in transit | patricia j. mclean at elohi gadugi

Covert Purple

You drop that little piece of something out the window of the car, covertly, as if to hide it from the driver or anyone who might be watching. As if I were an undercover bicycle cop and the fine for littering might suddenly be enforced and the price too much to pay, but the risk is one you’ll take, carefully.

What impels you to decide that this bit, this small strip of purple nothing, should flutter to the street here instead of to the floor of the car in which you are a passenger?

What bird will find something other than death by eating it? Why should I, or this world, this earth, this street be less important than the interior of that car?

I know nothing about you. Why you were so furtive when you dropped that bit. It might have been a bandaid, or a purple strip of paper with a secret inscribed. You’ve been kidnapped and you are leaving a trail in the desperate hope that someone will follow and find you. You work for the CIA, you’re a spy and you thought I was your contact. The signal conveyed, I should go to the drop site and pick up the latest code, I will decipher the message, uncover betrayal.

I think of this too late. You’re already far down the road. I’ll never be able to give you a sign, to let you know that I am not your confederate. It was a dropped signal in the dark anyway. One you never expected to complete.

Milepost 5

Monday, July 25th

Sleep past five am eludes me. I sit in the old white wingback watching the sky glow a lighter shade of grey as the moments slip past. Objects in the room take form, stacks of boxes, so many fewer now than yesterday. We worked nonstop on Sunday and my bones feel it, my knees and feet ache.

The loft is finding a shape underneath the burden of our belongings. There is not quite yet a space for the couch coming tomorrow. So glad we didn’t get it last week.

Phone line is not connected yet so we don’t have the net. This is good. Instead of playing stupid games, I’m writing. I need to write so bad and I have the drawing ache again. Sometimes I need to have a pencil in my hand and be sloping across the page, laying down lines as if there were a purpose to it.

On Saturday night with our refrigerator still basically barren, we went urban foraging and found a Chinese restaurant half a block away. Some of the best Chinese food I have had in Portland.

In the courtyard of the Studios, a painter was busy at his easel as the light dimmed from afternoon to evening.

Rain this morning loud enough to hear. I am happy that we will be able to hear it rain. Wind pushes at the leaves of the maple tree. It feels good to be home.

Bless You?

I think we should be mindful with language, to know what we are saying before we speak. Everybody knows that words are more powerful than sticks and stones despite the schoolyard litany to the contrary. Bones mend, and if you think that words cannot kill you, then the lessons of history have been lost on you.

Leaving aside the deadly uses of language, what do we know about the words we use daily without thinking? Words of greeting: Good Morning, How are you, Have a nice day, Bless you.

Greetings and salutations. Hello and to your health. Friendly, with meaning only so far as to say, I’m not going to pull out a knife and kill you actually or metaphorically, and whether or not we mean to be friendly when we make the greeting is not the point. How often are we thinking about  how much we would like the stranger or friend we are greeting to have a good morning? How would we know what a good morning would look like to them? How often do we really want to hear a report of someone’s condition when we query, how are you? Have a nice day– nice, not spectacular, nice as if that is the best we can hope for or are willing to confer upon another.

Bless you? Ah, now there’s a greeting, a salutation that carries a lot of baggage. This one is doing more than saying, “I’m not going to kill you”. This one is an identifier. It says, “I’m Christian”. The person offering the greeting may indeed want to confer the blessings of God upon the friend or stranger or they may just want to make a statement about their own identity.

I’m thinking there are very many folk out there bringing down the blessings of God upon their fellow human beings who have not really examined the meaning of the word bless.  Lately, I’ve been studying French and reading French news on the net. Lots of these news stories involve, as one would expect, events wherein persons meet with unexpected death or are wounded, injured as a result of some calamity. Tuer, to kill. Mort, death. Blessé, injured. Interesting.

Look up the etymology of  that word, bless and you find that it is sanguine. All about blood and sacrifice. To be blessed is to bleed in the cause of something. A word like this is beautifully ambiguous. To be blessed by God could mean to be wounded by contact and that wound could be the sign of your state of grace. Holy wounds. Like the Moravians who became obssessively focused on the wounds of Jesus. Like stigmata.

