Solace

The two of them have fallen in love with each other despite the chaos around them and have somehow kept an inner freedom to recognize this truth and accept their baby. Aoife enters the world. Her world in anything but stable and secure but she is loved.

Nobody recommended “Solace” by Belinda McKeon to me at all nor did I ever hear anyone talking about it.  I picked it up from the bookcase at home.  What a find it has proven to be!

The novel describes the spiritual dissonance experienced by young people who have left their family farms in the Irish countryside to live in the “big smoke” (Dublin).  After graduation, these young people live a frenetic, chaotic life-style bingeing on alcohol, drugs and sex at the weekends while performing as young professionals during the week.

Nonetheless when Mark meets Joanne, it is the fact that both come from family farms in Longford that allows an intimate relationship to develop quickly.  Both young people have difficult relationships with their parents but Mark continues to help his father Tom on the farm from time to time at weekends. The contrast between the two men could not be starker.  Tom is an old-style, reserved, Irish farmer whose whole world-view is circumscribed by the land. Mark is writing a doctoral thesis at Trinity College in Dublin.  His thesis concerns a famous female novelist of the previous century who lived in the same area of fertile farmland.

Many Cambodian factory workers and students experience a similar dichotomy between their professional life in Phnom Penh and that of their former rural life in the Cambodian countryside.

In the novel, it is the stormy relationship between Mark and Tom, rather than between Mark and Joanne which provides the back-bone of the novel.  While the hedonic life-style of both Mark and Joanne at first mirrors the life-style of the characters in Sally Rooney’s novel “Ordinary People”, the concern of Joanne for the exploited Mrs. Lefroy and the sporadic commitment of Mark to work on the farm marks the two characters in this novel, as more authentic and real than first appears.  Mark’s mother, Maura understands both her husband and her son and like many Irish mothers, she acts as the go-between to facilitate their difficult communication.

This novel has two striking and unusual turning points.  When Joanne finds to her horror that she has somehow become pregnant, she makes the extraordinary decision not to abort the baby even though she is just starting out on her legal career.  Mark is so relieved.  The two of them have fallen in love with each other despite the chaos around them and have somehow kept an inner freedom to recognize this truth and accept their baby.  Aoife enters the world.  Her world in anything but stable and secure but she is loved.

The next turning point comes after Tom and Maura have reluctantly accepted the unexpected arrival of a grand-daughter and by extension an unofficial daughter-in-law.  As the family seems to be moving towards a peaceful compromise, disaster strikes in the form of a traffic accident.  To be honest, this accident arrived so suddenly eliminating two of the main characters in the story so violently, that I felt cheated and angry.  I wanted to throw the novel into the dust-bin.   However after I calmed down, I decided that sometimes life does not turn out as we expect, so I should give the story-teller the benefit of the doubt. 

 

Now it is Mark’s turn to make a surprising decision.  He refuses to let other people raise Aoife.  He will do it himself. Step by step, he learns how to do it.  Now the whole point of the novel comes into focus.  This is a story of two Irish men who cannot communicate because they do not understand their own feelings.  Like many other Irish men, they have always relied on their mothers, wives, sisters, grand-mothers, aunts or nieces to take care of them and communicate on their behalf.  Neither Mark nor Tom can cope with their grief.  Mark nearly loses his sanity by concentrating on his thesis and Tom nearly loses his farm by forgetting to care for his cattle. 

In an ironic twist, it is tiny, stubborn, feisty little Aoife who can only speak three words who becomes the focus of solace.  She insists on attention to her life pulling both men back into relationship with her and with each other.  While Aoife rages at Tom late at night in the farm-house, the friendly silence of the cattle in the neighbour’s shed enable Mark to come home to her and Tom.   Aoife saves them both from permanent grief.  She brings them back to life. 

While Mark and Joanne have explicitly rejected any religious belief or practice even at Christmas, Mark recalls at one point a legend that he heard about St. Mel during his schooldays.   When St. Mel was consecrating St. Brigid as Abbess, he used the wrong prayer.  Instead of ordaining her Abbess, Sr. Mel mistakenly ordained St. Brigid a Bishop.

Solace is a robust, unsentimental portrait of a modern Irish couple whose values may have no religious content as such but who become “other-centred” and authentic on their life journey.  In this sense, the characters become mature adults and cease to behave as self-indulgent adolescents.  In this way Belinda McKeon’s “Solace” seems to me to be a deeper and more reflective novel than Sally Rooney’s “Ordinary People”.  

