Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Book of Hours by Rainer Maria Rilke

Source of book: I started out reading this as a library loan, but liked it enough to purchase my own copy.

First of all, because I read this book in English translation, the approach by the translators is important. In effect, this book has three authors: Rilke, and the two women who translated it, Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. One could make the argument that there are four authors - at least in Rilke’s view, because he considered the Divine to be a co-author of this volume. (Rilke was a non-practicing Catholic, and more of a mystic in practice.)

Barrows and Macy chose to translate freely, rather than adhere to Rilke’s rhymes. His forms are traditional, with alternating rhymes predominating. As they show in the preface, trying to duplicate this in English tends to make the poems sing-song-y, rather than stately as they are in German. Thus, the feel of the translated poems in this case is very modern. The lines are kept intact, but not the meter, so they read as free verse. I recognized a few of the poems as they are translated here, so I suspect that this translation remains popular - particularly for those who tend to quote poetry as soundbites. No knock against the translation for that. It is beautiful enough, and its quotability should be seen as a sign of its universal appeal.

If anything, this reflects Rilke’s current moment of popularity. His mysticism and focus on art for its own sake are refreshing, particularly after the recent period (say, the ‘60s and ‘70s) where so much of poetry became overtly political. (These things go in cycles, of course. And, some political issues wear better than others. For example, Milton’s works on freedom of speech are still powerful, while Yeats’ references to Irish conflicts and personalities are largely lost on modern Americans.)

Rilke wrote The Book of Hours as a young man in his mid-20s, after a visit to Russia. He met with Tolstoy and Pasternak, and became acquainted with Eastern Orthodox monasticism. The very title of the book reflects that influence. The Medieval “Book of Hours” contained prayers and devotions, much like Rilke’s work, which he subtitled, “Love poems to God.” 

Rilke at the age when he wrote The Book of Hours.

I was reminded of another devotional work that I read nearly three years ago, Gitanjali, by the Bengali poet Tagore. That work’s name is “song offerings,” and is likewise a gorgeous expression of a longing for the Divine. In contrast to George Herbert (recently read and reviewed) or Christina Rossetti (reviewed here), Rilke and Tagore do not incorporate much theology into their poems. To the extent that they do, it is of a mystical - and occasionally pantheistic - sort, with a sort of kinship with nature, life, and the whole of experience. I hesitate to use “pantheistic” because that is such a loaded - and negative - word in the circles I grew up in. I rather would describe it as an acknowledgement that we experience the Divine from more than just prescribe religious rituals. The stars above us as well as the dirt beneath sing to us, and we can worship just as well in the open air cathedral of the mountains. As Rilke puts it:

          For all things
sing you: at times
we just hear them more clearly.

With that, here are some of my favorites.

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.
I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?

(I, 2)

We must not portray you in king’s robes,
you drifting mist that brought forth the morning.

Once again from the old paintboxes
we take the same gold for scepter and crown
that has disguised you through the ages.

Piously we produce our images of you
till they stand around you like a thousand walls.
And when our hearts would simply open,
our fervent hands hide you.

(I, 4)

There is so much that is truth in that one. Throughout history, we have always understood the Divine through the lens of our own cultural systems; and so we find difficult to lay aside the old paints and colors and open our hearts to the untamed lion, as C. S. Lewis put it. Or, as another once said, we insist on putting new wine into those old wineskins.

Because Rilke writes these from the viewpoint of the monk, he captures the introvert experience so well. Perhaps poets are all introverts - it is hard to say for sure, but there is strong evidence in that direction. Either way, it is hard to imagine a more beautiful portrait than this one:

I love the dark hours of my being.
My mind deepens into them.
There I can find, as in old letters,
the days of my life, already lived,
and held like a legend, and understood.

Then the knowing comes: I can open
to another life that’s wide and timeless.

So I am sometimes like a tree
rustling over a gravesite
and making real the dream
of the one its living roots
embrace:

a dream once lost among sorrows and songs.

(I, 5)

Or this one:

Why am I reaching again for the brushes?
When I paint your portrait, God,
nothing happens.

