Sex and Lies by Leïla Slimani

translated by Sophie Lewis (from French)

Reality bites.

Sex and Lies Leila Slimani MoroccoThe last nonfiction book I read was also set in Morocco (at the time referred to as the Spanish Sahara) written by a foreign woman living openly with her boyfriend, it couldn’t be more in contrast with what I’ve just read here – although Sanmao does encounter women living within the oppressive system that is at work in this collection.

In Morocco the ban on ‘fornication’, or zina, isn’t just a moral injunction. Article 490 of the penal code prescribes ‘imprisonment of between one month and one year [for] all persons of opposite sexes, who, not being united by the bonds of marriage, pursue sexual relations’. According to article 489, all ‘preferential or unnatural behaviour between two persons of the same sex will be punished by between six months and three years’ imprisonment’.

Leïla Slimani interviews women who responded to her after the publication of her first novel Adèle, a character she describes as a rather extreme metaphor for the sexual experience of young Moroccan women; it was a book that provoked a dialogue, many women wanted to have that conversation with her, felt safe doing so, inspiring her to collect those stories and publish them for that reason, to provoke a national conversation.

Novels have a magical way of forging a very intimate connection between writers and their readers, of toppling the barriers of shame and mistrust. My hours with those women were very special. And it’s their stories I have tried to give back: the impassioned testimonies of a time and its suffering.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

In these essays Leila Slimani gives a voice to Moroccan women trying to live lives where they can express their natural affinity for love, while living in a culture that both condemns and commodifies sex, where the law punishes and outlaws sex outside marriage, as well as homosexuality and prostitution. The consequences are a unique form of extreme and give rise to behaviours that shock.

It’s both a discomforting read, to encounter this knowledge and hear this testimony for the first time, and encouraging if it means that a space is being created that allows the conversation to happen at all.

However, overall it leaves a heavy feeling of disempowerment, having glimpsed the tip of another nation’s patriarchal iceberg. We are left with the feeling that this is a steep and icy behemoth to conquer. Article 489 is not drawn from sharia or any other religious source, it is in fact identical to the French penal code’s former article 331, repealed in 1982. They are laws inherited directly from the French protectorate.

In a conversation with Egyptian feminist and author Mona Eltahawy about the tussle between the freedom desired and the shackles forced upon women, Eltahawy responded by using words attributed to the great American abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who devoted her life to persuading slaves to flee the plantations and claim their freedom.

She is meant to have said: “I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew were slaves.” Emancipation, Eltahawy told me, is first about raising awareness. If women haven’t fully understood the state of inferiority in which they are kept, they will do nothing but perpetuate it.

Women are stepping out of isolation and sharing their stories everywhere, finding solidarity in that first step, sharing in a safe space, being heard, realising they are not alone.

May it be a stepping stone to change.

I read this book as part of WIT (Women in Translation) month and was fortunate to have been gifted it by a reader, since I participated in the gift swap, so thank you Jess for sending me this book, you can read her review of it on her blog, Around The World One Female Novelist at a Time.

Stories of the Sahara by Sanmao

translated (from Chinese) by Mike Fu.

Literature Worthy of Translation

荷西 Sanmao Stories of the Sahara Echo ChenUsually when I come across a new book that sounds like my kind of read, meaning it is of cross-cultural interest, where a character (or person) from one culture (preferably not one I’m familiar with) encounters another, I’ll find others who’ve read it to discern whether it’s for me or not.

As soon as I saw the cover of Stories From the Sahara, I was intrigued. A fascinating and popular Taiwanese woman author of many books and essays, living in the Sahara with her Spanish lover; why has only one person I follow read this and why are we only hearing about this mysterious travel writer in 2020?

I don’t know the answer to my question (I suspect publisher’s had their radar tuned elsewhere in the past and perhaps the Anglosphere/Sinosphere head butting that takes place in the political arena affected their vision); but August is WIT (Women in Translation) month, a movement that’s gaining traction and interest, the genre and languages of books translated/published is widening and thanks to Eleanor at The Monthly Booking I bought this engaging and unforgettable read.

Thanks Mike Fu, who read the book as a young man and has translated it into English, he is now translating her next book, of their adventures in the Canary Islands.

Who is Sanmao? Echo Chen? Chen Ping?

Sanmao 荷西 Stories of the Sahara

Sanmao & José, Al Aaiun, Sahara

In 1973, an independent young Chinese woman, born Chen Ping on 26 March 1943 left her family home in Taiwan, after a family tragedy, to travel to the Spanish Sahara with her friend José. They married in 1974. She had first lived in Spain in 1967 attending university in Madrid.

While in the Sahara she was inspired to write vignettes of her life there, they were published in Taiwan and China to great acclaim. The first volume debuted in May 1976.

Sanmao died on 4 January 1991, at the age of forty-seven. She published more than twenty books, mostly semi-autobiographical essays, selling over fifteen million copies.

In a beautiful, moving essay, commemorating what would have been Sanmao’s 77th year, her niece Jessica Chen, remembers her Auntie, sharing something of the unique soul she was and the words of her grandparents, speaking of their tender, beloved daughter who, “had simply gotten off the train of life sooner than we expected”.

Grandpa and Grandma always said she was a special child with a gift from God, and the richness of her interior life was off-limits to others—unless she chose to let you in herself. Writing was the window she opened to the outside world. The people who understood this would naturally discover a path to her heart; those who didn’t could only stand at the window and gaze in from afar.

What was Sanmao doing in the Sahara?

Spanish Sahara Stories of the Sahara Sanmao

Photo by Taryn Elliott on Pexels.com

One day Sanmao was absent-mindedly flipping through the pages of National Geographic when she came across a feature on the Sahara. It was from that moment that she developed an obsession not just to visit, but to live there.

I only read it through once. I couldn’t understand the feeling of homesickness that I had, inexplicable and yet so decisive, towards that vast and unfamiliar land, as if echoing from a past life.

Arriving in Spain, she learned that 280,000 square metres of the Sahara at the time were designated Spanish territory. Her desire to go there deepened, torturing her with longing.

