Saturday, October 26, 2019

WHERE MY HEART USED TO BEAT: A Book Review


“Where My Heart Used to Beat” by Sebastian Faulks is the story of a deeply wounded man, one Dr. Robert Hendricks. It is narrated in the first person, by himself—which makes it personal, direct, and often painful. His wounds are both physical—from friendly fire, in World War II—and emotional. The man is, frankly, hard to like because he seems passive, alienated, lacking in the initiative and drive we expect in the hero of a novel. If we follow his story it is because of the vulnerability that can’t help but seep past the edges of the invulnerable armor he has built up around himself. If I like him, me, personally, it is because we share some fundamental things in common.

Like me, the fictional Hendricks was brought up in an English country village and like me—though for very different reasons—he grew up deprived of the nurturing warmth of a family hearth. His father’s early death in the First World War is a mystery, to himself and us, until the very end; and then, when we learn about it, shocking. The absence of his father in his early years is perhaps the deepest of his wounds. His mother is remote, peculiar, perhaps mad. He is sent away to board with a demanding schoolmaster; his education is in the classical, Latin and Greek, rap-on-the-knuckles tradition. Like me, he was a lonely boy, cut off as much from himself as from other children, who learned to protect himself from hurt by living in his head at the cost of his heart. As the title suggests, Robert’s story is the largely failing search for this elusive but essential organ.

He finds it—briefly—in the chaos of war. Faulk describes the horror and confusion of the battlefield in dreadful, utterly convincing, you-were-there detail, first in North Africa, then at the costly Anzio beachhead in Italy. During a lull in battle, our protagonist meets a young Italian woman, Luisa, and falls in love with her. He catches a tantalizing glimpse of his missing heart in their improbable, doomed love affair—which ends in sudden, heart-breaking betrayal. Another wound.

After the war, he turns—no surprise, perhaps—to medicine and psychiatry, with a brilliant brain but one that is disconnected from heart, body, and soul. It’s a matter of “physician, heal thyself.” But along with the absent heart and emasculated by his emotional wounds, he is ill-equipped to diagnose and treat them for himself. A seemingly attractive man, he can relate to women only on a professional basis or as paid sexual providers, and eventually rejects even offers of casual, readily available sex. He becomes a man in search not only of his heart but of his elusive manhood—emotional as well as sexual, as if the two weren’t one. He had become, in his own words, “the man who had cauterized his own wounds by insisting that love was a neural malfunction and a category error”—a misdiagnosed psychological and physiological addiction.

There is a teasing, overarching plot that involves an aging, soon to be dying psychiatrist who lures Hendricks to a remote island in the Mediterranean with promises of information about his dead father—information which his host soon proves singularly loath to supply. Hendricks’s occasional visits there, earning grudging snippets of history offered over years before the final revelation that leads him to a connection with his lost father, provide the opportunity for the wide-ranging, thought-provoking discussions of memory and madness, delusion and truth, that form the often engrossing intellectual core of the book.

Does our hero ever find the integration of mind and body, heart and soul that he at once resists and seeks, despite the fears that stand in his way? It’s debatable. Does he find love again? Does he find redemption. In a way. Well, in several ways. Though the book was published some years ago, I’m reluctant to act the spoiler, but I’ll confess I wish the author had found more gratifying ways to salve his hero’s lasting wounds. I ended up wanting a more enduring and convincing healing for a man whose suffering I had shared as he told his story.

I have come to believe that the struggle to achieve true manhood is one that many, if not most men experience. Some never get there. We look around in the world today and find many, even those in positions of power and influence, who mistake vain displays of strength for manliness, who bully and bluster out of fear of seeming weak, unmanly. As I see it, “Where My Heart Used to Beat” is the brave, uncompromising study of a man whose thinking brain denies him access to his wounded heart and leaves him impotent in the face of life’s vicissitudes.





Friday, October 25, 2019

EINSTEIN

I came upon this quote from Albert Einstein in a novel I'm reading now:
"A human being is part of the whole, called by us 'Universe', a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This  delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty."
Buddhism, in a nutshell? I have no way of verifying the accuracy of this attribution, but according to the author of the novel it comes from a letter written in the attempt to console a grieving father. It touched me, and I thought it I would share it with others who might not have come across it.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

ANOTHER DREAM...