Home is a Strange Place

In order to try to fill in the gaps in my understanding of how the island of Ireland has changed over the last 30 years, I have read three books; Seamus Mallon’s autobiography, “A Shared Home Place’; “Say Nothing” by Patrick Radden Keefe which follows the personal stories of those involved in the abduction and murder in 1972 of Belfast woman, and mother of six children, Jean McConville; and “The Education of an Idealist” by Samantha Power, the Irishwoman who worked as the US Ambassador to the UN under President Obama.

When I left Ireland in 1993 for Cambodia, the troubles in Northern Ireland were still inflicting murder and mayhem on both the Unionist and Nationalist communities there.  The media were constantly reporting on brutal atrocities followed by funerals, both Protestant and Catholic. 

When the peace process finally produced the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 thus ending the violent hostilities, I counted it as one of the most extraordinary miracles that I have witnessed in my lifetime.  I could never quite understand how Dr Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness could subsequently cooperate together in the governance of Northern Ireland while becoming “chucklers” into the bargain.

The Republic of Ireland has also changed beyond recognition over the thirty years that I have been away.  Gay marriage, legalised abortion and the turning away from the Catholic Church that happened in response to the clerical sexual abuse crisis are only the outer manifestations of a profound transformation of inner attitudes regarding social issues. Former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern once commented that there were three great “institutions” in Irish society, the Fianna Fáil party, the Catholic Church and the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association).  Now only the GAA has weathered the storms and continues to thrive.  The recent RTE (Raidió Telefís Ēireann) program on “New Gaels”, shows why.  I mean, even my seven-year old niece is into Camogie. 

On my last visit home to Dublin, I met the Protestant rector of my home parish on the 42 bus.  He cheerfully informed me that this year the number of Church of Ireland ordinations to the priesthood exceeded the number of Roman Catholic ordinations in the Dublin diocese for the first time since who knows when. 

In order to try to fill in the gaps in my understanding of how the island of Ireland has changed over the last 30 years, I have read three books;  Seamus Mallon’s autobiography,  “A Shared Home Place’; “Say Nothing” by Patrick Radden Keefe which follows the personal stories of those involved in the abduction and murder in 1972 of Belfast woman, and mother of ten children, Jean McConville; and “The Education of an Idealist” by Samantha Power, the Irishwoman who worked as the US Ambassador to the UN under President Obama.

In the first book, Seamus Mallon traces his political journey as SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) councillor and MP (Member of Parliament) with laconic wit and honesty.  He remembers all the killings and murders in his own area and attends all funerals both Protestant and Catholic even when his presence is not welcomed.  His story is one of perseverance and courage in a time of despair lived out over a life-time.  He is vilified and persecuted at different times by militant Nationalists and by militant Unionists who speak the language of hate.  He never flinches. Even the title of his book “A Shared Home Place” demonstrates his commitment to peace and harmony.  He articulates “parallel consensus” as a political principle to guide future discussions about the future status of the society in Northern Ireland.  Only when both Unionist and Nationalist communities agree on a way forward, can there be a way forward.  I sense that my Protestant forbears would concur.

In the second book, Patrick Radden Keefe, amasses a wealth of historical detail to weave together a tapestry of characters involved in the IRA (Irish Republican Army) of West Belfast.  By focusing on the Price Sisters, Dolours and Marian, Keefe is able to link, personalities, events and stories together over a period of nearly fifty years.  The Loyalist characters and British officials offer an alternative viewpoint throughout the narrative so it seems balanced in the end.  The wonder of the book is in fact the person of Dolours Price who listens to her conscience and instead of “saying nothing”, says something.  The something is not much, mind you, but Keefe follows each thread right to its end. He solves the mystery that the police force could not solve (the abduction and murder of Jean McConville).  The fact that certain key characters refuse to recognise the truth about what they did in the past, means that they lock themselves into their own world.  It’s the world of the living dead. No character in this long story is able to speak of forgiveness like Timothy Knatchbull did in his story “From a Clear Blue Sky”.