But over time, as the experience of being human in the English speaking world  becomes ever more removed from danger, as death withdraws to a safer distance, we lose contact with the sanguine element of blessing.

To invoke blessing becomes less about the blood of Jesus and the life of the spirit and more about removing obstacles that stand between ourselves and what we want. And also about revealing our own sanctimony.  Who stops to consider whether or not the recipient of the invocation has any interest in the blessing? Like a spell being cast, an unsolicited prayer may be perceived as unauthorized interference.

Violence

A man with a gun walks into a town hall session in a parking lot in Tucson, Arizona. He kills six people among them a judge, a child, a politician’s staffer, an elderly man, he seriously wounds a US Congresswoman. He is driven by some terrible certainty,  or some incomprehensible logic, or cognitive dysfunction, or insanity. Within hours, as the investigation unfolds, it becomes known that his behavior grew increasingly bizarre over the months preceding this action. It is also apparant that he planned to kill the representative. He took time to buy a gun, to buy ammunition, to say goodbye on Facebook.

Will we find out that he was an unhappy child, that he suffered bullying or other abuse? Or will we find out that he was quiet, a loner, or that he was popular and outgoing? Will we find out that he was indistinguishable from thousands of other children and only grew into unreason as an adult? I’m not sure it matters what we find out about him.

What we find out about ourselves is more important and has more potential to impact our world, our country, our communities. The man with the gun will be tried, judged, and sentenced. His power is spent, his day is done.

Has the event frightened people? Is that why we hear people voicing so much violence as they describe what should be done to the shooter? Fear is often masked by bravado, hatred, violence. So maybe that is what it is. Millions of terrified people. But I don’t think so. I really don’t. What I hear in their words is that they have identified their target, just as the shooter identified his. There was something wrong he thought he could make right by killing a particular person in a very public and deliberate way. He had his target. Now he is the target. He is the thing that can be destroyed in order to make things right again. There is something primal about this. A sacrifice must be made.

We scent the air for blood. Our noses twitching our hands reaching for the stones. Except that the rule of law stands between us and our bloodlust. All we can do, the most we can do is envision the horrible things that ought to be done to the shooter and seize the opportunity to broadcast our ultimate solution. And for some, for many, the vision and the chant will elicit glee, for some the pleasure will arouse.

A few, too few, will witness this mob madness with dismay, despairing that humanity will not ever rise above its baser instincts, that as a species, we will never learn how to reason. We hear Gandhi say, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” and then we pluck out eyes with greedy abandon. Gandhi was wrong. The whole world is already blind. We are blind people grasping at the blind eyes of our neighbors, groping in darkness afraid of the intolerable light just beyond our cave.

Wordstock – Portland, Oregon

We went to Wordstock today walking the mile and a half there in a steady drizzle. One umbrella between us, which I used because Duane has a hat. Just the one umbrella. I’ve lost too many of them to be trusted with one of my own. It really didn’t seem like that much of a rain, but we were damp by the time we got to the Convention Center. There were not many attending Wordstock. Not like in years past. Something a little depressing about it this year. I don’t know when they started charging for the event, but I think that has something to do with the lower turnout.

We cruised the booths. I had a nice chat with a couple of vendors. Duane and I went to our friend’s reading and there really wasn’t anyone else we were interested in hearing until much later in the afternoon and even though we paid $7 to get in, we left to find something to eat and go home. We talked about why Wordstock seemed so unsatisfying this year. We figured that most of the attendees were writers or people involved in the publishing industry in some way. The exhibitors were much the same–writers and publishers. Nothing wrong with that. Except that something is missing. It isn’t creative or exciting. It’s restrictive, traditional, stodgy.

Portland has a tendency to be stodgy in spite of all the young creatives everyone claims have moved here in droves, in spite all the tattoo parlors and micro-brew pubs, at heart Portland has always been the sort of city a little afraid to color outside the lines. At least on the surface and it is on the surface where Wordstock takes place. What Portland needs is an underground literary festival for all the fringe dwellers and marginalised folk, the ones who can’t afford the Writer’s Dojo or writing jaunts to Prague with their favorite author. It should take place on the streets and in the coffee houses and small bookstores. It should take place in the tattoo parlors and brew-pubs.

A proper literary festival would be a celebration. It would be a recognition of language as the primary medium of culture. It would explore the history of story, the politics and economics of literature, the state of the publishing industry, how literature has been shaped by invention–the printing press, the internet. There would be discussions on the impact of film on literature, the search for authentic voice, and translation. It would involve theater and meaningful workshops.

People would read their work, sell it, trade it, give it away. We might come to understand that the tradition of word is an endlessly evolving creative stream and we could walk away dazzled by our own dreams, which is how it should be.

even the dandelions are beautiful

The cherry tree across the street is thickly blooming. Heavy pink clusters wave in the slight breeze and contrast against the lush green lawn dotted with dandelions. Grape hyacinths edge along the base of the house. Trees all around are pushing out new leaves. Tulips of red, yellow, pink, pumpkin, purple, black, white, striped and spotted, abundant–Spring in Portland.

In Powell’s the thin white girl, in a thin white dress, with thin brown hair sits bent over her work. Her right arm forms a triangle, bent at the elbow back toward her body and her back bent the way it is forms another triangle with her legs. In her pale skin the blue veins glow. On her shoulder blade a tattoo is visible through the gauzy material of her white cotton dress. She is all angles and transparency.

Book Review: The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl

Title: The Windup Girl
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
ISBN: 978-1-59780-157-7
Publisher: Night Shade Books

Paolo Bacigalupi presents us with a devastating vision of the world that could be should we allow the corporations with their production of GMOs to control our food supply as they seem disturbingly intent upon doing. He also reminds us that change and suffering are constants in human existence.

Everything is under extreme tension in Bacigalupi’s Thailand city of Krung Thep. Seagates guard the city from inundation, but during the monsoons must be augmented with coal-fired pumps, which add to the environmental degradation, which in turn has led to rising ocean levels. Starvation is held at bay with genetically modified foods, which are susceptible to toxic diseases. Everything created to solve one problem creates another.

So many millions have died since the disappearance of cheap energy and safe food crops that the departed must wait and wait and wait for suitable bodies to reincarnate. They hang about waiting, sometimes engaging in conversation with the living.

And the tension spring is the primary power supply for almost everything. Trains are powered by them, but the vast majority of people travel no faster than a bicycle. A vehicle from the “expansion” era travels at speeds almost incomprehensible for the people of Krung Thep and are as rare as snow leopards.

There are new beings in this world. Cheshire cats, genetically engineered as a birthday gift to a modern Alice, have supplanted the domestic feline. There are new people, too. People made of recombined DNA of animals and humans to exhibit the obedience of dogs and the strength and speed of the swiftest and strongest of animals. There are also flaws deliberately engineered into these people. They cannot reproduce and their cooling system is deficient causing them to overheat quickly.

But they are human in shape and thought and feelings. Most everyone regards them as less than human, without souls. It is the old argument. That which has no soul is less than and can be created, exploited and disposed of without consideration, without karmic consequence.

Is this a story about the tension between good and evil? It could be, but The Windup Girl is not that simple. It is a story about choices and about the consequence of choice. Ultimately, the characters must make choices they can live with and in that way are all, including the windup girl herself, exactly like the rest of us.

My rating: 5.0 stars
*****

Review: The Fourth Century

The Fourth Century

Title: The Fourth Century
Author: Édouard Glissant
Translation: Betsy Wing.
ISBN: 0-8032-7083-6
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press, 2001

“All this wind…”

These are Papa Longoué’s first words in The Fourth Century by Édouard Glissant. The wind is a constant theme in the novel. It is a wind of enormous force, a hurricane which carries off his silent wife, Edmée, to her death. It is the wind of history, of our own histories which if not known blows us all to our deaths, asleep. The Fourth Century awakens the dead and gives them voice. This is the African descendants’ history of Martinique. A history not written, not examined, trivialized by the French colonialists who, as the conquerors, the ones in power, annihilate the people they must control by annihilating their languages and histories.

History is written by the dominant culture and is primarily concerned with the battles and victories of the most powerful and wealthy in that culture. The Fourth Century departs from that paradigm and presents the oral history of the African descendants’ experience as slave, as maroon, as freed men and women, as toilers in the soil, as individuals and families seeking meaning and life on the island, while never quite able to forget or remember the “infinite country” from which they were torn.

Glissant’s stream of consciousness approach creates a prose poem of a novel, beautiful from the beginning to the end. In many ways it is incomprehensible for the non-African, non-Martinican, but what is gleanable, what is knowable, is so worth knowing that what is unknowable can only be mourned, not ignored. To read Glissant is to begin to scratch the back of the mirror, to see through the slivers to another world.

My rating: 5.0 stars
*****

Book Review: Snow

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Snow by Orhan Pamuk

Title: Snow
Author: Orhan Pamuk
ISBN: 0-375-40697-2
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
A novel about Turkey

Ka is a man on a journey who does not know where his next step will take him. He is a poet who can no longer write poetry, an atheist no longer certain of the absence of God, an observer incapable of seeing. He has outlived the reason for his exile, but has been so long away from Turkey that its cultural nuances escape him. Yet he has never learned the language of his adopted country and has spent his years in exile reciting old poetry to small audiences of ex-patriots.

It is his mother’s funeral that brings him back to Turkey, but it is on an errand for a newspaper editor that he travels to Kars. That, and love.

Kars is in Eastern Turkey, situated at a height of 1750 feet. Its winters are harsh and long and it is often isolated by snow. In fact Kars is snow in Turkish and is a shortened version of its original name, which meant snow-water for the ponds of water left by melting snow. It is an ancient city on the path between Armenia and the rest of Turkey, For more than 900 years, it has been an intermittent battleground for conquering armies of Kurds, Armenians, Russians and Turks. Pamuk frequently refers to the beautiful, empty, decaying Armenian buildings, visible reminders of one conquering wave. Mentioning these buildings is a controversial act as Pamuk is one of those who maintain the unpopular assertion that Armenian Turks met with genocide during the Crimean War at the hands of their Turkish countrymen.

Westerners have a tendency to view the east as mysterious, as if there is a veil of culture we cannot penetrate. Parmuk uses the substance of snow to symbolize that veil.

The snow of Kars enshrouds, isolates, mutes, silences. The veil at its most complete is a shroud that Islamic women wear to protect them. But the impoverished dead also wear shrouds to protect them from gazes they cannot return, and from the earth which surrounds them. We refer to things we do not understand or misunderstand as being shrouded in mystery. The greatest, most shrouded mystery is that of God by whatever name you use. The never-ending journey is the one toward understanding. The agnostic / atheist mistrusts the religious who claim to have knowledge of the nature of deity.

Snow enshrouds Ka on his journey to Kars and throughout his visit. The bus bringing Ka to Kars is the last one to arrive before the roads are closed due to the storm and though isolation due to storm may be an annual event in this remote city, it nevertheless has the effect of suspending the normal culture during Ka’s visit. Things happen when daily life is interrupted, when travel is restricted and work slows or halts altogether, when people with time on their hands look for ways to fill the time. There is a kind of constant snow in Kars and the countryside where unemployment is high. Restless men sit in tea shops, sit at the feet of holy men, join the military, ponder their unhappy plight and consider who is to blame.

In Turkey, the east meets the west and Islam meets Christianity. Urbanized Turks seem to have one foot in Europe while those further from Istanbul are inclined to fear that Europe will erase their culture.

Ka had escaped to the west (Germany) as a young man fleeing a crackdown on leftist radicals. While at university, he became an atheist which, in the eyes of many of his countrymen, marked him as an intellectual who has adopted the European/Western culture and, more importantly, as one who has rejected the Turkish/Middle Eastern culture.

