Saturday, November 26, 2011

Let Me Count the Ways

This is the time of year when one is supposed to stop and contemplate what one is thankful for. Thanksgiving itself falls at the end of November and is closely followed by the triumvirate of religious holidays Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza. And then New Year with its resolutions. Not to mention my birthday at the beginning of December. So many opportunities to take stock.
So here’s my attempt to gauge the extent of my gratitude for what I have.
·         The support and love of my family, friends, and husband.

·         The health and strength of myself and my loved ones.

·         Having enough paid work to keep body and soul together.

·         My genes, which have given me positivity, drive, and a can-do attitude from my Dad, creativity, empathy, and common sense from my Mum, and a sense of humor from both.

·         My passion for writing, which, even when I’m unable to indulge it for long periods of time, never ceases to make me happy. When I discover a new way to solve a narrative problem or when I find the right rhythm to a sentence after many tries. When a character takes an unexpected turn that turns out to be exactly in character or a scene comes together with depth and texture that has come from my deepest imagination.

I will be making up stories till I die. It is what I do and who I am, regardless of whether anyone ever reads a word that I write. And I am profoundly, eternally grateful for that.  

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Back to the Island

Herman Melville
I am buried, avalanched, drowning in paid editing work right now, which is the reason for my recent neglect of Midatlantic. I’ve been yearning to get back into writing Children of Eden, but between my workload and the onset of the intense social whirl of the “holidays” (which seems to start earlier every year), I don’t see that happening any time soon. But I have carved out a tiny fragment of time in which to share with you a glimpse of Alexander Salmon in 1842. A mere two years after he arrived in Tahiti with nothing to his name but a diamond ring and a set of shirt studs, he had married a Princess and become the trusted brother-in-law of the renowned  Queen Pomare IV.
The glimpse that we have of him is through the eyes of Herman Melville, later to be author of Moby Dick but at that time a lowly deserter from an American whaling ship. He and another deserter came to the Queen’s compound with the idea of asking for work. Before he was shooed away by the Queen’s ladies, he noticed another house in the royal compound “of large size and fine exterior; the special residence of a European...who had done himself the honour of marrying into the Pomaree [sic] family.” This was Alexander Salmon, and there was something about him that put Melville’s nose firmly out of joint.

“The lady he wedded being a near kinswoman of the queen, he became a permanent member of her majesty’s household. This adventurer rose late, dressed theatrically in calico and trinkets, assumed a dictatorial tone in conversation, and was evidently on excellent terms with himself. We found him reclining on a mat, smoking a reed-pipe of tobacco, in the midst of an admiring circle of chiefs and ladies. He must have noticed our approach; but instead of rising and offering civilities, he went on talking and smoking, without even condescending to look at us."
Even though Melville's appearance was bedraggled and uncouth after weeks of living rough, he had obviously expected the “adventurer” to acknowledge and welcome a fellow white man. In this, he entirely mistook Salmon’s attitude to class and race. The Society Islands were full of disreputable sailors who had jumped ship and were living off the bounty of the land and little else, and Salmon would see no reason to associate with such a man simply because their skin was the same colour. As a Victorian Englishmen, he was extremely class-conscious and, having grown up as the son of a tradesman, he never ceased to feel he had to prove his credentials as a gentleman. Like many other emigrants to Tahiti, he welcomed the chance to reinvent himself away from the stifling social constraints that prevailed in Britain.

However, unlike most Englishmen of his generation and time, he was remarkably free of the idea of white racial superiority. Having been born a Jew in an overwhelmingly gentile country, he was used to being an outsider and did not think about race in the same way that conventionally brought-up young Englishmen had been taught to think. Some settlers and visitors spoke with distaste of his cross-racial marriage. For example, one British visitor to the island described him as having contracted “a low marriage with a native of the island; I say ‘low’ even though she boasts of being of royal blood.”

To Alexander Salmon, his wife’s skin colour was of no consequence but her royal blood was of paramount importance. It enhanced his prestige and status - in Tahiti, back in Britain, and in his own eyes as well - and elevated him to a trusted relative of a Queen. However small and insular this particular royal circle may have been, his privileged place in it was an enormous source of pride to him all of his life.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Death in the Garden

On Sunday morning November 6, 2011, we lost our beautiful cat, Daphne. She was 15 years old and had been getting thinner and more fragile since the summer. She went missing on Saturday night - the coldest night since last winter - and when she didn't return in the morning, we knew things were bad. We searched under bushes in every yard and called her name up and down the street, and the incoherent prayers that I'd been sending up began to coalesce into one fervent plea, "Please god, let me see her again one more time."

An instinct made Mike pull aside a large plant pot in our neighbors' yard and there she was, limp, apparently lifeless but still - just - alive. He held her as I ran, heart pounding, to the house to get my purse and keys and a blanket. Then he laid her on my lap in the back of the car and drove as fast as he dared to the emergency animal hospital. I cradled her in my arms and crooned at her as she drew her last slow rasping breaths, looking up with eyes that didn't see me. By the time we pulled up outside the hospital,I could tell she was gone.

Some kind friends have pointed me to this poem, which is a far better epitaph for my darling girl than I can come up with in my fumbling, incoherent grief. It's by the Pulitzer prize-winning poet, Franz Wright.

On the Death of a Cat

In life, death
was nothing
to you: I am

willing to wager
my soul that it
simply never occured

to your nightmareless
mind, while sleep
was everything

(see it raised to an infinite
power and perfection) - no death

in you then, so now
how even less. Dear stealth
of innocence

licked polished
to an evil
luster, little

milk fang, whiskered
friend -