In the third book, Samantha Power, describes leaving Ireland while still a primary school student as her mother launches out into a new life in America away from her alcoholic father. Samantha’s candid love of both father and mother enable her to negotiate the family tragedies cheerfully.  She makes a new life for herself each time her new family moves.  During a trip abroad she discovers an interest in finding out the truth about conflicts that cause suffering to many people.  She spends time in war-torn Bosnia and learns how American political action can help or hinder the peace-process.  She returns to study Law and becomes involved in political action.  However it is the description of her time as US Ambassador to the UN, while remaining a dedicated mother of two kids, which is the most interesting.  She moves from crisis to crisis. Syria, ISIS, Ukraine, Ebola, etc. 

Power has a simple honesty which makes these complicated situations and issues easy to grasp.  While her account is personal, it does not seem self-serving and she is able to learn from her mistakes.  It is also interesting that for someone dedicated to dialogue for peace, the one outstanding regret regarding the Obama administration that she voices is the decision not to strike Syrian military targets after the regime used Sarin gas on the population of Aleppo in March 2013 until the US Congress approved such strikes. They crossed the “red line” and nothing happened. 

In a funny example of Democratic dis-connect, Power describes the house party she arranged for all the female ambassadors at the UN in her home on election night to celebrate the upcoming victory of Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.  She was not the only one who got it wrong.

These three books witness to the enormous transformations that Ireland has experienced over the last thirty years.  However a few long hikes up Lugnaquilla and Mullaghcleevaun in the Wicklow mountains have allowed me to savour the beauty and tranquility of what has not changed.  It will be a challenge to find the right words to speak to the new spiritual language being whispered here and there.

A Gentleman in Moscow

But as the elixir dissolved on his tongue, the Count became aware of something else entirely.  Rather than the flowering trees of central Moscow, the honey had a hint of a grassy riverbank….the trace of a summer breeze…..a suggestion of a pergola…..But most of all there was the unmistakable essence of a thousand apple trees in bloom.

The Mammoth Communist octopus is currently spreading its tentacles across all sectors of Hong Kong society.  The octopus is quietly choking the life out of the robust democratic and legal traditions enjoyed by the majority of Hong Kong citizens.  The Free World can only look on in horror as the dramatic destruction of free speech plays out before its eyes.51852304_401

In this context of communist China’s oppression of Hong Kong, Amor Towles novel, “A Gentleman in Moscow” is a refreshing reminder of the possibility of human survival and creativity under a totalitarian communist regime.

On 21 June 1942, Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced to permanent house arrest in the Moscow Hotel Metropol.  He is assigned a tiny room in the attic.  The novel wonderfully captures the mentality of the eccentric aristocrat who has enjoyed personal if unequal relationships with his “inferiors”.   He knows his barber, the waiter who serves the food, the chef who cooks it and the seamstress who repairs his clothes.  These relationship enable the Count to adapt to his new role as Chief Waiter in the Boyarsky dining room.

The surprise encounter with the precocious nine year old Nina Kulokiva, a fellow long-term hotel resident, allows the Count to form an usual and life-long friendship with his young protégée whom he feels obliged to educate according to the “old standards” of human decency and civility.

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We meet a host of other interesting characters working in the Hotel.  However the oppressive Communist menace of the Gulag is never far away and the Count finds many ways to diminish its oppressive power over his life and that of Nina.  The encounter with the beautiful model Anna Urbonova  shifts from romantic liaison into another permanent friendship.

The passing references to the “First Five-Year Plan”and the second “Five-Year Plan” indicate the extent of the tragedy that Russia is traversing while the Count endures his permanent “exile”.

Once the Count realizes that he has lost Nina to the Communist enterprise he climbs up onto the parapet of the hotel to commit suicide.  Here occurs one of the most moving scenes in the novel.  He is interrupted by Abram, the old handy-man from his former estate who happens to live in a shack on the hotel roof.  Abram is excited to tell the Count that the “bees have returned”.  Years before, the bees disappeared from the roof under which Abram and the Count spent many evenings reminiscing.  So the Count has to see their new hives and taste the fresh honey.

 

“Dutifully, the Count put the spoon in his mouth.  In an instant there was the familiar sweetness of fresh honey – sunlit, golden and gay.  Given the time of year, the Count was expecting this first impression to be followed by a hint of lilacs from the Alexander Gardens or cherry blossoms from the Garden Ring.  But as the elixir dissolved on his tongue, the Count became aware of something else entirely.  Rather than the flowering trees of central Moscow, the honey had a hint of a grassy riverbank….the trace of a summer breeze…..a suggestion of a pergola…..But most of all there was the unmistakable essence of a thousand apple trees in bloom.

