Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Twenty-five and foolish; thirty and disillusioned

In a recently published short story, Elizabeth Crane's character, after recounting how foolish she was at 25, writes,  "I wouldn't trade places with anyone under thirty if you paid me." 

I read a lot of memoirs by Westerners who go abroad seeking enlightenment.  I do this partly because I enjoy all the varieties of this kind of experience and partly (mostly?) because I'm trying to write my own memoir about living in a Buddhist temple in Japan when I was 22 and I want to see how other people have dealt with this subject.   Now, I'm almost finished with a memoir by Suzanne Morrison, YOGA BITCH.  At 25, the author went on an extended yoga retreat in Bali. She had Western teachers and all of the students were Western, so even for that reason alone, her experience, while stressful in some ways, was not nearly as traumatic as mine was. But it's interesting to see the similarity, too -- the way, if enlightenment is what we ourselves want, at that age we project it onto our teachers.  Then, of course, when our eyes are opened later on, when our teachers are revealed as imperfect, there is disillusion.  

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Male and Female Memoir: Part II

I finished two memoirs about Japan recently -- Pico Iyer's THE LADY AND THE MONK and Rahna Reiko Rizzuto's HIROSHIMA IN THE MORNING.

Granted, these writers went to Japan at different times -- Iyer in the 1980s and Rizzuto in 2001 -- and for different reasons.  Iyer didn't have any family connection with Japan at all but had been fascinated with the country ever since a brief stopover with his mother when he was young.  And his interest in Zen led him to choose Kyoto for his stay as well as to contact many people practicing Zen. He even lived in a temple himself for awhile.  From my point of view, I have to say, I think his interest was much too intellectual to really lead anywhere, but nonetheless it was a focus for him. 

Rizzuto went for completely different reasons.  She is half-Japanese and she wanted to explore the impact the bombing of Hiroshima had on Japanese Americans who were caught up in that event.  Perhaps these unfortunate people were visiting relatives in Japan at just the wrong time or had left the States rather than live in a relocation camp.  Naturally, she chose Hiroshima as her base.  She didn't know people personally ahead of time but she had several connections, and she had also received a grant to write a book based on her research -- a novel that seems to have been abandoned in favor of the memoir she finally published.

But, although these differences are very real, what strikes me more is the difference in tone.  I have been trying to pin this down, to put in words this difference which I've noticed again and again in memoirs of men and women, and maybe I'm getting close.  I think it is that the main question around which men form their narrative is, "How did this experience change me?" while the main question women ask is, "How did this experience help me discover who I really am?"

Maybe this seems like a subtle difference but, really, I think it makes all the difference.  It seems that men, as a rule, already assume that they know who they are.  Their experience, especially in a foreign country, will add to who they are and perhaps cause them to reconsider things they have always considered true, but the self who is having those experiences is never basically in doubt.

But with women, the result seems almost always to be, "I thought I was this sort of person, but through this experience I have now discovered that I am not that person I always thought I was: I am a quite different person, or maybe I am someone I have not yet completely discovered."  So, for example, with Rizzuto, she went to Japan leaving her family in New York, but her research into the effect of the bomb on the lives of survivors could not be separated from the effect of those she interviewed on her own personal life.  She had thought she was one kind of wife and mother but before long began to question the roles she had played so naturally up until that time.

Iyer's outcome is more modest.  There is no doubt that he has been affected deeply by his experience -- and especially by the "lady" with whom he became involved -- but he goes home with his basic "self" in tact.  Of course, if he'd taken Zen more seriously, that might not have been the case, but one doesn't usually find what one doesn't know one is looking for, and Iyer does not seem to have thought he was looking for a deeper, truer self.