Friday, November 10, 2017

On My Own, by Diane Rehm

Diane Rehm, the popular NPR talk and interview show host who retired last year, shares with readers the experience of her first year after her husband's death in 2014. The book is thoughtful, and its virtue is that Rehm is, in a sense, thinking out loud in sharing how she coped and changed.

Of course, in order to tell the story of her mourning and learning to live in a new way, she had to also tell of her long life with her husband, a successful lawyer whom she married when young and relied on for support beyond -- she now admits -- what was wise or reasonable. She isn't afraid to talk about the difficulties in the relationship, nor to deal with ambiguity, and she deserves credit for that.

She finds new strength now in the many relationships she forged over the years, as well as new interests. Her husband's difficulty in dying -- and the refusal of medical personnel to help him in ending his life -- made her an advocate of compassionate choices in ending one's life and her thoughts about this are sprinkled throughout the text.

Readers may also find inspiration in learning that Rehm did not even have a college education: being at the right place at the right time resulted in a dream job. But she credits her husband for supporting her financially and thereby making it possible for her to do volunteer work at the local NPR station to prove her abilities.

There is a minor organizational issue: Several of the chapters start out as though written as entries in a journal: i.e., "Today I . . . ." But within a couple of paragraphs, she moves to something like, "Two weeks later I . . . ." and suddenly we are not in journal territory at all. It's fine to do both, but it is jarring not to indicate the movement from journal entry to later reflection.

This is a minor complaint, though. Overall, if you are interested in Rehm, or liked her on-air presence, you will probably like this book.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Contradictions in Memoir

As I read Diane Rehm's memoir, which I mentioned in a previous post, one thing I notice is how ready she is to admit inconsistent thoughts and feelings. In truth, we are filled with such inconsistencies, but often we are content to tell ourselves that we feel what we want to believe we feel or, more simply, what we feel most of the time.

Actually, though, our minds are a jumble of thoughts, which tumble into consciousness willy-nilly. This fact may not cause so much trouble were it not for our belief that it shouldn't be so -- that we should be consistent. 

I used to teach English to college freshmen, the main curriculum of which, I'm sure many remember well, is how to write a composition. Mostly, this means a paper that makes an argument leading to a valid conclusion. I would often write things like, "Contradiction?" or "How does this follow?" in the margins of students' papers. They were supposed to learn how to be consistent. If a student was arguing for gun control, announcing that he had two guns under his bed was acceptable only if he explained why in a way consistent with his main thesis. But suppose he both loved and hated guns? There wasn't much room to write a paper about that -- and yet, wouldn't that be much more interesting?

So, partly, this desire to be consistent, or the belief that one should be, is the result of people like me  training young minds to avoid the actual contradictory nature of experience -- especially internal experience. But it is also the result of the need for identity. We want to take a stand, to have a point of view, because it helps define us in ways we want to be defined and seen by others.

This may be one reason it is so hard to write an honest memoir. We always thought we were such-and-so kind of person, but when we sit down to write, lots of thoughts and feelings that contradict our images of ourselves begin to bubble up. What we do with that determines whether we have a memoir worth reading. 

Why We Read Memoir

Previously, I discussed why we might write a memoir. Here, I want to look at the other side of the equation: why we might want to read one.

First of all, we need to relate to the writer. If the writer is not famous -- in other words, his or her only claim to fame is the actual writing of the book we are reading -- this is especially important. How is the writer like me, we want to know. Does s/he have a problem similar to mine that has been explored, clarified, or resolved through writing? What can I learn about my own situation? (And what I learn might only be the realization that I am not alone with my difficulties.)

But even if the writer is well-known for other endeavors, we still need to relate to him or her. Even if the person's fame is beyond what the ordinary person can ever imagine, we want to know that s/he is human, that he or she has foibles, and vulnerabilities. And we don't want to hear a gripe list -- how others have wronged this person while s/he has never made any mistakes.

I read a memoir some years ago. I don't remember the book's or author's name, but I remember the content. Years ago, this now-elderly woman tells, when she was young and living in France, she'd had an affair with Sartre. This was no fame-by-association memoir, however. It was a complaint -- a very loud one. She was a student at the school where Simon de Beauvoir taught, and she claimed that de Beauvoir seemed to favor her and befriend her but in fact, she was procuring young girls for Sartre. I have no idea how true this is, but it's certainly the way this woman experienced it. And now, many decades later, she still resented her treatment.

There's a certain dirty-laundry aspect of this kind of tale that makes it a good read. It also has a shirttail aspect: that is, no one would read a book like this if the other participants in the story weren't famous. But how much more interesting such a book would be if there were a bit of introspection.  The author spends the whole book trashing two people who were in the intellectual vanguard of a whole generation.  But the wider significance of her tale is never discussed.  

