Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Wondrous Life

I have not been able to feel bored as there are always  books that I want to read and projects I want to work on. There are so many good books too little time. Amidst my work and commitments, I need to  fit in reading and writing and every day feels like a race. THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE, a  memoir by Ann Patchett  tells about how she manages the balance in her life between writing and all that matters in her life. Ann Patchett has the right aptitude and resolve. I enjoy all the insights that she shares with her readers.

Finding the right balance between what we love to do and what needs to be done is a constant challenge. But what if what we love to do is actually what needs to be done?

One afternoon, a man walked into my office seeking some legal advice. He was troubled as his wife of thirty years had taken off and she had decided to stay away from the family. When confronted, she told him that she had done enough for him and their three children who had since grown up, the youngest son seventeen going on to eighteen. He reiterated that he had been a good husband as he did not have any extra-marital affairs. He disclosed that he had regularly gone for drinks with the boys and frequented karoeke lounges and whenever he stayed out late, his wife used to telephone him and wondered about those women at such joints. After hearing his narration, it  sounded like he wanted the wife to continue feeling needy and insecure. Now that his wife has decided to make a change in her dreary life, he is terribly upset and accuses her of not thinking about the family. And to top it all, he  blamed her new woman friend who had brought about the change in her attitude that subsequently caused the disruption in his  family life.

Women on a quest for change and freedom is a common theme. Elizabeth Gilbert had written the memoir “ Eat Pray Love  about her year of travel that ended up in her meeting her present husband, a wonderful love story. In her early thirties, Elizabeth Gilbert had everything most women were supposed to want-husband, country home and successful career.  Instead of feeling happy and fulfilled, she felt confused and depressed. She divorced her husband and went on a trip to Italy, India and Indonesia.

As it is  a self- discovery voyage, Gilbert may at times  ramble on a bit and sound self- absorbed. Nonetheless the book is a page turner and the characters that she has met during her travel are colourful and fiction like. Her narration is for the most part lively and come across as sincere and honest. 

This is an extract from  what she wrote about her experience on meditation .   

When I tried this morning, after an hour or so of unhappy thinking , to dip back into my meditation. I took a new idea with me : compassion.  I asked my heart if it could please infuse my soul with a more generous perspective on my mind’s workings. Instead of thinking that I was a failure, could I perhaps accept that I am only a human being- and a normal one, at that ? The thoughts came up as usual –OK, so it will be -and then the attendant emotions rose, too. I began feeling frustrated and judgmental about myself, lonely and angry. But then a fierce response boiled up from somewhere in the deepest caverns of my heart, and I told myself, “ I will not judge you for these thoughts.”

My mind tried to protest, said, “ Yeah, but you ‘re such a failure, you ‘re such a loser, you’ll never amount to anything -”

But suddenly it was like a lion was roaring from within my chest, drowning all this claptrap out. A voice bellowed in me like nothing I had ever heard before. It was so internally, eternally loud that I actually clamped my hand over my mouth because I was afraid that if I opened my mouth and let this sound out, it would shake the foundations of buildings as far away as Detroit.”
And this is what it roared:
          HOW  STRONG MY LOVE IS !!!!!!!!
‘The chattering, negative thoughts in my mind scattered in the wind of this statement like birds and jackrabbits and antelopes – they hightailed it out of there, terrified. Silence followed. An intense , vibrating ,awed silence. The lion in the giant savannah of my heart surveyed his newly quiet kingdom with satisfaction. He licked his great chips once, closed his yellow eyes and went back to sleep.
   And then , in that regal silence, finally – I began to mediate on ( and with ) God.’

Gilbert  did come across as someone who had an unlimited reserve  of good luck as she embarked on her self-discovery journey from eating and learning Italian in Italy to spending six weeks at an Ashram in India with a view to seek inner peace through meditation  and subsequently heading to Bali for the remaining part of her sojourn. As most of us know that we do not have neither the resources nor the courage to make such a trip of a lifetime, the memoir definitely makes a fun and inspiring read.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Be Inspired

These days when the adults get together, it  appears to be a norm that children  are kept occupied with a smart phone or an iPad or a Samsung galaxy notebook. A nineteen year old whom I am acquainted with tells us how he has seen a toddler  sitting inside a pram holding up an iPad ( presumably an iPad mini). When they were toddlers, I used to give my daughters cloth books that were washable,  picture books, simple jigsaw puzzles or some children’s toys to keep them occupied. That was two decades ago. These days, games are available on apps and there are ample of them. A colleague  laments that he has three young kids and he has to get not just one iPad. Imagine having to contain your kids with electronic devices even if you are not keeping up with the Joneses and you have to be realistic about instagram, facebook, twitter, pinterest, wechat as they are all part of the technology evolution. The  virtual world is expanding its horizon at a fast pace. The way people interact with one another and disseminate information are very much dependent upon social medias and because we are all social beings, etiquettes  that might have not been acceptable may now be part of the changing social culture.

For me, I cannot imagine myself playing candy crush and the likes as I need all the minutes and hours to read and pursuing my passion in writing. I loved to write as a child. When I was in primary school, I  listed “ writer”作家 (Zuòjiā) as what I wanted to be when we were asked to write  Chinese essays with topics like“ What would you like to do when you grow up?”. I probably had  no inkling what the job would entail and very faint idea about what it had meant to be a 作家 (Zuòjiā). As an adolescent. I had always been interested in writing, dramas and films but I have chosen law as my career path as I was being practical. Decades later, I am ambivalent about whether I had made the right decision. I feel that competence, confidence and assertiveness may be the personality traits that are ascribed to a good lawyer, to be a great lawyer is another thing altogether. I only wish that I had Ann Patchett’s conviction and resolve when I was in my 20s. She knew that she wanted to be a writer since she was six years old. 

Ann Patchett wrote in her memoir THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE,
If I was twelve that Christmas Eve, I already knew I wanted to be a writer. That knowledge goes back as early as six, as early as the start of school and maybe even before that.  I may at times forget the details of my life  but I remember the stories I read. ….

Patchett writes with such passion and honesty. I thoroughly enjoy reading the essays collection in THIS IS THE STORY OF A HAPPY MARRIAGE.

In her essay entitled “ On Responsibility” , Ann Patchett wrote :
“ I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE for much. I do not have children who have to get to school on time and wear matching shoes and be taught the difference between right and wrong. I do not have a job in which the well being of a company or the safety of the nation or the health of anyone at all is resting on my shoulders. I have a couple of plants. I must remember to water. I make a point of paying my taxes on time. I take care of myself, but that’s not worth mentioning. I pitch in and help other people when I can, but they are people who could find the same help elsewhere if I went on vacation. When I think of whom I am responsible for, truly responsible for, I can whittle the list down to my dog and my grandmother, and it just so happens that last week they were both sick.    

The essay entitled “The Mercies” reminds me of the first two  years of my secondary school when I was taught by Sister Stephen and Sister Gertrude at the convent I attended. Sister Stephen was the principal of the school and due to her love for music, she arranged for a choral teacher and a violin teacher for our class. I remember Sister Gertrude as being gentle, genteel and  soft spoken. My best friend in school then became a Catholic and she grew very close to Sister Gertrude. For some reasons, I am a Buddhist and agnostic and have always been. Although I was a vanguard and used to be able to recite  Hail Mary and Our Father very well at school,  I never got round to knowing much about the nuns.

Ann wrote :
When I was a girl in Catholic school I was open to the idea of being a nun, a mother, a wife , but whenever I closed my eyes and listened (and there was plenty of time for listening – in  chapel, in math class, in basketball games-we were told the news could come at any time) the voice I heard was consistent: Be a writer. It didn’t matter that “writer” had never been listed as one of our options. I knew that for me this was the truth, and to that end I found the nuns to be invaluable examples. I was , after all, educated by a group of women who had in essence jumped ship, ignored the strongest warnings of their fathers and brothers in order to follow their own clear direction. They were working women who had given every aspect of their lives over to their belief, as I intended to give my life over to my belief.  The nuns’ existence was not so far from the kind of singular life I imagined for myself, even if God wasn’t the object of my devotion. 

How she met her husband Karl and live happily after is a sweet story she shares.  She also tells the story about how she started a bookstore with her partner when Borders were closing down . Maybe the book shop is working because she is an author and because her partner, Karen works like life depends on the bookstore or simply because they just got lucky.  Whatever the reasons are, Ann Patchett has the right attitude.