But I can choose to feel you.

At my senses’ horizon
you appear hesitantly,
like scattered islands.

Yet standing here, peering out,
I’m all the time seen by you.


All creation holds its breath, listening within me,
because, to hear you, I keep silent.

(I, 18)

Or, there is the one that led me to take a look at this volume. In one of the more peculiar, perhaps laughable, connections, I heard a line from this in Flora and Ulysses, a kids’ book about a squirrel with superpowers my kids introduced me to on one of our trips. (You can read my thoughts on this one here.) At a significant moment, this poem is quoted. Under circumstances which can only be described as ludicrous. But the line itself is good (“flare up like flame”) and in context, makes for a moving metaphor of serving as the hands and feet of God on earth.

God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

(I, 59)

Occasionally, bits and pieces of this collection attach themselves to the outside world. A great example of this is one poem that many have noted seems prophetic in hindsight. Rilke published these in 1905, but began writing them in 1899. The end of the century, the fin de siecle, as it came to be known. And, standing on that divide, he wrote these words:

I’m living just as the century ends.

A great leaf, that God and you and I
have covered with writing
turns now, overhead, in strange hands.
We feel the sweep of it like a wind.

We see the brightness of a new page
where everything yet can happen.

Unmoved by us, the fates take its measure
and look at one another, saying nothing.

(I, 8)

Another poem surprised me in that I knew I had heard a version of it before. It is found in a song by Sixpence None The Richer (another C. S. Lewis reference there…) entitled “Still Burning.”

Here is Rilke’s original:

Extinguish my eyes, I’ll go on seeing you.
Seal my ears, I’ll go on hearing you.
And without feet I can make my way to you,
without a mouth I can swear your name.

Break off my arms, I’ll take hold of you
with my heart as with a hand.
Stop my heart, and my brain will start to beat.
And if you consume my brain with fire,
I’ll feel you burn in every drop of my blood.

(II, 7)

Here is the Sixpence version:



This vision of longing and brokenness resonates with those of us who feel deeply and cannot always utter our deepest and darkest needs and fears. We call out to the Divine, and wish to take hold with our hearts when we cannot with our hands.

Likewise, for those of us who have not had a serene journey, and who often feel that our own wrestling fails to even make sense to those around us, can find in this poem a sense of a kindred spirit.

I am praying again, Awesome One.

You hear me again, as words
from the depths of me
rush toward you in the wind.

I’ve been scattered in pieces,
torn by conflict,
mocked by laughter,
washed down in drink.

In alleyways I sweep myself up
out of garbage and broken glass.
With my half-mouth I stammer you,
who are eternal in your symmetry.
I lift to you my half-hands
in wordless beseeching, that I may find again
the eyes with which I once beheld you.

I am a house gutted by fire
where only the guilty sometimes sleep
before the punishment that devours them
hounds them out into the open.

I am a city by the sea
sinking into a toxic tide.
I am strange to myself, as though someone unknown
had poisoned my mother as she carried me.

It’s here in all the pieces of my shame
that now I find myself again.
I yearn to belong to something, to be contained
in an all-embracing mind that sees me
as a single thing.
I yearn to be held
in the great hands of your heart-
oh let them take me now.

Into them I place these fragments, my life,
and you, God - spend them however you want.

(II, 2)

I’ll end with a final poem, about endings.

God, give us each our own death,
the dying that proceeds
from each of our lives:

the way we loved,
the meanings we made,
our need.

(III, 6)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Joshua Tree National Park


This is an installment in my ongoing series on the National Park system.

California has nine national parks - more than any other state. Oddly, despite living in California for nearly my entire life, I didn’t visit any of them until I was an adult.

In fact, my first national park was the Grand Canyon, followed by Zion, and later, Yellowstone. (Technically, I visited Pinnacles before Yellowstone, but it wasn’t yet a park.) How could this be? I’m not really sure. Perhaps it was because none of them were close enough to Los Angeles for a day trip. Perhaps it was because we fell in love with Zion, and thus spent much of our time there.