José went ahead of her, securing a job at a phosphate mine, found them a home, allowing her to fulfill that soul-whispered desire.

Book Review – Stories of the Sahara

Stories of the Sahara Sanmao Portrait I absolutely loved Stories of the Sahara, in its entirety and it will likely be my favourite nonfiction title of the year. It is so refreshing to read a travelogue by a woman from another culture and discover a writer beloved of Chinese and Taiwanese readers for decades.

I almost couldn’t get over how tough it was during that initial period and thought often about heading back to Europe. Amid that endless stretch of sand, it was so hot during the day that water could scald your hands, while night was so cold that you had to wear a heavy coat. Many times I asked myself why I insisted on staying here. Why had I wanted to come to this long-forgotten corner of the world all by myself? As there were no answers to these questions, I continued to settle in, one day at a time.

I hadn’t expected it to be so funny, so many of her observations and the things requested of her made me laugh out loud. It’s unlike any other travel memoir I’ve read; here is a sensitive, empathetic woman, bringing a completely fresh set of eyes, to a place few of us will ever have dreamed of living.

At her first glimpse of the periphery of Al Aaiún, as they walk from the airport towards her new home, she is in awe seeing tents, bungalows, camels and herds of goats in the sand.

It was like walking into a fantasy, a whole new world.

The wind carried aloft the laughter of little girls playing a game. An indescribable vitality and joy can be found wherever humans exist. Even this barren and impoverished  backwater was teeming with life, not a struggle for survival. For the residents of the desert, their births and deaths and everything in between were all part of a natural order. Looking out at the smoke ascending to the sky from their homes, I felt that these people were almost elegant in their serenity. Living carefree, in my understanding, is what a civilised spirit is all about.

The combination of her naivete, determination and feminism – her refusal to be stopped from doing what she wants – create some of the most hilarious and alarming moments. Her kindness and frankness gain her entry inside the culture and landscape, providing insights few are capable of accessing. People trusted her – yes they often took advantage of her – but she was a willing participant. They provided rich literary material, clearly!

This is one of those books I don’t wish to share much of what is inside, I prefer to say, “Read this, it’s so good!”

I was intrigued by the obsession she had to go and live in the Sahara, I was delighted that she lived at the wrong end of the street in among the permanent locals, I loved her sense of adventure, how she overcame boredom in searing heat, getting in the car and driving for hours in the desert. But it is her frankness, her empathy and sense of humour that  make it an unforgettable read.

Reading Women in Translation

I picked this up to read for #WITMonth and it’s one of the best, that combination of travel to a new place, meeting local people through the perception of someone from a culture other than our own, priceless.

“Travel with an open heart, then bring back home the feelings that you find.” Sanmao

Further Reading

Colombia University: Interview with translator: Mike Fu

Words Without Borders, Essay by Jessica Chen (niece) March 2020: Sanmao’s Footprints: Remembering the Writer on Her 77th Birthday

New York Times Obituary: Overlooked No More: Sanmao, ‘Wandering Writer’ Who Found Her Voice in the Desert

The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (2010)

Inspiration in A Title

The book title ‘The Warmth of Other Suns’ is a line written by the novelist Richard Wright (1908-1960) who wrote about the plight of being African-American, most notably in his novel Native Son (1940) and autobiography Black Boy (1945). It provides the opening to this book. A migrant from Mississippi, he set out on his journey in 1927 for Chicago.

“I was leaving the South
To fling myself into the unknown . . .
I was taking a part of the South
to transplant in alien soil,
To see if it could grow differently,
If it could drink of new and cool rains,
Bend in strange winds,
Respond to the warmth of other suns
And, perhaps, to bloom”

Isabel Wilkerson is an American journalist and the first woman of African-American heritage to win the Pulitzer Prize in journalism. Both her parents were part of the migration North, as were many in the neighbourhood where she grew up. As a journalist she heard many stories of similar journeys and began to join the dots and see the bigger picture, which lead to the premise of this book.

Non-Fiction Personal Narrative

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration is a factual account of the little acknowledged great migration of African Americans out of the Jim Crow* Southern states of America, beginning after WW1 in 1915 continuing until the 1970’s, a long continuous diaspora that had a significant impact on families, their culture and connections between their new home and old.

Who or what is Jim Crow?

Jim Crow is an adjective used to describe a set of laws that southern states devised regulating every aspect of black people’s lives, solidifying the southern caste system, prohibiting even the most casual and incidental contact between the races. They would come to be known as the Jim Crow laws, though it is unknown who precisely Jim Crow was or if anyone by that name even existed.

One Woman’s Personal Journey to Accumulate & Document History

After fifteen years of research, studying many reports and papers and archives and conducting hundreds of interviews and journeys, Isabel Wilkerson decided to focus the narrative of this great flux of humanity, choosing three people who left over three decades, for different destinations. Their stories provide specific and heart felt accounts of their journey’s and the life they created.

Historians would come to call it the Great Migration. It would become the biggest under-reported story of the twentieth century. It was vast. It was leaderless. It crept along so many thousands of currents over so long a stretch of time as to be difficult for the press truly to capture while it was underway.

The result of that research is this book documenting the experiences of those who are representative of the larger whole, essentially the defection of six million African Americans from the South to the North, the Midwest and the West, from 1915, World War I, until 1970 when the South began truly to change.

What binds these stories together was the back-to-the-wall, reluctant yet hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done.

A Historical Study

Isabel Wilkerson Caste The Warmth of Other Suns Great Migration

Isabel Wilkerson, Author

Intertwined with these personal narratives, Wilkerson shares historical facts, bringing together a history of the struggle of a vast group of American citizens who left their homes, their ancestral roots and memories for another part of the country where they hoped to find freedom and be treated as equals.

Though they would find opportunity, the search for equality would be somewhat illusory, the oppression taking a different form, the discrimination more clandestine, eventually erupting into the civil rights movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Three People from the South, Three Decades, Three Destinations

Of the three whose lives unfold in this gripping narrative, Ida Mae Brandon Gladney would leave first in the 1930’s and ultimately end up in Chicago; George Swanson Starling left in the 1940’s to live in New York and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster departed in the 1950’s headed for California.