The poet left his creative well in Turkey and cannot be a poet in another land. In all his years of exile he has not been able to write a single poem.

Ka is a name the poet chose for himself as a child. It is the primary initials of both his first and last names, which Ka disliked so much that he chose to use just the initials. Ka represents the life-force in ancient Egyptian religion and whether or not Pamuk named his main character for this reason, I am left with the sense that he is describing the life-force of Turkey as that of a flawed poet.

Pamuk’s Turkey is as ambivalent as Ka. Civically secular, it is also very much Islamic. Elements in Turkey have tried to maintain the separation between religion and state that Atatürk instituted as the first President of Turkey. But a significant faction in Turkey is not comfortable with this and constantly agitates for theocratic rule.

Ka’s religious ambivalence is revealed as he weeps in the presence of a holy man. He feels a yearning for Allah, but only in the holy man’s presence. Once outside of the apartment, where the faithful and the troubled come to unburden their hearts, he returns to his normal state of mind, re-entering, with some relief, the secular civic structure of Turkey. Though he is most comfortable in that secular environment, he remains wistful. Not only does a part of him exist on a spiritual level and his poetry flows out of that level, but it is possible that even as he is puzzled by them, he envies those who have no doubts.

Central to the plot is a theatre of the absurd. A coup literally staged by an aging itinerant actor and the local military corps aided by the police and the ever-present and distrusted secret police. He recognizes that Ka, as a poet and erstwhile reporter, is his best hope of immortality. He orders the poet brought into audience with him and uses him in his manipulation of events.

Snow is dialectic and the central dialogue occurs in a conversation at the Hotel Asia arranged by Ka, from which he is absent. Blue, the revolutionary accompanied by a chorus of Islamic radicals, argues with an adamant atheist, and the Islamic feminist daughter of the atheist. It is an Asian dialogue: Does commerce (social and economic) with the west contain the seeds of destruction of Asian culture. Does Turkey, by opening itself up to the ideas of the west, by embracing what the west offers, risk losing its culture, its unique identity? Will it lose God in the process? If it does not embrace the West and the EU, will it become irrelevant in the modern world? Will Turkey sink deeper into poverty? These are questions that burn under the surface, around which the dialogue dances.

Though Ka is not in the Hotel Asia, he does become entangled in this conversation because of the nature of the journalistic errand, which has brought him to Kars. It is a story of suicides of Islamic schoolgirls who have been forbidden to wear the scarf of the devout Muslim to school. What is the connection between these suicides and the edict which has banned them from wearing the scarf? An editor friend has asked Ka to make the journey to Kars and report on the phenomenon.

No one seems to know the truth about the suicides and no one seems to want to know. The young women appear to be unknowable. Their motives are hidden by the barrier of death and the lack of knowledge even their families appear to have about them, as if they are ciphers. At least one of the girls has become idealized.

Conversely, everyone in Kars knows why Ka is there. His every step, every interview is known. People seek him out and tell him that he must not believe this one or that one.

Blue is a rebel, an Islamist, fiercely opposed to secular government. He is the lover of Kadife, a young woman whose actions may have inspired the suicides. A man like Blue helps the disaffected to name who is at fault, what is at fault: the West, those who want to join the European Union and the secular state which orders that Muslim girls cannot wear scarves to school. Like everyone else with a point to make, Blue exploits the suicides. Though he is a wanted man in hiding, suspected of being behind terrorist attacks and assassinations, he demands an audience with Ka. Blue, in particular, wants to set Ka straight about the reason for the suicides, though it becomes apparent that he, himself, does not know.

Ka is also seeking love. He agrees to go to Kars not because he is intrigued by the story, but because he knows there is a recently divorced woman living there whom he knew at University. He remembers that she was very beautiful and although he was not interested in her as a youth, he becomes obsessed with her almost before he even sees her again. He pursues his obsession throughout the story. He believes that she represents his last chance at love, his last chance to avoid a lonely old age. He wants to bring her back to Germany to live with him. Ipek may symbolize Turkey and the hopelessness of a love affair with a country you can no longer call home. Ka makes love to her, believes he does love her, is almost convinced that she will love him and that she will leave with him. Ipek is nominally westernized. Her sister is Kadife (Blue’s lover). If Ipek symbolizes Turkey leaning westward, Kadife symbolizes Turkey leaning eastward. Both women appear rational and thoughtful.

