Monday, October 20, 2014

The Difficult Resolution

Some people do not seem to have difficulties making decisions  as they know their  priorities and they do not think too much about what they do and what they have been told to do. They go about their daily life and execute tasks without much thinking and will carry on their lives doing what everyone else is doing. They are achievement and goal oriented. They are pragmatic people. While some people constantly find themselves in a bind and even if they do not like what they are doing, they will carry on doing what they are doing as they know it is essential to earn a living and they are uncertain about venturing beyond what they deem their limitations. It is therefore inspiring to know that there are always some people  who are brave enough to follow through what they believe is their calling and they are focused in pursuing their dreams as they make unconventional choices. Whatever we wish to do or not to do with our lives, there will be the difficult resolution which usually becomes the necessary resolution.

A cousin of mine once comments that my life is a hundred times better than my mother’s. I love my mother but I used to be angry with her for being weak. On reflection, she was strong in the way she could be given the circumstances she was in. She was a traditional woman and she had given up her job as a needlework teacher  at a secondary school in order to care for the family. When my late dad started his own enterprise, she had cooked meals for his workers and helped around in the workplace. She was a very humble person, definitely an introvert who had imparted in me the passion to read and she used to save up news article about Sanmao 三毛, a travel writer so that I could read them when I was home for my vacation during varsity days. Both my mother and I felt that Sanmao led a  very adventurous and romantic lifestyle. The Taiwanese writer had written about her experiences living in the Sahara desert and we had enjoyed reading them. My mother’s  heart was broken when she  discovered that my dad had another family. She originally came from a neighbouring country  so  when her marriage went terribly wrong, there was nowhere else to run to. After witnessing what my mother had gone through in her lifetime, I am constantly preoccupied with seeking my own personal happiness separate from the role of a wife and mother. I am very often drawn to stories that centre around women’s struggles and success as I find them inspiring.

Stella Bain , a novel written by Anita Shreve is about a woman of exceptionally strong character and stamina. The protagonist, Etna Bliss is extremely courageous as she was determined to go through insurmountable distance to right a wrong that  has been caused by her husband. The story is set in the late 19th Century and early 20th century where Etna has set out to France to serve as a nurse’s aide in the war. She is determined to track down someone who has been sent to war as an ambulance driver with the British Red Cross in France after his reputation and academic career have been ruined as a result of her husband’s manipulation. Etna feels that she owes it to her husband’s rival who has been victimized and sent away from his homeland to France .

Despite her strength, I do not find myself particularly motivated or moved by Etna Bliss while I find the character whom she tries to track down inspiring and endearing.  Even when the going gets tough, Phillip Asher looks for beauty in order to survive the war zone.
‘ Etna is suddenly curious. “What do you do when you’re not driving?”
He sits back and twirls his glass. “ If you mean a pastime, I suppose I’d have to say I look for ….well….beauty. It sounds ridiculous, but you’d be surprised how difficult it is .”
“ It doesn’t sound ridiculous to me at all.”
“ It’s a humble but challenging quest in this place, a bit like a treasure hunt. When I find something, I note it in a small notebook I carry. Keeps me from going mad, I suppose.”
“What have you found?’
He sits back and clears his throat. “I once saw a large flower struggling to poke through the earth. The cracks in the soil caught my attention. I watched the bent stalk pop up as if it were spring-loaded. It was amazing. Let’s see.” He takes a sip of wine. “I saw a beautiful man, an officer.” He pauses, his face somber, perhaps remembering a death. “ A field of snow , lit pink. A tooled navy leather journal a soldier kept inside his uniform. He’d barely made two weeks of entries before he was killed. I once watched a priest take ten years off a man’s simply by calming his nerves. Gunfire is beautiful. If you didn’t know what it signified, you’d think it was beautiful , too.”'

