Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Treya Killam Wilber

Treya Wilber met her husband Ken in 1983 when she was 36. She had never considered marrying anyone before, and neither had he. They were each quickly sure they had found their spiritual partner. Just before their wedding, a doctor found a lump in Treya’s breast. They spent their honeymoon in the hospital, having it removed.

Grace and Grit: Spirituality and Healing in the Life and Death of Treya Killam Wilber [1991] tells the story of the years in which Treya and Ken fought the aggressive, metastasizing cancer which kept recurring. The emotional toll the disease took from both their lives is documented in the book, which includes much of Treya’s personal journals and Ken’s commentary. Treya’s journey, the integrity and courage with she lived, continues to inspire. A few months before she died, her body riddled with tumors, her head covered by a pink scarf, she spoke at a conference. You can see the video of the speech here.

Treya was born Terry Killam in 1946 in south Texas. She writes that she was a high achiever, but constantly retreating to her room to read. She got an M.A. in English, but then veered off toward environmental causes, teaching and skiing in Colorado. She spent three years at Findhorn, a spiritual community in Scotland, leaving to help found a similar foundation in Colorado: Windstar, outside of Aspen. She went back to school at California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, studying psychology and East/West philosophies. Friends introduced her to Ken Wilber, a writer and theorist in the new field of transpersonal psychology.

Once married, Treya and Ken bought a house in Incline Village, but there, their partnership fell apart. Ken had given up his own work to support Treya and became ill with a mysterious disease. Though intensively investigating and practicing alternative and holistic treatments, Trey had a recurrence of tumors, chemotherapy and then diabetes. Living between the hope of being cured and having a child, and the brutal recurrences of cancer, they both broke down.

The Wilbers moved back to the Bay Area, and then to Boulder, where Treya was able to have nine months without recurrences. Her intensive work led her to what she thought of as an inner shift, however. Treya had always felt her issues revolved around the pressures of doing rather than just being. She tried to find her way back to “the simple pleasure of being and making, not knowing and doing. It feels like coming home!” She said, “Immediately it came up for me. To stop trying to be a man. To stop calling myself Terry. To become Treya.”

Both Treya and Ken Wilber found themselves in positions in which people without cancer did not know how to react to them. Some “new age” people at this time assumed that people created their own cancers. Treya helped found a Cancer Support Community which didn’t punish people who didn’t get better, but who were deeply involved in their lives and only incidentally in their cancers. She wrote a paper on “What Kind of Help Really Helps,” which was published in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology. Ken published a paper in the Journal on how it felt to be a support person, also very difficult.

Treya and Ken went to Bonn, Germany, to try a very aggressive chemotherapy, but it failed to stop tumor growth. They also tried an enzyme therapy with inconclusive results. By this time, Treya believed her cancer could not be arrested by anything. It had metastasized to her brain and lungs. She continued with her intensive therapies, without using pain medication and continued writing as honestly as possible in her journals. She did steroids and eventually surgery to reduce the brain tumors and was on oxygen. In January, 1989, she decided to stop. She wrote one last entry in her journal, “It takes grace, yes – and grit!”

Ken had always told Treya that he had been searching for her for lifetimes, that if anything happened, he would find her again. “You promise?” she asked him again and again. Ken promised. He carried her upstairs, she lay down in bed and within two days, surrounded by friends and family, she passed away.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Gudrun Osvifrsdottir

Though only written down in the 13th century, the story of Gudrun of Iceland and the generations before and after her is based on oral histories of actual people. The Laxaela Saga takes place from A.D. 890 to A.D. 1031, the time of the gradual change from the complex world of Nordic inheritance, voyaging and blood feuds to the coming of Christianity. The version of the saga I reference is a translation by A.C. Muriel Press [1899].

