Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Thinking about the book "A Constellation of Vital Phenomena" by Anthony Marra

One of the great things about a brand-new fresh book from a young author is that no one has said much about it yet.  One can consider what it means, without overlays of other people's interpretations already coloring the landscape.  This book is extremely rich, luminous, full-bodied.  It is a once-in-a-great while achievement.   I am still compelled to think about it, all the parts of it, as well as the whole.  It has not faded, but is like the glowing embers of a fire, which was a bonfire of sumptuous proportions.

I  must say that I love to read.  I have re-read Anna Karenina 4 times, and War and Peace twice.  I have read Checkhov's stories at least 3 times,  Doestoevsky (the Brothers K)  twice.  So the potential connections to Russian literature, which were what drove Anthony Marra to visit St. Petersburg in school, and possibly to writing in the first place, are not completely lost on me.  And I will also say that I love children's books, and am a big fan of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling.   What I love about the best books is how they help hone one's consciousness about what it is to be a human being.  Tolstoy is the greatest writer, still, because of his ability to show so many textures and colors to any scene that it comes "alive"-- his cinematography shows us when a smile is enigmatic, when it is delighted, when it is ironic.  And he is able to follow the thoughts of so many persons, of so many psychological bents,  so amazingly well!  But the depth charge is always to ring the bell of the conscience, to hone recognition of the soul, the needs of the soul, the peculiar growth of the soul.
The big theme in this book, for me, is the story of Abraham and Isaac.  It is all the more interesting because the culture he writes about in Chechnya is Islamic.  The people are Abrahamic.   He is writing about the way humans behave in a time of war, in a fringe area of a terrible devastation, with a huge sense of defeat, and invasion, and bullying.  There is no victory, there are no victors, there is no "rightness' to the geopolitical landscape in which the story is set.  One could call it a wilderness, with brambles.  It is very post-modern;  the landmines, the urban orphans scavenging, the hopeless question of whether it is federal troops or guerrilla warfare-revolutionaries doing the bullying, and how in so many ways, it doesn't matter.  It is also very post-modern in that the main character for "stability" is a woman surgeon, trying to keep a hospital going, and who has calluses on her hands, from using the bone saw to amputate all the victims whose legs have been blown to smithereens.
The two stories of the child-parent bond, are Dokka and his daughter Havaa;  and Khassan and his son Ramzan.  They amplify and resonate and clash with each other.  The amazing amazing thing, is that the ultimate question is whether to help a child live, or to destroy the child.  It is this fundamental question, which I think is the underpinning of the JK Rowling books also.  And the question is the soul's question.  And I think for all of time, I will see that small piece of paper which Akhmed has left for Khassan, with the word "mercy".
We are absorbed, many of us, with the problems of PTSD, of torture and its sequelae.  We are also absorbed with prostitution, drug-addiction and the hellish power of the procurers of whatever can be sold;  guns, drugs and people.  Against the backdrop of a time-immemorial landscape of the hills one heads for when there's political trouble (the Caucasus);  where there are forests, snow, no electricity, minimal roads, and minimal access to modern conveniences, there are only the ballast of story-telling, hearsay, rumor, memories, and the ways we treat each other.  The landscape helps throw the human behavior into stark relief.
There are severe mercies, in this book. There are immense beauties.  The writing is like a summer field full of fireflies.   The memory Khassan writes, of Dokka peeling plums is shimmeringly lovely.  It is then even harder to bear the crippling of his hands.  I love the description of Havaa's birth, and of how Natasha comes back to life as she helps mothers with birthing, with new babies.  I love the way Akhmed gives his wife a bath.   The soul lessons are about the simplicity of kindness, the costliness of compassion, and the gift of freedom from bullying, from becoming the thing you hate.  And even at the landfill, dancing for joy, as we know that the child has been saved.  There are things about friendship, and love, and the things we hold dear, even through immense suffering.  And I think one of the great gifts of this book is to recognize that the ones who are tortured can still refuse to become the torturers.  We can understand the reasons, and still say no.  It is in this that Marra's book resembles the way Tolstoy wrote,  to me.  There is the old-fashioned kind of honor in it, which is durable, time-immemorial.  When I went to the bookstore reading here in Santa Cruz, a lady said "I resent you for making me understand and care about the bully."  I thought that was a great compliment.  We cannot drop down into black-and-white thinking, and we need to pray for mercy, for humility, for help to reach for the better way to be.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

