Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Short Numerology


A hundred years of solitude
Might bring us to the four questions
Asked by the youngest and simplest son; the one
Who says “Why?” and is answered with
Six degrees of separation, by his father
With the two-toned voice:
There are 5 senses,
And 12 cranial nerves,
And 10 fingers and 10 toes.
There are 4 directions
And one God.
But there are also many levels of meaning,
And many, many mansions in your father’s house.
Someday I will teach you about the 13-petalled rose.
You are my darling son, unique in all the world.
In all the stars, without number,
You are the only you!

The mother, the father and the child make three:
All in one family:
And if you use your 6th sense
You can tell what matters most to each one,
And how the three form a sacred geometry--
A base, a platform, on which to build one world:
The hologram of the rest.

mn 08


Well, the election is over. I have been praying no one would murder Mr. Obama or his family, and that God will bless America. And that God will continue to bless us, and guide us, in spite of all our faults, and that Mr. Obama will be given extraordinary gifts of fortitude, forbearance, resilience, wisdom and insight. I am filled with hope that we can begin to build a better state department, better foreign policy, and better non-military solutions to peace and justice in the world we live in. I have been reading the Friends' Committee on National Legislation news for quite awhile, and I like what they advocate we do in both domestic and foreign policy. I think what they are suggesting is do-able. I also like the Network people-- a group of nuns who have been working in Washington for 40 years, trying to push for legislative reforms and increased social services for the poor. And Rabbi Lerner, at Tikkun, who is trying to reform and repair the world within the Jewish people and spiritual progressives-- people who are interested in faith-based social justice. And Jim Wallis, at Sojourners, who is also a peace and justice advocate. I am impressed that the efforts and the vision of all these people seem to be coalescing into programs which actually help to move these ideas forward in practical ways. It was totally inspiring to see all those people standing at the mall in Washington, to witness the inauguration. It was amazing to see Americans with so much hope, after years and years of cynicism. The tears and joy on the faces of so many people are awe-inspiring to me. I really pray that Mr. Obama carries these people in his heart, as he goes about the next days and weeks and months, and tries to set up good policies. I hope also that the prayers we say now continue, and continue to sustain these efforts.
I read "Joseph the Provider" by Thomas Mann, this month. It was written in 1943, by a German man, living in California, and broadcasting "voice of America" into Germany. He tells the biblical story of Joseph in Egypt, and the years of famine and plenty, and how Joseph becomes the administrator for pharoah. It is a very good filter for this time, for the economic crisis we are in, and for the questions of how to live a faith-based life in a secular world which is in some ways alien. There is a lot of "mishnah" (Jewish lore) in the story. I found out on Wikipedia that Thomas Mann's wife was the daughter of a rabbi. So she would have carried a lot of the stories which had been passed down in Judaism, concerning Joseph and his brothers, and the relationship with his father Jacob. There is a lot of tenderness in the father-son relationship, which is very moving. And although Joseph understands the Egyptian faith, and is married to an Egyptian wife, he still carries a deep love of his father's transcendent God. Before coming to California, the Manns lived in Kusnacht, Switzerland. That was where Carl Jung was. So Mann was probably deeply interested in Jung's work with myth and archetype, and it fits, why he would write a 4 volume novel about Joseph in Egypt.
This week, the German boy who was our exchange student in 1995, Jan, came to visit. It is an amazing thing, that he comes to see us every few years, and spends time with each of us, getting to know us again. He is very intelligent and insightful, and it is also interesting to hear his opinions of our government, from the German perspective. He is happy so far, with President Obama, and hopes for great things from our new policies. He has always been such a good role model for our sons, and so it is a big gift, when he comes and reinforces our friendship.
I am glad that we had some rain this week-- all the crops need this rain, and the trees look so much happier now. But the day Jan and I drove down Big Sur, although it was cloudy, was a great day-- and we both love Point Lobos, and the way the water and the cliffs are laced together. Jan now has two small daughters (at home with his wife), so I am feeling old and grandmotherly!

Friday, January 2, 2009

Richard Selzer's book, "The Doctor Stories"