Ida Mae Brandon Gladney

We meet Ida Mae in her hometown of Chickasaw County, Mississippi, in 1937, the wife of a sharecropper, working the land of a planter picking cotton. They were a young couple who worked hard and stayed out of trouble, who decide to leave after witnessing the terrible beating of a cousin, in a case of mistaken identity. Their vulnerability to false accusation was a catalyst to their decision to leave. The North was facing a labour shortage and actively recruiting workers from the South.

Oftentimes, just to go away, is one of the most aggressive things that another person can do, and if the means of expressing discontent are limited, as in this case, it is one of the few ways in which pressure can be put. John Dollard, Yale Scholar

Ida Mae and her husband struggled initially to find work, reminding me of the many who waited, Bernice McFadden’s Harlan raised by his grandmother while his parents sought their fortunes in the North and in Not Without Laughter, Langston Hughes and his mother waited for his father to send for them.

Competing with other immigrant groups, the increased cost of living, raising a family, they persevered in continual determination to keep bettering their situation.

She was the matriarch of her family. She was one of the wisest and most beautiful people I’ve ever met in my life. Doing this book changed me in so many ways. She had a way of – a kind of Zen perspective, if you can say – if you can imagine it, of accepting what was and recognizing what she couldn’t change, and moving on and not living in the past. And she was beloved by everyone who knew her.

 

George Swanson Starling

Photo by julie aagaard on Pexels.com

George held aspirations to further his education, doing well in school, but there was pressure on him to work in the orange groves like everyone else. He made a mistake that altered the course of his life, though not his underlying essence and ambition. Working in the fruit groves using his intelligence and ability to bring people together to collectively try and improve their wage, made his existence dangerous accelerating the need for him to leave.

Jim Crow had a way of turning everyone against one another, not just white against black or landed against lowly, but poor against poorer and black against black for an extra scrap of privilege. George Starling left all he knew because he would have died if he had stayed.

He would leave Eustis, the interior citrus belt of Florida and take the twenty-three hour train ride up the Atlantic coast to New York alone, not knowing when he’d be able to send for his wife Inez. That set something of a precedent for their relationship, though it was a wound that went back further than her marriage, for ironically George would spend his working life away from home, riding the rails up and down the East Coast as a railway attendant.

Robert Pershing Foster 

Photo by Jan Kroon on Pexels.com

Robert was the youngest son in a family of high achievers from Monroe, Louisiana, his brother Madison a doctor, encouraged him to go into partnership, but Robert had other aspirations.

The only way that someone as proud and particular as Pershing could survive in the time and place he was in was to put his mind somewhere else. He grew up watching his parents exercise exquisite control over the few things they were permitted to preside over in life.

Through marriage and his profession he aimed higher and further than most and had high expectations of himself and others in consequence. A proud man, he drove his way to California in his Buick Roadmaster, taking a circuitous route to Nuevo Laredo on the Mexican border, satisfying his craving for adventure and for doing what he did in grandiose style. Unsure whether he could make it in Los Angeles, he drove to Oakland before making his decision.

It was looking like Monroe, which was perhaps one reason why people from Monroe had gravitated there in the first place and made a colony for themselves. It was precisely what Robert was looking to get away from. It was not living up to his glamour vision of California. It felt as if he had driven all this way for the same place he had left. Los Angeles had seduced him. Oakland didn’t stand a chance.

The Structure, The Decades, The Fear, The Exodus, The Dream, The Reality

Though they leave in different decades, the narrative has been beautifully orchestrated to allow their stories to be read concurrently, so we learn about their circumstances in the South first, discover their personal motivations for leaving, their plans and then their departure. Each new section tells their three stories.

It’s a brilliant way to join the stories and see the mass migration for the terrifying, courageous yet exciting act it was. The departures, no matter which decade they were in, all carry within them an undercurrent of fear of the unknown, and it is with some relief that I recall I’m reading about people who will survive into old age, the danger surrounding their life-changing departure palpable nevertheless.

The stories are rich with detail and anecdote, the historical references are eye-opening and important to acknowledge. It is an excellent book, a thorough examination of the movement of people out of oppression towards equality, rights that continue to be fought for today. It’s impossible to do justice to the book, both it’s humanity and history, it’s an astounding accomplishment and well worth reading.

We cannot escape our origins, however hard we might try, those origins contain the key – could we but find it – to all that we later become. James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

Isabel Wilkerson’s new book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is published on August 11.

Have you read any novels that incorporate a character making this migration out of the South? Do let me know in the comments below.

Further Reading

TED Talk by Isabel Wilkerson: The Great Migration and the Power of A Single Decision

New York Times: Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste is an instant American Classic about our abiding sin by Dwight Garner

Chicago Tribune: Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste is is about the strict lines that keep us apart — lines that are more than race or class

The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson (1951)

The Sea as Home

Exactly five years ago I came across and read Rachel Carson’s debut novel Under the Sea-Wind (1941), not the book she is most well-known for, that is Silent Spring (1962) but her own personal favourite and definitely one of mine.

It was the first in her Sea Trilogy a beautifully told narrative account of three creatures that live within the ecosystem of the sea, a female sanderling named Silverbar, Scomber the mackerel and Anguilla the migrating eel.

The Sea as Mother

The Sea Around Us Rachel CarsonIn The Sea Around Us Carson makes the sea her subject, addressing it in three parts, Mother Sea, The Restless Sea and Man and the Sea About Him.

Reading nonfiction books on marine biology or ecology isn’t something I would normally choose to do on holiday but Rachel Carson writes narrative nonfiction that turns science and observation into a thrilling and insightful pageturner. And this second book in the trilogy, a New York Times bestseller, is just as engaging as her debut was. I loved it.

Its potency lies in the charm and skill of the writing, its erudition and rich organisation of facts, and in its personal reticence – how quietly it captivates our attention. Before we know it we are charmed into learning about the wonders of the ocean, then into a deep awareness of  not only their health but how it affects that of the whole natural world. Through sharing Carson’s research, we become acutely sensitive to the interdependence of life. – Ann Zwinger , Introduction

The Sea as Teacher

Though published in 1951, therefore knowing our understanding of marine ecology has continued to develop, most of us likely won’t have read or studied too deeply about the sea, in fact, many remain (with good reason) in fear of it – not understanding her mood changes, dangerous rips, turbulent surf and the menacing creatures that live within her depths.