It can't be denied that desire for titillation offered by such a tale can be a reason to read a memoir. But it isn't the best or highest reason. The writer who learns something about himself or herself as a result of writing is the writer whom we as readers also learn from. This is where the motives for writing and reading a memoir intersect.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Writing a Memoir for the Best Reason

As we get older, many of us want to write a memoir -- to press into stone before it is too late what our lives were about, what was significant. But what was significant to us as writers may not be what would be significant to readers. Writing a good memoir, it seems, requires some of the same empathy that writing a good novel does: we need to ask what is universal about experience and frame our narrative in such a way that others can see themselves even in a tale whose facts are very different from those of our own lives.

So, a good memoir requires an intersection of the writer's reasons for writing and the reader's reasons for reading. I'm going to talk about the first in this post, and in a subsequent post, I'll talk about the second. And in talking about the first, I mean to discuss not only what a writer's motive should ideally be but what it actually is in various cases.

When I was younger, a certain man in my spiritual community had developed Parkinson's. He was a big, strapping man, and he so disliked his new, dependent condition that he was often resentful and uncooperative when his wife tried to help him. In the end, unable to deal with both the difficult medical issues and the changes in personality due to her husband's disease, she moved him to a long-term care facility

He hated it! He wanted to go home again. But it was not going to happen.

I had known this man before disease struck as both generous and wise, and, sorry to see him trapped in a situation over which he had no control, I began to visit him. He told me that he wanted to write a memoir of the time he'd spent in Africa when he was young. He had been an aid worker and also climbed Kilimanjaro. He couldn't perform the physical act of writing anymore -- and this was before the various digital aids were available -- but he proposed that he would record his experiences on tape. Would I be willing to transcribe them?

I saw this project as something this man desperately needed for his survival in a situation  where so little of what he had been remained. He would assert that, indeed, his life had meaning -- both to him and others. So, while I didn't have a lot of free time, I acceded to his request, suspecting that my services would in fact never be needed anyway.

In fact, although I visited my friend several more times, it wasn't long before his mind was so confused that recording a memoir was the last thing that would have occurred to him. The final time I visited, he didn't even recognize me. Kilimanjaro and Africa had blown away with the wind.

Did the world lose a good book because someone waited too long to write it? I can't know the answer to that. But I do believe that the motive to put your life on paper before it's too late isn't enough to make a compelling read -- assuming you are expecting readers other than family and friends. And this is true even if your experiences were unusual or interesting. 

What motive is necessary, then, to create a good book?  I'm reading two memoirs currently, One is On My Own by Diane Rehm, the NPR talk show host. The other is The Way Around: Finding my Mother and Myself among the Yanomami bv David Good, the son of an anthropologist and a woman in the Amazonian tribe his father was studying. It's easy to see how different these books are, and I'll talk about that in the next post, when I discuss why people might want to read a memoir. I've barely started both books, but I think the titles and first pages give an idea of why these authors took up their pens.

Although Diane Rehm is near the end of her life, she didn't just want to record her experiences so they wouldn't be lost. The title, On My Own, gives a hint of her main aim. She wants to record how she is growing, changing as a result of having to live life without her long-time, recently deceased husband. What is she learning or has she learned from this?

David Good is not well known and he is only in his thirties. Unlike Rehm's book, his would not have been published had he not had an extraordinary story to tell. And yet, his motive, it seems to me, is not so different from Rehm's. He is looking for himself -- or, rather, for aspects of himself that he has not accessed yet. It's about self-discovery.

I've heard other memoirists say as much -- that you don't write about what you know about yourself but you write in order to find out something you didn't know. Your book is the result.    

Friday, October 6, 2017

Kazuo Ishiguro -- Congrats!

So nice to see something good happening in the world. So good to see someone as deserving as Ishiguro win the Nobel Prize.

I heard clips of several of the many interviews he did yesterday. He talked about the many themes of his work -- how people miss opportunities, how they lie to themselves in order to continue in what would otherwise be intolerable situations.  His work is varied and always profound. He said that, although he was raised in the UK, he grew up in a Japanese household, so he saw things through Japanese eyes. Sounds like a thesis for some graduate student somewhere.

Congratulations to a great writer, and, maybe more important these days, a good man.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Was Lewis Carroll enlightened?

I daresay I'm like most of my contemporaries in knowing about Lewis Carroll's Alice books – without having read them. As a child, I owned a 45 rpm record containing the songs from the 1951 Disney movie, Alice in Wonderland and I saw the movie as well. But, having just read Anthony Lane's article in the June 8 and 15, 2015 New Yorker, I see now how much I didn't know about these tales.

Of course, we are talking about a journey here – and Lane's choice of quotations, if not his text, make it clear that this is a spiritual journey. Here's the first:

“'You know very well you're not real.'
'I am real!' said Alice, and began to cry.
'You won't make yourself a bit realler by crying,' Tweedledee remarked: 'there's nothing to cry about.'
'If I wasn't real,' Alice said – half laughing through her tears, it all seemed so ridiculous – 'I shouldn't be able to cry.'
'I hope you don't suppose those are real tears?' Tweedledum interrupted in a tone of great contempt.”

Was Carroll enlightened? Or just amusing himself? Or maybe a combination of both?

Here's another: 

“I hardly know which is me and which is the inkstand. . . . The confusion in one's mind doesn't so much matter – but when it comes to putting bread-and-butter, and the orange marmalade, into the inkstand; and then dipping pens into oneself, and filling oneself up with ink, you know, it's horrid!”