garden photos

Obstetrics, Gardening, and the ribbon of Time

I have been thinking about time.  I started thinking about it when I was in college, and read a book by Henri Bergson, trying to talk about how time is one of the most important construction elements in our minds, our experience, our sense of ourselves in the world.  Time is what makes history a progression, a sequence, not just an endless morass.  I realize now, as a middle-aged obstetrician, that most of the day I am thinking about the future---  about 9 months from the beginning of the pregnancy of the woman in front of me--- I am aiming my thoughts at that date.  Right now, people are coming in who are due in 2014,  in the spring.  I have one dear young woman who is due in January, so I was just saying to her that she could be Mary in the Christmas play this year.  I start thinking about Christmas, and the fullness of time, of delivering the baby.
I have decided to publish my book of poems "the Rose Windows in the Cathedral of Mary".  This set of poems was written in 1994, just before the death of my father.  He was able to hear them, listening deeply to me read them.  He loved them, and loved that I was finally able to reclaim the metaphorical side of myself, to make this collection of poems.  I read the last one, "the Assumption of Mary", at his funeral.   I was thinking about the life of Mary, who is a paradigm of women, women having babies, women trying to be good mothers, and to discern what their children need.  This year was the year of graduation from high school of my nieces, Katherine and Margaret.  It is the end of the era of raising children, in my generation.  Now they are all adults, and ready to embark on careers, marriages, ongoing educational goals.  Time marches on.
My husband is reading about John Montgomery-- and the beginning of the era of flying machines.  Montgomery was a great inventor, and invented the propeller, and the curved wing, for airplanes.  One of the buildings at our university (Santa Clara) was named for him.  They tore it down, several years after we left, to make room for the theatre.  One hundred years has changed California so much!  I am thinking often about my grandmother, and her songs, and the era in which she was raised.  It is that same time, when Montgomery was building flying machines.  My grandmother was born in 1892.  History is unique,  and themes repeat themselves over time.
What I meant to say was that obstetrics is like gardening, which is always aimed at the seasons, the potential for growth, and when things may flower or bear fruit.  We need to put things in the right place, to get water and light, and sufficient nutrients, and then keep an eye on them as they grow.  I have a little dwarf Meyer lemon tree, which we bring inside when it is cold, so it won't freeze.  I was ecstatic that this year, as we carried it back outside, it has two little yellow lemons on it.  I have been reluctant to pick them-- watching to see when they are truly ripe.  Obstetrics is like this too--- waiting for labor, waiting until the cervix is ripe, and the womb begins to open, to be ready to deliver the baby.   This is different from other fields in medicine, in which it is the NOW which matters-- the problem is acute, and needs to be addressed urgently.    I am looking at the bridal plum tree, outside my window.  It is mid June, and the plums are green.  It usually is late July when they are so ripe, and so loaded on the tree,  that I go into anxiety about making jam, and can not rest easy until I have tried to deal with the fruit.  I cannot just let it fall and rot.  Maybe when I am older, I will be sitting here, and be willing to let them fall and rot-- but most likely I will be begging someone to come and make jam from them.   No one else near me seems to feel this urgency about the fruit on the trees.   For this reason, I believe it is from my maternal lineage, from the Native Americans or Mexicans, from the mitochondria in my cells, that I have this insistent alarm clock about the time for ripeness.  I wake in the night, knowing it is time for a baby to come.  The nurses ask "how do you know?"-- maybe it is from attending many, many labors, but I know people in my field who don't seem to have this acute sense of the time of labor.  Right now is the time of petunias blooming full-bore.  I love to be on the deck looking at them.  My dad was a person who loved wild colors in the garden, and who tried to make the garden look like a painting.  When I saw Monet's garden in Giverny, it was like saying hello to my dad.  There is a kiss in it-- for the eyes, for the heart, of one who loves color, light, texture, blossoms, amazing color schemes and overlapping shadows.  I will post a photo, of the blooming petunias, and of last years' ripe plums.  Sometimes, the time stretches out, like Isis on the deck, and labors sometimes take a long time getting into high-gear.  Time is not always with the same amount of weight, of gravity, moment by moment.  And there are times when it is just like "A Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, when it is all confluent, and the same thing over and over, in comforting familiarity, but with just minor differences, like trying new spices on a favorite dish.  One does not have to be bludgeoned by future shock, strangeness and newness.
I have been reading off and on, a book called "Poets and the Psalms".  This is an interesting book, with different poets talking about how the psalms have affected them, run through their lives, with little ribbons of repetition;  of comfort, of challenge, and occasionally, the perfect words for the particular agony we are experiencing.  Perhaps, because of this, I have come to love my cd of the music of Palestrina --- "Gloria Dei Cantores" the most of all the music I listen to.  It is overlapping, shimmering rainbows of sound, which is actually a mass being sung, but there is a feeling of timelessness.  It is like ripe fruit, holding everything-- a hologram, a sacrament, a quintessence, and it opens that wide eternal NOW, breathing room for the soul.