The Sea Rachel Carson Marine Ecology

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Here a casual reader with an interest in nature writing of a literary kind will learn and absorb much about the sea, the ocean, her characteristics, behaviours, secrets and influences with little effort, such is her mastery of narrating a serious subject in an engaging and memorable way.

Talking about the seasons, we discover the sea too experiences events that herald those forthcoming changes.

The lifelessness, the hopelessness, the despair of the winter sea are an illusion. Everywhere are the assurances that the cycle has come to the full, containing the means of its own renewal. There is the promise of a new spring in the very iciness of the winter sea, in the chilling of the water, which must, before many weeks, become so heavy that it will plunge downward, precipitating the overturn that is the first act in the drama of spring.

From Sea to Land, and the Moon Question

Taking us back to the beginning we learn how the sea might have come about, reading of a once believed theory that the moon may have been a child of the earth, born of a great tidal wave of earthly substance, torn off and hurled into space, leaving a scar or depression on the surface of the globe, that now holds the Pacific Ocean.

Whether or not that is true, we do know the moon affects the tides and cycles of many animals. Where the Moon came from continues to be debated today.

We familiarise with the evolution of tides, the moon effect, the significant evaporation of the Mediterranean which makes it excessively salty and more dense and learn of the rush of a current from the Atlantic that replaces it, lighter water that pours past Gibraltar in surface streams of great strength.

jellyfish sea life Rachel Carson

Photo by Artem Mizyuk on Pexels.com

It was not until Silurian time, some 350 million years ago, that the first pioneer of land life crept out on the shore.

When they went ashore the animals that took up a land life carried with them a part of the sea in their bodies, a heritage which they passed on to their children and which even today links each land animal with its origin in the ancient sea. Fish, amphibian, and reptile – warm-blooded bird and mammal – each of us carries in our veins a salty stream  in which the elements sodium, potassium and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in sea water.

Providing a succinct and easily readable account, we begin to understand the complexity of ocean currents, of streams within oceans, their discovery by sailors and captains, the reluctance of men to share their navigation maps, the effect on human migrations.

We read how interconnected everything is, the winds, waves, the currents, the deep abyss, the tendencies of schools of fish, explanations for their sudden disappearance and the effect on our livelihoods; the appearance of new land formations via underwater volcanoes, creating islands that emerge from the sea, we hear of airborne spiders riding high for miles, how life emerges on a protuberance from the sea and how easily it can be wiped out again.

It closes with the foretelling of the climate change we are already in, and the many that have been.

It is almost certainly true we are in the warming-up stage following the Pleistocene glaciation – that the world’s climate over the next thousands of years, will grow considerably warmer before beginning a downward swing into another Ice Age.

Rachel Carson had an incredible gift of writing the scientific complexity of the ecosystem of the sea and her creatures, sharing what was known at the time and hints of that which wasn’t in a captivating way, born of a great passion and love of the sea, the shore and all that lived within or depended on it.

Ideal Lake or Seaside Reading

Rachel Carson The Sea Marine Ecology

Rachel Carson, Marine Biologist (1907-1964)

I read this on holiday sitting next to a lake, watching on a micro level those same factors that move a body of water, that give it life, occasionally seeing the little fish who’ve made a home in it, the plant life in the water and beside it. And we humans, making it our playground for the summer. In much appreciation and gratitude.

“The shore is an ancient world. I can’t think of any more exciting place to be than down in the low-tide world, when the ebb tide falls very early in the morning, and the world is full of salt smell, and the sound of water, and the softness of fog.” Rachel Carson

Further Reading

New Yorker: The Right Way to Remember Rachel Carson

Brain Pickings: Why the Sea is Blue: Rachel Carson on the Science and Splendor of the Marine Spectrum 

Buy a Copy of The Sea Around Us

Recollections of My Non-Existence by Rebecca Solnit (Essays)

Rebecca Solnit EssaysThe Circular or Spiral Memoir

Having read a few of Rebecca Solnit’s essay collections, I’m used to her meandering mind or circular style of narrative, so while this has a #memoir tag that might create an expectation of recounting an aspect of the author’s life, Solnit’s essays are rarely linear, less ‘slice of life’ and more like interconnected ‘thought bubbles’.

She starts out recalling her early adult life, eight years in a neighbourhood of San Franscisco, the people she came into contact with, the situations she avoided as a woman, pausing now from years afar wondering about her impact on that neighbourhood, her contribution to its demise, to its gentrification, removing its diversity, colour, vibrancy and ultimately affordability.

The title pays homage to and contrasts Diana di Prima’s Recollections of My Life as a Woman, a feminist beatnik poet I first came across earlier in 2020 when I was reading all I could about 1968, the year she wrote Revolutionary Letters, a series of poems composed of utopian anarchism and ecological awareness, scribbled from a spiritual, feminist perspective. All touch points within Solnit’s repertoire, however she writes in and of a different era, scratching at the wounds of our non-existence, how it has been actively contributed to by others and by her/our own hand.

Our NonExistence

Recalling a sensation of disappearing, as if on the verge of fainting; rather than the world disappearing she senses herself disappear, introducing the metaphor of nonexistence, discovering/exposing the many ways it is enacted.

In those days I was trying to disappear and to appear, trying to be safe and to be someone, and those agendas were often at odds with each other.

Because of the meandering style, it’s not easy to recall which particular vignette or essay has the most impact, however I note that I’ve highlighted 107 passages in the collection, her words provoke, recollect, ignite the reader’s memory, imagination and own experience.

Looking Back At Youth From Ripeness

She struggles writing poetry as a young woman, not doing it well but ferociously, unaware of what or why she was resisting, often resulting in a murky, incoherent, erratic defiance, something she observes today, as young women around her fight those same battles.

The fight wasn’t just to survive bodily, though that could be intense enough, but to survive as a person possessed of rights, including the right to participation and dignity and a voice. More than survive, then: to live.

And though we all know people learn from their own experience, there is something reassuring in reading or hearing of those who’ve trod a similar path; she expresses a desire that young women coming after her might skip some of the old obstacles, some of her writing exists to that end, at least by naming those obstacles.

Women Feminism Rebecca Solnit Silencing

Photo by Retha Ferguson on Pexels.com

Discussing harassment and violence towards women, particularly young women, she ponders how and what she is able to do differently being an older woman, compared to how she reacted and behaved in youth.

So much of what makes young women good targets is self-doubt and self-effacement.

Observing how we strengthen our purpose over time, gaining orientation and clarity, she recognises something like ripeness and calm flowing in, as the urgency and naiveté of youth ebb.

I think of her book The Faraway Nearby where she revisited childhood and a difficult mother, unrecognisable in the woman she then tended, neither of them who they once were, there being no longer any need in hanging on to the earlier version. Ripeness was a metaphor here too, one she desired to observe over days, a pile of apricots gifted from her mother, left on the floor of her bedroom, an installation, left to admire, to mature, rot, transform.

Conversation and Research Weave Patterns

Looking back at her evolution as a writer, she recalls the evening conversation that spawned the morningessay ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ that went on to become that new word, now mainstream ‘mansplaining’.

She rereads photocopies of letters in handwriting that is no longer her own, meeting a person who was her, that no longer exists, who didn’t know how to speak.

The young writer I met there didn’t know how to speak from the heart, though I could be affectionate…She was speaking in various voices because she didn’t yet know what voice was hers, or rather she had not yet made one.

Furnishing her mind with readings, they become part of the equipment of imagination, her set of tools for understanding the world, creating patterns, learning enough to “trace paths though the forests of books, learn landmarks and lineages.” She celebrates the pleasure of meeting new voices, ideas and possibilities that help make the world more coherent in some way, extending or filling in the map of one’s universe, grateful for their ability to bring beauty, find pattern and meaning, create joy.

Discussing patterns of how women were portrayed in novels by men she read in the past, she becomes aware of always relating to the part of the male protagonist, usually cast in the preferred heroic role, noting:

‘women devoured to the bone are praised; often those insistent on their own desires and needs are reviled or rebuked for taking up space, making noise. You are punished unless you punish yourself into nonexistence.’

Imagination Rules

It was Nella Larsen, author of Quicksand and Passing who said:

“Authors do not supply imaginations, they expect their readers to have their own, and to use it.”

Rebecca Solnit carries the thought further observing the astonishment of reading:

that suspension of your own time and place to travel into others’. It’s a way of disappearing from where you are…a world arises in your head that you have built at the author’s behest, and when you’re present in that world you’re absent from your own…It’s the reader who brings the book to life.

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

She finds research exciting, piecing together a nonfiction narrative like a combination of craft and medicine, of creativity and healing.

Research is often portrayed as dreary and diligent, but for those with a taste for this detective work there’s the thrill of the chase – of hunting data, flushing obscure things out of hiding, of finding fragments that assemble into a picture.

Even if some of this is familiar from previous works, it is the reworking of the landscape of her mind, the rearranging of those experiences, interviews, a more mature awareness and wakefulness that makes her work so readable, engaging and accessible and relevant to what is happening in the fast changing world we inhabit.

Nonfiction is at its best an act of putting the world back together – or tearing some piece of it apart to find what’s hidden beneath the assumptions or conventions…recognizing the patterns that begin to arise as the fragments begin to assemble.

For all it’s circular loops and spiral reasoning, its patterns and weaving, I appreciate the web Rebecca Solnit has created in this collection, threads linking across and around its intersections, leaving something fully formed at its conclusion.

Highly Recommended.

Rebecca Solnit Books I’ve Reviewed Here

The Faraway Nearby

The Mother of All Questions

Buy a Rebecca Solnit Book

The Resilient Farmer by Doug Avery

Growing Up on a Hill Country Sheep Farm

I spent the majority of my childhood on two hill country sheep farms in rural New Zealand (Port Waikato and Te Akau); Ngapuriri in the photo below left, my Dad and my son in the other two photos on his retirement farm.

Not knowing what I wanted to do in my life after school, I decided to attend an agricultural university in the South Island, a college full of farmer’s sons and those interested in horticulture, plant science and associated research. I never worked in agriculture, I spent a few years in forestry, then moved to London to study essential oils and well-being, leaving both farming and the corporate world behind.

#matesofmatesformates – mental health and well-being

Recently I noticed a few friends, many of whom are the current generation of farmer’s, on video doing press-ups in the paddocks of their farms, or on the floorboards of the woolshed, in support of mental health awareness in the rural sector, where anxiety and depression are serious issues. Farmer’s were being encouraged to start a conversation with their mates, check in on each other and to read Doug Avery’s book, The Resilient Farmer, a great conversation starter.

John Jackson, a university friend and neighbour from one of those farms we lived on, took the challenge further. Knowing farmers were suffering from drought after record low rainfall and at time when the country had been further isolated by Covid-19 lockdown, he contacted his local Rural Support Trust (an organisation that supports rural people through tough times) with an idea to raise funds to buy copies of the book to be distributed among farmers. The publisher has offered a generous discount and so the press-ups and fund-raising continues.

It is inspiring to see those who are participating, taking a minute to talk on camera a little about mental health well-being, sharing something of their own experience or encouraging others to give a mate a call. I’m sure that all the comments they receive and the interactions from old friends has also lifted everyone’s spirits. Fortunately I wasn’t tagged to do push-ups, but I thought I’d read the book and share a little of what its about, to support the initiative.

A Review of the Book

Doug Avery The Resilient Farmer

The book begins with a foreword by a well-known New Zealand rugby player from the 80’s and 90’s John Kirwan who admits that until he became aware of their particular situation he thought most farmers had an idyllic life, living in their beautiful landscapes away from the stresses of city living.

If you look at our farmers, traditionally, they tend to be introverts – they have to be, to handle the isolation. They are strong people. Stoic. Their self-belief centres on being able to cope with everything the land throws at them. So mental health, for them, is pretty complex. The idea of showing vulnerability is probably several times more traumatic than it is for someone like me.

