“I Love You, Mom and Dad”

IMG_5201“Ming zaw way,” in the Shanghai dialect means, “See you in the morning.” This was how our family bade each other good night.

For my entire life, these were the last words I would say to my parents before we headed to bed. To me, their “ming zaw way” meant “Good night, sleep tight.” They, especially Mom, spoke the words with warmth and affection, like wiping away today’s troubles and wishing for a new start for tomorrow.

Now, toward the end of my parents’ lives, I wanted one more thing. I wanted to tell them that I loved them. I’m sure they knew how I felt, but it was important to me to say it. 

I had never, ever said those words to them. It felt awkward. In Chinese, the child would say words like “honor” or “respect” or “filial piety” to their parents. Not “love.” The nuance of Chinese is sometimes subtle. I was taken aback when I realized that to praise a child as “good,” the Chinese word literally means “obedient.”

 I had another reason to be nervous. It wasn’t like our family to change how we did things. We rolled with routine. Here’s an example. Mom packed me the same lunch from third grade until eighth grade: white bread with bologna and mayonnaise, a tomato and white milk. I liked tomatoes but not the “three in a carton” winter ones that tasted like the cardboard they came in. I never thought to complain. 

As bedtime neared, I anxiously debated with myself. “Is tonight the night?” “Will I change the script tonight?” But for several weeks, I chickened out when the time came. 

Advice from Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth finally gave me the courage to speak up. He is a contemporary spiritual teacher. I wrote about Tolle in a previous blogpost called, “Shake It Off: How to Escape From Your Pain-Body.” https://wordpress.com/post/docbookworm.com/107

Tolle points out: “The present moment (italics mine) is the field on which the game of life

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Eckhart Tolle

happens. It cannot happen anywhere else.” He says, “The past has no power to stop you from being present now.” The future has no power either.

Our identification with the past and the future is what Tolle calls the Ego. As I read that passage, I recognized that the story of my family’s rigid adherence to habit was just that, a story in my head, a mental construct.

And that’s not even the best part. It’s also easy to fix. Tolle says, “All that is required to become free of the Ego is to be aware of it, since awareness and ego are incompatible.” 

Still, it’s one thing to read and another to do. Tolle’s message gave me courage that night, like someone giving your back a little tap as you stood on the bungee bridge. And so I leapt.

Here’s how it happened. When my folks couldn’t live independently anymore, Bill and I had moved them into our home. Mom had suffered from dementia for many years. When Dad had a stroke, losing muscle coordination and speech, they couldn’t manage at home. We had given them our bedroom. 

They spent the day watching TV. As the clock neared ten, they got ready for bed. Mom put on her PJs and took out her dentures and hearing aids. She spent five minutes thoroughly applying a face cream. She insisted on the J.C. Penney brand called EB 5. I walked Dad to the bedroom. I helped him change to pajamas, undid his shoes with the right ankle brace, put on his slippers and took him to the bathroom to brush his teeth. 

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Dad and Mom watching TV

Tonight, I would tell them, “I love you.”

I worried about Dad’s reaction. I never knew how much he understood what was going on. Sometimes, his eyes would cloud over in confusion and he’d become uncharacteristically agitated. Both of us would get so frustrated as he never could tell me what was bothering him. After five, ten, fifteen minutes, he would have the grace to give up. He’d give a wave of his hand in resignation, and lie down to sleep.

On that night, we went through our usual routine. I tucked Mom in and she settled comfortably. What a blessing that sleep came easily for her. I walked around the bed to Dad’s side. He sat at bedside. I lifted both legs off the floor and turned him until they were on the bed. I tucked the pillow under his neck. Then, instead of “Ming zaw way,” I said, “I love you.”

Mom gave the warmest, “I love you too.” Dad managed to croak out a version of it. I was relieved, elated, and wondered what the big deal was all about. And I gave thanks in my heart to Eckhart Tolle. Every night for the next three months, until Dad died, I would say to them, “I love you.”

Before going to sleep, Mom and Dad had one more ritual. They turned toward each other. With a little help from me pushing Dad’s back, they each reached toward the middle of the king-sized bed. They kissed. Then they said to each other, “Ming zaw way.” 

Tell me: How do you say “Good night” to those you love? 

No Tickee, No Shirtee

IMG_9073I recently reread Robert van Gulik’s The Emperor’s Pearl: A Judge Dee Mystery to see if his depictions of Chinese culture still rang true. This book is one of a series of mysteries set in 7th century China about a crime-solving magistrate.

