Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Time Being

Have you ever wondered  where thoughts come from?  They could be so random. If you are anxious or upset about something, the thoughts that hound you can make you stop in your tracks and affect your behaviour and deprive you of sleep that you need most to think clearly and go about your daily activities. But if you pay attention, you can actually alter your reality.  How we feel and what we think tend to  change from moment to moment so if we know our thoughts, we can watch them come and go.

Canal de Bourgogne

I tried meditation when I was a student at the university and I remember I had problems staying still just like the young girl Nao Yasutani in A Tale for the Time Being written by Ruth Ozeki.  Nao’s great grandmother Jiko had shown her how to meditate.

In A Tale for the Time Being ,the protagonist, Ruth was unable to complete another novel and she had decided to write a memoir about how she had spent years taking care of her mother, who’d suffered from Alzheimer’s.  She found a Hello Kitty lunchbox that washed up on the beach and inside it an antique wristwatch, a pack of indecipherable letters and the secret diary of a sixteen year old Japanese girl, Nao.
Nao wrote:
As you’ve probably figured  out by now, on account of the ADD, my mind is always chattering away like a monkey. And sometimes I can’t even count to three. Can you believe it ? No wonder I couldn’t get into a decent high school. But the good news is that it doesn’t matter if you screw up zazen.  Jiko says don’t even think of it as screwing up. She says it ‘s totally natural for a person’s mind to think because that’s what minds are supposed to do, so when your mind wanders and gets tangled up in crazy thoughts, you don’t have to freak out. It ‘s no big deal. You just notice it’s happened and drop it, like whatever, and start again from the beginning.’

Nao's diary was a distraction. Ruth felt compelled to read the journal by Nao, the young girl who claimed that she was a time being and she wanted to tell someone the fascinating story of her hundred-and- four-year old great grandmother, who was a Zen Buddhist nun. 

Now , looking at the pile of pages, she felt a quickening flush of panic at the thought of all her own lost time, the confused mess she’d made of this draft, and the work that still needed to be done to sort it all out. What was she doing wasting precious hours on someone else’s story?

The young girl  had left their U.S. home to return to Japan with her parents as her father had lost his job. She had suicidal thoughts and she sought solace in writing her journal that was kept in a red cloth cover entitled À la recherche du temps perdu par Marcel Proust. Nao’s father had attempted to commit suicide and there were parts of the story that I found depressing to read when these characters were suicidal. Nao was bullied in school and also in the cyber world and her father was suffering from depression and had felt  helpless and hopeless.

À la recherche  du temps perdu. In search of lost time. The alternative translation of the title is Remembrance of Things Past. I have not read it and it would be ambitious of me to think that one day I might read it. I first learnt about  the metaphor Le Portrait Chinois in French class today. The Chinese Portrait is  a game that is made up of what is known as Proust Questionnaire created by the famous French novelist Marcel Proust. It is a questionnaire about  one's personality that ask questions like : If you were an animal, what would you be or If you were a plant, what would you be etc. After I read the novel by Ruth Ozeki that made reference to Proust, I was subsequently acquainted with  Le Portrait Chinois. What a nice coincidence.

 In A Tale for the Time Being ,“ Do you think Nao is alive?”  Ruth asked her husband.

 “ Hard to say. Is death even possible in a universe of many worlds? Is suicide? For every world in which you kill yourself, there ‘ll be another in which you don’t , in which you go on living. Many worlds seems to guarantee a kind of immortality…”

She grew impatient then. “ I don’t care about other worlds……

The story is about Zen Buddhism and may be explained by quantum mechanics and classical physics which describe the interactions of matter and energy as they move through time and space. These physicist  theories seem to suggest that a particle can be in two or more places or states at once. There are times when I seem to be able to achieve so much in a day when other times, the days just slip by and I have hardly completed any errands or work that I have meant to do. Sometimes I wish I could be at two or more places at the same time as there are so many books I want to read and things I like to experience as I juggle my daily activities.

Ruth Ozeki wrote, “A moment is a very small particle of time. It is so small that one day is made of 6,400,099,980 moments.”

Six billion, four hundred million, ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty moments in a day.  Apparently when you snap your fingers, that snap equals sixty- five moments. Every moment provides an opportunity to choose our action and reestablish our will, summon our resolve. I have lost count of the moments in my restless years as I whiled away time idling, doodling and day dreaming.  I have to catch up with lost time. There is a time for everything so perhaps all those indecisions and procrastinations might have been inevitable

Ruth pondered about Nao.

In your diary, you quoted old Jiko saying something about not knowing, how not- knowing is the most intimate way, or did I just dream that ? Anyway , I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I think maybe it’s true, even though I don’t really like uncertainty. I’d much rather know, but then again , not -knowing keeps all the possibilities open. It keeps all the worlds alive.’

Not knowing is hard but that is what keeps the possibilities open. Our reality is what we think it is. A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliant piece of writing where we are aptly described as time beings as life is fleeting and change is constant. Nao  sought solace in writing in her diary. She had no idea who would be reading it. When  Ruth picked it up at the other end of the Pacific, she felt the urgency to find Nao as she read about  her despair and angst in the diary but as she continued to read it, the diary became a kind of  wake up call for Ruth . It is essentially a story about two time beings who had somehow become connected via a diary in the present internet era.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

He says, she says

Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. We have heard that before. How often I hear women  lament and say that their husbands have a totally different mindset and they only think about themselves or that they do not care about the things that matter to women. I was in denial about such characterization as I disliked any form of stereotyping or generalization . But in recent years, I have resigned to acknowledge that men and women do somehow think and function quite differently. I tend to be slow in seeing the obvious. I am a late bloomer in so many areas.

Whether due to our upbringing, education or social conditioning, a man and a woman do seem to differ in their ways of handling issues at work or at home and in the making of certain decisions. I am told that studies show that women like smart phones more than men do. I wonder if it indicates that men are more results oriented and they do not like the extra frills as they are deemed unnecessary. To some people, a mobile phone is just a gadget that only needs to  function as a phone for making phone calls. Period.
Bali (2008)

I also notice that men carry loads of information with them and the way they assimilate and accommodate new information that are given to them can be different from how a woman process them. In a good sense, the men are goals oriented. But then when one is too focused on the tasks at hand, his or her visions may not go beyond peripheral. When one targets on getting to the end of the tunnel with an urgency to achieve the desired result, the need to execute these tasks with efficiency sometimes can make one inflexible. Decades ago, I enrolled myself at the Alliance Francaise with a view to study French. I was easily discouraged when the question was posed to me by an ex: What is the purpose of you learning French? What are you trying to achieve? I could not answer that so I found my resolve weakening and quitting the course. That was very lame indeed and I certainly lacked self possession then. I have since taken up the task of learning French again. Last week, my mechanic saw the French text books lying in my car, he asked, “ You are learning French you want to go and live there.” He made an observation that did not require any response from me. Learning the language can be the purpose of it all, non ?

Sexism starts at home. We have  a patriarchal social structure. Since the women  have in the past lived with their husbands who have been brought up by their mothers who have also lived with their husbands come what may , they stop thinking about how they feel or what they want and  they carry on with their lives as if it is all an order of nature. The men are like that so the mothers tell their daughters and their daughters in laws. Boys are boys, boys behave like how boys would behave and then they grow up and become men who behave like most of the men around them. They are all like that so the mothers say.

I am not advocating for gender equality or anything like that as that requires in-depth studies and more elaboration, I only think  that the standards for reasonable and sensible behaviour should be the same for both sexes. Granted that men and women have certain attributes that may be inborn, if only each and everyone of them respect and acknowledge that women have as much right to be their own persons as the men do and the women who raise these men could change their own mindset  about what boys should be like, may be one day male chauvinism may become a thing of the past .
In Aunty Lee’s Delights, Ovidia Yu, a Singaporean writer cleverly showed the different prejudices  harboured by  the guests who came to a wine tasting dinner  held at Aunty Lee's café that was well known for good traditional Peranakan food. When an unidentified woman’s body had been found washed up on Sentosa beach and one of the dinner guests did not turn up at the restaurant, the fair and plump Aunty Lee kept track of the news story and  became involved in solving the mystery. 
But there are certain standards, certain rules of behaviour, that everyone accepts,” said  Lucy, one of the dinner guests who was visiting Singapore for the first time.

Mrs Lucy Cunningham expressed her views.
“ People know what’s right. And what’s wrong. Everyone agrees on that.”
“But how do you know everybody agrees?Aunty Lee asked, seemingly intent on washing mustard greens in one of the sinks. She squinted and picked out what might have been a bug or dirt or a specimen of plant life not developed along consumer-advocate guidelines.
“It is obvious, isn’t it ? The people you talk to, it’s in the papers. It’s just normal, good , human values.”
There  had been a slight waver before she said ‘human,” as though Lucy had had to make a quick substitution for another, less neutral word.

“God made us all individuals,” Aunty Lee observed.

“ God gave us rules to live by,” Lucy Cunningham said quietly. Again she was on guard, focused on her shallots.

In the story, Mr and Mrs Cunningham had to struggle with accepting their son’s relationship with another man.

Ovidia wrote, “ As far as Aunty Lee was concerned, people ought to go through the ideas they carried around in their heads as regularly as they turned out their store cupboards. No matter how wisely you shopped, there would be things in the depths that were past their expiration dates or gone damp and moldy – that had been picked up on impulse and were no longer relevant. Aunty Lee believed everything inside  head or cupboard could affect everything else in it by going bad or just taking up more space than it was worth.” 

Aunty Lee’s Delights reminds me of Agatha Christie’s crime stories not that I have read many Agatha Christie’s novels. I read from the conversation between Ovidia Yu and Louise Penny, another mystery novel writer that Ovidia  is a lifelong Agatha Christie fan and so she explains  how she came to write the story that would be set in Singapore.  The central character, Rosie Lee was described by her late husband as “em zhai se – not afraid to die” and to the dismay of her daughter-in- law, she fed her Filipino domestic helper the Brands Essense of Chicken to give her more strength and more meat on her bones. Odivia has made Auntie Lee out to be nosy but a kind hearted and independent minded widow who serves tantalizing  nyonya culinary delights. Inside the book, the author has included a recipe for Aunty Lee’s amazing achar. Odivia Yu’s novel was a delightful find purely by chance when I visited  Kinokuniya book store recently.

When I read the end of the story, as if on cue, my husband suggested nyonya lunch at either a restaurant nearby or a beach café that required some ten minutes drive. There has been heavy downpour throughout the week and it was a  welcoming change to see a sunny day. Where we were seated, some cool breeze was blowing and we managed to get ourselves shaded from the midday sun. As I tucked into the steamy hot and spicy  fish curry  against the backdrop of clear  blue sky and sea frontage, I  could not ask for a more perfect Sunday.

Batu Ferringhi, Penang

Monday, November 11, 2013

Happiness 101

Cours Saleya, Nice (2012)
What are the things we can do when we are distressed? If anyone asks me the question, I would suggest that he or she could try reading, writing, dark chocolate or physical work out.  Some form of physical exercise is always a good way to elevate one’s mood as endorphins trigger a positive boost in mood. That definitely works for me. Any form of physical exercise is usually energizing. Whenever I hit some tennis or done some gym work out, the good feelings remind me of why I have enjoyed exercising in the first place.

Both regular reading and exercise require discipline. I find that settling into a chair and start reading is never a problem. Through reading I have gained insights about humanities and the world around us. Even if I cannot find answers or resolutions, I find solace and comfort in reading. When these writers tell stories, they often translate and share their views and sentiments about the world and help us understand a little better about ourselves and the society we live in. There are days when I slack off and rather stuck in my reading and writing, it is not easy to get back to the mode of regular exercise. When it takes too much effort to leave the comfort of the book that I happen to be reading , I do some yoga stretches and standing poses.

The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak is  about Liesel a young German girl who sought refuge in books during the WWII in Germany. The first book that she had stolen was the gravedigger’s handbook that she had found lying in the snow after her brother’s funeral. Though she had not learnt to read then, the book meant the last time she saw her brother and her mother. To her it did not matter what that book was about but what it meant that was more important. When her foster father discovered the book, he taught her to read even though the book was hardly ideal text to start with, thus begins her love affair with books and words. She read in the bomb shelter and also started writing in the basement.

A mountain range of rubble was written, designed, erected around her. She was clutching a book.

Apart from everything else, the book thief wanted desperately to go back to the basement, to write, or to read through her story one last time. In hindsight , I see it so obviously on her face. She was dying for it – the safety of it , the home of it - but she could not move. Also, the basement didn’t even exist anymore. It was part of the mangled landscape.

The Book Thief was narrated in the voice of Death who had picked up a little black book that contained Liesel’s journal. On the first page, she wrote “The Book Thief  a small story by Liesel Meminger”.

‘Yes, often, I am reminded of her, and in one of my vast array of pockets, I have kept her story to retell. It is one of the small legion I carry, each one extraordinary in its own right. Each one an attempt- an immense leap of an attempt – to prove to me that you, and your human existence, are worth it.

Here it is. One of a handful.

The Book Thief.

If you feel like it, come with me. I will tell you a story. 
I’ll show you something.

The Book Thief is beautifully written and its story tugs at your heart.

There are some days that things irritate or worry me so much that  I find myself sitting on edge. Even if I try not to brood, I cannot shake off the miserable thoughts that trouble me. One of the ladies who went to the same fitness studio as me once quipped, “Perhaps I should get one of these punching bags and install it at my balcony.” A punching bag that hangs in a corner of your home sounds like a good remedy if we know how to punch and kick ……LOL. Personally I find that a good night’s sleep helps to calm one’s nerves and anxieties. Sleep is absolutely necessary to keep the gremlins at bay.