But my luck has made me believe that changing the course of the corporate world is possible. Amazon doesn’t get to make all the decision; the people can make them by how and where they spend their money. If what a bookstore offers matters to you , then shop at a bookstore. If you feel that the experience of reading a book is valuable, then read the book. This is how we change the world: we grab hold of it. We change ourselves.

Kudos to Ann Patchett who is  fully committed to the art and craft of writing, books and the dog and people who matter to her. And thanks to writers and avid readers throughout the world, books and reading are very much alive.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Dear Mother

After having read Bring up the bodies, I could not wait to get my hand on another novel written by Hilary Mantel. Earlier this year, I had placed an order for her debut novel with  a local independent bookstore and was glad that my copy of  Every day is Mother’s day arrived in May. The timing  was  perfect in that Mother’s Day was celebrated a couple of weeks before  and I  had just posted an essay about how some men might not be too thrilled with the idea of parenting, as described by  John O’Farell through the sentiments expressed by the protagonist, Michael Adams who live a double life in The Best a Man Can Get , a satire written by O’Farell.        http://lifang-leehong.blogspot.com/2015/05/parenthood.html

Similarly the mothers in the debut novel by Hilary Mantel do not seem to  cope well with their parenting jobs either. In Every day is Mother’s day, Evelyn Axon is a medium by trade and her daughter, Muriel is a half-wit by nature but she is devious. Young and inexperienced social worker, Isabel Field meet Colin Sidney in a creative class and start an affair that is doomed from the start as Colin is married to Sylvia who is now expecting their fourth child. Evelyn and Muriel live next door to Colin’s sister, Florence. Colin and his wife, Sylvia do not seem to be able to  manage their three kids well. Colin habitually enroll  in courses and classes after work  to get away from his wife , Sylvia who has grown into a highly strung lady. Poor Sylvia.

Mantel writes,
Colin moved and took her by the arm. A corner of the vegetable rack caught him painfully on the shin.

“ This is what I stay for,” he said.” They’re your children, you wanted them. Can’t you manage better than this ? Do you realize this is what I stay for?”

“Stay?” Sylvia gaped. “And where are you planning to go? What are you talking about ? Who else in the name of God would want you?” Her mouth quivered like Karen’s , in disbelief, and suddenly tears plopped out of her pale blue eyes and ran down onto her housecoat, Christmas or no Christmas, the first in years.

Both Colin and Sylvia have been invited to dinner and at the last minute, their baby- sitter has decided not to turn up as her grandpa is visiting and when Colin tries to persuade her about earning her pocket money, she responds with this:
Well, it’s only one fifty, isn’t it, and if Grandad sees me he gives me a fiver.

Here is part of the exchange between Colin and Sylvia when they have to figure out who they can entrust  their children with as they are due at their dinner host’s place in forty-five minutes.
Mantel writes ,
You phone her,” Colin said. “ You got us into this mess.”
“I’d like to know why it’s always my problem to fix up a babysitter. You always leave it to me and then you criticize. It’s you that wants to go this dinner, not me.”

“ All right,” Colin said, “all right. Then I’ll just phone up Frank and say we can’t make it, shall I ? Frank goes to a lot of trouble over his dinner parties. He’s very interested in cooking and he goes to a lot of trouble, trying to select the right guests.”

“ And I go to trouble every night of the week. You don’t think about that.”

In Every Day is Mother’s Day, two stories run parallel and the characters  are intertwined. A horrible secret lurks in the darkness of the Axon household as Isabel the social worker feels duty bound to investigate, the result is  terrifying and at the same time hilarious. Mantel is a very good story teller and you can  visualize  the characters and the surroundings as you read all the descriptions  through her prose.
‘Click, click, click, said the mock-cros. They were Mrs Sidney’s shoes. She passed without mishap along the Avenue, over that flagstone with its wickedly raised edge where Mr Tillotson had tripped last winter and sustained his fracture; they had petitioned the council. Mrs Sidney's good legs, the legs of a woman of twenty-five, moved like scissors down the street. Her face was white and tired, her scarlet lips spoke of an effort at gaiety. She had carried the colour over the line of her thin lips into a curvaceous bow; she had once red in a magazine that this could be done.’

I will have to get the next novel Vacant Possession by Hilary Mantel  as the story continues with the same characters.