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Robert van Gulik          (goodreads)

When I first encountered these books as a teenager in St.
Louis in the ‘60s, there were few books with Chinese protagonists. There weren’t many portrayals of Chinese at all. Having left China as a little kid, I had little personal history to draw on. And so, I assembled whatever cultural jigsaw pieces I could find to help me define what being Chinese meant. Most of the pieces were by non-Chinese, like van Gulik, a Dutchman. 

In mid-twentieth century America, nobody talked about China or the Chinese. China was far away and of little geopolitical or economic importance. Contact between relatives in China and America was forbidden by both governments. Starting in 1949, the Bamboo Curtain was shut tight. Not until Nixon’s 1972 China trip did communications open. Regular folks couldn’t go to China until late in the ‘70s. Thirty years may not seem a long time, but it was significant to me. I left Shanghai as a five year old in 1952. I never saw my grandmother again. She died in 1964.

Reading Judge Dee a half century later, I did find familiar aspects of Chinese culture as practiced in my family: the clothing, including men’s gowns with long, capacious sleeves that functioned as pockets; the Dragon Boat festival; the love of games and gambling; the appreciation of art and calligraphy.

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Grandfather Shen c. 1953

My grandfather, who was born in 1890, wore tunics with the long, wide sleeves. He would pull out his fold-up fan from his sleeve, snap it open to fan himself or, when he wanted to emphasize something, point with his closed fan. Judge Dee loved to play dominoes. Everyone in our family from grandpa on down was a mahjong shark. And van Gulik really nailed the reverential regard for beautiful writing. Judge Dee had just found the body of the Amber Lady. As he searched the room, he came across an inscription on the wall. “Good calligraphy!” he muttered.

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Grandfather’s fan

Of course, my parents kept Chinese

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brocade jacket c. 1955

ways at home.They spoke Chinese to each other, although soon I was answering them in English. Mom cooked Chinese food. We used chopsticks. On special occasions, Mom wore her qi pao dresses in silk or lace. Once in while, friends of my parents would give me Chinese presents, stuff too fancy for use: brocade jackets, sandalwood fans, embroidered slippers.

Knowledge about China outside of family accreted from a mishmash of images from books, TV and movies. Hop Sing, the cook in Bonanza, frightened easily and laughed at himself when the Cartwrights saved him. Suzie Wong, the Hong Kong prostitute played by Nancy Kwan, was both naive and flirty. The Chinese in the Manchurian Candidate were capable of mind-control and brain-washing. I can’t remember when I first heard the term “Dragon Lady,” but the mysterious, cunning, and sexualized Asian woman, often a brothel madame, was a frequent character.

I remember clearly a documentary movie called Who Lost China? All the grade school classes at St. Joan of Arc were marched down to the school cafeteria to watch. This movie talked about a horrible mistake on the part of some people in the US government. As a result, we “lost” China to the Communists. 

It was a gut punch. You mean Mom and Dad’s arduous journey to America and our forced separation from family in China were all preventable? A part of me was inconsolable. Another part worried that my fellow students would look upon me as the enemy. 

In retrospect, each image in my scrapheap of Chinese culture was filtered through white people’s eyes. How has this influenced my life? The gender stereotypes were troublesome. I took on the Dragon Lady persona (sassy and savvy) and also the submissive Butterfly role alternately. Neither worked. The blondes always beat out the brunette for the guy. 

Recently, I took an online test for implicit bias against Asians. Various faces flashed quickly, and you had to choose quickly. I was chagrined to find that I have implicit bias against Asians, that I am an implicit racist.

Today, you can’t escape hearing about China: the Trade War, Chinese hackers, Crazy Rich

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Shanghai 2016

Asians, fentanyl, billionaires, Andrew Yang and Awkwafina. Also, tens of millions of Americans, myself included, have visited China. Seeing Shanghai skyscrapers lit up like Vegas on steroids puts to bed the idea that everything Chinese is “ancient.” Young Chinese women’s idiosyncratic taste in dress convinces me that they have minds of their own. In an odd way, the fact that I, and so many Americans, can see all these facets of China and the Chinese gives me leeway to tolerate some racially stereotypical images. I can just laugh at them, like the ministers named Ping, Pang and Pong in Puccini’s Turandot.