Melkorka with her son Olaf the Peacock
History Museum, Perlunni, Reykjavik

Gudrun is introduced as the daughter of Osvif, a great sage. “She was the goodliest of women who grew up in Iceland, both as to looks and wits. Gudrun was such a woman of state that at that time whatever other women wore in the way of finery of dress was looked upon as children’s gewgaws beside hers. She was the most cunning and the fairest spoken of all women, and an open-handed withal.” She grows up on a homestead at Laugar, a place of hot springs.

At 15 Gudrun’s hand in marriage is asked of her father by Thorvald. Osvif does not ask Gudrun about this, and she does not get on well with this man. Two years later “Gudrun separated herself from Thorvald and went home to Laugar.” She is much friends with Thord Ingunson, but he has a wife who wears breeches instead of skirts. Thord separates from his wife because of this and he and Gudrun marry and live happily together. His ex-wife comes after him with a sword however, and succeeds in wounding his arm to the point that it is useless. Nevertheless, when his mother comes to him to ask his help against a man who has been thieving her goods, Thord goes after them. The man and his sons are angry and raise a great spell-working scaffold. They curse Thord, who drowns in a storm at sea.

Gudrun takes Thord’s death to heart, especially as she is about to give birth to his son, who is named Thord. She allows her kinsman and friend Snorri the Priest to foster the child. She remains at Laugar with her father’s family. She is often at the springs, and so too are Kjartan, the son of Olaf the Peacock, and his foster brother Bolli. These two were the greatest friends. Olaf is bothered by his favorite son Kjartan’s attendance on Gudrun because of his forebodings. When Kjartan and Bolli decide to voyage to Norway, Gudrun asks to go with them. Kjartan refuses, asking her to wait three years for him. But Gudrun will make no such promise.

In Norway, the great King Olaf “was ordering a change of faith.” He would not let several ships go home to Iceland until they had declared their Christian faith. Kjartan and Bolli think the new faith unmanly. They plot against the king, but his spies find out. When Kjartan confesses, King Olaf is lenient to them, seeing that they are true men. The King builds a church that winter and preaches at Christmas. Kjartan and Bolli hear him and Kjartan begins to believe because of the way King Olaf treats him. He and a great number of Icelanders go to the King and are baptized. Kjartan becomes a friend of the king and spends much time with him and his sister Ingibjorg.

Bolli returns alone to Iceland. He tells Gudrun of Kjartan’s friendship for the Norwegian king and his sister and asks for her hand in marriage. Gudrun is most unwilling as long as she knows Kjartan to be alive. Olaf the Peacock, Bolli’s foster father, does not think it a good idea. Gudrun’s father, however, believes she should not refuse Bolli. At last Gudrun is won over and she and Bolli marry.

During this year, A.D. 1000, most of Iceland becomes Christian. When King Olaf of Norway hears this, he lets Kjartan return to Iceland. The king's sister gives him a white linen headdress woven with gold for his love, Gudrun. Kjartan is received in Iceland with honor, but Gudrun is unhappy. When Kjartan and his family come for the autumn feast to Laugar, Bolli tries to give him four wonderful horses, but Kjartan refuses. He is silent and asocial all winter. His sister tells him he should marry Hrefna, and not begrudge Bolli his wife. Kjartan agrees. There is a wedding feast and Kjartan gives Hrefna the headdress.

The families of Kjartan and Bolli are neighbors in the Salmon River area and Olaf and Osvip are good friends, “though there was some deal of ill-will between the younger people.” After a feast at Laugar, Kjartan’s sword goes missing. It is found later, but not the scabbard. The headdress also cannot be found. Kjartan retaliates by riding to Laugar with sixty men and besieging Osvip’s family so they cannot leave the house for three days. Kjartan also interfered in a land purchase Bolli was making. Gudrun is angry at these insults and she and her brothers plot against Kjartan. Bolli tries not to be involved, but Gudrun says if he does not join them, “our married life must be at an end.” Bolli does participate in the ambush, and when he is goaded, he takes up his sword. Kjartan throws away his weapons, saying, “I am much more fain to take my death from you than to cause the same to you myself.” Bolli strikes, but then lifts him up and Kjartan dies in his lap.

Olaf the Peacock, Kjartan’s father, is much dismayed, but he brokers a peace settlement and does not allow anyone to take up the blood feud against Bolli. Kjartan is buried in a newly consecrated church. But Olaf lives only three years after Kjartan’s death.

Gudrun's Spring, Iceland
Bolli and Gudrun set up a stately house and a son is born to them, Thorleik. But Kjartan’s mother is still angry at Bolli. She stirs up her sons and they attack and kill Bolli while he and Gudrun are at his sheep pen. Gudrun asks Snorri the Priest to exchange houses with her, as she can no longer live next to Olaf the Peacock’s sons. She and her family move to Holyfell. Shorty thereafter her third son, Bolli, is born.

Despite Christianity, Gudrun broods for ten years. She then urges her sons to revenge Bolli’s death. They are still too young and, with Snorri’s help, she finds a leader. The men kill Helgi Hardbienson, who had dealt Bolli his death blow. Later, when Gudrun’s sons still have hard feelings against Olaf’s sons, Snorri the Priest tells them the blood feud must stop and brokers a peace.

Snorri advises Thorkell, who has spent his life on the sea, to settle down and marry Gudrun. He does this, and “between Gudrun and Thorkell, dear love now grew up.” They too had a son, named Gellir. But Thorkell did not live long either. When he goes to Norway to get timber for building, his ship is broken up and he is drowned.

“Gudrun now became a very religious woman. She was the first woman in Iceland who knew the Psalter by heart. She would spend long time in the church at nights saying her prayers.” Her sons go voyaging and return very wealthy. When Snorri dies, he gives his manor and holdings to Bolli, who becomes a great and beloved man. Gudrun becomes the first nun and recluse in Iceland. “By all folk it is said that Gudrun was the noblest of women of equal birth with her in this land.” When her son asks which of her husbands she loved the most, she says, “To him I was worst whom I loved best.”

This complex tale has a great sense of the real lives of people who lived a millennium ago. “Gudrun is one of the most remarkable female characters in all of literature,” writes Frederick Turner in Epic: Form, Content and History [2012], “with her breakthrough at the end into a new mode of tragic Christian consciousness.”

Monday, November 27, 2017

Prudence Sarn

"When you dwell in a house you mislike, you will look out of the window a deal more than those that are content with their dwelling. So I, finding my own person and my own life not to my mind, took my pleasure where I could.” Prue, the heroine of the book Precious Bane, published in 1924 by Mary Webb, as she becomes a young woman, finds that the harelip she was born with, is the bane of her existence. People think her unattractive, even a witch.

Prue, however, who tells her story herself, sees amazing things around her and can describe them in words. The visible world of her village, fields and lake are laid out for the reader to imagine, and animals, birds and dragonflies fill this world with sounds. This, as well as the fact that Prue tells the story with the insights she has into it, makes the book a delight. Prue wonders whether the blessedness she feels comes as a result of being cursed. Without the disfiguring harelip, she thinks, “I should never have known the glory that comes from the other side of silence.”

Prue lives with her brother Gideon and mother on an isolated farm in Shropshire. After their father died, Gideon took on the mastery of the farm as a consequence of being the ‘sin-eater’ at his father’s wake. He has ambitious plans to become a personage in town. He wants to have a big house, servants and silver plate. In the meantime, he drives his sister and his mother to work very hard. He puts most of the land into wheat, because it is fetching good prices.

Prue goes along with all of this. She works hard, takes care of her mother as best as she can, and tries to get Gideon to take pleasure in the girl whom he loves, the blonde and beautiful Jancis. Prue’s been told by everyone that no one will have her. Gideon wants her to learn to read and write and figure, however. Prue finds in their attic a haven where she can write things down and cultivate her spirit, among the colorful stored apples and pears.

When the weaver, Kester Woodseaves, comes to make into cloth the yarns the women have spun for Jancis’ coming wedding, Prue recognizes him as the man she would most like to have for her own. He is a diffident man, living alone. When he tries to stop a bull-baiting and takes on the dogs himself, Prue saves him from a particularly terrifying bulldog. But she hides from him. When her mother calls him to their own house, Prue finds her work in the far fields, though she imagines him working in her attic.

Gideon keeps putting off his wedding, making an enemy of Jancis father. When it finally comes near, after a bountiful harvest in which the whole community helps, Jancis comes riding in like a golden queen on the ricks piled high with wheat. Gideon and Jancis begin to act as if they already married, but two days later, her father sets fire to the ricks and the harvest is lost. Gideon denies Jancis, her father is taken to jail, and she and her mother are run out of the neighborhood.

Sad days follow. Prue and Gideon’s mother is doing poorly. He is worried she will always be a drain and never well. He makes her believe she would rather be dead than alive, and gives her some foxglove tea, which kills her. Jancis returns with the baby born to her and Gideon, but Gideon will have none of it. She walks into the lake and begins haunting Gideon, as does his mother. Thus haunted, he too drowns himself in the lake.

Left by herself, Prue decides to leave the farm. The weaver, Kester, has gone to London to learn more complicated weaving, and writes her a suggestive letter. But when she hears from him no more, she takes all of her animals to market to be auctioned off. Her enemies gang up on her, however, suggesting that the deaths on her farm are due to her. They put her in a ducking stool to be tried for a witch. Prue is terrified. But when she comes up for air, there is Kester Woodseaves looking down from his horse. He wrestles with the men and carries Prue away. She tells him he should have a beautiful woman, but he leans down and kisses her on the mouth.

The highlights of this story do not do justice to it. I suggest you go straight to your public library and get a copy.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Sarah Hemings

Imagined portrait of Sarah Hemings
As a 14-year-old girl, Sarah Hemings was sent with Thomas Jefferson’s younger daughter Maria to France. Sarah was the enslaved half-sister of Jefferson's wife Martha who had recently died. In Paris, Sarah learned to speak French and Jefferson bought her dresses so that she could accompany his daughters to parties. He also paid for her to be quarantined and inoculated against smallpox. Sarah enjoyed the lavish life she lived in the Jefferson household at the edge of the Champs Elysées and told her children stories about it.

In France, Sarah and her brother James (who was training to be a French chef de cusine) were technically free. They could have stayed and remained free. According to Madison Hemings, her son, Sarah used this knowledge to bargain with Jefferson when he was called back to the United States. In an interview conducted in 1873, Madison Hemings says, “To induce her to return with him, Jefferson promised her extraordinary privileges, and made a solemn pledge that her children should be freed at the age of twenty-one years. In consequence of his promises, on which she implicitly relied, she returned with him to Virginia.” She was pregnant by Jefferson at the time.

After returning to Monticello in 1790, Sarah Hemings no longer appears in the obsessive records Jefferson kept of his accounts. In a comprehensive history of the Hemings family, The Hemingses of Monticello [2008], Annette Gordon-Reed unearths much about this unusual family, all descendants of Elizabeth Hemings, a slave woman. Sarah is seen to be Jefferson’s concubine, though no one will talk about it, least of all Jefferson.

Sarah’s first child dies at birth and her second did not live long. She remained at Monticello, surrounded by other members of her family who were treated with particular benevolence by Jefferson. Her brothers took part in Jefferson’s political life, living with him in Philadelphia, New York and finally Washington. Jefferson returned to Monticello as often as he could. Sarah’s work was to mend, sew and take care of his personal belongings, as well as care for her children, born into slavery as their status in Virginia legally followed that of their mother.

Jefferson kept Sarah part of his private life, but their relationship was exposed to the public by James Callender in a Richmond newspaper in the middle of Jefferson’s first term as president. She was called “Dusky Sally,” and other names, but none of it changed Jefferson’s relationship to her and her family, and he was elected to a second term as president, despite the innuendo. Sarah’s last child was born in 1808, just as Jefferson was about to leave the presidency and retire to his mountain.

After his death in 1826, Jefferson’s debts were too much for his daughter Martha to bear. Monticello was sold, along with most of his slaves. Before his death Jefferson did free his four children by Sarah: the first two, Beverley and Harriet, slipped away to Ohio to live as white people (they were 7/8th white) and the last two, Madison and Eston, were noted in his will. Sarah Hemings was informally freed by Martha, Jefferson’s daughter, and she lived the rest of her life in Charlottesville with her son.

As Gordon-Reed says, “Hemings and Jefferson lived in a world obsessed with family connections. Kinship ties were enormously important to enslaved people who tried hard to defend them against the depredations of slavery. Blood and family were important to white Virginians as well, but they added the component of racism to the equation.” Gordon-Reed details the benevolent society Jefferson tried to build on his mountain, noting that no matter his kindness, and the Hemings family’s reciprocal care for him, it was still based on master and slave relations.

“The few reports of Sally Hemings give the impression of a sweet and reasonable person,” says Gordon-Reed. Her story, as told by her descendants, is of someone who worked within the confines of her situation while loving Thomas Jefferson. It was clear she lived in a monogamous relationship to him. All of her children resembled him. As an older person, she handed down a few of his possessions, a pair of spectacles, an ink bottle and a shoe buckle, as well as her stories of living in France as a young girl. To acknowledge the intimacy of these particular American forebears, which has only happened in the last ten years, is important. To acknowledge that many of our ancestors have lived in varying relationships to each other, is to widen and deepen our understanding of the human family.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Amy March Laurence

Samantha Mathis, Christian Bale, Little Women, 1994
The story of the four March sisters told in Little Women [1868-1869] by Louisa May Alcott is very well known in America, partly because several movies have been made of it. The book is particularly popular for its depiction of Jo, the second daughter whom Alcott modeled after herself. Upon rethinking and rereading this very lively book, I have come to appreciate Amy, the youngest, whose artfulness succeeds as well as Jo’s outspoken brashness.

The sisters are taught that, though they are poor, “we’ve got father and mother and each other,” as Beth says on the very first page. They were once well-off, but the family lost its money and the girls struggle with envy of their friends, sibling rivalry and overcoming their failings, just as any modern kid does. Alcott’s program is to show, as Jane Smiley writes, what education can do: “Getting ahead is not her purpose – attaining self-control and acting in accordance with the Christian virtues of modesty, self-reliance, charity and hopefulness are the goals she sets for all the girls.”

Jo is willful, ambitious and a tom-boy, writing stories and plays for the sisters to act out. Meg is swayed by her more affluent friends, even after she marries for love. Beth loves music, but after an illness, comes to accept the fact that she will not live long. Amy, the youngest, is also headstrong and ambitious, but she uses sweet and tasteful methods to gain what Jo tries to achieve through honesty and outspokenness.

Amy is vain, proud of her golden curls, but she is sad that her nose doesn’t come to an aristocratic point, and that she must wear her cousin’s ugly clothes to school. In fact, when she is punished by having her hand hit with a ruler, Marmee takes her out of school. The girls’ parents do not believe in corporal punishment and shaming. When the girls sit about one afternoon, building “castles in the air,” Amy’s is “to be an artist, and go to Rome, and do fine pictures, and be the best artist in the whole world.”

Growing older, Amy makes an effort to provide an outing for her drawing class of twelve as a thank you to the girls who have been nice to her. The family pitches in to help, but only one of the girls comes and Amy feels foolish. When she helps at a charity fair, she tries to be unselfish and is rewarded finally by Jo convincing Laurie, the March’s amiable and handsome neighbor, and his friends to come and patronize her table. Jo praises her, but Amy says, “You laugh at me when I say I want to be a lady, but I mean a true gentle-woman in mind and manners … I want to be above the little meannesses, and follies, and faults that spoil so many women.”

When Amy convinces Jo to come calling with her (Meg is now married and Beth in poor health), Jo embarrasses her by telling wild stories. Echoing her mother, Amy tells Jo, “Women should learn to be agreeable, particularly poor ones; for they have no other way of repaying the kindnesses they receive.” Amy is rewarded when Aunt Carrol asks her to come on a family European tour, though Jo had longed to go.

Jo cannot agree to marry Laurie, because she feels more like a sister to him. It makes Laurie very unhappy. He goes to Europe, meeting Amy there in Nice. He is moping and Amy gives him a dressing down, calling him “Lazy Laurence.” Laurie is surprised Amy is considering marrying Fred Vaughn. “One of us must marry well,” she says. “In time I shall become fond of him.” Laurie says he understands, but says, “Quite right and proper as the world goes, but it sounds odd from the lips of one of your mother’s girls.”

Amy misses Laurie very much when he leaves however, and refuses Fred. Laurie reminds her of home, and when Beth dies, he comes to Vevey to comfort her. They recognize their love for each other and agree to “always pull in the same boat.” They are married and return home. The story ends happily with an apple harvest a few years later, when Meg, Jo and Amy all have children and Jo has started a school for boys with her German professor.

The economics of our modern world certainly differ from those in 1868, since women have won for themselves places in every field, the right to vote and (nearly) equal pay. But the question of feminine power is just as alive now as it ever was. Do women achieve their aims more by Jo’s methods or Amy’s? It is still true that some women have more money, and some women are blessed with a great deal of talent, hardly ever in the proportions anyone expects.

Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women from incidents in her life and that of her sisters, as well as the progressive principles of her unique parents, Bronson and Abigail Alcott. The girls learn from the mistakes which their parents freely allow them to make. The morality of the book reflects the classical belief that selfishness turns in on itself, whereas kindness to, love and respect for others is our only hope of happiness. This transcends whether a person is a man or a woman, of course. But the fact that Little Women shows us four different kinds of femininity makes it ever interesting.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Catherine Linton Heathcliff Earnshaw

The young Catherine Linton grows up at Thrushcross Grange on the Yorkshire moors, according to Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, first published 1847. Though she lost her mother at birth, she has the loving protection of her father and Nelly Dean, who is something more than a housekeeper to the family. There is a portrait of her mother in the library, but Cathy knows nothing of the turbulent history between her father, her mother and the master of Wuthering Heights, four miles distant.

Emily Bronte
According to Nelly Dean, Cathy was “the most winning thing that ever brought sunshine into a desolate house: a real beauty in the face, with the Earnshaws’ handsome dark eyes, but the Lintons’ fair skin and small features, and yellow curling hair. Her spirit was high, though not rough, and qualified by a heart sensitive and lively to excess in its affections.” She is educated by her father and loves to spend the day riding about the moors on her pony. At 13, she discovers she has a cousin, Linton Heathcliff. Her father goes to claim him when his mother dies, but Linton’s father, Heathcliff arrives and takes him away. Cathy’s father is sorry, but advises Cathy that they cannot keep up an acquaintance with that family.

One day Cathy convinces Nelly to go looking for grouse eggs with her and they run into Heathcliff and Hareton, his nephew. They are invited to Wuthering Heights and meet Linton. Linton is languid and sickly, but Hareton shows Cathy the farm. He has a rude aspect and she is surprised to find Hareton, also her cousin, cannot read. She and Linton enjoy talking to each other and promise to see each other the next day. When Cathy’s father refuses to let her go, she begins a covert correspondence with Linton, by way of the milk boy. When Nelly finds Cathy toying with her letters, she burns them. When her guardians are ill, however, Cathy slips away and visits Linton, who begs for her company. He is peevish and has little thought for anyone but himself. Heathcliff humors him for his own reasons.

When Cathy is 17, her father becomes ill and begins to fade. The friendship between Cathy and Linton is encouraged by Heathcliff as part of his plan of revenge against Cathy’s father. Heathcliff terrorizes his son Linton into luring Cathy and Nelly to Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff imprisons Nelly and forces Linton and Cathy to marry. He prevents Cathy’s father from changing his will, so Linton will own Thrushcross Grange and Cathy will be penniless. Mr. Linton dies within hours of Cathy and Nelly’s return home.

Heathcliff removes Cathy to Wuthering Heights, leaving Nelly Dean to manage the Grange for his lodger, Mr. Lockwood. Cathy nurses Linton without help from anyone else but Linton dies a month after they are married.

As readers, we first meet Cathy through Lockwood’s eyes when he visits Wuthering Heights. It is a blustery night, but the room with its large fireplace is warm and cheerful. “One end, indeed, reflected splendidly both light and heat from ranks of immense pewter dishes, interspersed with silver jugs and tankards, towering row after row, on a vast oak dresser, to the very roof.” The people Lockwood takes tea with, however, Cathy, Hareton and Heathcliff, are dour company. He cannot figure out their relation to each other. Cathy, in fact, has just lost her father and her very young husband.

Upon hearing Nelly Dean’s stories of them, Lockwood thinks, “people in these regions live more in earnest, more in themselves, and less in surface change and frivolous external things. I could fancy a love for life here almost possible.”

Shortly thereafter, Nelly Dean is called to live at Wuthering Heights and things become more cheerful for Cathy. She is not allowed past the garden gate, but slowly she befriends Hareton, teaching him to read. Hareton has a fine and noble heart beneath his rough exterior and Nelly is happy to see them becoming friends. Heathcliff has been spoiling for a last revenge on these two, whose eyes both remind him of Catherine, his love. But he becomes strange, as if he lives in another world, telling Nelly that “I have lost the faculty of enjoying their destruction.” Within a few months, he is dead. The young people, Cathy and Hareton, now in possession of both houses, marry.

It was Virginia Woolf who sent me back to look at Wuthering Heights. Woolf believed Emily Bronte “looked out upon a world cleft into gigantic disorder and felt within her the power to unite it in a book. That gigantic ambition is to be felt throughout the novel – a struggle, half thwarted but of superb conviction, to say something through the mouths of her characters which is not merely ‘I love’ or ‘I hate,’ but ‘we, the whole human race’ and ‘you, the eternal powers’ … And so we reach these summits of emotion not by rant or rhapsody but by hearing a girl sing old songs to herself as she rocks in the branches of a tree; by watching the moor sheep crop the turf; by listening to the soft wind breathing through the grass.” [From Women and Writing, Virginia Woolf, collected 1979.]

This redemptive view of the young Cathy is, of course, my own. The popular story taken from Wuthering Heights is of the passion between Heathcliff and the original Catherine which, thwarted, drives them both to their deaths. But Catherine dies half way through the book and the young Cathy, full of her own love and spirit, is left to deal with those who remain. Emily Bronte felt no need for society beyond her own Yorkshire house. Nature is the redemptive force and she marries cousins to each other without fear. We cannot know what comes to Cathy after she grows beyond the age of 19. But we can hope that she is happy. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Maryam Yazdan

Behnaz Sarafpour, Iranian designer
In Anne Tyler’s book Digging to America [2006], Maryam Yazdan, an Iranian emigrant to America, shines out from a welter of characters. An elegant grandmother, her simple, orderly lifestyle attracts and confuses her neighbors and family.

Her story begins when she is arrested in Tehran for leafleting against the repression of the Shah of Iran. She is a student, just 19. Her family gets her out of prison within the hour, but they are afraid her activities will endanger the family. They find a young Iranian man to marry her, a doctor in Baltimore. Maryam and Kiyan get to know each other in Tehran and by the time he returns to America, Kiyan “fills every inch of Maryam’s head.” Within days of a proxy marriage, she follows him.

In America Maryam, to stave off homesickness, “used to set a tumbler of club soda on her nightstand. She used to go to sleep listening to the bubbles bounce against the glass with a faint, steady, peaceful whispering sound that had reminded her of the fountains in her family’s courtyard back home.” She becomes an American citizen and has a son, Sami, who refuses to speak Farsi from the time he is five. When Sami is 14, Kiyan dies and Maryam raises Sami by herself, working as an administrator at a pre-school.

We meet Maryam in present day in an airport where she and her son and his wife Ziba are waiting for the arrival of their adopted Korean baby. An American family, the Donaldsons, is also waiting, with balloons, signs, lots of fanfare. Bitsy, the American mother, in her expansive way, invites Maryam’s family to celebrate this occasion every year, hoping the two little girls will grow up together and become friends.

Maryam falls in love with the perfect little baby, Susan, whom she takes care of two days a week while Ziba goes to work. Maryam dresses with the utmost care, even to babysit. In America, she felt like a guest. “Still and forever a guest, on her very best behavior.” Sami and Ziba increasingly fall under the spell of the American Donaldsons, however, even buying a house a few doors down from them. Bitsy Donaldson has all kinds of ideas about child-raising, about which she is very vocal.

As Anne Tyler tells it, the story afford all kinds of opportunities to contrast the American and Iranian households. Maryam does not get along with Ziba’s family, particularly, because they left Iran when the Shah was deposed, having been in favor of him. She does not talk politics with them, but they share favorite foods and new year’s customs. The Americans have their preferred ways of doing things, all of which becomes complicated for Maryam when Bitsy’s mother dies of cancer and, over time, her widowed father becomes fascinated by Maryam.

Maryam does not return Dave’s interest. He is rumpled and shambling, though fascinated by Iranian culture. To Dave, however, “other women seemed lackluster when he compared them with Maryam. They didn’t have her calm dark gaze or her elegant, expressive hands. They didn’t convey her sense of stillness and self-containment, standing alone in a crowd.” Maryam and Dave begin spending time together, and both the Iranian and the American families begin wondering what this means.

Maryam tells Dave it isn’t easy being foreign. “You can start to believe that your life is defined by your foreignness. You think everything would be different if only you belonged.” But Dave tells her, “You belong. You belong just as much as I do, or, who, or Bitsy or … It’s just like Christmas. [The little girls had complained they wanted a ‘real Christmas.’] We all think the others belong more.”

When Dave asks Maryam to marry him at a big family party, Maryam is embarrassed into saying “yes.” But the next morning she tells everyone it was a mistake. She cannot marry Dave. “He is so American,” she tells her son. “He takes up so much space. He seems to be unable to let a room stay as it is; always he has to alter it, to turn on the fan or raise the thermostat or play a record or open the curtains. He has cluttered my life with cell phones and answering machines and a fancy-shmancy teapot that makes my tea taste like metal.” She goes back to her simple, orderly life with her cat and doesn’t see Dave any more. She does notice how small her life has become, however.

In the end, Maryam runs into Dave, they talk. Maryam is again invited to a Donaldson party. She plans to attend, she gets dressed, but it gets late, she isn’t sure. Then, she looks out of her house and all of the Donaldsons are on her doorstep! When she doesn’t answer they start to walk away. Maryam calls to them, “Wait!”

Anne Tyler was herself married to an Iranian immigrant, the child psychiatrist Taghi Modarressi. The character Maryam must surely be drawn from life. Tyler was also raised a Quaker in isolated circumstances and subsequently had a strong sense of being an outsider. William Faulkner once said, “No wonder people in the rest of the world don’t like us, since we seem to have neither taste nor courtesy, and know and believe in nothing but money.” The figure of the lovely, self-possessed Maryam is a fine portrayal of a woman for whom taste is a way of living.