repeated more than once.  I kept trying because I wanted nothing more than to silence my brothers’  taunts and to be like everyone else and to love The Wizard of Oz.  Eventually, I made peace with that part of myself and quit even trying to watch, which is why until recently, I had never seen the movie. This didn’t stopped me from belting out “Over the Rainbow” on a fairly regular basis over the course of my life, but the complete story of Dorothy and her friends…no idea.
Well, until now.  A few weeks ago, as  I was reading in The Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd, I came across this passage:   “I realized that the Tin Man character, at least in the early part of the movie, seemed an apt symbol of patriarchal consciousness.  He is a frozen figure, standing with his ax, his blade of power, in the air.  The story tells us he’s lost his heart.  He’s lost the ‘juices’ of life.  Even his tears are frozen on his face.  His ability to feel and relate at a deep empathetic level is gone.   Have you ever wondered how the Tin Man got into such a deplorable, frozen state?  The book says the Tin Man was a woodsman whose ax became cursed, causing him to cut away his own body, piece by piece, including his heart, until he was no longer covered in warm flesh but encased in an armor of tin.” (Kidd, 78)  What an evocative, provocative thought.  After reading that, I had to read the book. I wondered what the Cowardly Lion inside of me had made me miss.
There is so much in this little story.  I feel like I need to read it again to be able to absorb more of the depth of the ideas.  The Tin Man’s story of his loss of the ability to love and some of his quotes in that telling are fabulous.  The more you read, though, the more you realize that the Tin Woodman, the Scarecrow, and the Lion are all looking for something they already have.  The Tin Man believes he can’t love because that is what he’s been told, and yes, he is frozen when found, but he is moaning about his frozen state, far from apathetic about it. Frozen isn’t dead, and frozen isn’t heartless, and he spends the entire journey showing great love for his companions.  I suspect that many of the people we encounter who seem "frozen" may be those who have felt the most and thus have been hurt the most. The Scarecrow, likewise, has been told that he needs a brain to reason, yet often, his reasoning saves the company from certain death.  (As the story is metaphorical, we will dispense with the rationality of functioning in any way without a brain or a heart.)  The Lion’s problem comes also from his misunderstanding of courage.  He believes courage to mean the absence of fear. Yet often throughout the journey, he stands up in the throes of his fear and helps the little company pull through.  Toward the end of the book, the Wizard tells him, “True courage is in facing danger when you are afraid, and that kind of courage you have in plenty.”
Perhaps the most powerful metaphor in the book is found in the Wizard himself.  The Wizard is no wizard.  He’s just a man who has found a way to fool a lot of people into believing he is something he is not. (Sound familiar?) While the Wizard of Oz was a fairly harmless leader, all too often it seems that people who desire power either have lost or never had the qualities they need most to rule:  compassion, empathy, humility, a sense of justice and fairness.  Luckily for the citizens of Emerald City, their wizard was willing to give up his power as soon as he was given the opportunity.  Unfortunately, this is an instance where I doubt life will ever imitate art, so I'm just going to keep hiding in my books.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Waiting for the Present

photo by Amy Brandon
I've always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when He came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don't know it's getting dark...But I'll wager it never happens. I'll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things just as they are, just what they've always seen, was seeing Him.  As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes."  ~Sook in Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory"
I haven't liked Christmas for a very long time.  Christmas is my husband's favorite holiday.  You can see the problem here. I haven't liked Christmas since my family and I put up the Christmas tree to surprise my brother when he came home from his date one Saturday night 29 years ago, and he never came home.  That kind of trauma can put you right off a Christmas tree.
When I spent my first Christmas with Ken, I realized I was going to have to work through some issues (a lot of issues, actually, but this post is about Christmas). So I've learned to put up a tree again, and we've started some new traditions. One of them is reading Christmas stories aloud to each other. Our first Christmas together a couple of years ago, he read his favorite to me.  This year, it was my turn, so Monday night, sitting by the bonfire and watching the Cold Moon rise, I read to him "A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote.
"A Christmas Memory" is a heart-warming and heart-wrenching reminiscence of an idyllic time in Capote's childhood right before rectitude and Baptist morality ruin everything. His lyrical and evocative language carries me away to a place and time lost to both him and me.  The story is of the beginning of the Christmas season for Capote and his cousin, Sook.  (Her name is not mentioned in this story but is in another of his stories called "One Christmas.")  Sook, though sixty-something to his seven, is Capote's best childhood friend. They live together, along with various other adult cousins he satrically dubs "Those Who Know Best." Because Sook is different: naive, child-like, and simple, Those Who Know Best treat her with dismissive disdain, but her depth of feeling and understanding far outshine those who have her in their charge.
After a perfectly innocent and natural incident with some whisky leftover from making fruitcake, Those Who Know Best swoop in and impose the arc of their moral will on Capote and Sook, and nothing is ever the same again.  A story that is both beautiful and sad may not seem like the best kind of Christmas story to some, but it is perfect for me.  It is perfect for all of us for whom Christmas is both beautiful and sad, we the broken living who realize how closely intertwined beauty and sadness are and who have come to know intimately that not only does the one not preclude the other, but also to know that there is a certain kind of beauty that grows only out of sadness.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Things Best Left Unsaid