I wonder what my grandsons, Edin (six) and Caleb (two), will make of their part-Asian identity. I want to give them the option to claim their Chinese background. They have Chinese names. They receive “red envelopes” on Chinese New Year’s. They eat tofu, seaweed and edamame. I gave Edin a toy snake and Caleb a plush rooster to remind them of the Chinese zodiac year of their birth. Maybe when they are older, they’ll read Judge Dee, although there are many other options nowadays.

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Edin (year of the snake) and Caleb (year of the rooster)

As for me, I’m still a work in progress. But then, we all are. We constantly learn and reassemble our image of ourselves and of our past. I was lucky to find a loving relationship with a good man. Now, experience has taken the potency out of those Asian female stereotypes for me. On my last trip to China in 2016, the first since my parents died, I found acceptance from my cousins. 

But, one’s mental image is never static. Things change. This year, when my cousin from Shanghai became the first in his family to visit St. Louis, I took him on a riverboat ride on the Mississippi. We found a phone someone had left. Feeling the weight of this country’s anti-immigrant sentiment, I gave it to my white-skinned husband to hand in. Rightly or wrongly, I feared we might be accused of stealing. 

Each of us develops an ever-evolving idea of ourselves based on incoming information. I hope we each develop an image that is individualized, brilliant and free from stereotype. What a world!

Tell me one way that your view of yourself has changed over the years.

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Chinese Garden — Missouri Botanical Garden

Istanbul: Glimpses After Death

As a physician, I am skeptical that consciousness and memory can remain intact after the heart quits pumping. There may be reflexive movement or some random cellular metabolic activity after blood flow stops, but that’s all. As a human being, I find the idea of a period of awareness after death intriguing, yet I know that I won’t find out the truth of that on this side of the grave. 

41xXz1I9sFLBut, as a writer of gonzo book reviews, I was thrilled to read Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World about a young, murdered Turkish woman recalling her life in the time after her heart fails. Leila, no longer alive, remembers her childhood in a provincial part of Turkey, the circumstances that led her to flee from there and the people who came to love her. 

Elif Shafak is a Turkish writer who now lives in London. She61kFmRVuBbL._UY200_ writes in both Turkish and English and is the most widely read female author in Turkey. This is her eleventh novel.

The story takes place in Istanbul, the most breathtaking city I’ve ever visited and definitely my favorite. Bill and I had no idea what to expect when we went to Turkey that fall in 2014. It was our friends Larry and Marilyn’s idea. We were just tagging along. At the last minute, Larry’s health took a bad turn and they couldn’t go. 

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The Blue Mosque

How do I describe Istanbul? Visually stunning — domed mosques bordered by sky-DSC00611piercing minarets; white fishing boats bobbing on the azure Sea of Marmara; majestic bridges that connect continents. Sensuously pleasing — sinuous trees; carved, turban topped tombstones; mounds of colorful spices. Historically unparalleled — the Hippodrome of the third century Constantine era, the defensive walls from the 6th-century; the stunning views of the Bosphorus from the sprawling courtyards of the Topkapi Palace of the Ottoman sultans.

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View of the Bosphorus from inside Topkapi
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Man transporting “simit” buns on his head

And the food! The food! We bought a simit for 50 cents from a street vendor. It looked like a sesame seed bagel, but the sesame flavor was a thousand times more intense. Chicken shish kabob; imambayildi (eggplants stuffed with tomatoes, onions, peppers and spices); koftes or meatballs of lamb and ground beef. Even the beans had taste. Everything was fresh and flavorful.

Let me put it this way. The city is a IMG_9004complex yet lovely intermingling of urban living, nature, history and culture. I compare it to the beautiful rugs that the Turkish people make. The colors are vibrant. The designs are intricate but keep a soft, organic aspect. The rugs are heavenly to walk on. 

Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World intertwines complex social issues and personal relationships amidst the backdrop of the Big City. She speaks of Istanbul’s storied history by citing all those who tried to conquer the city: “The Byzantines, the Crusaders, the Genoese, the corsairs, the Ottomans, the Don Cossacks and, for a brief period, the Russians.” 

She colors the neighborhoods in loving tones. “In the background the Galata Tower wrapped itself in purple and crimson gossamer against the setting sun … Far in the distance, the Bosphorus whirled, mixing saltwater with freshwater easily as it mixed reality and dream.”