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Abram was nodding his head.  “Nizhny Novgorod”, he said.  And it was.  Unmistakably so.  “All these years, they must have listening to us”, Abram added in a whisper.  The Count and the handyman both looked toward the roof’s edge where the bees, having traveled over a hundred miles and applied themselves in willing industry, now wheeled above their hives as pinpoints of blackness, like the inverse of stars”.   True human communion includes communion with nature.

So when Nina rushes off to Siberia to look for her husband who has been sent to the Gulag, she asks the Count to take care of her daughter Sofia until she returns.  Of course, she never does.  The Count begins his second journey as educational mentor which will last for the next twenty plus years until the decisive moment when the Count realizes he can help Sofia escape to the West.  He has maintained his capacity to act.

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The scene on the roof with Abram reminded me of a scene in the film “Gone with the Wind”.  The South is disintegrating and Scarlett O’Hara is running down the street of a chaotic town while a black confederate militia is marching up the street in the opposite direction.  Suddenly, in a moment of mutual recognition, Scarlett joyfully recognizes the black slave foreman, Big Sam from Tara.  The two huddle in a brief happy conversation. The rest of the world just passes them by. This gigantic, good-natured man says something like “No need to worry none, Miss Scarlett, we’re gonna stop them Yankees”.

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In other words, there is always a truth beyond the grasp of a philosophical analysis of the  Master-Slave relationship, which will never be subject to Marxist interpretation by dialectical materialism.  Suddenly for brief moments, there emerges the truth of a common shared humanity in the creation and preservation of a human community whose essence is not determined by the specific rules, structures and laws apparently governing it.  This is perhaps why the only person in the whole world with whom Abram can share his joy about the return of the bees is his former master, the Count Rostov, who sits attentively on a piece of wood beside him listening to the wonder of their common story.

 

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

“At magic hour, when the sun has gone but the light has not, armies of flying foxes unhinge themselves from the Banyan trees in the old graveyard and drift across the city like smoke”.  So begins Arundhati Roy’s second novel about modern India, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. 

“At magic hour, when the sun has gone but the light has not, armies of flying foxes unhinge themselves from the Banyan trees in the old graveyard and drift across the city like smoke”.  So begins Arundhati Roy’s second novel about modern India, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.  The book is a literary master-piece full of evocative language and images that serve to communicate a teeming over-crowded world full of dislocated but unique individuals. Continue reading “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”

‘Still Me’ by Jojo Moyes

It is striking that Lou remains faithful to her “London working class” perspective on social relations right through the three novels.  She always views society from the bottom up and comments on what she sees.  She is often blind to what people on the top see when they look down. 

In “Still Me”, the light-hearted and comic description of the life of the super-rich in New York shows how inhumane their society really is.  The London setting for the previous two Louisa Clark novels by Jojo Moyes, “Me Before You” and “After You” contrasted the Traynor’s life-style with that of the working-class Clark family.

It might be too easy to interpret each novel as a stage in Lou’s development towards a mature and stable love relationship with Sam.  One could easily focus on the dynamics of the love story by considering London and New York as simply the settings in which the love story unfolds.

However it is also possible to consider Lou’s love story with Sam as the context in which Jojo Moyes offers a reflection on social divisions.  It is striking that Lou remains faithful to her “London working class” perspective on social relations right through the three novels.  She always views society from the bottom up and comments on what she sees.  She is often blind to what people on the top see when they look down.  This allows Moyes to ensure a light and comical tone to the three novels.

However the social criticism hidden here is anything but comical.  It is a deadly serious reflection on the power of wealth to corrupt human goodness and empty persons until they become parrots or robots simple living in the way their social class demands.  Lou is naturally in solidarity with anyone who is poor or downtrodden.  It is her perennial, automatic, un-reflective response.  This is who she really is.  She imbibed it during childhood in a tiny council home which housed four generations of her family.