I am not familiar with Anita Shreve’s writings and perhaps this may not be the best book to start.  I somehow cannot fully empathize with the main protagonist in Stella Bain despite the fact that she suffers amnesia after having gone through extraordinary circumstances and is pushed beyond her limits. Anita Shreve is obviously portraying a woman whose courage and noble intentions are intended to be inspiring. While I appreciate that  Etna is definitely a woman struggling to live life on her own terms, due to the complex situation she has landed herself in, I find the character rather contrived.  As a rule, I believe that there is often a lot of truth  in fictions and  fictions can be closer to truth. Despite all the vivid descriptions about the  horror of World War I and the post-trauma stress disorder termed as shell shock that was suffered by many who were involved in the front , I find that the female character, Etna Bliss remains purely fictitious only. Nonetheless the book is absorbing enough to make a compelling read.


Saturday, October 11, 2014

It must be?

Casablanca is one of my favourite films and I was glad that it was amongst the films selection on board a long haul flight I had recently taken. There are films that I can watch repeatedly and some of the scenes in these movies still move me despite having watched them again and again.  I would  have found such films less poignant when I was in my teens as I used to believe that the choices are our own and it is within our power to make them for which we must be responsible. As time goes by, I realize that  there are always difficult choices and some things are just not meant to be.

Translated from the Czech by  Michael Henry Heim
Milan Kundera writes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.  since the first rehearsal for life is life itself’”. Which shall we choose  ? Weight or lightness?

The premise of Kunderas novel is based on its authors analysis about the dichotomy between lightness and weight in the light of Nietzsches philosophy about eternal return ( I must qualify that I have not read Nietzche) and whether we can combat fate by  choosing  to live under weight like Tereza and Franz  or lightness like the characters, Tomas and Sabina. As the novel progresses, I find that both lightness and weight are manifested in all the main characters in the novel, some more apparent than others.

Tereza yearned for  her mothers love and was willing to do anything to gain her mothers love and she became the culprit for her mothers unhappiness. One day she decided to escape her old life by finding Tomas with whom she had recently acquainted when he happened to be in her town, a small Czech town some hundred and twenty five miles from Prague. Tomas, a surgeon,  went to the hotel restaurant where she was working as a waitress. When Tomas ordered a cognac, the radio happened to be playing the composition by Beethoven and she had known the music from the time a string quartet from Prague visited her town. Whenever she heard Beethoven, she would be touched. However if it was not Tomas, she might not have noticed the music.

Chance and chance alone has a message for us. Everything that occurs out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out, is mute. Only chance can speak to us. We read its message much as gypsies read the images made by coffee grounds at the bottom of a cup.

To assuage Terezas sufferings, Tomas married her and gave her a puppy. Tereza wanted commitment from Tomas who was incapable of giving up his incessant womanizing. When they moved to Zurich, Tereza  returned to Prague leaving Tomas behind because she could not live abroad. After two days of her absence ,Tomas felt like he had been hit by a weight and he  had to leave his job and he said Es muss sein to the Swiss doctor who had offered him the position. Es muss  sein. It must be. Tomas found himself being burdened by his love for Tereza and he returned to Prague to be with Tereza.

Sabina,  a painter  who had a liaison with Tomas would be charmed more by betrayal than fidelity and she had commitment issues when she was with Franz, a professor in Geneva. Franz was drawn to Sabinas persona who was a revelation to him as she  came  from a land where there were incidents of persecution, enemy tanks, prison , banned books and he felt that by contrast his life was  light. Franz desired weight as opposed to Sabina who represented lightness and to Frank, Sabina represented a different dimension .

Sabina protested. She said that conflict, drama ,and tragedy didn’t mean a thing; there was nothing inherently valuable in them, nothing deserving of respect or admiration.

 Sabina had no love for that drama while Franz who, despite having written and published several scholarly books that had received considerable acclaims,  felt  that words that had been spewed out were not real life as they were a sea of words with no weight and no resemblance to life. 