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The Galata Tower (at center top)

But this is not a gauzy travelogue through exotic places. The story is a gritty one. It takes place in the early ‘90s, before Erdogan’s rise to power. Our Leila, our dead Leila, our dead Leila whose thoughts continued for ten-plus minutes after death, is a prostitute. She ran away from her home in eastern Turkey, ran away from an arranged marriage, away from sexual molestation, away from patriarchy. 

Much of the story is about Leila’s friendship with other “misfits”: a transgendered woman, a Somali woman sex-trafficked to Turkey, a little person who added 122 to her name because she was 122 cm tall (four feet), a nightclub singer who left her loveless marriage near the Syria-Turkey border, and a man who was Leila’s childhood confidant. The Five.

Their relationship almost has a Sex in the City vibe in its intimacy among friends. Of course, the life stories in 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World are much darker. Everyone in Leila’s circle had left their homes to escape intolerable circumstances. This didn’t mean that life in Istanbul was easy, or even fair. I was reminded of movies where a young person moves from the sticks to New York or London or Calcutta. The city is full people who will take advantage of you, and possibly kill you. 

Shafak puts this story squarely in Istanbul, and Turkish sensibility suffuses it. For example, each of Leila’s post-death memories is triggered by something sensuous: a taste, a smell, the feel of a substance on the skin.  “The first memory that came to her mind was about salt – the feel of it on her skin and the taste of it on her tongue.” And, “Four minutes after her heart had stopped beating, a fleeting memory surfaced in Leila’s mind, bringing with it the smell and taste of watermelon.”

Whether Bill and I were walking the neighborhoods, eating fish at the gaily decorated

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Fish restaurant on the Golden Horn

boat restaurants on the Golden Horn or seeing mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, experiencing Istanbul filled my mind, my senses and my heart. Reading this book on the force of friendship, even beyond death, with a rich Turkish tang was just as soul-satisfying. 

Tell me: Do you have a place that just blows you away?

 

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Hagia Sophia

 

Thanks, Mom!

Who? Trevor Noah?

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That was my reaction when Jon Stewart tapped Noah to replace him as host of The Daily Show in 2015. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report were practically my only sources of news during the George W. Bush era. The regular news shows were so depressing: I couldn’t imagine an administration that could do more harm than the wrong-headed policies of Bush and Cheney.

When I first saw Trevor Noah, my reaction was, “How can I dive into those luscious dimples?” Wow, so cute! And that South African accent!!

Noah_9780399588181_epub3_001_cviIt wasn’t until I read Noah’s 2016 memoir Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood that I found out just how unlikely it is that he’s starring in an American TV show. Even if it’s just basic cable, as Jon Stewart often humble-bragged. 

The obstacles in Noah’s path had to do with South Africa’s racial system which the government called apartheid. Races, judged by looks, were strictly segregated: white, colored (usually, the result of the union of two mixed-race persons as it was a crime for persons of perceived different races to be together), Indian and black. 

From his appearance, Trevor Noah was colored. It was illegal for him to be seen with his white father or his black mother, grandparents and cousins. He was kept hidden indoors, with clandestine visits to his father and park outings with a colored neighbor while his black mom walked a few paces behind. Even when apartheid ended when Noah was about ten, customs died hard.

He attributes a large part of his success in life to his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. I would add that Noah’s amalgam of qualities — mental quickness, inborn optimism and generous soul — also contributed greatly to his rise.

One way that Noah found community was to become a “chameleon,” as he called himself. He picked up the languages of different tribes, such as Xhosa, his mother’s tribe; Tsonga; Zulu; as well as English. People accepted him, despite how he looked, because he sounded like them. Noah quotes Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” (italics mine.)

UnknownDespite the surreal circumstances of his upbringing, Patricia Noah insisted that Trevor get a good education, go to church and behave. When he misbehaved, which was often, she gave him a beating. She wanted to raise him strictly, despite his impish disposition, because she didn’t want him to end up, as Noah puts it, “paying the black tax, that I would get trapped by the cycle of poverty and violence that came before me.” She insisted that Trevor would escape.

My mom was a lot like Trevor Noah’s. Not in any of the particulars. My mom was a generation older, lived 8,000 miles away in China and was from a wealthy family. But I see similarities in their steely determination to see that their children get a better shot at life. I see in both a resolute, almost cheerful, orientation toward the future with no regrets. And they share a devotion to religion.