They look to their family background – maybe they’re the third or fourth generation on that piece of land – and they think, My parents and grandparents built this farm, cleared it with their own hands; and I am going to lose it? They think, My parents and grandparents never got depressed; what’s wrong with me? They don’t realise that, often, their parents and grandparents did suffer, but they hid it. Sir John Kirwan (All Black 1984-1994)

Doug Avery lives in the north-east of the South Island, a part of the country that has a particular micro-climate with very little rainfall. His father had a small farm, but when Doug got involved as a young man, he had energy and ambition and quickly figured out that they’d make a better living by expanding, so he convinced his father to purchase a neighbouring farm. He farmed according to traditional methods that had seemed to serve previous generations, but when successive years of low rainfall caused severe drought, his animals, his mental health and his livelihood suffered.

For farming folk as for everybody else, the really big things in life are outside our control. The only thing we can control is how we meet these challenges.

In short, he stuck his head in the sand, hiding away in his office, not confiding his worries to his wife and growing increasingly irritated with everyone around him. He became an angry man and a less social one and began thinking that perhaps everyone would be better off without him.

I thrive on reward, and that had vanished from my life. I was so ashamed and afraid, and yet so determined to blame everyone – anything – else for my problems.

My problem was the way I farmed, and the way I thought about things.

In his book, he describes his personal descent and that of the farm, of the environment. There comes a turning point when a friend invites him to attend a seminar being held by a plant scientist, a researcher from that same university we went to. Reluctantly he agrees to go. Listening and after meeting and working with him, he has an epiphany when this man tells him he isn’t farming sheep and beef, he’s farming water, and not very successfully.

Learning to farm differently – to farm with nature, rather than against it – is at the heart of that success. But even more important I had to change my thinking processes.

Doug Avery Resilient Farmer South Island New ZealandHis farm sat in a part of the country that had more of a Mediterranean character, hot summers, mild winters and dryness, a challenge for traditional farming. Their nearest neighbour was a salt works, for them long, dry summers and the warm north-west winds were ideal. When he stopped being angry and started engaging in a more collaborative way with people who had knowledge he could tap into, who wanted to work with him, everything changed.

When asked by a specialist why he had a system that didn’t fit the natural curves of what nature was offering him on the farm, he realised he hadn’t been asking the right questions.

My big problem was that I didn’t stop to consider the nature of this place. I was working against it, uselessly trying to make it fit my old ideas about what would work; and in doing so, I was working against myself.

In the book he details a three pronged sustainable approach to dealing with the problem. Environmental, financial and social. While he doesn’t really share much about the method he followed to deal with his depression, beyond admitting he needed to change his thinking, his attitude and behaviours – there are references to support networks provided and one of the stand out first things he asks anyone who comes to him sharing their despair, is whether they have talked openly with their wife. And the second thing he says, after they say no – is that she’s unlikely to react how you think she will.

Resilience isn’t about not having bad times; it’s about having the tools to recover from difficulties, to adapt, to bounce forward. Part of resilience is being honest and self-aware about the feelings we carry inside ourselves.

Ultimately, Doug too has family who are going to farm and he has been able to pass on what he has learned, in the hope that they might avoid the depths of despair to which he fell. His community suffered devastating earthquakes and so he has taken his learning and experiences with depression to the wider community, being part of a group of people who check in on others, he recognises the look, the sign of someone trying to keep it all together and knows how to listen, to start a conversation, to let people know that we are all connected, that people care. It started for him in the farming community and has extended out to the wider community.  He finishes with a suggestion about the education system, which makes me think about sharing something that has existed here in France for over 50 years MFR (Maison Familiale Rurale) at school level.

In my view, our education system tends to prepare people en masse, but in reality nearly everyone has an individual task and an individual destination. We need to start personalising education to make people more purpose-ready for the life they want to live.

It’s an excellent book that people with any connection to rural communities will take something from and for those who know little or nothing about farming lives, it will be an eyeopener. It’s a job that is often a life commitment and he talks about it in a way that people will be able to understand and relate to and discuss. He’s become an inspiration to many.

Support The Initiative – Rural Support Trust

To support the initiative and contribute to the purchase of books for the rural community:

Email wanda@ruralsupport.org.nz and ask for more information or if you are in New Zealand simply make a deposit to ANZ 06-0145-0743411-00 with the reference “Mates”. All donations with the reference “Mates” will be used to buy copies of Doug Avery’s book The Resilient Farmer and distributed throughout the country.

Further Reading

Brilliant Podcast – Past All-Black John Kirwan talking on BBC Radio 4 about the daily tools and tips he uses

Mentemia – the new mental health well-being app, launched during the Covid-19 epidemic, currently available free to New Zealanders and Australians.

The Minefield Podcast: Rugby man Ben Jeffery’s – The mental health struggle that nearly cost me my life

On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming

How I Heard About The Book

My curiosity was peaked by a mini review over at JacquiWine’s Journal in which she said this memoir may end up being one of the highlights of her reading year. Though first published in 2019 in the US with the title Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child, it was published in the UK by Vintage in April 2020 as On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming.

I was drawn to it for research reasons, it being a memoir in the genre of mother/daughter relationships with an investigative element, focused on the author’s mother, ancestors and villagers from the Lincolnshire coast, her attempts to uncover past secrets and understand the people who kept them.

Laura Cumming’s Love Letter to Her Mother

I was a little skeptical due to the subtitle, which reads like a tabloid soundbite aimed at selling multiple copies of sensationalist content.

I wasn’t interested in reading a ghostwritten drama tragedy, but the understated cover I first saw here and the simplicity of the new title, suggested a narrative that might make a motif out of a sandy beach. And JacquiWine had recommended it. Others who write about books and follow her will know what I mean by that.

Laura Cumming On Chapel Sands

I loved it. The opening chapter sets the scene, recounting the story of a little girl of three years playing on the beach near her mother and her shocking disappearance.  It is a familiar scene, the beach being down a path not far from their home, the tide going out, the sea half a mile in the distance, her mother Vera inattentive for a moment sees nothing.

