Wednesday, July 4, 2018

We realize the essence of life when faced with death

I came across an article by James Wood in the November 27, 2017 issue of The New Yorker that speaks to what is gradually becoming, for me, a new way of looking at literature. It begins with a summary of a short story by Luigi Pirandello, "A Breath of Air," which I'm going to summarize even more briefly than Wood did: a man who has had a stroke lies in bed at home and realizes that everyone around him has changed, but when he asks them about it, they all deny that anything is different. Finally, he understands that the other family members are embodying the spring which has come; he, having been near death, is the only one who can feel the pulsing life brought about by this change.

I had a similar experience after my stroke last year. It seems we can realize the essence of life when we are on the verge of losing it.

Woods goes on to the main topic of his article: a novel -- Reservoir 13 -- by a young British writer, twice short-listed for the Booker Prize, Jon McGregor.  His new novel takes place in a village in northern England but is really about nothing except life -- how life manifests in every way. Who would read such a book? I suppose I would because I have ordered it.

Am I looking for another Beautiful Ruins? Of course. I am always looking for another such masterpiece -- and trying to comprehend how this can be done in words -- how a writer can lead us into what is essentially a transcendent experience through language.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

When the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Good-Bye by Marie Mutsuki Mockett

When I first picked up WHEN THE DEAD PAUSE AND THE JAPANESE SAY GOOD-BYE by Marie Mutsuki Mockett, I assumed it was about the 2011 tsunami and its effects on survivors. It is certainly about that, but not only -- or even principally -- that. It is a book about grieving, and learning how the Japanese handle grief.

Mockett is half-Japanese (her father was American) and grew up in California. But as a child she returned to Japan yearly with her mother. So she not only speaks the language but knows a lot of the customs. In addition, members of her mother's family own a Zen temple not far from the tsunami area. When her father and grandparents died one after the other, she felt a deep grief, and hoped she might learn something about how to accept it from the Japanese Buddhism she inherited through her family.

The book covers several visits to Japan and jumps back and forth between them, so that the chapters are more thematic than chronological. Sometimes, she visits a certain temple, for example, but comes back again on another trip. She is treated as a foreigner, which she is since she didn't grow up there, but when she tells her various hosts that her family has a Zen temple, the priests and others in charge of the various spiritual sites she visits change their attitude and become more welcoming. They see that she isn't just a tourist but a serious seeker.

Although I myself lived in Japan for two years and practiced Buddhism at two different temples, I did not know many of the customs and practices Mockett describes in her book. This may be because I was considered completely foreign since I have no family affiliation in Japan, and also because my Japanese was not as fluent as hers. (I was quasi-fluent, which means I missed a lot when Japanese were speaking among themselves.)

Mockett's sojourns take her to Buddhist temples of various sects But she is also interested in sites of the more ancient, matriarchal spirituality (from which Shinto is derived), which has a sometimes uneasy coexistence with Buddhism. For example, there is one Buddhist temple where the itako, or traditional female fortune tellers, return once a year. Now there are only two left. When Mockett said she wanted to visit one and asked how to make arrangements, she was advised that it was really better to see a Buddhist priest at that temple, rather than an itako.

Mockett also delves into the realm of spirits and ghosts and the rich Japanese tradition of contact with the “other world.” She visits several festivals, such as O'Bon, where the dead are welcomed home or sent back to the other world. At one point, it seems that her young son, whom she brings with her on the last journey, experiences contact with a ghost.

Nothing dramatic happens but many, many small things happen and all of these experiences turn Mockett's grief into a felt understanding that what she experiences is universal to all.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Dying to be Me: My Journey from Cancer to Near Death to True Healing, by Anita Moorjani

This remarkable book describes the author's near death experience (NDE) while hospitalized and supposedly dying from terminal cancer. While in a coma, she was able to access information that should have been impossible for her to know. For example, she knew what people were saying about her outside her hospital room and that her brother was flying to Hong Kong, where she was, to be with her before she died.

But, more important than the extrasensory perception, she discovered that she is Love itself, and that everything is perfect as it is. She realized that she is the infinite energy of the universe, as is everyone and everything else: the premise that each of us is a fundamentally separate being is false.

At the same time, Moorjani's cancer miraculously and suddenly vanished. The cancer, she is now certain, was simply the way her life energy manifested inward because she was afraid to express it in the world. She got cancer because she did not believe in her own perfection but was always looking outward to try to please others, ignoring what her own heart was telling her. 

Although she was in complete bliss, in the end she wanted to return to the world to share her story.
Those who have had spiritual awakenings will recognize the wisdom Moorjani shares, although some may have discovered it through numerous awakenings over the years instead of in one fell swoop as she did. Her main point, though – that we all need to pay attention to our own inner truth and believe in ourselves – is applicable to everyone no matter what their spiritual orientation or depth of realization.

The book itself is organized into two parts. The first part tells her story – her life up until the cancer and her four-year losing battle with the disease, and finally, her NDE. The second part lays out what she learned, which includes a helpful question and answer section.

In truth, the book is twice as long as it needs to be. There are about a hundred pages of material in this nearly two-hundred-page book: the rest is redundant. We only need to hear what she learned once, not five times. I would also have liked to see a better tie-in of her early experience with how she changed after the NDE. For example, she repeatedly says that she was always living in fear and trying to please others before her NDE, and I can see some examples of this in her description of her youth. Yet there are other examples of where she really does live her truth, even before the NDE. The most salient example of this is when she goes against her parents and her whole culture – she is ethnically Indian, although she grew up in Hong Kong – by refusing to go through with the arranged marriage that was to be her fate.

But while I might have edited the material differently, compared to the importance of the content, these are quibbles. If you are skeptical about New Age miracle cures, this is one book that may change your mind. It did mine.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Way Around: Finding My Mother and Myself Among the Yanomami The Way Around: Finding My Mother and Myself Among the Yanomami by David Good

I took an anthropology survey course as an undergraduate that greatly affected me. The professor had done his field work in the Amazon and his affection for the tribe he lived with and studied was contagious. On the other hand, as part of the class, we were assigned several monographs – studies of cultures written in the objective style required of the discipline – which put me to sleep. These writings had no life in them.

The same cannot be said for THE WAY AROUND, and maybe that is because the author, while the son of an anthropologist, is not one himself and thus not constrained by the requirements of the discipline. Rather, this book is so heartfelt and so unique that it is hard to recommend it too highly.

The author's father, Kenneth Good, went to the Amazon to study the Yanomami tribe in the 1970s. The tribe was not entirely uncontacted – there had been missionaries in the area for some time – but they still lived their traditional life, uninfluenced by the cultural patterns of the “outside” world.

Kenneth Good, as it happened, fell in love with a Yanomami girl, married her, and took her back to New Jersey, where he was still working on his doctorate. They had three children together, but in the end, she was unhappy with North American life, and, on a trip back to the Amazon, she refused to leave and return to the States with her husband and children. The author, the eldest of the three children, was five at the time, and he wasn't to see his mother again for another twenty years.

In the intervening years, he tried his best, understandably, to deny his jungle roots and the mother who, he felt, had rejected him. He invented a story that his mother had been killed in a car crash. But as he grew up, more and more alienated from himself and his origins, he finally realized he had to go back to the jungle he knew only from a visit as a young child and find his mother. This book is the story of that reunion.

The success of most memoirs depends more on the way the story is told than on the story itself. This one is different: it would be hard to imagine how this fascinating story could be ruined by poor telling. In fact, though, Good does succeed in arranging the complicated elements of his story in an intriguing and engaging way. Although the explanations he gives for some events don't seem quite complete or satisfactory, mostly these are minor events.

One of the myths most Westerners believe is that once indigenous people come in contact with our culture, they succumb. So it was interesting and heartening (even though her children paid a price) to learn that Good's mother wanted to go back to jungle life – that the simple life she knew was where she thrived. And yet, reading the last chapter of Good's book puts this idea in perspective. Good tells us that his mother's village is one of the most traditional ones left, and that many young Yanomami, like indigenous people everywhere surrounded by a very different, dominant culture, feel alienated and inferior.

I remember my anthropology professor saying, “If you want to go to the Amazon, go now,” because he knew that the hitherto uncontacted tribes were being contacted more and more, and that their cultures were changing. This is shown to be only too true. And it is ironic that Good himself, as a “half-breed,” is both a product of and a manifestation of this infiltration. But the purity of the life he describes should give all of us pause. He reflects:

“The best illustration of this [simplicity] is probably the clearheaded way I would wake up each morning while I was in the jungle. [W]ith the jungle mind-set, what was there to think about, really? If I was hungry, I went off in search for food. If I was tired, I rested. If I was exposed to the elements, I built a shelter. If I ran out of firewood, I went out and collected some more.”
Life, he seems to say, really can be simple and pure – and that people can know happiness without all the trappings of civilization.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017


This unique book is a successful attempt by a woman developing dementia to describe her experience. The book tells the story of Sanders' interesting life, but the tale is interspersed with italicized sections that describe increasing difficulty in handling everyday events and responsibilities. Saunders discovers that even though she has trouble remembering how to do simple tasks, she is still articulate and thus able to write out her thoughts and experience. She had been a professor and surmises that she hasn't lost these verbal abilities because they have become so habitual.

Saunders' youth in South Africa is interesting for those from other countries who may know little about life for the Afrikaners. Sometimes it's hard to figure out how all of these earlier events are tied into the story about dementia, but sometimes it is clear -- such as when she asks her siblings about an event that happened in childhood in order to compare her memories with theirs.

This examination of memory causes one to ask what a human being actually is. Saunders is secular and her answer is that we are, in the end, stardust. It's a conclusion that satisfies her enough to accept what will eventually become of her individually.

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.