(One to avoid if you happen to be squeamish. It has one kind of nasty graphic moment...)

I dreamt I woke up in a strange city, in a large hotel room--more a single level house, really, than a hotel. Ellie was also there, with a woman of our acquaintance. I was horribly constipated. I was looking for a suppository to help out but was unable to find one, our friend offered me a toothpaste-like tube she said would have the same effect. In attempting to insert a dab of it with a finger, I came in contact with the source of my problem, and pulled out a still-intact teabag, complete with string and tag.

I realized I would be late for work and needed a shower. There was a bathroom, but our friend was occupying it so I had to make do with the other shower that was available. It was placed immediately over my side of the bed, with one of those old-fashioned heads that look like a small flying saucer. The water came out in mostly drips, but I still worried about the pillows and the bedsheets getting soaked. I wondered why the shower had been so misplaced and worried, too, about standing naked on the bed while our friend was in the room. My concern was compounded by the arrival of a maid who was to clean the room and who had caustic comments about the situation.

It was time to leave for work. I was working as a teacher at a local grammar school--as I had in fact done years before, in Nova Scotia, Canada. I dreaded having to go back. I had no idea about my teaching schedule, or even the subjects I was supposed to teach. Besides, I had been on vacation, or skipping classes, for way too long. I had been a lazy and ineffective teacher anyway. I had never bothered to show up in time for morning assembly, and my colleagues thought little of me. The headmaster was the Catholic priest (who had actually been president at a university where I served for a while as Dean). If I wanted to quit the job, as I so much wanted, I would have to call and let him know.

No use pretending, I simply could not bring myself to go back. I got on my knees and begged Ellie to understand that I would have to quit. All I wanted was the time to devote to the trilogy I was (am, actually) writing. But where would the money come from, to support us? It would be a huge risk, a leap into the unknown. (It was the risk I took, "in real life", more than 30 years ago, when I left academia, and decided to become the writer I was always supposed to be. That turned out okay, I haven't had a job since 1986. That's 33 years!)

I don't remember actually making the call in my dream, but I remember clearly the enormous sense of relief when I realized I did not have to go back to my teaching job. Instead, we left the hotel in search of a place for breakfast.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

THE ART DEALER'S LEG

I dreamt I cut off an art dealer's leg. I won't name him, but I know who he is. He was with a couple of women, and seemed unconcerned when I cut it off. I had heard somehow from his doctor that there was gangrene or some other problem with the leg, so I started to cut it off. There seemed to be no blood or pain. When I finished, the stub looked as pink and bloodless as a baked ham. It was only then he seemed to realize what I had done. "You'd think," he said calmly, "if my leg was to be amputated I would have been consulted." That was all.

Then I realized the seriousness of what I had done. In a panic, realizing my responsibility, I started to apologize wildly, protesting--which was a lie--that I had tried everything to consult with his doctor first, to have his doctor inform him of the need for the amputation. I was crying while I was trying to convince him.

Then the dream ended. I have no explanation for it. Or... Could it be because I'm no longer very much involved in the art world? Perhaps it was my own leg I was cutting off... And replacing it with a baked ham. That must be it.


Wednesday, October 9, 2019

KIND OF A BOOK REVIEW: "Letters to a Dead Friend About Zen," by Brad Warner

(A book review in epistolary form...)

Dear Brad Warner,

I have a few thoughts about your new book, “Letters to a Dead Friend About Zen.” (They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so I hope you’ll forgive this clumsy appropriation of your letter-writing style!) The dead friend of the title and the one you write to, Marky, is---well, was—a punk rocker like yourself, a black musician who died of cancer at much too young an age. Your
letters build an endearing portrait of the man—and not incidentally of yourself, the letter writer, Soto Zen teacher at the Angel City Zen Center in Los Angeles, filmmaker and bass guitarist as well as an itinerant guest lecturer—and suggest a loving bond between you, an intimacy that it’s nice to be let in on.

Given this relationship, it’s natural that you’d write to him with the slangy familiarity of a couple of musician pals. It’s not my language, so I honestly found it quite difficult to adjust to; I worried, from the start, that it would prove just too hip, even a bit condescending, at least for this reader. But don’t worry. I got over it.