In any case, I decided I was going to explore California with my kids. I started taking the oldest ones when they were ages 3 and 4, and then added kids as they got old enough to enjoy adventures. We started off with Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite, as these were all close enough for a day trip. Starting in 2013, my youngest was old enough to camp comfortably, so we have set out to visit as many of the national parks in the western United States as we can before they grow up.

For me, Joshua Tree was the last California park that I had not visited. (The kids still haven’t been to Channel Islands - but we may try to do that soon.) We visited Death Valley last year as our winter camping trip, so Joshua Tree was a logical sequel.

If you have never visited the Mojave Desert, you might only know the Joshua Tree from U2’s album. (And you might miss that the cover photo was actually taken at Zabriskie Point - in Death Valley.) The iconic photo of the tree was actually taken about 200 miles north of the national park. The Mojave Desert is pretty big - larger than 19 of the 50 states - including Pennsylvania.

The Joshua Tree itself is a member of the Yucca family, which has 49 species scattered throughout the arid portions of North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Here in California, we have nearly a dozen different species represented, of which three are common in Joshua Tree National Park.

I have heard two stories about how the plant got its name. It is generally believed that it was the Mormon pioneers who named the tree. In one version, which has become the official story of the National Park Service, the Mormons thought it resembled the biblical Joshua, pointing the way into the promised land. In the other, they thought it looked like Joshua holding his arms up to stop the sun in its track while the Israelites fought a key battle. Either way, the tree is forever connected with the quest for a Mormon homeland, and the grand vision of paradise in the desert.

Joshua Tree National Park actually sits straddling two deserts: the southern edge of the Mojave, and northern and western part of the lower, hotter, Colorado Desert. (The Colorado Desert is actually part of the greater Sonoran Desert, and does not come close to Colorado, the state.) The Joshua Trees are all found in the Mojave section of the park, and the landscape changes dramatically as the elevation declines.

In addition to the two different environments, each with its own flora and fauna, the park has a number of old mines and mining mills, marvelous piles of rocks for kids to scramble on (and for adults to climb using equipment), and marvelously dark night skies.

My heart loves the mountains best of all, but I am learning to appreciate the desert. It is much more alive than one would think, particularly during the winter and around sunset. From giant jackrabbits to quail to beetles to falcons, there is plenty to see if one has a good eye.

As always, I cannot stress enough the need to get out and hike. Even the most accessible national parks are completely different once you leave the road. Even a couple of miles from the trailhead, you can find solitude - or at least just a few fellow hikers. We put on 14 miles over three days, and it was well worth it. There are some longer hikes we want to do once my littlest stretches her distance a bit more.

The kids are eager to go visit again, and explore some of the areas we missed the first time.

Links:



 The world’s greatest adventure companions. 

Ted and Ella demonstrate the relative size of these trees. 

Cholla (CHOY-ah) Cactus.

The Lost Horse Mine and Mill.

We lucked out and caught the Ocotillos in bloom.
I am proud of this shot I got with a hummingbird. 

My favorite shot from the trip.
Joshua Tree with Venus, Dusk, Black Rock Campground.



Monday, March 16, 2015

300

This post is number 300 on my blog. Somehow, I failed to notice in time when I passed 100 and 200, but I thought I might catch this one.

When I started out writing book reviews on Facebook in 2010, I was primarily intending to provide a little amusement for family and friends while putting my thoughts on my ongoing self-education into writing.

As far back as I can remember, I have enjoyed writing. Not always the school assignments, which were sometimes a bit tedious, although others were quite fun. But I enjoyed writing for myself and friends. I published a little “newsletter” of sorts from time to time, with a combination of real family news and stuff made up for fun. I have assisted with various family newsletters here and there. For a while, I had some pen pals, and I would have fun with making my letters amusing and off the wall.

Eventually, I grew frustrated with Facebook’s terrible formatting for notes, and realized that I really needed a blog for the reviews. This would enable me to link related reviews, add music and illustrations, and index the posts. While Blogger isn’t perfect, it works pretty well for what I use it for.