A month ago, a friend became extremely depressed and was incommunicative when  he felt that something was wrong with him as all the symptoms were familiar to him. It was déjà vu as he had experienced the ordeal just barely three years ago. He now  has  to go through all the medical tests to monitor the growth of the tumor in his brain. He wrote that he had to accept reality and his fate. He wrote: "Amor fati" means love whatever happen to you cause you only experience it once.According to wikipedia, ‘Amor fati is a Latin phrase loosely translating to "love of fate" or "love of one's fate". It is used to describe an attitude in which one sees everything that happens in one's life, including suffering and loss, as good. Moreover, it is characterized by an acceptance of the events or situations that occur in one's life.’

It is terrible news that this friend has to confront his sickness and the challenges that accompany it.
Monaco(October '12)
So often we are reminded of the fragility of life and unpredictability of what it has in store for us, yet we  forget that good moments and bad moments are as transient as each other. Sometimes when things get tough and there is no solution, it is pointless to get ourselves all worked up in our head. Perhaps it is good to emulate Scalette O’hara in Gone with the Wind as she  said “ I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” I always remember the line from the movie,  “After all tomorrow is another day.”

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Covent Garden, London
Humans cannot be devoid of emotions. Tragedies and disasters tend to follow if we allow ourselves to be carried away by our anger and hatred that is seething inside and  morbid thoughts that swirl in our heads. Vendettas and vengeance never end well both in life and fictions. Skewed obsessions and aggression definitely threaten one’s sanity. Sometimes the line between sanity and insanity is such a fine one.

 Every single thought can affect how we act and lead to irreversible consequences that affect not only ourselves but all those around us. We have to watch our thoughts. If  we engage ourselves  in certain twisted thoughts, we  may get ourselves screwed up making us act in the way we will live to regret. Every thought we conceive and every step we make in our daily life matters. We say things in a moment of anger or frustration and they can no longer be retracted. Sometimes no amount of damage control can alter or rectify the effect and impact of the things that had been said, acts or omissions that had been committed.

A good friend who is an avid reader recommended the new book written by the author of Q&A/Slumdog Millionaire, Vikas Swarup. The Accidental Apprentice is a page turn and there are many twists and turn as the story unfolds and definitely kept me in suspense in one sitting last Sunday. A very interesting concept as the story started with the protagonist, Sapna Sinha being approached by a billionaire industrialist who wanted to make her the CEO of his company. She was told that no prior business experience was required and all she needed to do was to pass seven tests and the moment she accepted the offer, the tests began. Vinay Mohan Acharya, chairman of the ABC Group was the Business of the Year 2008 and the first lesson that he had  told Sinha was this ‘In life you never get what you deserve : you get what you negotiate’. The story tells us that all that happens is linked from the beginning and life gives us what we deserve. A powerful message indeed. 

A couple of months ago, I picked up the book “The Silent Wife” by A.S.A.Harrison. The Silent Wife is a chilling story about a couple that head for catastrophe and the outcome keeps the reader in suspense. Both Jodi and Todd are at a bad place in their marriage. He is a committed cheater and she lives and breathes denial until the time she has to confront her predicament and her choices.It is a psychological thriller and the story is told from the husband’s perspective and also the wife’s. The chapters alternate between 'HIM' and 'HER'. In the first chapter 'HER', Harrison  wrote,“ At forty-five, Jodi still sees herself as a young woman. She does not have her eye set on the future but lives very much in the moment, keeping her focus on the everyday. She assumes, without having thought about it, that things will go on indefinitely in their imperfect yet entirely acceptable way. In other words, she is deeply unaware that her life is now peaking, that her youthful resilience --which her twenty-year marriage to Todd Gilbert has been slowly eroding-- is approaching a final stage of disintegration, that her notions about who she is and how she ought to conduct herself are far less stable than she supposes, given that a few short months are all it will take to make a killer out of her.”

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a crime fiction written by JK Rowling using her pseudonym, Robert Galbraith that caused some controversy when the true identity of the new author was unveiled. A model falls to her death from her apartment balcony, the police investigation has shown that it is a suicide however, her brother has his doubts and engages Cormoran Strike to investigate into the case. It is a delight to read a story that is set against the backdrop of London, one of my favourite cities in the world. 

Both The Silent Wife and The Cuckoo’s calling are very well written thrillers. In these stories, one’s hatred can shape one’s sanity and misguided passion can totally change one’s psyche.  While these stories describe the dark side of human nature, whodunits can be refreshing reads as it is always exciting to guess the killers in  these thrillers.

Langkawi, Malaysia