More than what our mothers wanted us to learn, both Trevor and I learned from our mothers’ examples. Patricia Noah got a secretarial job, a rare thing for a black woman.

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Shanghai, 1952

My mom, against her mother’s wishes, went to medical school. She married Dad on graduation, also against her mother’s wishes. Patricia had to evade the police when she lived in a white area of Johannesburg. My mom and I lived in Hong Kong as illegals after escaping Communist China. Mom and Dad were separated for seven years. Patricia was a battered wife. Both our moms had no bitterness about the hard times. They always looked forward.

Mom grew up the younger daughter in a well-to-do Chinese family in Shanghai. Her mother treated her almost as a servant. One of her stories had to do with sugar cane, a favorite snack. Mom had to chisel the tough peels off the stalks and then cut them into bite-sized pieces. She was only allowed to eat the stringy, fibrous joint pieces. The boys got the sweet, juicy pulp. 

Despite my grandmother’s conventional view that daughters were less valuable than sons, my mom raised me to be equal with boys. She encouraged me to play sports, excel in studies and to speak my mind. She never hit me, but she kept me in line with her eyes. My cousin calls it “The Look,” a searing sidewise glare. Not until I had my own kid did I realize what a “paper tiger” The Look was. When my son ignored my attempt at discipline with The Look, I had no clue what Plan B should be. 

Born a Crime is full of Trevor and Patricia’s adventures at different churches. Patricia insisted on going to three churches on Sundays: a mixed church, a white church and a black church. Trevor would try to talk her out of taking him but it never worked. 

Mom always took us to Mass on Sundays and on Holy Days of Obligations. As she became demented, she would repeatedly ask, “Is it time to go to Mass?” The rituals and songs of Mass were like muscle memory for Mom. She still knew the responses and when to kneel, stand and sit. One day, when it was time to stand and sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,” she gave a full throated rendition. She sang a couple of octaves below everyone else. She also sang a couple of bars behind everyone else. At first, I was embarrassed. But when I saw her face, happy in her faith, I was humbled.

Trevor Noah dedicates this book to his mom, his “first fan.” Patricia did good. 

Tell me: Who was your first fan?

The Body Keeps Score

41jibh5KHbL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_I flagged so many pages of Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps Score that it became kind of ridiculous. But it is that important. Van der Kolk is a psychiatrist who has spent over thirty years working with trauma survivors. He has worked with patients with PTSD, victims of natural and man-made IMG_8888disasters, and people who were abused or neglected as children, including clergy sexual abuse victims. The Body Keeps Score explains the physical basis for trauma symptoms and offers a plethora of effective treatments. This is tremendously hopeful.

Here are the critically important breakthroughs he describes:

  • Van der Kolk offers anatomic and physiologic correlations to the symptoms that trauma victims exhibit: fight, flight or freeze. This is akin to correlating someone’s belly pain to the x-rays of gallstones. This approach lays down a scientific framework for many of the psychological treatments that are based on theories (psychodynamic, cognitive, behavioral, etc.) that are not anchored to what is actually happening in the body.
  • The treatment of traumatic injury is urgent because, according to van der Kolk, “[b]eing traumatized is not just an issue of being stuck in the past; it is just as much a problem of not being fully alive in the present.” (italics mine.) People five, ten, twenty years out from their trauma cannot fully experience their current lives.
  • According to van der Kolk, child abuse is “the gravest and most costly public health issue in the United States.” “[E]radicating child abuse in America would reduce the overall rate of depression by more than half, alcoholism by two-thirds, and suicide, IV drug use, and domestic violence by three-quarters.”
  • Prevention is the best solution. “… [S]ocial support is the most powerful protection against becoming overwhelmed by stress and trauma … being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart.”

Van der Kolk describes many victims of trauma suffering from “timeless reliving; re-experiencing images, sounds, and emotions; and dissociation.” While writing this essay, I

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9/11 scene photographed by Don Halasy

heard a radio interview with Garrett Graff, author of a new book of oral histories about 9/11. He said that, in talking to people who lived through that day, he was struck by people reliving their sensory experiences: the taste of the dust and the feel of the ashes all around them; the feel of the heat; the ankle to knee-deep water (from the sprinklers) they waded through to get out.

Van der Kolk’s research shows that many kinds of treatment are helpful. He divides therapy into two categories: “top down” and “bottom up.” By top down, he means treatments that require language. These include cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), writing and art. The “bottom up” approach uses the body’s sensory awareness to soothe the brain. (The body sends as many messages to the brain as the brain sends to the body.) These include yoga, dance therapy, Heartmath, Pilates, theater and more. He is not against medications. They have their place.