You can find all of my book reviews indexed here.

Eventually, the blog led to further interaction with other readers. As a result of some of the conversations that took place, combined with some public Kinsley gaffes (when someone inadvertently tells the truth about what they really believe) by conservative Christian leaders, I started researching the history of certain ideas.  My wife and I had already spent a good bit of time questioning certain parts of our upbringing, and it was enlightening to discover the racist and misogynist history of some of Christian fundamentalism’s most toxic ideas. Thus, my blog, while still focusing on books, also became a venue for the exploration of ideas and opinions. In that sense, it has been a partial record of a spiritual journey. In the process, I have discovered a number of others who have been making the same journey, away from the idolatry of cultural preferences and worship of a past that never really was.  I have enjoyed the ride so far.

Going forward, I intend to continue my focus on my reading, while writing on religion, philosophy, social issues, and my personal journey as time permits. I treasure the insightful comments I have received and the new friends that I have found as a result of my writing.

Yeah, this is me. And it has a cat, so it belongs on the internet.

Disclosure:

I do not, and never have, made any money off this blog. I write for my own enjoyment, and would probably find that deadlines would make this a whole lot less fun anyway. Plus, the chances anyone would want to pay me to write about the kind of books I tend to read is pretty low. So no, I doubt I will be quitting my day job to become a writer.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Carpet People by Terry Pratchett

Source of book: Audiobook borrowed from the library.

I previously read The Wee Free Men (reviewed here) by Pratchett, and discovered a new author. I would have loved to have read his stuff as a kid, but I am enough of a big kid to go for them now.

I selected this book as our audiobook for our camping excursion to Joshua Tree National Park (stay tuned for a post - and pictures - on that) for the simple reason that it was the most interesting audiobook of approximately the right length for our travel time at our library. (Or, at least it was what caught my eye first.) It turns out that my second daughter has read another Pratchett book, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. Big surprise there, from the girl who adores all things mouse. 



Anyway, The Carpet People was a big hit, thoroughly enjoyed by the kids and myself. This is an important consideration, because I rely on books to keep me alert during the longer solo drives.

The Carpet People is a peculiar book. As the author says in his forward, it was written by “two authors, and they were both the same person.” The original story was published in 1971 as Pratchett’s first novel. Later, after his success, he revisited the book, and made substantial revisions to reflect what he saw as his maturing craft as an author. We listened to the revised version, which holds together rather well. The seams, wherever they are, are well hidden.

Pratchett’s main claim to fame is his Discworld series. It is hard to describe in some ways, as it is more of a world with adventures that occur in it, but do not necessarily follow a story arc or the same characters. In fact, The Wee Free Men and The Amazing Maurice are both Discworld books, but have next to nothing to do with each other, except that they take place on the same world, and are both examples of Pratchett books aimed at “Young Adults” rather than grownups.

Like many recent “children’s” movies, these books contain plenty that is amusing to adults - and a remarkable amount of grownup philosophy. Come to think of it, this is and has been a hallmark of truly lasting children’s literature from time immemorial.

The world of The Carpet People, however, is unrelated to Discworld. Instead, it is quite literally, a carpet. After all, what if microscopic fairy folk were living in the carpet? What would they be like?

In this case, they are a mix of sentient races representative of different cultures and eras in societal development. The thread of the story (sorry, that is one bad pun from the book) follows the Mungrungs, a primitive tribal society. Another race is the Dumii, who invented and run the Empire. (They are ruled by emperors because “they are easier to get rid of than kings.”) The Empire seems like a cross between ancient Rome (for its control of many lesser kingdoms and tribes) and a bureaucracy of accountants. So, a bit as if the Department of Motor Vehicles ran the empire, rather than soldiers. The Deftmenes are more organized tribe of very short beings, ruled by their king, the colorful and fearless Brocando, who plays a significant role in the story. There are also the Wights, a race that can remember the future as well as the past - at least until the future changes, which makes for a key development in the plot. There are a few others, but the most notable are the Mouls, the villains in the story.