One minute she was there, barefoot and absorbed, spade in hand, seconds later she was taken off the sands at the village of Chapel St Leonards apparently without anybody noticing at all. Thus my mother was kidnapped.

The little girl, Betty, was found five days later and returned to her family. Laura Cumming learns about this event in her mother’s life many years later, something her mother has no recollection of, a mystery unsolved, yet it is a turning point in her life explaining why she never went to the beach or left the front yard of their house or played with other children from school.

Her life began with a false start and continued with a long chain of deceptions, abetted by acts of communal silence so determined they have continued into my life too. The mystery of what happened, how it changed her, and her own children, has run through my days ever since I first heard of the incident on the beach thirty years ago.

On Chapel Sands Laura Cumming Memoir

Veda Elston, Betty’s Mother

Rather than seek to resolve the mystery, the book introduces us to the main characters like a novel, including black and white photos, not collected in the middle of the book but placed amidst the text where we read about them.

They are described in a way that makes me flick back to look at them again and again, and I realise this isn’t just a daughter telling a story about her mother, this is an art historian studying a family portrait looking for clues – and finding answers.

To my surprise the truth turns out to pivot on images as much as words. To discover it has involved looking harder, looking closer, paying more attention to the smallest of visual details – the clues in a dress, the distinctive slant of a copperplate hand, the miniature faces in the family album.

She poses many unanswered questions about the events that occurred and seeks answers in the photos she possesses, assembling evidence with the assurity of a forensic expert. Her mother was an artist and taught her how to notice and remember images seen in a museum long before telephones could record them. It has become the way she thinks.

A sense of place is created through references to Dutch painters, there being a resemblance in this landscape to Holland.

The flattest of all English counties, Lincolnshire is also the least altered by time, or mankind, and still appears nearly medieval in its ancient maze of dykes and paths. It faces the Netherlands across the water and on a tranquil day it sometimes feels as if you could walk straight across to the rival flatness of Holland.

Laura Cumming On Chapel Sands

Edgar Degas, The Bellelli Family, (1858-1869) musée d’Orsay

Characters are pondered deeply through photos and family paintings, the author finding inspiration and clues even in more famous works that help us understand the narrative power of an image. By the time I got to reading about Degas’s The Bellelli Family, I had to put the book down and seek the painting out to see more clearly the father’s revealing hand placement mentioned and the escaping dog. What an incredible painting!

I was completely hooked, even looking up to see which museum this painting hangs, and what luck, it’s in the musée d’Orsay in Paris, at least I live in the right country to visit it.

Serendipitously, that same day, Laura Cumming wrote an article in the Observer about the collective yearning for visiting art exhibitions; for Velázquez in Edinburgh, Monet in Glasgow, Goya in Cambridge, Rembrandt at Kenwood House, Poussin in Dulwich, Gwen John in Sheffield.

Cumming is aided by her mother’s writing, the photographs and a little by the visits they would make back to the place of her birth, but she holds out on the big reveal on what really happened until midway into the book, by which time the reader is increasingly desperate have confirmed what she is beginning to suspect.

For my twenty-first birthday, my mother gave me the gift I most wanted: the tale of her early life. This memoir is short, ending with her teenage years, but its writing carries so much of her grace, her truthful eloquence and witness, her artist’s way of looking at the world.

She was fifty-six when she sat down to write and still knew nothing about the kidnap, or her existence before it, except that she had been born in a mill house in 1926; or rather as it seemed to her, that some other baby had arrived there.

Once Cumming learns the truth, there are a roller coaster of emotions spilling onto the page, from anger, disbelief and outrage to sadness, regret and finally some semblance of compassion for those involved. On the continued collective silence though, a protective gesture to cover-up shame, that distorted her mother’s life, she says “in a way, I can’t forgive them.”

I suppose my book, quite apart from being a memoir about my mother and what happened to her and this mystery – it’s also a campaign against collective silence because these people who knew – they knew.

There’s so much more I could say and share, but I urge you rather to read it yourself, particularly if you have an interest in memoir, in mother-daughter dynamics and understanding how art reveals life. It’s a fantastic read, one I’d actually like to read again. And the NPR radio interview is excellent.

On Laura Cumming

Laura Cumming has been the Observer’s art critic for 20 years. Previously, she was arts editor of the New Statesman and a presenter of Nightwaves on BBC Radio 3.

Author of two highly acclaimed books: A Face to the World (2009) draws on art, literature, history, philosophy and biography to investigate the drama of self-portraiture; and The Vanishing Man: In Pursuit of Velázquez (2016), tells the haunting tale of a bookseller’s discovery in 1845 of a lost portrait by Diego Velázquez and how his quest to uncover its strange history ruined his life.

Further Reading

Laura Cumming, Observer Article: Close Your Eyes and Imagine Seeing the Art Worlds Treasures as if for the First Time

NPR Radio, Listen: Laura Cumming Explores Her Mother’s Brief Disappearance In ‘Five Days Gone’

To Read:  An Extract from On Chapel Sands

Laura Cumming On Chapel Sands

“To commemorate Veda’s life, Elizabeth planted thousands of daffodil bulbs in the grounds of Chapel school for the pupils to pick on Mother’s Day each year, so that no future mother would ever be forgotten.”

Buy a Copy of On Chapel Sands

 

Happy Mother’s Day

Happy Mother’s Day to you all and especially if you live in one of the country’s where it was celebrated today. Here in France it is not La Fête des Mères yet.  It is usually the last Sunday in May but it is moved to the first Sunday in June if that day falls on Whit Sunday/Pentecost, which it does this year. So it is on Sunday 7 June this year and will revert back to the 31st of May in 2021.

A few other countries celebrate Mother’s Day on the second Sunday in May, today Sunday 10 May, including New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the US, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Switzerland, Turkey, Belgium, India, China, Japan, the Philippines, Kenya and South Africa. In some countries such as Argentina and Ethiopia it is celebrated in autumn.

Confinement In France

I received a few messages from friends and family in New Zealand wishing me a Happy Mother’s Day, which was lovely and unexpected.