Rumi, who definitely wasn't kidding, expressed it thus:
                                              There are no words to explain
                                  no tongue,                                             
                                              how when that player touches
                                 the strings, it is me playing
                                 and being played,
                                              how existence turns
                                 around this music, how stories
                                 grow from the trunk, 
                                              how cup and mouth
                                 swallow each other with the wine. . . .

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Consolations, by Sally Wolfe

Sexual desire in a monastic environment is especially charged. One or both of the parties may agonize over a passion that must not be fulfilled and yet seems impossible to deny. Consolations, by Sally Wolfe (Luminis, 2014), explores this territory with sensitivity and sympathy: a young nun and a priest find themselves thrust into a passion they never expected. But, while most readers will probably root for the lovers to get together in the end, this is really a book about something deeper than romantic love.

Fiona, a young Canadian from a Scottish protestant background, reads Thomas Merton in her late teens and is enthralled. Is the monastic life right for her as well? She visits the only English speaking female monastery in North America of the same order as Merton's – Cistercian – and decides yes. Her father is appalled: after training his daughter in the virtues of rational thinking, he laments that he has lived to see her become “a bloody papist.” Her mother is also opposed, but her response is more measured:

“I don't think you realize what you're giving up, the love of a man.” She ran her fingers through my short, frizzy hair and looked at me intently.
I stiffened. We had been over this.
“It's a thing to be cherished.”
Of course I'd thought of it, but I did not yet know what it was to have someone hold my body closer than my own skin could hold it.
“It's strange,” I said, knowing that nothing I could say would comfort her. “But it's the thing that concerns me the least.”
“You say that now, but it might not always be that way.” [6]

And, indeed, this exchange from early in the book presages Fiona's decades of inner conflict.

It is 1951 when Fiona, who will become Sister Bridget, defies her parents' wishes and enters the monastery in Vermont – a monastery filled with the variety of personalities one would find in any work or living situation. There is the nun who, convinced that adhering precisely to all the rules is the path to grace, insists that her underlings, including Sister Bridget, do so. There is the practical nun who does not reflect much but competently and uncomplainingly handles every situation. And, luckily for Sister Bridget, there is the abbess, Mother Cecilia, who recognizes Bridget's longing for God and takes her under her wing. Mother Cecelia also understands Bridget's passion for Nathan – Father Woods – and believes Bridget has the strength to overcome it. But Cecilia is a feminist scholar, as it turns out, and when she gets in trouble with the patriarchal Church authorities, it is not at all certain that she is going to survive as abbess. Without Cecilia's strength to rely on, what will Bridget do?

Those with spiritual aspirations are often attracted to those with similar aspirations. So it is with Bridget and Nathan. During one of their rare meetings, Nathan shares his love for a poem by John of the Cross:
In a dark night, kindled in love with yearnings – oh, happy chance! –
I went forth without being observed, my house being now at rest.
By the secret ladder, disguised, without light or guide,
Save that which burned in my heart.
This light guided me more surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I know who!) was awaiting me – [54]

After Nathan recites, Bridget comments: “He opened his eyes and I saw that they were gray” – a statement that epitomizes her conflation of spiritual and carnal love.

The back-and-forth between the two would-be lovers could have been a comedy of errors in another kind of book: she thinks he doesn't want her; he thinks she is over him; she thinks she must be strong; he thinks she isn't interested anymore. But this is only the background against which the deeper question unfolds: can Bridget find a way to reconcile her spiritual and carnal longings?

While the story is told from Bridget's first person point of view, we sometimes get a glimpse of Nathan's struggles as well. For example, he confesses to Bridget that he gave up a university professorship and became cloistered as penance for their illicit encounter. (The reader might wonder whether, in a Catholic context, a priest would give himself penance, rather than have it given to him by his confessor. Perhaps this shows not only Nathan's unwillingness to confide his sin to another but also his irrational thinking on the matter of Bridget.) When Nathan decides to become cloistered, he joins the community at Gethsemani, where Thomas Merton is the star resident. Now he and Bridget are both in Cistercian monastaries – and we know that they will meet again.

Thomas Merton makes a brief appearance in the novel, and if the portrait is at all faithful to the real Merton, it is easy to see how his charisma, no-nonsense rabble-rousing, intelligence, depth of spirit, and plain good will endeared him to so many. Indeed, admiration of Merton is another passion that unites Bridget and Nathan.

Just as the cloistered nuns are allowed no idle speech, so Consolations contains no idle words. Each passage precisely conveys what Bridget is undergoing, whether it be desire to ascend to God, to be held and cherished by another human being, or to find solace in solitude and the natural world. The flashbacks to Bridget's pre-monastery days also lend insight to the struggles she endures. We see her strengths but her doubts as well. The tone is so authentic, in fact, that it is sometimes hard to remember that this is a novel, not a memoir.

Even readers who have never felt the slightest desire to join a religious community can recognize in Bridget the struggles we all face when our desires oppose each other. In this sense, the theme of Consolations is universal.