My own experience of trauma seems very mild compared to van der Kolk’s patients or the 9/11 victims. Some years ago, we had a birdhouse on a tree that overlooked our back porch. Eurasian tree sparrows had set up household. We eagerly awaited the babies. Then, one day, a male house sparrow stuck his head in the hole and pulled out a naked, half-formed chick, maybe an inch and a half long with little bits of fuzz. It laid on the wooden porch boards. The violence of it unnerved me.

When I was in college, my boyfriend took me to the home of one of his friends. We were all chatting. The wife — I think her being Asian made it more distressing to me — came in and said something to her husband. Without warning, he started chasing her around the room and hitting her with a pair of slippers.

When I was a kid in Hong Kong, all the kids in our little neighborhood ran to the man who hawked sweet soy bean curds. There would be a mob of kids twenty strong. I joined them. We bought our little bowls for him to fill. As he did this, he ran his fingers through our genitals. He was so fast and stealthy. Two questions stayed with me. What did he get out of it and why did we keep going to him?

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Mom, Dad and me right before he left for America

Logically, the real trauma of my life was not having a dad until I was eight years old. He left China when I was one. We (my mom, my sister and me) joined him in America seven years later. In trying to get to America, we moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong. This required learning new languages. Then, learning English, of course. Traumatic? I don’t

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Reunited in St. Louis, age 8

know. Two results. I am a more reluctant traveler than many (Peace Corps? Go somewhere where you don’t know the language or how to get around? Been there, done that!) Also, I always felt I needed to protect my parents in this new land. I imagine it’s a common immigrant story. When I think about it though, there were hardly two more competent people than my parents.

As you can infer, Bessel van der Kolk is brilliant and energetic. He is also deeply compassionate. He states, “It is much more productive to see aggression or depression, arrogance or passivity as learned behaviors: Somewhere along the line, the patient came to believe that he or she could survive only if he or she was tough, invisible, or absent, or that it was safer to give up. Like traumatic memories that keep intruding until they are laid to rest, traumatic adaptations continue until the human organism feels safe and integrates all the parts of itself that are stuck in fighting or warding off the trauma.” I am not always so charitable. Sometimes, I think arrogant people are just jerks.

Trauma sufferers have a great advocate in Bessel van der Kolk. The Body Keeps Score gives hope both in unravelling the physical reasons for trauma symptoms and in offering a review of a wide range of effective treatments.

Tell me: Do you know of a “bottom up” treatment program that one wouldn’t necessarily associate with treating trauma?

I give my vote to Prison Performing Arts. Van der Kolk states that humans have been re-integrating war veterans back into society through ritual since the Greek tragedies. This organization puts on plays by people in Missouri’s prisons. I have been to a performance by women in the Vandalia Correctional Center.

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The Vandalia Women’s Theater

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Troubles

IMG_8844 2I decided to read Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Mystery in Northern Ireland, by New Yorker staff writer Patrick Radden Keefe, because a recently solved forty-year murder mystery sounded intriguing. Also, I wanted to learn something about Northern Ireland. Much of the discussion around Brexit brings up the Ireland/Northern Ireland border as a flashpoint. Why? What is the big deal about that border?

The book focuses on Dolours Price and her sister Marian. When The Troubles started in early 1969, I was 21 years old. Dolours was a couple of years younger than I. Marian was even younger. A picture of the sisters show them in jeans and mini skirt. Their photo reminds me of my Catholic high school friends — fresh-faced, full of the future.

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Dolours (L) and Marian(R)
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Suzanne, Susie and me at Xavier H.S. for Girls

I remember the late ‘60s and 70s as heady times. There was a great heaving movement of youth.Young people integrated public spaces and registered voters in the South. American athletes raised the Black Power salute at the Mexico City Olympics. Students at scores of universities held sit-ins and other demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Women formed consciousness raising groups and read Our Bodies Ourselves. We took the Pill. There was Woodstock, the Summer of Love and communal living. Liberation was the byword. 