A few minor incidents in the novel can illustrate how this social criticism works in Moyes’ novels.  Lou’s aged grandfather finally dies at home in London while Lou is in New York.  The whole family is devastated.  He has been a friendly, kind presence in front of the “telly” with his “cup of tea” watching, maybe even betting, on the “races” for a long number of years.   He could be the real anti-thesis to Will Traynor.  “He accepted his lot” happily.

When Lou finds out that she has been framed for “stealing” by Agnes, her first instinct is not to protect herself but to protect Agnes who is her employer.  This is one of the surprising ways that Lou remains faithful to her working class origins.  She is employed to serve. So, she serves.  She understands the injustice of the situation but she is also understands Agnes’ predicament.   She puts Agnes first.  Justice can come later. Perhaps only people who have experienced real poverty, can find the spiritual freedom to act like this.

The family’s participation in the Christmas mass makes explicit what was implicit in the earlier novels.  Poor Lou’s parents may be poor and uneducated, but they know the source of their moral compass.

In the novel “After You”, it is clear that Sam lives and works happily on the underside of society in close physical contact with people who suffer from accidents, alcohol, drugs or violence.  This is his “real world” where Lou is also at home.  Yet, she remains available to help Lily Traynor, who seems destined to self-destruct but ends up later, saving Lou and Sam.

In the novel “Me Before You”, Lou constantly puts Will before herself and tries to love him back to life as it were.  But Will has made his decision and there is nothing that Lou can do to change the situation.  It might appear that Jojo Moyes has made the case for assisted suicide with her wonderful description of the limitations that Will experiences from his paralysis.  Lou’s moral confusion reflects that of the reader.  But it would be a mistake to miss the other side of the story.  Lou’s mother remains the one implacable and resolute moral voice raised against Will’s decision.  Grandfather is there, sitting in front of the “telly”.  In this way the novel quietly present both sides of the issue.  will and lou

Both Lou’s parents have to come to sudden terms with Lou’s sister gay relationship, half-way through the novel “Still Me”, but they do so with the surprising ease of those who have loved the outcast all their lives.  Their moral compass can shift in this area while it will never shift in the other area (i.e. life is a gift from God).

In short, it seems to me that the three novels poetically describe the corrupting power of wealth and the spiritual liberation that the solidarity of the poor can facilitate in a modern family setting.  It is the comic tone that disguises the serious reflection!

The Dutch House

Thirdly, the novel poses a more fundamental question over all the stories that we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our existence and give our lives a purpose.  The wonderful kind and caring Maeve, blames her step-mother, Andrea, for expelling her and her brother from the family home.

Each year one novel comes along that stands out from all the rest for its dramatic presentation of some existential truth.  Ann Pachett’s novel, “The Dutch House” would be my choice for 2020.

The Dutch House is an amazing novel for a number of reasons.  Firstly, it describes the intricate intimacy of a close sister-brother relationship in a deeply authentic manner.  The conversations, the reactions, the mutual devotion in times of crisis ring true.  There is not a false note in the relationship between Maeve and Danny from beginning to end.

 

 

Secondly, it poses a central question over the ideal of “other-centred” love or “agape” love as they tend to call it in the Christian or Catholic tradition.   In one sense, the Mother in the story abandons her children in order to escape the Dutch House and she commits to loving the poor and abandoned for the rest of her life as a sort of reparation.  Perhaps many religious vocations have been lived out in a similar kind of way.

 

Thirdly, the novel poses a more fundamental question over all the stories that we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our existence and give our lives a purpose.  The wonderful kind and caring Maeve, blames her step-mother, Andrea, for expelling her and her brother from the family home.  For the rest of her life, this is the central event that makes sense for her of everything else.  Danny shares with her this understanding but without committing himself to it.  Danny avoids really committing himself to anything other than his sister as his way of surviving.  He does marry Celeste and has two children, May and Kevin, whom he loves and cares for but not in a totally committed manner. maxresdefault

This last question about meaning becomes painfully explicit when Maeve becomes sick and the mother reappears to help to take care of her.  Maeve is over the moon as all her old hopes and dreams are returning.  Danny is much more circumspect.  In a certain sense, what seems to kill Maeve, in the end,  is the sudden decision of the Mother to take care of Andrea who descends rapidly into dementia.  Danny’s understanding of the reality is somehow closer to the elusive truth than is Maeve’s.  It is as if the truth is too painful to contemplate.