This is an exquisite book of short stories. I can hardly tell you how much I wish everyone would read them. I love each one more than the last, and more than the last time I read them. I love the "Chatterbox" story very much. Mystical healing at its best. And the story called "Impostor" is very dark, and strangely Chekhovian. They are just superbly crafted, and really deeply satisfying.
"Imagine a Woman" may be my favorite. Everyone I know is now edgy and frightened about the future. No one in private practice feels safe, that they can stay here and raise their children, and keep paying their mortgages and their office staff. As in so many other parts of our society and economy, the costs are rising, and the pay is decreasing. Truly, all the parts of the jigsaw puzzle affect every other part. In the story "Imagine a woman" I felt like that woman going to a lovely town in the French Alps to die. Tuning oneself to smaller and smaller pleasures, and the kindness of strangers. (A cloud of bees on a summer afternoon, in a puddle of sunshine; and one exquisitely ripe peach). But also, in the story is the inherent care with which the people who live in the town, and the people who run the hotel, take care of the "guest": and perhaps hundreds of years of tradition of taking care of tubercular patients dying young--- sent to the mountains for the "clean air". A hundred tiny mercies. Infinite tact, discernment, discretion. And a recognition of the need for privacy. People working in hospitals could learn a lot from the hoteliers in the story.
The story "Angel tuning a lute" makes me cry. It imagines the aged father of a boy, a well-known Renaissance painter himself, in a monastery painting; when they bring the body of his son, who has been fatally bitten by a snake. The father immediately begins to paint the body of his son as the angel tuning the lute, on the east wall of the chapter house, using everything in him, all his art, all his skill, all his love, to put the frescoe on the wall, racing against time as the body begins to decompose in the summer heat. Part of the story is his teaching his apprentice about the art of mixing and applying paint. The place is the lovely Benedictine monastery in Tuscany.
The story "Imelda" sends chills through me. It is a story of a plastic surgeon, of great skill but emotionally distant, doing missionary work in Honduras, and encountering a young girl with a cleft palate. The sensitivity with which the story is told, both of the physician and the patient, are marvelous. It is unforgettable, and carries something indelible about surgery, and how surgeons embody their caring in their work.
"Whither thou Goest" is about a wife of a man who was killed suddenly and violently, who has been persuaded to give her consent that his organs should be harvested. She feels undone, as though he has not completely died, and she must hear the heart beating once more. Improbable as it is, it is so healing, how this comes about. It is quite tender and sensitive, how her story makes me feel.
It is hard to imagine that these stories are as perfect as they are. I promise you, if you read this book, you will be glad you did, and they will actually expand your awareness and feelings about being human.
For a writer-physician to somehow get the stories to incarnate what he knows about the human condition, and so that the physical condition is absolutely the core important part of the story, is what makes these stories so jewel-like to me. But also, there is the way he moves completely into the people he is describing, so that his sensitivity is almost like film as a medium. As clear as water; invisible, limpid. Beautiful!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Christmas in rural Austria, 1970

Thinking of that Christmas in 1970 in the rural Austrian Tirol, I am aware of how we were still affected by the post-war frugality of people-- simpler decorations, mostly homemade, and fruit and nuts figuring prominently on the tables--- tangerines, oranges, and the need for "real" nutcrackers for the hard-shelled nuts! Snow fell a iittle lightly that year, and we had brought ski equipment, but the slopes still had green grass poking through, and we had no business skiing on the rocks and bumps! Still, for kids from the beaches of Cailfornia, it looked like a fairyland; and the lights in the cemetery on Christmas eve were very magical. We sang "Stille Nacht" at midnight mass in the little town where I was (Rauris), and there was a zither and glockenspiel bells. Several of us had taken an Austrian carols class from Frau Brossman, and I can still sing the words to "Still, Still, Still," and "Susser die Glocken nie Klingeln" and "Leise rieselt der Schnee". The church was small, and there were no pads on the kneelers, and there was "bitter winter" for anyone with arthritis... I called home for the only time that year, and the sound of my voice was tinny, and there were funny pauses and echos, making it obvious that we were a long way from home. Most of us waited in a line for a long time, to get the access to the only phone, and the international operator. The tables had snowy linen, hand-embroidered, and the beds had starched white stiff sheets on the featherbeds... the walls were smoky pine, and some highly varnished, and there was some intricate woodwork in the bannisters, or on the lintels... hand-carved I think...
I have thought a lot about what the hausfraus taught me, about the time after the war-- very small pensions, very frugal lifestyles. "Tea with jam and bread" like the song from "Sound of Music" was really how many of those old ladies lived through the winter months--- a few precious eggs, and a bit of poor-quality and fatty meat once in awhile, or a sausage. Our hausfrau, Frau Kluge, used to talk about the wonderful balls in the season between Christmas and Mardi Gras, before the war; and how she and her husband would stay out all night dancing, partly to eat and partly to keep warm. We were very cold in our house, as she wouldn't waste money on the heat at night-- we would come home in the cold and go to school early in the cold, blowing our hands and having the air freeze as we did so. Until I got a winter coat, I put every layer of clothing I owned on for sleep at night, and I slept with my mittens on. When I got the winter coat, I put it on top of the featherbed to help keep the heat in! She maybe would turn the heat on for a few hours in the middle of the day, but not at night. We often stayed after school to go to the opera, and I had to walk home late because our streetcar didn't run that late, and it was so cold at midnight, out in the 7th district, with the wind whistling down the corridors between the big stone buildings. At Christmas there was a Christkind market in almost every quarter of the city, with a lot of little wooden carved things, and embroidered and hand-sewn tchotchkes. ( A word I learned in Brooklyn...) I got a cup with my actual name on it, which was a name which was not uncommon in Austria, although for me it came from Spain, via my great-great-grandmother. I still have the cup, cracked and patched, because I have never seen one with my name on it here! I wish now I could go back and see what they were selling--- one of the things I remember were the little Christmas tree decorations made from straw and light wood, and the lebkuchen. Probably there were some people drinking Schnapps. It always seemed medicinal to me, that Schnapps... but I did like the cherry brandy. And the weinacht's brau(umlaut), that stronger-than-usual beer...
If any of you send any other scraps of memories, I will pass them around-- it was a very precious time, and I feel so grateful for the way the IES program was structured, so that we would get that experience of a small town Christmas...