In Northern Ireland, young Catholics re-ignited the fight to rid Northern Ireland of British rule, to unite the island under the Irish flag. They formed the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), a paramilitary group, to seize power when peaceful protests failed. Sometimes with them and sometimes against them were the old timers of the traditional IRA, who won Irish independence in the 1920s. Those loyal to the British formed their own paramilitaries. Also in the mix were the Northern Irish police, and later, the British army. The fighting lasted nearly three decades: Protestant vs Catholic, Loyalist vs. Republican, British vs Irish, old IRA vs Provo IRA. The conflict was also economic. Catholics were kept out of government and top jobs.

The de facto segregation and unequal treatment of the Catholic minority was brought home to me in an unexpected way this summer. Bill and I were watching the British Open Golf Tournament, held this year in Northern Ireland. Two people we had watched for years, David Feherty, the sports writer, and Darren Clarke, a pro golfer, both Northern Irish Protestants old enough to remember The Troubles, talked about the segregation by religion. Both said that if it weren’t for golf, they would know no Catholics. 

Like the catalyzing forces of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the violence at the Democratic convention, the Price sisters were radicalized when a peaceful march for Catholic rights was viciously attacked by loyalists at Burntollet Bridge. A while later, Dolours and Marian joined the newly formed Provisional Irish Republican Army.

The tactics included assassinations, kidnappings and bombings. Some of the murdered were dumped in the streets as a warning. Others were “disappeared,” kidnapped and buried with no one knowing that person’s fate. Retaliation included prison, being shot by the police or by paramilitaries or by British soldiers. The worst sin wasn’t being the enemy but being an informer or “tout.”. As it turned out, people betrayed their own side with alarming regularity, and thus, the aptness and irony of the book’s title, Say Nothing.

As a member of the Provisional IRA, Dolours Price “had no intention of being relegated to a supporting role…she wanted to do exactly the same work that a man would do.” She got her wish and was swept into the spiraling violence. She killed people. She set bombs. She did jail time. She went on a hunger strike and was forcibly fed. 

Dolours died of an accidental overdose in 2013 at the age of 62. Because of the physical and psychic toll of her IRA activities, and because there was no resolution or reconciliation after three decades of fighting, it felt to me like she could never outrun the consequence of youthful decisions. 

For me, my life in the 70s feels like someone else’s life. I rode in the middle seat of a Version 2friend’s Ford Pinto to one of the big anti War marches in Washington. I handed out leaflets and was told by a young man to “Go back to where you came from.” I did not burn down the Washington University ROTC building, despite Bill’s joking claim. I lived in a commune. I farmed for the first — and last — time. My response to gender equality was to go to medical school. 

My political leanings haven’t changed much, but I support them with checks these days. And climate change has taken the place of the anti-War fervor.

Reading Say Nothing, made me wonder. What if I had chosen a more radical route? What I had fallen under the thrall of some charismatic leader, like Gerry Adams for Dolours? I remember that feeling that all things were possible, the thrill of making a difference. Some in our country did turn to violence and made decisions that turned out to be irrevocable: the Weather Underground, the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Black Panthers. 

The official end of The Troubles, the Good Friday Accords, did not resolve much, legally, morally and most of all, emotionally. Northern Ireland sits like a scab that could break open at any time. And that murder mystery? By the time the big reveal came, I had given up caring. By that time, nothing could make up for the lost lives, the warped survivors, the grieving families, the orphans, the betrayals, the suffering. 

Tell me: What were your young adult passions?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading Dante in St. Louis

I tend to pick up long, dense literary works when I’m stressed out: Faulkner, Beowulf, Dante. I find hope that I can chip away at my troubles one problem at a time the same way I can finish lengthy tomes by reading a few pages every day. To be transported into other worlds and to marvel at language beyond my imagination are happy bonuses.

IMG_8814I read The Divine Comedy, a few cantos at a time, in my bed in the basement of my home while my parents, unable to care for themselves, slept in Bill’s and my bed upstairs. 

Dante may well have been the very first “gonzo” writer, even though his life bridged the 13th and 14th centuries and the term was coined by American writer Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson’s “gonzo journalism” combined reportage, memoir and wildly subjective and speculative opinion.