photo by Amy Brandon
"Sometimes it seemed to me that my daughter had a need to fly into a rage."
Fredrik Welin in Henning Mankell's After the Fire

All my life I've been drawn to solitude. Spare, barren, windswept, lonely snowscapes wrap me in truth and take my mind to a place I've never been able to find any other way. Anything hinting at unrelenting cold and solitude enchant me. My mental safe place has always been a windowed berth on a train speeding through a snow-covered landscape.  Last year, when I stumbled on Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson and Italian Shoes by Henning Mankell, I felt like I had died and gone to the heaven I don't believe in.

When I recognized the similarities between the two books, I decided to re-read them both, making notes as I went.  I did re-read Italian Shoes and loved it as much the second time around as the first.  Before I got around to re-reading Out Stealing Horses, I stumbled across After the Fire by Henning Mankell, which is a sequel to Italian Shoes.  I was wandering around my new local LOCAL bookshop (Bookmarks in Winston-Salem) when I found After the Fire.  What a great bookshop!  The book though...well...

I was so happy to find a book that was the unknown sequel to a book I had loved. But here is what happened:  I find myself, involuntarily, to be reading through the cultural lens of my time, and I am so tired of being constantly confronted with men's icky sex obsessions.  I mean, honestly, at this point, what I would (or maybe wouldn't) like to know is are all men dysfunctional sex addicts?  A lot of books would lend evidence to the answer to that being yes. In that case, I'd like to go on not knowing for sure, thanks anyway.

There are so many good things about this book, so many beautiful ideas, beautiful words, made even more beautiful by the retrospective knowledge that Henning Mankell was writing this book in the last years of his life.  But damn, with the icky sex ideation.  Just stop.  Seriously. 

I can't even go on from here. I'd like to. I have so many passages marked that I'd like to share and consider. I'd like to discuss the book and its merits, but all I can say is that the constant 70 year old dude wanting to bang the 30 year old chick fantasy completely overshadowed everything else for me right now, which is just sad and a real waste.  So I'm done with this, and again I think maybe I may have to read only women authors until I get this "Oh Look Who's A Sexual Predator Now" taste out of my mouth.  

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Our Dirty Glass Castles

photo by Amy Brandon
"Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?"
~Miss Kenton in The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro is a beautiful introspectively retrospective novel, but I must admit I had a bipolar relationship with it.  For a while, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to finish it.  The entire novel is a narration of the past by Stevens the Butler, who is the opposite of woke.  I found myself losing patience with his cluelessness and his repression on more than one occasion. Steven’s memory is so colored and re-cast that much of it has become fallacy, a narrative he tells himself as a comfort, as a justification, sometimes almost a celebration, of his existence.  Instead of seeing things as they were, he assauges his own doubts by casting them in a muted, better light, which apparently was his habit throughout his life. Do we all do this, I wonder?  I suppose to an extent, we do.  I suspect forgiveness itself hinges somewhat on being able to forget or at least to temper our memories. How much do any of us have to find a way to excuse and/or justify the choices we have made over a lifetime?  This theme harks back to The Buried Giant, also by Kazuo Ishiguro, where a collective memory wipe was necessary for a group of people to live in peace. 
Poor Stevens works so hard to cast his father in the light of the ever-illusive patriarchal perfection and then strives his whole life to live up to the unattainable, imagined standard of a long-dead father. Eventually, Stevens ingratiated himself with me, and I found myself feeling sorry for him, in his bumbling cluelessness, as I often tend to do with bumbling, clueless people in real life.  But now I begin to wonder how much that kind of permissive, maternal sympathy is to blame for the liberal latitudes men have been allowed for centuries? It brings to mind the sociological issue of raising our daughters and loving our sons.  Men like Stevens the Butler want to live in a bubble, and they want the people around them to help them maintain that bubble.  When someone begins to prod at the flimsy walls of self-deception they’ve constructed, they shut down, run away, or lash out.  They use cluelessness or repression or denial or privilege or some combination of these defenses (See Roy Moore, Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK) to maintain their slick glass castles in the air, never bothering to look down to see the earth at their feet, where the rest of us stand bearing the burden of their fallacious facades.
The Remains of the Day  won me over eventually, and I have now come to miss the voice of Stevens the Butler, but I don't miss his infuriating habit of obsessing on all the wrong things or his constant attempts to justify and explain his past.