And I found plenty of good stuff. (I hate that word, and wish you wouldn’t use it as much as you do. But then, I use it too, so I’m hardly in a position to complain.) Anyway, I’d like to thank you for a solid introduction to Zen—a branch of the Buddhist tree that has attracted me from afar, but with which I have little familiarity. I did spend a week sitting zazen on Mt. Baldy in the early days of my own Buddhist education, but that was long ago. I branched off elsewhere.

What I like particularly is that you do not make it easy. There are a zillion books out there that make Buddhism in all its forms sound like an easy answer to life’s many problems—and we have enough of them, in this contemporary world! Meditation and mindfulness are all the rage, and there’s no shortage of people—including those in the book-publishing business—who are all too happy to cash in on it. You make no such promises. On the contrary, you stress constantly that the practice of Zen is a long, hard road, and one that requires dedication, determination, and years of hard work. I like that you revert frequently to the example of your own life and admit freely to your failings along the way as well as your successes. Buddhism is no sinecure.

I share your distrust of easy answers, and of teachers who offer them. I share your skepticism when it comes to religions and putative gods of all kinds. Your practical, no-nonsense approach to the conundrums with which life and death confront us appeals to my own learned sense of what I hope is healthy pragmatism. When it comes to the unanswerable questions, you honor the beliefs of others with the proper respect, but test them out with astute critical analysis.

I like that you are unafraid to tackle the unanswerable questions, however, and that you do not make light of the sometimes difficult and confusing concepts that Buddhism requires us to address. You do so forthrightly, and with both humility and clarity. Humility when it comes to not claiming to possess the right, or the only answers; clarity in being able to write about those concepts so that we can understand them. Most of us have a hard time with the Heart Sutra, for example: “form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” A conundrum, if ever there was one, not unlike other widely misunderstood or easily diluted concepts like no-self.. Rather than offering explanations, your clarity seems to offer us a way to get in on the secret, helping us to be comfortable with paradox and contradiction, to be open to meaning even when it’s hard to come to a rational understanding.

I like that you are knowledgeable about other branches of the Buddhist tree than Zen, and that you are able to bring that knowledge to bare sparingly, and appropriately. That you can refer us without pretension to literary sources and other fields of thought, providing us with historical, religious and philosophical context. I like that you share your obvious familiarity with many of the colorful characters who have followed in the Buddha’s path, and that you write about them with humorous affection for their foibles. That you make them come as alive for us as they seem to be for you.

I feel obliged to add that there’s some iffy stuff (that word again!) The big one is the reveal that comes at the end of your book, where your very last sentence reads, “And I apologize for lying to you.” Yes. You lied. I won’t be more specific because that would be a spoiler and I want other people to read your book. But I have to say that your last letter, this one addressed not to Marky but to your “Dear Readers,” felt like a slap in the face. You wrote eloquently about the Buddha’s Eightfold Path, one element of which is Right Speech; and about the precepts common to all branches of Buddhism, one of the most basic of which is the injunction: “Don’t lie.” So when I read that you’d been lying to me all along, I was pretty much outraged. Having been taken in by it all I quite honestly felt betrayed…

But then my outrage made me think again. Perhaps I should think of this slap-in-the-face as a kind of Zen wake-up call. Do they still use the keisaku in the zendo, that rod they smack across your shoulders in zazen when you get sloppy or sleepy? Or do contemporary Western sensibilities forbid that kind of physical correction? Anyway, that’s how it felt. So maybe I should read your whole book as a kind of Zen koan, one of those stories you also write about, the kind that often ends with the teacher rewarding the student with a nasty jab—or a kick in the pants—as the inscrutable answer to some absurd, unanswerable question. To jolt him past the quagmire of doubts and questions into enlightenment. Perhaps I needed this reminder, at the end of your book, of the Buddha’s injunction not to take anything for granted, to distrust even teachers, to distrust even his great wisdom, and return to the evidence of my own eyes, my own tested experience. Perhaps I needed that shock to remind me that it all comes back to the present moment.

Which is after all why we learn to just sit. So, okay, thanks, Brad. I enjoyed your sometimes perilous travels in Europe too. And your book is a good read, a good reminder. So, ta-ta for now. Be well. Your friend, Peter