The characters are memorable too: Snibril, the younger brother of the chieftain of the Mungrungs, who serves as the protagonist; Glurk, his older brother, bigger in brawn than brains, but possessing a reasonable amount of good sense; Pismire, the shamman of the tribe, who tells stories that “are not necessarily untrue just because they are stories;” the aforementioned Brocando; and Bane, the retired Dumii general. 

Surely you knew I would love the short character with the outsize dose of self-confidence...
Illustration by the Author


As with any good fantasy world, there is an element of religion/superstition. In this case, there is a phenomenon known as “Fray,” probably a vacuum cleaner or broom. The evil Mouls worship Fray, and this worship determines their goal. Since they observe that Fray is a destroyer, leveling buildings and injuring and killing the inhabitants of the carpet, they believe that their goal in life likewise should be to go about destroying and enslaving everyone else. (They can sense Fray’s approach in advance, and thus avoid being destroyed themselves.) This is a bit of a pointed satire that perhaps hits a bit too close for comfort. However, it does indeed illustrate an important truth: Our view of God colors our actions. If we view God as angry and vengeful, eager to destroy others (those not like us), we too will act in accordance, and become destroyers. If we view God as obsessed with the tiny cultural details, we will obsess about them ourselves, and become Pharisees. If we view God as concerned about the plight of the poor and powerless, we might come to resemble St. Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa.

In addition to his perceptive portrayal of these greater philosophical points, Pratchett is delightfully snarky about politics. Whether it is the impossible bureaucracy which leads tribes like the Deftmenes to fear the very act of counting, or the illusion of caring which is a central tenet of political life, Pratchett is able to come up with a delightful turn of phrase that brings a knowing smile. I wish I had had the ability to write some of them down, but that sort of thing isn’t either plausible or advisable while piloting 11,000 pounds of truck and trailer down a highway. However, the magic of the internet was able to produce a few of the ones I remembered in a “sort-of” way.

“They called themselves the Munrungs. It meant The People, or The True Human Beings.
It's what most people call themselves, to begin with. And then one day the tribe meets some other People or, if it's not been a good day, The Enemy. If only they'd think up a name like Some More True Human Beings, it'd save a lot of trouble later on”

This is so true both historically and in actual practice. The “other” remains scary, and we tend to dehumanize anyone we perceive as an enemy. For the Mouls, this literally means that they will conquer, enslave, and finally ingest all other races.

The other quote I found was this description of the central city of the Dumii capitol:

“Normally its narrow streets were crowded with stalls, and people from all over the Carpet. They'd each be trying to cheat one another in that open-and-aboveboard way known as "doing business.”

Not quite how Adam Smith put it, but a reasonably accurate paraphrase. (Seriously, The Wealth of Nations is a lot of fun, in an 18th Century sort of way, and it definitely says some stuff that many conservatives like to forget that it says. It is remarkably anti-corporate and anti-bank, and it explains the concept of “rent-seeking” so vital to lobbying today. I recommend it!)

I’ll end with one final thought: is the fact that we cannot know the future a curse? Or is it a blessing? For the Wights, the idea that the future can be changed and that one can choose one’s path - and to a degree one’s future - is an unbearable burden. They cannot see how other beings can possibly live and function in such an open ended way. Much better for them to “follow the thread” that they can remember all at once.

If this sounds like a heavy read, I have been misleading. All this philosophy is mere incident to an engaging adventure story, which takes place in a magical and well-developed world. I found myself wishing there were a whole series about the carpet, just so I could explore the world further.

We plan to order some other Pratchett books from the greater library system for some of our future trips, so expect to see some further reviews here. I think Pratchett will take a place alongside our other favorites, Alexander McCall Smith, Kate DiCamillo, and Richard Peck, in the rotation.

A bonus:

The audiobook also included a serialized short story by Pratchett which introduced the characters in this book. It was a more straightforward travel narrative, with a few incidents. However, it does show the genesis in Pratchett’s mind of the main characters. In the final version, all of the characters are a bit better developed and complex. The greater space and the fact that Pratchett was no longer a teenager allow for a bit more nuance.