Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mother Teresa, Greg Mortenson, and the rest of us

Right now, the book in my work purse is Three Cups of Tea - detailing Greg Mortenson's efforts to bring a little relief to Pakistan and Afghanistan. I'm at the part where he mentions his admiration for Mother Teresa. Since I recently read a biography on her, and even though both books are pretty good examples of hagiography, the reference prompted some thought about what it takes to be that dedicated to helping others. A lot of conviction, a fair amount of indifference to personal discomfort, an expansive love for humanity, a dash of arrogance, and maybe a little ignorance? I don't know. I wonder if it's something we can build in ourselves - or even if we should. I guess there are other examples of "mountain movers" who aren't so positive. This Washington Post story comes to mind - the self-help guru profiled certainly thought, and made other people think, that he could change lives. (My opinion is that the program he advocated was fairy dust - but I appreciate that others will disagree and respect that.)

My friend Jen is dealing with similar questions. In her case, living in Thailand near the Burmese border, she's wondering how far victims should go to protect themselves and what people on the outside should do about it.

I have no conclusions here, just musings. In my own case, my inclination is to say I should stick to my strengths - which don't include mountain moving, but might include writing moving stories and telling the truth at my job (which is what they pay me to do). But is that just a cop out?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Book Recommendation: The Heretic's Daughter

Once I've decided to read a book - whether based on a recommendation, the back of the book, or a review - I make a point not to read the book jacket synopsis again. Quite often, those synopsis reveal plot points that, while compelling to a potential buyer and useful in creating curiosity, often don't come until late in the book. So, that said, I will not reveal to you what the back of The Heretic's Daughter spoils (as does the Amazon summary). I will say that it's an excellent story and one worth reading. The book relates the story of Sarah, a young colonialist living near Salem, Massachusetts, whose family gets caught in the fear and hatred spawned by the infamous witch trials. Two major themes undergird the book - mother-daughter relationships and the meaning of honesty, and watching them unfold is one of the book's greatest pleasures. The author brings to life the rough, dirty hands and the uncertain community ties of agrarian colonial life, making the past attainable to a modern reader without too much anacronistic sentiment. Overall, a compelling and thoughtful read.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Ignorance, Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

We are all shades, waiting for the bus, limited versions of ourselves. I hang behind, he does not notice me, for why should me? He boards the bus, so do I, it is all very easy.
The bus ferries us – to the world of the living, is it? – across the city, beyond where grit is glamorous and into where it is simply a fact of life, not an accessory but a uniform. We rumble over potholes, across a cavernous overpass. People descend from the bus, some of them trudging, some bouncing as they near home. A low brick apartment complex approaches outside the bus, halts by my window and a number of riders descend. So does the violin player, so do I.
I follow twenty feet behind him, no attempt to dissimulate, just walking. He does not turn around, I am nothing to him, no threat.
He enters the building, I cannot follow. A light on the ground floor illuminates a square window. I approach. Behind the iron bars, I can see. I observe certainly that he can see. His eyes, walnut brown, drink in his surroundings. An old woman hunched in an armchair, flashes of television colors muted on her wrinkled face. He kisses her cheek, she pats his arm. He moves to another room, I follow, the dark night silent behind me, the rooms in front of me delicately humming. A younger woman, wife perhaps, with pendulous breasts and thin brown hair pulled back reaches down to pull a chicken from the oven. I want some, so does he, he pokes a fork at it. Dirty dishes peek above the edge of the sink, trying to stage an escape from their pit.
No children that I can see, just the three of them. A shadow moves – perhaps a cat, perhaps the television’s dreams. A carved clock sits on a shelf opposite my window, I think it tells the right time, but I cannot see that far very well. It looks cheap, plywood shapes and laminate stickers. I wonder why he has it, the violinist.
Disappointed, I turn away from the windows and walk through the stiff grass back to the bus stop. I hope there is a bus back to the city. As I wait, I consider my failure.
A bus does come, eventually, and I am grateful, aching from standing. I return to the city, and it occurs to me that I have a chance to do it all over. Not to follow the violinist again, reenacting my selfish curiosity, but to discover what I was looking for. And the answer lies, as the violinist probably could have told me, in not looking, in closing my eyes. The next time I ascend the escalator, accompanied by the violinist’s hard-earned notes, I know I will close my eyes, even if briefly, and hear just the music. I will see the man as he presents himself, no need to search, to judge. There is the music, and that is all I need to know.

Ignorance, Part 1

At times, walking up the long escalator from the subway, I have to resist the powerful urge to look behind me. There is a clock at the bottom, but if I crane my neck around while still walking forward, I know vertigo and injury will result. (Pausing is not an option – you know the city, always forward.) So, I walk up, suffocating the urge, ascending, pulling my ignorance behind me. These times I feel like Orpheus, resisting temptation in exchange for fulfillment at the surface.
There is often, like with Orpheus, a mournful melody to accompany me but, unlike Orpheus, I am not the player. Instead, the shimmering, slightly off-tone garlands of music falling down the escalator come from a street musician. When I arrive in the sunlight, I will see him, large bottom overflowing his tiny perch (a bucket?), his dark, rough hands cradling the small violin. His eyes closed, always. I think it was the eyes that caught my attention.
When I reach ground level, my test concluded, I can end the curiosity. Out of the purse comes my cell phone. Time known.
I have imagined that once I will emerge, extract the phone, and there will be no time. Orpheus, unaccountably obedient, turns around and there is no Eurydice. If there is no time, I suppose the skies will be grey, one lonely note from the violin will hang on the air, and Einstein will have been wrong. (What was his ignorance, trailing behind him as he ascended?)
Naturally, that doesn’t happen. But subterranean escape after escape, the music, flimsy as it is, has enchanted me. As I often do, this day I put a dollar in the violin case, worn red velvet and quarters with a 20 for show. Then I go and sit where time has stopped, or at least made us invisible. A park with peeling benches and indifferent pigeons milling on the bald turf. I sit and wait, resolved, invisible behind the violin player. I cannot see if he opens his eyes but I believe he does not, no more than a peek at least. When the commuter exodus ebbs and the clouded sky is lit only with our own reflected luminance, he rests the violin on his wide lap, empties his earnings into a plastic baggie, zips it up, and puts everything away. The bucket – I can see it is a bucket now, for he has stood – is flipped and turned into a suitcase. He walks off. I follow him.

The story is continued in Part 2.

Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma