Sunday, December 29, 2013

Karen Blixen

“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills. … Up in this high air you breathed easily, drawing in a vital assurance and lightness of heart. In the highlands you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be.” Karen Blixen’s book Out of Africa is a true memoir in that she wrote it after the coffee farm she managed in Kenya for 17 years had failed. In the dark atmosphere hanging over Europe in 1936, she wrote from her family home at Rungsted, Denmark, looking back and distilling her love for the life she had lived in the high country in Kenya.

Isak Dinesen, is the pen name of Karen Dinesen von Blixen-Finecke, who lived and wrote from 1885 to 1962. She went to Africa with her husband, Bror, described by Beryl Markham as “six feet of amiable Swede and, to my knowledge, the toughest, most durable White Hunter ever to snicker at the fanfare of safari or to shoot a charging buffalo between the eyes while debating whether his sundown drink will be gin or whiskey.” When Karen and Bror separated, Karen was left to manage the farm, which was really too high up for growing coffee. There was little rain and coffee prices fell. Karen Blixen could not imagine leaving and fought it as long as she could.

Out of Africa is filled with vivid descriptions of the things that happened on the coffee farm and the people who worked there: her manager the Somali Farah, her Kikuyu cook Kamante, and Pooran Singh who worked the forge. She writes of her friends Denys Finch-Hatton and Berkeley Cole who came out to dine and listen to music. Though many assume Blixen was in love with Denys, she does not make much of this in the book. When they have a hunting adventure together she writes, “we were too wet, and too dirty with mud and blood to sit down to it, but stood up before a flaming fire in the dining room and drank our live, singing wine up quickly. We did not speak one word. In our hunt we had been a unity and we had nothing to say to one another.”

Blixen wrote in English, the language she used in her years in Kenya. It was her second language and even now, when I read Out of Africa, the slightly unfamiliar use of English, as if she were rolling the words over on her tongue, tasting and smelling them, makes me want to read them aloud. I first read the incantatory sentences at the beginning of this essay when I was 16. I had always been a reader, but these unforgettable words convinced me that real people, writing in our day could create of their own lives sentences which lifted those who heard them into a profound acceptance of the real.

Blixen saw herself as a story teller. She sat writing in the silence at the end of the day, far from home, writing stories to keep herself from anxiety, to regale her friends when they arrived. I am not as interested in the many stories she wrote, in which artifice rules. She let some of them get away from her, stories of romance and illusion. In Out of Africa Blixen restrained her writing to what she was sure of, to what she saw and heard and felt. The combination of a romantic nature steeling itself to realism is profound and makes for greatness.

Blixen lived during a time when imperialism in Africa was still very much alive. I was interested to find this critique of her by a young British woman, Esther Poyer, a raw food enthusiast and life coach. Esther visits Karen Blixen’s house, now a museum in the suburbs of Nairobi. She asks why anyone should be interested in Blixen. I can understand this. But allowing for her historical period, I find Karen Blixen a woman who loved deeply and did the best she could with her circumstances, spilling out her passion in shimmering sentences which live long after her.

Monday, December 16, 2013


In My Antonia, published in 1918, Willa Cather tells the story of Antonia, based on Annie Pavelka, a friend she grew up with in Nebraska. As a child, Antonia comes from Bohemia to Nebraska with her family, the favorite of her cultured father. Before he dies, Antonia’s father asks Jim in broken English to “teach my Antonia.” Jim watches Antonia’s hard life as she works in the fields on land which has never been broken. But her brother’s abuse, her mother’s whining and her own disgrace do not dishearten Antonia or quench her spirit.

Jim finds Antonia and her Scandinavian immigrant friends much more lively than the young people in his town who go to the “correct” social club. The immigrant girls may be rougher, work hard in the fields, but they have a directness, joy and physicality denied the tamer, more cultured girls of his town.

Jim does as he is told, studies hard and goes east to become a lawyer. He prospers, but success in the great world doesn’t make him happy. He marries someone uncongenial and finds himself traveling a lot. On one of his trips he returns to Nebraska.

Pavelka Farmstead
Though Antonia still has a difficult life as her husband knows little about farming, she is surrounded by her children. Jim feels he has come home. He has found no one in the world of culture whose spirit surpasses that of Antonia. Whatever else has gone, she has not lost the “fire of life.” Her friend Lena, who also attracts Jim, retains the lazy sensuous manner she always had, parlaying it into a successful business in San Francisco.

Reading My Antonia is to go back to a refreshing discussion of values. It is what good literature offers. The book sifts pastoral values against more urban ones. These alternating values, according to Karen Armstrong, have contended with each other for centuries. Setting nature beside artifice, Jim chooses nature. Physicality is part of it. The town girls he knows aren’t allowed to move! But Jim also sees in Antonia the finer feelings shown by her European father, who could not survive on the rough prairie: delight in music and dancing, conversation and friendship.

I love the book because Cather’s values, represented by the narrator Jim, are my own. In this country, the whiff of commerce hangs around art, but walking out under the sky, under the trees and enjoying the sun give one freedom.

The immigrant girls described by Willa Cather were more my sisters than my mentors. One of my grandfathers lived in a sod house until he was ten. My great-grandmother had been a hired girl in Norway. That women can be independent and hardworking and still be attractive was not something I needed to learn. Growing up I saw many fine partnerships between married people, including that of my parents. Thus the pastoral values Cather celebrates in My Antonia were more a confirmation than anything new and strange. Many of the women I found to educate myself in the feminine were from other countries, exotic to me. Antonia feels like home.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Yin Power

The concept of yin (female) and yang (male) making up a whole is ancient. Karen Armstrong suggests that it may come from the way people lived thousands of years ago in China. Planting and harvest were conducted in the sun when men were most active, and winter was the yin period, when women spent time weaving, spinning and making wine.

The United States, as an immigrant, westward-moving, pioneer nation has valued the yang element in our natures so highly that I believe the yin element, particularly its power, has been little understood. In China, the “valley spirit,” water, with its gentle power to float an egg on its surface or huge container ships, is seen as yin.

“Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it.”
The Tao Te Ching: Chapter 78 - 6th Century B.C.E.

As Peter Matthiessen relates in The Snow Leopard, the record of the trip he made into the Himalayas in 1973, he was often cheered in the bitter weather and difficult mountain conditions by the women he sees. The merry young Tende Samnug in a red woolen hat and small bells at her sash carries her baby, Chiring Lamo, on her back through the deep snows and secretly gives him a gift of potatoes. Glimpses of women lighted up this adventure story for me too. Knowing this mother and her baby were real people, I sometimes speculated as I read what they might be doing now.

In late November Matthiessen hiked out of the Dolpo region of Nepal into the village of Rohagaon. One of his guides makes a place for him at a family hearth where he watches “cooking rites so simple and certain in their movements that I sit marveling upon my goat skin, scarcely breathing … The cooking is done by the woman in black rags while [her husband] lies glowering against the wall; the slow deft handling of burning twigs as tsampa and dried pumpkin squash are cooked on a brazier, the breadmaking, the murmuring, the love and food extended to the children without waste words or motion, the tenderness toward the sick husband – all has the pace and dignity of sacrament.”

The picture Matthiessen paints mesmerized me. Few of us go about our household tasks thinking of them as sacrament, but of course they are. Repetition and habit make the food gathering, preparation and setting out of meals to be shared into ritual. We clean house, wash clothes and linens almost daily. The yin-oriented tasks of the private sphere are generally the responsibility of women. And the atmosphere of our homes is set by the cheerfulness, dignity and peace we bring to them.

The Western corporate world has seized upon home-making as an area to be despised, to be filled with labor-saving devices which conscript us into consuming. But when we lose the value for home-making, we lose contact with real life. We can reclaim this ritual for ourselves by conscious, mindful work, by using local food that has not been packaged for us, by choosing carefully the things that surround us, and setting standards of peacefulness and pride in the families we create.

Yin and yang are constantly and continually seeking equilibrium and right relationship. No one gets along without them both. One of our favorite tai chi practices is a series of movements in which, with a partner, we Listen to the other person’s body, Surrender to their advance, Transform or turn in relation to them and Push. This series works in many contexts!

Yin power is that of surrender, of the “valley spirit” which lies low, taking everything in to its capacious breast. It is the power of yielding, letting the water of life seek its own level. It is also the power of listening to our inner selves as well as to others. No one should underestimate it. I would like to see it more openly understood and valued. Progress, achievement, competition and dominance have their place, but so has the yin power of listening, patience, collaboration and respect.