In Kars, Ka writes poem after poem. Thirteen poems pour out of him almost whole. He is so focused on writing these poems down that he is distracted even occasionally from pursuing the object of his desire. Ka is removed, he is the journalist, the reporter, the observer. As an observer he is never completely involved in the scene around him. This makes him the ultimate go-between, the mediator and negotiator for the actor who is pulling the strings of the coup. But no matter how removed an observer believes himself to be, he impacts what he observes, and this Ka does in tragic ways.

Parmuk’s prose as translated by Maureen Freely is flawless, beautiful, hypnotic. He ignites a desire to know more about Turkey, to know what can be unveiled while understanding that language itself is the ultimate shroud, the guardian and container of culture.

My rating: 5.0 stars
*****

Book Review

The Space Between Us by Thrity Umrigar

Title: The Space Between Us
Author: Thrity Umrigar
ISBN: 073946986X
William Morrow
A novel of privilege and poverty, of love and betrayal.

I was on the MAX, where I spend a good bit of my time, nearing my station, and I still had about five pages to go. I briefly considered staying on the train until I’d read those last few pages. I abandoned that in favor of sitting on a bench in Holladay Park, in the shade. There was no way I could wait until I got home. Breaking the spell with the bike ride and dinner just wasn’t an option. I had to know what choice Bhima would make.

Umrigar sets her story of love and betrayal in Bombay (Mumbai), India, a vast coastal city, in a country that has been a cultural crossroads for thousands of years. This portrait of two Indian women is evocative and moving; written with grace, humility, and compassion. Sera is a Parsi, descended from Persians who immigrated to India a thousand years ago and have become a wealthy and powerful class. What matters about her servant, Bhima, is that she is not Parsi. She is a lower-caste Hindu woman whose circumstances have gone from poor to miserable. Bhima is clearly the more sympathetic character even though she often reacts to turmoil by physically and emotionally attacking those she loves the most. She fears for them, and her fear causes her to punish them, because she truly doesn’t know what else to do. She reacts like a trapped animal, chewing at her own flesh to obtain freedom.

Umrigar’s novel deepened my undertanding of oppression and how very much prejudice is a vehicle for cruelty; an excuse for it. Deeply internalized prejudice distances the abuser from the object of abuse and this is the case with the antagonists in The Space Between Us. They cannot help knowing that they are being cruel, but they believe it doesn’t matter. And it doesn’t because they are the “ruling” class. Ruling in the sense that their privilege gives them power over the classes beneath them. A power so nearly absolute that it may as well be such. Certainly the classes beneath them have a part in supporting the illusion of relative intrinsic worth. But their collusion is hardly voluntary. It is how they survive. They cling to the edge of life and anything can sever their hold.

Societal taboos are among the tools the ruling classes use to differentiate themselves from others and subjugate the workers. Since being a poor subject is generally a miserable way to live, poor subjects try to conform to the ostensible behavior of the ruling classes. But these efforts only succeed in the poor binding themselves more certainly into virtual slavery. Rejecting the social taboo and refusing to define oneself by the terms of the ruling classes is a step seldom taken without education. Ignorance has a deadening effect on the accomplishment of freedom.

Sera, the Parsi woman, wants to believe that she regards Bhima as no less human than herself, but finds herself unable to allow the servant to sit on her furniture or use her utensils to eat or drink. Yet, she does not see the contradiction in the fact that Bhima is the one who prepares the food the Parsi family eats and washes the utensils they eat it with. Nor does Sera fully recognize that paying Bhima is not an act of generosity.

Though devestating in its portrayal of oppression and exploitation, this is a story, not a diatribe. The Space Between Us is skillfully and vividly rendered. Simply, quite powerful.

My rating: 5.0 stars
*****

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