Friday, November 10, 2017

Things You Never Want to Hear Your Mom Say

photo by Amy Brandon
When I was 25, I read Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, and I fell in love.  I fell in love with Tom Builder and with the story of how he got his name and the history of cathedral building, which felt to me like a history of communal faith itself.  So much of the story felt like something I remembered, as strange as that seemed at the time.  In the age of epigenetics and DNA testing that “remembering”  feels less strange and much more possible now, but that’s a topic for a different post.

Years later, when  the second book, World Without End came out, I was discussing its arrival with one of my friends.  She said, “Yeah, I liked Pillars of the Earth, but I got really tired of all the rape and weird sex stuff.”  I was at a loss for words, because I didn’t even remember any of the sex stuff.   To this day, I have no idea if there is rape and weird sex stuff in Pillars of the Earth, because I haven’t re-read it.  Possibly it’s there, and I ignored it, because I am the Queen of Not Seeing What I Don’t Want to See (again a different post).  Currently, at the ripe old age of 2(25), I now know there is a lot of weird sex stuff out there:  in books, in movies, in TV shows, in comedy routines, and apparently just in life in general.  I do not know why this is.  Do not ask me.  I do not understand because 1. I don’t have a penis (I use penis here in a non-gender specific way as I have met women who, while they don't have a physical penis, have a penis in this regard), and 2. I’m pretty naïve.

Just because I am naïve does not mean I am a prude or a fan of censorship.  I am not easily offended. I love sex. I even like some porn, assuming it's the kind where no one is getting peed on, literally or metaphorically (file that under Things You Never Want to Hear Your Mom Say, so sorry Brandon and Anna).  I can’t think of any kind of sex scene that does not involve one person’s infringement on another person’s dignity that would bother me.  There are plenty of possibilities to write or to draw or to film healthy and inspiring acts of human sexuality.  I am all for all of those. Write them.  Film them.  Draw them.  Share them.  Healthy, consensual sexuality is a beautiful gift worth celebrating. 

But sexual assault is about power.  It is a way for people to empower themselves by asserting dominance over other people.  It is the vehicle by which people attempt to assert dominance by saying,  “It is my right to use your presence, your body, your personhood, your existence in this way, and you have no agency to resist.”  Even within those words lies the power of the disenfranchised. When we resist, when we speak, we take back our power.  When we assert ourselves, when we say, both to ourselves and to the world at large, “You did this. You are the problem.  This was your problem until you spewed it all over me.  I did nothing here except exist,” we are reclaiming our own right to be who we are and to think what we think and to want what we want, separate and apart from any one else.

When we, as a society, consume unhealthy sexuality as entertainment, whether it’s in the form of phrases like “boys will be boys,” or “that’s just locker room talk,” or rape jokes, or the glorification of any person’s non-permissive domination over another person, we perpetuate the myth that domination is acceptable, that somehow, when it becomes art, it becomes above reproach. Art is just like life. There is beauty, and there is perversion. Whether it’s art imitating life or life imitating art, it’s time to stop pretending like any kind of domination is just part of who we are.  Speaking for myself, I'm pretty sure I'm going to punch the next person who grabs my ass without permission.  I'll risk the battery charge.

White Tears

"On your record deck, you played the sound of the middle passage, the blackest sound. You wanted the suffering you didn’t have, th...