Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Stop Scuttling!

(If you plan on reading The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai, I recommend that you don’t read the following. The ending of the novel is at once incredibly abrupt and incredibly poignant, and I don’t want to assume responsibility for anyone missing that.)

The Inheritance of Loss was a book that didn’t envelop me in its characters or sweep me away with its story, but rather painted pictures of some of the hardest questions that people of modern times are faced with: What do we do with the life we inherit? Does everything come down to economics? Do people actually believe in justice? How can we establish authentic identities? How do we confront poverty? War? Injustice? Selfishness? Racism? Aye. It’s overwhelming.

That word is really the only way I can describe my reading experience of this book. It is a story of interwoven tales in India: a poor boy given the chance to go to America, his father, a cook, who places every ounce of hope in his son. A retired, hard-hearted Judge and his unredeeming back story of why he is so cold (or does it come redeemable if it is the result of forces beyond his control?). His westernized granddaughter, Sai, and her adolescent love affair with her tutor who goes home to life in a hut, who eventually turns on her in the name of rebellion.

It is through the stories of these characters that I, a white, educated American peeked into life in the aftermath of colonialism. For the past month, so many different thoughts have been swirling in my mind and I am uncertain of how to process through and deal with them all. At this point, I have only my thoughts, which I would like to spring into action. At this point, all I can ask is for you, too, to give it some serious thought. There are countless passages I could bring up, but for time’s sake, I will focus on just this one:

“He knew what his father thought: that immigration, so often presented as a heroic act, could just as easily be the opposite; that is was cowardice that led many to America; fear marked the journey, not bravery; a cockroachy desire to scuttle to where you never saw poverty, not really, never had to suffer a tug to your conscience; where you never heard the demands of servants, beggars, bankrupt relatives, and where your generosity would never be openly claimed; where by merely looking after your own wife-child-dog-yard you could feel virtuous” (page 329).

Here’s what I’m thinking. I have spent a lot of my life avoiding need in the world. It is so easy to put on a mindset of “if I can’t see it, then it must not exist.” And I have to say, that ignorance is often bliss. The longer I live in New York, the harder it is for me to ignore that poverty is real—not only here, but in the global community. I am faced with homelessness everyday. It has to be my choice to deal with it or ignore it. The longer I am a teacher, the more intertwined I have become in the actual lives of kids growing up without parents, without money, without support, without feeling valued. I don’t want to be in a place where I am ignoring reality and scuttling to places, either physical or mental, where poverty doesn’t exist. This is where I am right now.

I mentioned at the beginning that the end of the book is incredibly poignant. Biju is the poor young man who left his father to go to America. His experience in America includes working ridiculous hours in restaurants and sleeping in basement apartments with a dozen other people and rats. Unbeknownst to him, the land where he has grown up becomes ravaged by violent rebellion. Eventually, he decides that he must see his father again. Against the advice of his friends in America, who say that he won’t be able to come back, he returns to India. On his way home, he has to pay off the rebels, who then strip him of all his luggage, earnings and even clothes. He is left to walk to his father in a woman’s night gown. He finally makes it to his father’s:

“Kanchenjunga appeared above the parting clouds, as it did only very early in the morning during this season—
“Biju?” whispered the cook—
“Biju!” he yelled, demented—
Sai looked out and saw two figures leaping at each other as the gate swung open.
The five peaks of Kanchenjunga turned golden with the kind of luminous light that made you feel, if briefly, that truth was apparent.
All you needed to do was reach out and pluck it” (357).

This is the immaterial joy that resonates only from love. This is the immaterial joy that can exist even in the most grim situations. Sigh.

So this is what I’m suggesting:

1. Remember the poor to the point where it forces you to take some proactive steps. Whatever that looks like for you.
2. Treasure your relationships, not your things, most of all—and take the time to examine your heart and mind to the point where you really place people above (fill in the blank).

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A Joy of Life.

Technology savvy I am not. This is a post for me to play around with adding pictures. This is of Julie, me and Jenna last July at the Eagle and Child in Oxford, England. (Did you read the New York Times travel section today? It's mentioned on the front page.) This is where The Inklings, Tolkein, CS Lewis and friends, would meet to talk literature. Needless to say, besides the fact that we spent our entire trip traipsing around the English countryside reading and drinking tea, being the nerds that we are, we were quite excited to visit the pub where our literary heroes met.

Sigh. I think that's half the reason why I love my job so much. I get to talk with kids about books all the time. It is amazing to watch the way that reading can change the way we view so much of the world. I belong to a somewhat overachieving book club. We meet every week in Brooklyn after school. We have processed through topics that otherwise would have no real voice in my life: post-colonial India, the role of memory, the Black Plague, what motivates people to action. I walk away thinking every time.

So, if you haven't gotten the hint yet, here are a few book club recommendations:

Atonement by Ian McEwan
Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton

Or, here are my current books on deck. Let me know if you want to read:

East of Eden by John Steinbeck (my book club's next pick)
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (teaching it to the kids!)
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Go read with someone. Seriously.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Everyone Needs Some Patty Griffin

It is amazing when one line can completely sum up my life:

"I need a little place in the sun sometimes or I think I will die!"

I suppose it's half in jest, but really, winter, it's time to end.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

A Little Will For You

Tomorrow’s high temperature is 18. 18! If you know me, you know that I have issues with the winter. But more than the winter pulling me down, I think the haunting of spring might be worse. There’s a flower store on my walk to and from work in Brooklyn that puts potted hyacinths out in February. February! Apparently they don’t know that such an essential smell of spring messes with my Seasonal Affective Disordered mind. It is impossible for that scent not to travel directly inside of me and make me truly believe, for a moment, that the beloved season that ends winter has come. But then I look at my ankle length, down coat and the wool mittens threaded through its arm holes. Blast.

The spring is in front of me, but I continually refuse to believe that it will actually come. I have no patience, especially in March. One of my best friends from high school and I used to go hiking every March 1st wearing shorts, declaring to our friends that spring had finally come. We searched for tiny flowers as proof and clung to them until real spring appeared sometime in mid April. Upon return from a week long camping trip in Florida to cold Oxford, Ohio, my friend and I cooked dinner on a camping stove and hung bags of oranges from our porch. It was as if I refused to trust the promise that spring would actually make its way into my life.

I recently revisited Macbeth and saw the same thing. The witches are the trickiest characters in the play to understand. They haunt Macbeth and Banquo with visions of the future and each time I read it I picture their tone differently. Sometimes I see them as strange and prophetic, sometimes haunting and crazy, mysterious or funny. Regardless how their message comes across, though, they paint a picture of future glory in front of these men. They are able to disregard the witches’ craziness for the beauty of the promise they speak: that Macbeth would be king and that Banquo would father kings.
Macbeth is completely unwilling to wait around for that day, though. Instead of letting his future wind its course, he jumpstarts it all by planning ways for it to happen by his power as soon as possible. Macbeth refused to trust in the promise. He has Banquo, among others, killed to ensure his way to the throne.

Banquo’s ghost appears at Macbeth’s dinner party, and only Macbeth can see him. We have two options here: Macbeth is either hallucinating because of all he has done or Banquo’s ghost really is there and is trying to warn Macbeth about what he is doing. I guess this is the beauty of drama—it really is up to interpretation (translation: read or see the play and tell me what you think. Seriously.) Regardless, his inability to trust in the promise is haunting him and causes even more distress.
The question of this play rings in my mind—did the witches know this would happen? Could it have happened another way? Are they the reason it happened at all? The only insight into that question I have is that the play is called the Tragedy of Macbeth. There is a lot of blood spilled and minds lost. So what’s the moral of the story? Is there ever just one?

What I see today is wanting myself to trust wholeheartedly in what I am promised in the future—heaven—and not the hallmark heaven that people talk about in bad poetry, but the heaven that is the home that my heart hears calling. I need to trust that the longing that my heart feels on so many levels will be fulfilled. One day. I’m promised the kingdom of heaven, but not given many more details about what will happen in between. But lucky for me, God isn’t a (pick one: sadistic, scary, prophetic) witch whose mood we can’t read for the life of us.

I just hope that I can begin to trust in the promise rather than taking it all into my own hands, thinking that my ideas might get me there faster.

And maybe just for now, I just need to begin to trust that winter will end and I will get to hang up my sweet coat.