Isn’t this what Dante has done in The Divine Comedy? The hero, after all, is named Dante. Both Dante the author and Dante the character are from Florence. The story is set in 1300 when the actual Dante was 35 years old and when Dante the traveler journeyed “half of our life’s way.” Dante’s descriptions of his adventures in Hell, Purgatory and Heaven are certainly subjective and speculative. IMG_8819

It delights me to think of Dante as a gonzo writer because I came to write my Dr. Bookworm “gonzo book reviews” as a result of reading The Divine Comedy. I started reading it at a very tough point in my life, just as Dante the traveler found himself in a “dark wood of error,” and as Dante the writer suffered exile from his beloved city of Florence. Bill and I were caring for my infirm parents in our home. That alone stretched our physical and emotional resources to near breaking point. In addition, a family member criticized everything we did. They didn’t like the food we served, the physical therapy, the caregivers we hired, the TV shows we watched with Mom and Dad, the money we spent. This person spent hours on the phone degrading us to relatives and family friends

I thought Dante’s Inferno would give me some release. I wanted to see a place where bad behavior was punished. I wanted to see bad guys “get theirs.” I hoped for a vision of hell like that painted by Hieronymus Bosch or in Chinese folk paintings of Buddhist hell. I was not disappointed.

HELL-title

 In Inferno, gluttons are eternally pelted by stinky rain and ice; corrupt politicians are dipped in burning pitch while devils poke them with prongs; churchmen, including Popes, who made money from their office, are jammed upside down in holes with flames licking their feet.

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Drawing by Botticelli about 2 centuries after Dante

Reading about tortures was satisfying, but Dante gave me much more than vicarious revenge. Dante’s conversations with the inhabitants of the afterlife sparkle with personality. Francesca da Rimini eagerly tells her story of lust and death: seduction, 14th-century style. She says,“One day, to pass the time away, we read/of Lancelot — how love had overcome him. …And time and time again that reading led our eyes to meet, and made our faces pale.” The only problem was that Francesca was sharing that look with her husband’s brother.

I was immediately taken by the writer’s use of imagery. He uses everyday examples to illustrate some rather bizarre scenes. Dante the traveler encounters Count Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri. In their struggle for political advantage, they betrayed their own people and double-crossed each other. Here’s the description of their eternal punishment: “and just as he who’s hungry chews his bread, /one sinner dug his teeth into the other/ right at the place where brain is joined to nape.”

Purgatorio has a very different vibe. Rather than the class and regional jealousies
evident in Inferno, people in Purgatory greet Dante as kin and countryman. It is a place where sinners atone for their sins, and all are guaranteed entrance to heaven through God’s goodness. Dante converses with many artists, who praise their colleagues, bringing up such names as Giotto, Pisano, Cimabue.

As Dante and his guide, the Roman writer Virgil, travel up the seven terraces of Purgatory Mountain — each terrace represents a deadly sin: pride, envy, anger, sloth,
avarice, gluttony and lust — the Arts play a prominent role. Eight times a day, everyone stops what they are doing to sing the Liturgy of the Hours. Dante converses with  a musician who had set his poems to music. In the very first canto of Purgatorio, Dante speaks of his “talent,” his writing skills, and how he would “sing” of his trip through Purgatorio. 

The visual arts are highlighted in Purgatory. Atoners carry heavy blocks of stone on their backs, but not as punishment for punishment’s sake. These stones are used to carve

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Atoner with stone. Virgil (left) with Dante on right

devotional scenes on the walls of the terraces. At the top of Purgatory Mountain, Dante and Virgil arrive at the Garden of Eden. There Virgil eases himself out and Beatrice becomes Dante’s guide. Virgil, as a pagan, is not allowed to enter Paradiso. 

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Beatrice leading Dante

In Paradiso, Dante discourses with philosophers, saints and apostles; emperors,
popes and founders of religious orders; fellow Italians; ordinary people and an ancestor. He sees all the orders of angels, the Virgin Mary and a vision of the Triune God. And he is blown away by God’s Goodness.

His ancestor, a crusader, and St. Peter urge him to write about his remarkable journey. They tell him that that is his mission. He has to make the poem we are reading. He worries if he’s capable of doing justice to the experience, but he has to try. He has to become Dante the writer. He must make Art. Dante the traveler and Dante the writer become one. 

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As I read through the one hundred cantos of The Divine Comedy, the anger and angst about my life situation faded. I decided that I have to write. My life experience is as unique as Dante’s, and only I can tell my own story. As Dante the poet put everything he knew about history, geography, politics, the Bible, the Greek and Roman classics into his work, I too would incorporate everything at my intellectual disposal. I, too, would transform stress and joy into stories. And thus, Dr. Bookworm was born. 

Tell me: Do you have a literary revenge book?