This is a powerful novel and it asks a really central question about the stories that we construct to give meaning to our lives.  However this question is posed inside the authentic life-giving sibling relationship of Maeve and Danny.  This family context grounds the question inside love.

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The Great Alone

However the real strength of this novel is in its second important characteristic.   Leni experiences the love relationship between her parents as a mystery at first.  She realizes that since Ernt returned from Vietnam, he is troubled and violent in a way that he was not before he went.  Cora loves him and tries to love him back to good mental health.  She fails. 

It was interesting to read “The Great Alone”, during this time of corona virus semi-lockdown in Battambang in Cambodia.  Kristin Hannah describes the life of one small family who decide to move to a remote region of Alaska.  They hope to begin a new life “close to nature” and far away from modern “civilization”.  Actually this family really just involves three people, Cora Allbright, her husband Ernt and their teenage daughter Leni.  Alaska

This novel rises above the level of a sophisticated romance story in two ways. Continue reading “The Great Alone”

The Choice

It turns out that all the positive thinking tricks that Edith Eger used to survive in the camp with her sister Magda are not so helpful later on as she tries to cope with the after effects of trauma and prevent it from harming her children.

This Christmas, I received the gift of a book which I will count as a priceless treasure.  It broaches the issue of psychological trauma head on and comes out on the other side with a human way of processing things.  The book is called “The Choice” and it was authored by Edith Eger, a Hungarian Jewess, who survived Auchwitz (just about) and took a long time to tell her story.  Her book was only published in 2017.

 

When I arrived into the Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand during 1986, the malevolent presence of the Khmer Rouge was still tangible.  Fear and insecurity crippled people’s thinking processes.  I remember listening to stories where a family member routinely described the death and disappearance of other family members in a passionless, robotic manner which prevented any real sharing in sadness or grief.

People were still surviving as isolated monads and were only slowly readjusting from horrific trauma to relative peace.

Over the past few years, I have read many books which have broached these issues in various ways.  Among those which have lingered in the memory longest are “The Book Thief” by Marcus Zuzak and “In the Shadow of the Banyan” by Vaddey Ratner.

What really impressed me about Edith Eger’s life-story in “The Choice” was its rigorous honesty in self-examination.  I found a resonance similar to testimonies of people who have recovered from long-term debilitating addictions or violent abuse of different types.  There is no hint of false romanticism on these pages.

Once the young Edith is asked by Dr. Mengele to perform a ballet dance for him which she does even though she knows that it was he who had ordered the killing of her mother.     Eger describes how the malevolent power of evil infiltrated the lives of the innocent in Auchwitz and somehow managed to remain buried in painful memories inside her mind that were never aired or shared.  Later panic attacks would occur in response to sounds or sights like sirens or train carriages etc.

Eger also describes life in Communist Hungary after “liberation”.  She explains her dramatic and brave decision to emigrate to America with nothing, rather than to Israel where the family wealth had already been sent.  Her husband Bela followed her.  She works in manual labour for a few years like so many other immigrants.  Slowly she finds her way to study and eventually to Psychiatry.  Victor Frankl’s book “Man’s Search for Meaning” played a role in her spiritual journey.

However it is clear in her personal care for the individual “troubled” patients, that she finds her own way.  Firstly, she helps these individuals to understand themselves more deeply.  Then, secondly, she comes to understand herself more deeply by thinking about what they said.  She argues that we need to recognize how both “feelings” and “thinking” are influencing or controlling our behavior patterns.   This process of sharing and analysis can itself be traumatic as the feelings can be explosive or dangerous.  However only by a patient sharing and re-sharing of these feelings in a human relationship can we rediscover wholeness in our wounded humanity.

The thinking patterns also need to be analysed and examined.  It is interesting to note that the most important question to be answered deep down is “What do I really want”.  Once I have crossed the stormy sea of tumultuous feelings and so can see clearly what I really want and am striving for, the next question falls into place easily.  Are my present behavior patterns helping or hindering my journey towards what I want or not?  In most cases the answer is no. So change is required.  Hence “The Choice”.   It is mine to make and I have the power to make it.  No one else can make it for me.  While her perspective is medical and scientific, a remote faith perspective remains.  At one point Dr. Eger will say, “I do not just receive patients.  I feel that they are sent to me”.  When all else fails, she will pray.

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One of the most moving passages in the book is where the  mature Dr. Edith Eger returns to Auschwitz for a visit and remembers everything.  Here she describes her own actions and her own innocent mistake which resulted in the death of her mother.  Many Cambodians have shared with me their traumatic experiences during the Khmer Rouge time and how their family members died or were killed. Yet, I have not heard someone say “I really regret what I did during the Khmer Rouge time”.

The Khmer artist, Vann Nath, led a deep reflection on the evil of the Khmer Rouge in a documentary on the notorious S21 Tuol Slaeng prison.   It was hard for his former guards to take responsibility for their actions even under his gentle questioning.

The real strength of Dr. Eger’s book is that it invites to take a radical personal responsibility for our choices in life.  Each new day offer us a choice to grow up or to grow down.

Where the Crawdads Sing

At Christmas, my sister sent me a novel to read.  The title was “Where the Crawdads Sing” and it was written by Delia Owens.   It takes place along the coast of North Carolina. The novel tells the story of Kya, a girl who was abandoned in the marsh by her mother, her siblings and finally by her father when she was still only a small child. 

At Christmas, my sister sent me a novel to read.  The title was “Where the Crawdads Sing” and it was written by Delia Owens.   It takes place along the coast of North Carolina. The novel tells the story of Kya, a girl who was abandoned in the marsh by her mother, her siblings and finally by her father when she was still only a small child.  “Jumpin”, an old Black man running a small store helps her.Abandoned-Cabin-Picture-Of-Jean-Lafitte-Swamp-Tours

The unusual strength of this novel is that we learn to discover the beauty, mystery and interior life of the plants and animals of the marsh through Kya’s eyes as she fends for herself to survive there alone. The author describes Kya’s resilience and deep isolation leading to severe and crippling loneliness in a sensitive and credible manner.  At the same time the author describes the prejudice and negative judgments that the local people demonstrate towards her.  With the help of one childhood friend, Tate, Kya learns to read and to express herself and her scientific curiosity in paintings. 1-Francis-Marion-saltmarsh-edited-KG-580x390

While the novel beautifully describes life in the marsh and almost becomes an ode to its natural preciousness, it also portrays the harshness of a life of poverty on the edges of society with an acuity similar to that of Barbara Kingsolver and Marilynne Robinson.

However while I found the characters credible and varied, I felt that they were somehow more caricatures than real people.  In English literature, the novels “Middlemarch” and “the Portrait of a Lady”, portray loneliness among a variety of real characters to the most depth.  In this sense prize-winning modern novels, like “Where the Crawdads Sing”, pale in comparison.

The novel could open a reflection on the more general theme of abandonment of remote rural farmers by a technologically connected society that is no longer human.  I still remember visiting former Cambodian soldiers in remote rural areas who had suffered mine injuries and were disabled.  While some flourished with the love of their family or spouse to envelop them, some were abandoned to survive on their own.  I still remember one man, a double amputee, sitting on his remote shack on stilts breaking down in tears as he described how his wife had abandoned him and left him all alone. where-the-crawdads-sing-8.jpg

Social Anxiety and Shyness

It is clear that many Cambodian young people experience high levels of stress. Many are fearful and will not speak in public. It is at least possible that respect for authority has been so strongly internalized by them that it has become a paralysis, preventing the young people from acting creatively and freely in society.

A friend of mine recommended a book by Gillian Butler entitled “Overcoming Social Anxiety and Shyness”.  I finished it this morning.  It was a good read.

It seems that there are many people who suffer silently from a paralyzing fear of certain type of social events (yours truly included) and the book accurately describes the thoughts, feelings and behavior patterns of those caught in the cycle of these types of fear.  In a simple but clear manner the author lays out a few simple clear self-help strategies to encourage people first to face and then to overcome these paralyzing fears.

The first strategy is to reduce self-consciousness by steering one’s attention away from the inner emotional turmoil to the actual context in which one is actually experiencing paralysis.  The second strategy is to alter the “automatic” thinking processes triggered by the event, especially the negative ones.  The third strategy is to try to do things a little differently by not engaging in “avoidance” behaviours.  These strategies will eventually encourage a growth in confidence in one’s ability to “weather the storms”.    The book develops each of these strategies in considerable detail.   Each strategy is accompanied by a work-sheet so that one can work through the steps in a methodical manner. Continue reading “Social Anxiety and Shyness”