How often we feel weighed down by our commitments and ties and we  struggle to gain an equilibrium between breaking free and a sense of belonging and finding meaning in our lives.Love, freedom and death make up the meaning of our lives. We desire lightness yet we cannot help feeling the weight as we celebrate our ties and commitments. Relationships are what give meanings and value in our lives. Muss es sein? Es muss sein. The Unbearable Lightness of Being is a novel which  I hope to read again as I have not fully digested all of it and I may have oversimplified my understanding of the novel. The sentences are  beautifully written ( as translated from the Czech by  Michael Henry Heim) and the way the narrator interjects with the author's musings makes me want to read the book again. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Coming of Age

Maturity may bring about some level of sensibilities but age has nothing to do with maturity and sensibilities. Perhaps age and experience can make a difference in the way we approach a subject or the manner we  perform or execute a particular task or tackle a certain problem, but I find that  age has nothing to do with how one thinks.  While I am not saying that we are no older than how we feel, I like to believe that we remain forever ourselves no matter what age we are. The saying that people mellow as they grow old often eludes me although it is not impossible for us to become better persons when we make conscious efforts to improve ourselves if we know and acknowledge our failings.

I believe age plays a role in the way one processes and assesses information. How we  assess a certain situation largely depends on what we have learnt from previous experiences although our  regards about the world generally remain unchanged at best they may be manifested in different forms over the years. It is interesting to note that in  the French classes that I attend at the Alliance Francaise, I see that students who are still going to school somehow are much relaxed during classes whereas adults have a tendency to try to rationalize everything and analyze the workings of certain sentences or the logic of what is  printed in the texts instead of simply enjoying the texts and feel the language. How wonderful it is  to be totally unassuming and open to whatever information  you might be handed.

These days, apart from reading novels and some non-fictions, I also read articles that talk about how to prevent dementia and avoid amnesia simply because I get a little worrisome whenever  I become forgetful. Then I remind myself that I was also a forgetful and absent minded person particularly in my teens as I never remembered anything I had studied in school anyway. I used to take everything rather seriously in my youth when I was often  lacking in confidence and at times feeling smug and righteous and having problems with angst and mood swings  and now that I try not to take most things too seriously, I do not think that older necessarily means wiser. One thing I have learnt is that the world remains utterly unchanged despite our efforts and  humanity never fails to intrigue.

A friend has passed me some issues of London Review of Books and I came across an article written by Jenny Diski . The article  is a review on the book “Out of Time” authored  by Lynne Segal. In her article entitled, “However I Smell” , Diski writes, “One of the problems of ageing is knowing when to start complaining about being old.”  Diski relates about how  an woman who worked with elderly people had emailed to tell her that the 85-year-olds she worked with would describe people her age young after having read something of hers in which she described herself, at 66 , as old. 

Diski also writes in the said article,

“ ….the degeneration of the body will alter and limit how you can live, whether you can get out, continue to work and travel. I can’t think of anything about the reality of ageing which improves a person’s life. The wisdom people speak of that is supposed to come to us in old age seems to be in much shorter supply than I imagined, and apart from that , it’s a matter of how self-deceptively, or stoically, you are able or prepared to put up with the depletions, dependency and indignities of getting old.”

So aptly put , indeed. While we must be prepared to  accept some certainties or limitations of life, we tend to avoid thinking about  growing old though mortality is ineluctable. I believe that everything I hear or read is something I have  meant to hear or read. You hear what you want to hear, you see what you want to see  and  you  read what you want to read. When I was thinking about dignified aging, the article “However I Smell”  presented itself. It is published  in Volume 36 Number 9 issue of the London Review of Books. As I grow older, I certainly find that my reserve of  optimism  has diminished in its supply so is the abundance of spontaneity  while cynicism has its way of inviting itself into one’s mind, firmly engrained. In some ways I miss my youth when I could get  excited over things and look at stuff through rose tinted glasses. You win some, you lose some.  Whatever works.