Monday, December 26, 2005

So many words, so little time...

Christmas and the end of the year are a time to lift your head from your work, look around and evaluate what you're doing and where you're headed. Maybe that's where the notion of "New Year's resolutions" comes from. There are a few people who seem never to reevaluate what they are doing or where they are going. Those are the sad ones whose journey through life eventually becomes a tired, plodding existence ending in a correspondingly boring era of "old age."

Being old represents a state of body and mind, and too often the two do not end together. After working for three years now in a retirement community I have been able to witness the decline and fall of a lot of people -- a good many more than the average person ever observes in the space of three years. I have decided that if I have any wish for my own old age it is that my mind and my body will play out at the same time. It is a painful thing to watch someone struggle physically when the mind is still active, and perhaps even more painful to see someone lose cognition long before their body quits functioning. In a few cases both functions phase out together, but at a pace measured in decades rather than months or years, and we can look into a mirror of us all in that protracted end, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

An essay by Joe Queenan in yesterday's New York Times captured a moment of truth for me which helped me come to terms with a preoccupation that has hobbled me all my life: the impulse to acquire and read books. Like a substance abuser or OCD patient coming to terms with a crippling, self-destructive behavior I was able to push past denial. I copied and printed the article, pinched the three pages at the corner with a little paper clamp, installed a hook right in the middle of my library and hung it there to remind me: I already have more books than I will ever read, so getting more is not about reading but ego: owning, displaying and sporting --but certainly not reading. In the same way that shopping in a mall for yet another pair of shoes, shirt or knick-knack for which I have no earthly use is a waste of time and money, getting yet another book must be something that I do with serious circumspection. No need to spend the money if I don't invest the time to read.

Several years ago, I calculated how many books I could read if I lived to my actuarially expected age. The answer was 2,138. In theory, those 2,138 books would include everything from "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" to "Le Colonel Chabert," with titles by authors as celebrated as Marcel Proust and as obscure as Marcel Aymé. In principle, there would be enough time to read 500 masterpieces, 500 minor classics, 500 overlooked works of genius, 500 oddities and 138 examples of high-class trash. Nowhere in this utopian future would there be time for [yet another obscure, uninteresting tome probably "re-gifted" from someone posing as a friend]

True, I used to be one of those people who could never start a book without finishing it or introduce a volume to his library without eventually reading it. Familiarity with this glaring character flaw may have encouraged others to use me as a cultural guinea pig, heartlessly foisting books like "Damien the Leper" (written by Mia Farrow's father) or the letters of Flannery O'Connor upon me just to see if they were worth reading. (He wasn't; she was.)

I can truthfully say that blogging has become the pastime of choice where my reading is concerned. During the last four years (blogging really only took off in the aftermath of the WTC attack) I have allowed magazine subscriptions to lapse, quit looking so lustfully at bookstores and rarely buy a newspaper, except for local stories. It may be that like the substance abuser who substitutes coffee and chewing gum for another substance of choice I have only redirected a habit, but when I look at that habit in the shadow of impending old age, mentioned above, I think it is a move in the right direction. It has been my observation that the mind is as subject to exercise or neglect as the body. Like it or not, use it or lose it.

Toward that end, this morning's reading starts off with a great new discovery. I have added yet another blog to the aggregator, Words Without Borders Blog: Literary Notes from Around the World. There isn't much of an archive yet. It seems to have started less than six months ago, but two snips I found this morning are enough to get me hooked.

The other day at a function, a woman I hadn't met before came and sat down beside me. She expressed great interest in getting to know me, and to make an acquaintance. Naturally, some conversation is required. She asked me a few questions, such as: [Insert here a tedious list of trivial questions, ed.]

After nearly an hour and a half of my answering her various questions, she was satisfied that she was acquainted with me. But reader, believe me, I am not making up any of this--that woman asked me absolutely nothing. Who am I, where is my house, who are my parents, what work do I do, even what is my name! A woman who after a whole hour and a half of talking to me doesn't even know my name, but who feels quite content that she has fulfilled her duty of getting to know me.

That is, to coin a line, too good for words. It is a cultural snapshot comparable with that old adage that a picture being worth a thousand words.
Words, like the eyes, are a lens into the soul.
And here are two excerpts from another essay that tells me that what is being advertised as a war between two civilizations, a war that is being waged by conventional military means, is really a symbolic conflict that will be won or lost, not in the streets of some distant land, but in the minds of those taking part in the conflict. As I read these words I could not help wondering how well "our side" does at introspection and reevaluating values.

When I was a child, I experienced the two different rereadings of Islam firsthand. As the child of a single mother, there was a time when I grew up with two different grandmothers. At the first glance these two women were so alike: they were both Turkish, they came from similar class backgrounds, and both were Muslims. Yet, my father’s mother was a follower of the religion of fear. The Jalal side of Allah appealed to her more than anything else. She taught me about the patronizing, paternal, and celestial gaze always watching me from above to then make a note of all the sins I committed down here. I came back from her house slightly traumatized, unable to go to the bathroom for fear of being seen naked by Allah, ashamed of the body given to me.

But shortly after, I moved to the house of my other grandmother and thus entered an iridescent universe replete with folk Islam and superstitions. This was an old woman who poured melted lead to ward off the evil eye, read the coffee cups and taught me not to step on the thresholds where the djinn danced at night. She was a follower of the religion of love. For her Allah wasn’t a God to be feared but a God to be loved. Indeed, the celestial gaze watched us constantly, she agreed, but it also blinked from time to time, just like any other eye would. Those times of blinking were the moments of freedom when we were invisible to God. “Sure, the religious authorities are rigid, and yes, some teachings are constraining, but do not worry,” she would say, “for they are bricks, you are water. They will stay put, you will flow.” She is the one who taught me all about water. Love and faith could be just like water, so fluidlike. I doubt if I have entirely managed to follow the path of the water in love and faith, but eventually, that was the model my fiction writing followed.

This woman, a Turkish writer, displays a great depth of cultural intelligence. She packs very important ideas into a very tight little space.

...the woman writer chooses to speed up the flow of time because it is easier to be respected as an old woman in a patriarchal society than as a young woman. Thus, we end up with women in their thirties acting as if they were in their sixties. In the Middle East women age quickly, leaping from the category of “virgins” to “old women,” as if there is nothing in between. The quicker the jump, the more esteem and authority a woman writer earns in the eyes of the society.
...I sometimes liken my fiction writing, both in language and content, to walking on a pile of rubble left behind after a catastrophe. I walk slowly so that I can hear if there is still someone or something breathing underneath. I listen attentively to the sounds coming from below to see if anyone, any story or cultural legacy from the past, is still alive under the rubble. If and when I come across signs of life, I dig deep and pull it up, above the ground, shake its dust, and put it in my novels so that it can survive. My fiction is a manifesto of remembrance against the collective amnesia prevalent in Turkey.

Two or three times in the last week I have heard the same theme from unrelated sources: our real enemy is not belief, but fundamentalism, whether it be ours or theirs -- Christians, Jews or Muslims. It is okay to know that you know that you know that yours is the only truth and the truth of others is badly, even sinfully incorrect. But to conclude that the only way to deal with that difference is to anihilate the other believer, is as mindless as that line from the Vietnam conflict that it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.

Thanks again to 3QDaily for raising my consciousness.

No comments: