I'm continuing my reading on African themes. I just finished Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, and have begun Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter.
Both of these books were mentioned in Americanah by Amimanda Ngozi Adichie, which is what inspired me to read them.
Things Fall Apart is described as 'mythical' and it is told in that sing-song story-telling sort of way. What I particularly liked about the book was its almost anthropological-like description of life in a remote area in Africa, as yet untouched by colonialism (supposedly, although missionaries do appear before the end of the book). All the different aspects of life studied by anthropologists come into the narrative: hunting, courting, family-life, ceremonies, shamanic training (the all-night ride on the shaman's back through the countryside), war-customs and so on.
The Heart of the Matter is a tougher read for me, because its whole tone and tenor is so overwhelmingly Catholic, and not in a particularly good way, in my opinion. I suppose the 'pity' that the main character Scobie feels, and the hopelessness he shares with other characters, the anti-relationship/pro solitude messages and so on reflect an aspect of Catholicism that I found I couldn't really live with anymore. It made me feel too sad! Perhaps the author is setting us up for something different, but up til this point - when Scobie leaves for Bamba to sort out Pemberton - those Catholic elements are almost cloyingly present for me. It's a good reminder, though, of how much I've changed in the past twenty-five years since moving into a different spiritual stream. I still have ties with Catholicism, and always will have - it was too much a part of my early nurture to be left behind completely - just as I will always have ties with Gnostic Christianity, since that was also a part of my family heritage.
For me, this is one of the Great American Novels for today. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie reminds me of Smollett in terms of her dry ironic humor, her socially-accurate characterizations and her peripatetic plot. The book is a gold-mine of realistic details, poetically presented - I can extrapolate from what she says about Philadelphia, since I know Philadelphia very well having grown up there. If she's as accurate about everything else - and there's no reason to doubt her - then the words 'rich tapestry' is no cliche. I have to say my mind was blown by this book.
I seem to be on an African-related-books kick. I just finished reading "Someone Knows My Name" by African-Canadian author Lawrence Hill - an absolutely epic book, beautifully written, historically accurate - its period is the eighteenth century, with the Revolutionary War period sandwiched right in the middle, featuring the Tories for a change, as well as the African angle. Books like these can't be described, at least not by me. But I do recommend picking them up and giving them ten minutes of your time - you won't be able to put them down after that!
Before reading these two books, I read Sue Monk Kidd's The Invention of Wings, which also deals with issues around African slavery in the New World, with an added dimension of feminist and abolitionist perspectives and developments prior to the Civil War period.
I find it interesting that I'm following this thread in my reading, because I've been thinking a lot lately about my 'Moor' ancestors, who seem to have been a blend of European, African and Native American people. My memories of the influence of these relatives and 'friends of the family' help me to understand why so many of my white friends in youth thought I seemed 'different,' and why my African-American friends in Philly thought I didn't seem white. It really necessitates a shift in self-image, but the price of this shift is worth it in terms of the clarity and self-knowledge they bring.
My grandfather tried to hold on to this heritage by attending the Moorish Science Temple in Philadelphia in the 1920's and he kept things around the house, taught my mother that we trace our spiritual heritage to Egypt - and she passed these things on to me. So, it is probably about time that I started learning more about it from an adult perspective. Reading these books is part of that exploration.
The next book on my list is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.
Made of Sea-Foam,
Glittering in Moonlight,
Whirring with the wings of
Thousands of Dragonflies,
Seeing with the Thousand Eyes,
Glittering, of All Alive ~
I Meet You in the Cave,
The Dark Cave,
Lapped by the Edge of the Ocean,
I Meet You in the Dark Cave
Of Your Sacred Cosmos
Walking down the hill this afternoon from my part-time job, I reflected on words read earlier in the day in "The Invention Of Wings" about “Huguenot frugality.” I recognized that as part of my latter life lesson-plan.
I've had two upbringings: the first with my parents, where I learned kindness, compassion, patience, an appreciation for literature and music (in particular among the arts), a sort of free-thinking yet Roman Catholic Christian sensibility (a true American hybrid), a psychic connection with one branch of my ancestors, and an abiding awareness of Death. At this season of Halloween, it seems timely to recollect just how much the Dead and the soon-to-be dead, dominated our family’s consciousness. Holocaust-survivors, you might reasonably ask? No, the Jewish part of my background trace their persecution to the Spanish Inquisition. Some went to Sweden during Hitler's rampage, but some stayed right at home in Denmark, working. My uncle, as an electrician, was useful to them. No, our family's particular fixation with Death was much more quotidian: mere poverty and illness, rampant in their post-war world: post-Civil War and post WWI. I think our lot improved, if only slightly, after WW II.
My second upbringing has been with my husband and partner Gary, who derives one strand of his lineage from the French Huguenots. Strict, upright, frugal, clean, forceful and intolerant -these are the words I would use to describe him. Over the years, while he has been improving my rather lackadaisical work-ethic, I've been softening the glare of his moral searchlight. Thanks to our long-time partnership, he is far kinder and I am more hard-working, among other mutual influences, so I guess it's been a good trade. Life with Gary has also meant a life close to nature, although the urbis closes in more and more every year.
After walking down the hill to my house and entering, I notice again that the light seems brighter in our house for some mysterious reason I think it has to do with our weekly puja held every Tuesday evening, which I stubbornly maintain has physical effects, although subtle ones. There is such a good feeling in our house. When Amma visited, she said it is a good house and feels like a Hindu home. High praise.
I've found a wonderful book that I simply love! "God's Hotel" by Victoria Sweet is about one woman's adventure as an admitting doctor at Laguna Honda Hospital in San Francisco, the last 'almshouse' in the United States according to popular legend, and her exploration of pre-modern medicine in both her doctoral dissertation on 11th century mystic and abbess Hildegard of Bingen and in her twenty years of practice at Laguna Honda. Entertainingly written, this book moves between elevating our consciousness about health care to moving stories of struggles, cures and partial cures, told with wit, humor and deep compassion. Sweet avoids too much medical jargon but some of her 'tell-it-like-it' recountings of her patient's medical conditions may not be for the squeamish. I'm only half way through, but I can't wait to see where she is going to take us next!
In the chapter I’m currently reading, she’s in Switzerland, concentrating on writing her dissertation, examining medieval manuscripts live and in person. In Switzerland, she discovers that ‘pre-modern’ medicine is alive and well and co-existing comfortably – actually integrated with! – modern medicine! Even beyond the arena of medicine, she notices something concrete and actual that I’ve only dreamed about as ‘ideal’ – a society where all the truly useful, benefic things in life are kept on in those areas where they can really make a contribution. Where the past is not constantly torn down to provide something ‘Big and New’ (like the ‘Big and Large’ of ‘Wall-E’) and to keep sales rocketing – and trash accumulating. I had no idea that my ‘dream of how it could be’ actually is – in Europe!
“In fact, as the months went by, I began to understand that Switzerland, although modern, had not rejected premodernity as America had. Instead, the Swiss kept what they liked about the past and added the best of each period to their culture, consecutively. So when trains were invented, the Swiss took to them and put trains in everywhere, tunneling through mountains and laying tracks across peaks. But they kept their mountain paths and cobblestone streets for walking. When the automobile arrived, they took to it, too. They but in a bus system and highways, but still did not remove their trains, pave over the cobblestones, or put highways over their footpaths. They liked electric lights, installed them, and even improved on them. But they also liked darkness, and left their lakes and towns without much illumination, so that the stars were visible and the night sky not unfamiliar. Lausanne in particular liked its night watchman form the Middle Ages and still had one. At night, on the hour, I could his call that all was well.
“The Swiss way seemed to be melding the medieval with the modern in a kind of additive fusion, like lacquering, perhaps. Or better, like evolution, where what works survives, and what doesn’t work atrophies and disappears. This Swiss way was followed even in medicine, with the new ideas and medications of modern medicine integrated almost seamlessly into what had come before.
“So in Swiss hospitals, I discovered, massage and brandy were prescribed at night for sleep, and herbal baths still used. When a physician found homeopathy useful or even convincing, he did not therefore resign his hospital position, but mixed the two practices, medieval and modern. In the pharmacy I found medieval potions on the shelves right next to modern pills. Old dicta that America had rejected long ago – that cold weather causes colds, that vinegar applied to the temples soothes headaches – were still believed and passed on. What I was discovering with such effort about health and the body from premodern medicine in general, and from Hildegard in specific, was, in Switzerland, nothing new.” (pp136-137)
American Veda is very well written in a journalistic style and covers the entire history of Vedantic influence in the United States. Philip Goldberg weaves together every subtle strand of influence, from the great names such as Emerson, Vivekananda, Paramahansa Yogananda, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Krishnamurti, etcetera, and on to current teachers like Amma and others, and also mentions many lesser known thinkers, writers, teachers, and also celebrities, artists and musicians who have carried Vedantic ideas into our culture. Engagingly written, I must say he masterfully weaves this complex story through time flawlessly. A must-read for those of us who may we feel we have participated in this cultural sea-change at some level.
I must say, I felt like I were reading my own autobiography, there were so many influences mentioned from my own life. Now I know a lot more about most of them, which is something I appreciate.
I'm reading Sri Adi Sankaracarya's Aparoksanubhuti (Direct Experience of the Self) with commentary by Swami Chinmayananda - just starting it, as evening reading before bed. The first verse is the mangalacarana or verse praising the Source of the Teaching. In this case the verse is: "I bow down in prostration to that Sri Hari, the world preceptor, the Lord of the universe, the All-pervading, the cause of the whole Universe and the Supreme-Blissful Reality."
Chinmayananda's commentary states, "To Sankara, his teacher is not a mortal individual, but a person in whom the Great Truth stands revealed. It is through the mortal coil of the teacher that this Truth is communicated, but the real Teacher is SriPati, Narayana Himself. The human teacher is the vehicle through which the disciple listens to the words of Narayana. Thus the concept of the teacher is not that the teacher ishimself the Lord, but the teacher is the vehicle through which the disciples listen to the words of the Lord. So this Mangalacarana is directed to both the teacher and the Lord. The Lord alone is the one who can instruct us in this great Reality."
I certainly feel this way about my Teacher, Amma or Ammachi, the Hugging Saint. I've had trouble in the past saying that Amma is my Teacher, because I felt I wasn't experiencing her like that - I think I must have poor associations with the idea of 'teaching.' (Harping on?) I preferred to call her my 'Beacon' which has a meaning similar to Guru, one who dispels darkness and brings the Light. At times I have most definitely identified her with "Narayana Himself" because of the intensity of divinity I've felt - and seen - in her presence, but Amma says she doesn't like it when people refer to her as identical with God. I think because I grew up a Christian and had such a strong sense of 'the incarnation of God' - and in our sect we were expected to see Jesus and God as being one and the same - not all Christians see it that way, I've since learned, but more often see Jesus as a Teacher, in this sense that Sankara means. I have a devotee friend who says to me, 'What if Amma is just an ordinary human person? What does that say about us?' I think Amma would like this question.
For me, all I know is, that whenever Amma is around, my experience of the Divine intensifies and I learn many many things. So She is my Teacher. Not only does she speak the words of truth, but she shows us the Truth. One of her close Indian disciples now Swamini Atmaprana (think that is her name now, although I knew her as Dr. L--) told me once at the ashram in India that the reason Kali sticks out her tongue is to convey to us that this world is a 'Showing' - and Amma 'shows' us the true divine nature in her actions. She both teaches us through words and through example. Jesus too, when asked what he was all about, said to people, 'Come and see.'
And on yet another level Amma teaches us through the many amazing synchonicities that happen all around her. That surely must be a very high level of teaching. And on yet another level up, she gives us internal experiences that show us the direct, personal experience of the Self - that seems to me to be the highest level of teaching - although perhaps it's only the highest level I've yet known.
The Teaching comes through 'the Teacher.' The Teaching comes through all times and places forever. "Let those who have ears, hear." Yes, it's just a question of being open to it, at the least, and longing for it at the most. This is why my mother, who belonged to a Gnostic/Christian/Muslim sect throughout most of her youth believed in 'ongoing prophecy.' According to her, there is no 'final' prophet even though many religions like to claim their Teacher as such. She believed in ongoing prophecy until the end of her life, which she met with great equanimity.
"How blessed on the mountaintop are the feet of the one who brings Good Tidings." (Bible)
Thousands of pranams to the blessed feet of Amma, my Teacher.
Gary's good friend Jim died last week. In his youth he was a disc-jockey for experimental radio in northern California, a medic with the Green Berets in southeast Asia who delivered babies and took care of people in villages there, later he worked at the lumber yard with Gary, and then became a hardware-store manager in Auburn, then became a nurse and worked in Oregon. In the last ten years he developed diabetes and kidney failure, was a double amuputee, and yet never gave up. He said to me, 'I hope they don't have to take my legs' and then after the operation and recovery were over, 'well, these prosthetics are actually going to work better for me." Well-read, an Amma devotee. A man who participated in Native American sweats for years and fought for NA rights in the prison system (where he worked for a time as a nurse). One long-term relationship in which he helped to raise his girlfriend's two daughters. A good life, Jim! Sail on, brother!
This is part of a poem quoted (and written) by Huston Smith in his book, 'Tales of Wonder.' He wrote this when he was in college, and it resonated with me. I also used to think like this when I was young, and i read these words as an imaginal expression of the lure of the spiritual life. And for me at least, the unfolding of the spiritual life has been very much like this!
Some day I intend to invent a wonderful language,
Completely useless for conversational purpose it is true,
But one that will give me infinite satisfaction,
Like staying in bed for those five luxurious minutes after the
alarm clock goes off.
I will work hard at this language until I know
exactly what each word means.
The words will not sound foreign, like souffle,
but their meanings will be strange.
After many years of labor I will be able to tell you
exactly what the word soul means.