We have had a lovely light rainy day here in Aix-en-Provence today, though thunderstorms are forecast, I now love the rain, it being such a rarity here, and it is the eve of #DeConfinement. We are in the green zone so must follow guidelines accordingly. Sadly Paris is still in the red zone.

Tomorrow we are allowed to go out without the printed attestation (certificate) that declared our name, date and place of birth, address, signature, the time and reason for leaving home, which for the last 6 weeks for me had been limited to supermarket shopping (I’ve been twice) and walking up to 1 kilometre from said address. I take my hour every day, a small liberty for which I have immense gratitude. I haven’t been able to work for 6 weeks, tomorrow that changes.

I think I will write a whole post about my daily walk with images as it has been an interesting experience, almost like a little short story, so perhaps I will create that before things change too much.

I’ll begin by sharing this one image, which is a hole in a wall on my walk, where there is something hidden inside, a little mystery that I partially solved and have a theory on, but I will save that for another day and leave you with just this clue.

Making Simple Graphics

Something I have recently discovered and will share in case anyone else is interested is how to create simple free graphics using Canva. They make it simple to use and you can use your own photos or their templates and backgrounds. I created this image below today and shared it on twitter with a quote from the book I am reading, just for fun and to acknowledge the serendipitous event of reading it on Mother’s Day.

On Chapel Sands

On Chapel Sands is written by Laura Cumming the art critic for the Observer (an excellent Sunday newspaper in the UK). I haven’t finished the book yet, it’s a memoir and it’s brilliant, unlike anything you will have ever read, as she brings her art historian talent for interpretation of the visual image into her investigation of her mother’s life.

It’s brilliantly done, especially if you appreciate having art works explained to you by a knowledgeable guide or expert.  And she keeps some of the mystery back, making it a slow revelation of the past and finding out what really happened when her mother went missing from the Lincolnshire beach when she was three years old.

Today is about appreciating and remembering mother’s, so I leave you with a quote from Laura’s book about her mother Elizabeth and her grandmother Vera, in remembrance of all mother’s.

“To commemorate Veda’s life, Elizabeth planted thousands of daffodil bulbs in the grounds of Chapel school for the pupils to pick on Mother’s Day each year, so that no future mother would ever be forgotten.” Laura Cumming, On Chapel Sands

 

Butterfly by Yusra Mardini

From Refugee to Olympian, My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph

Yusra is the middle sister of three daughters living with their parents in Damascus. Their father is a swimming coach, obsessed with training his two eldest girls to excel. Being in the pool is one of their first memories and being pushed to succeed an ordinary part of childhood, as habitual as their going to school.

Not everyone in the community approves of the girls swimming, it clashes with tradition, despite the diversity that exists.

A lot of people don’t understand about us swimming. They don’t see the hard work and dedication it takes us to swim. They just see the swimsuit. Neighbours and parents of kids at our school tell Mum they don’t approve. Some say wearing a swimsuit past a certain age is inappropriate for a young girl. Mum ignores them. The summer I’m nine, Mum even decides to learn to swim herself.

Nothing gets in the way of the girls training, even when they don’t feel like it or have an injury, it’s clear their Dad is a disciplinarian and is instilling strength and resilience in his daughters, while their mother is there watching, waiting and supporting them all the way through.

When Yusra is six they watch they watch the finals of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games on television. It’s the 100m men’s butterfly and their Dad tells them to watch lane four. It’s the American Michael Phelps. It’s a defining moment for the Yusra.

I never chose to be a swimmer. But from that moment on I’m hooked. My gut burns with ambition. I clench my fists. I no longer care what it takes. I’ll follow Phelps to the top. To the Olympics. To gold. Or die trying.

Though she is in the background of Yusra’s story, I find the mother’s quiet strength and nurturing of significance in the story. Both her own personal development and her continuity in being there for the girls.

Photo by Heart Rules on Pexels.com

Following a terrible scene where her elder sister Sara is having her shoulders stretched and her collar-bone is broken, the doctor insists she rests. Her father is displeased, while her mother tries to help.

Since learning to swim she’s been teaching water aerobics at a hot springs spa south of Damascus, close to the city of Daraa. She’s branched out into massage therapy and tries her new skills out on Sara’s shoulders.

As the political situation in Syria deteriorates, it becomes dangerous for them to return to their home, culminating in one evening when they return from visiting family to find tanks at either end of their street. A soldier holding his assault rifle in the air tells him to take his family and leave.

‘I’m not leaving my house,’ he says.

‘Then get us out of here at least,’ says Mum, her voice choked with panicked tears.

He drives them some distance away, then sets off on foot alone to return to their home,  a mistake, though he won’t learn his lesson yet. They are forced to abandon their home and stay with family, until they find another apartment in a quieter part of town.

Though they continue at school and in the pool, people are beginning to leave. Their father is offered a coaching job in Jordan and departs, alone, sending his salary to them regularly.

One by one, friends and neighbours drift away. Groups of siblings, whole friendship groups, families disappear.  The majority leave for Lebanon or Turkey and then overstay their tourist visas. Some of them end up in Europe. Most of the boys my age are either planning to leave or have already gone. Once guys hit eighteen, they’re eligible for compulsory military service in the army. Only students and men without brothers are exempt. In normal times, its just a fact of Syrian life. But now there’s no doubt: going into the army means kill or be killed.

Yusra turns seventeen, her sister has quit swimming and for a period she does as well, without her father there fighting in her corner, she loses some of her will, until she meets her friends again and decides to return. But when a bomb falls on the building, everything changes.

Sara announces she is leaving, and Yusra will go with her. They will send for their mother and younger sister when they arrive in Europe. They are heading for Germany and will have to take a small boat from Turkey across to Greece, paying smugglers at various places along the way.

It’s a fraught journey, the boat crossing particularly, an overloaded vessel that looks like it won’t make it, that forces the sisters into the water for hours to lighten the load to prevent it sinking. The sea is a danger, but there will be more worrying experiences ahead as they attempt to cross hostile borders and find accommodation in some countries  that refuse to rent rooms to Syrians.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It’s not until they arrive safely in Berlin that it begins to dawn on them, the immensity of what they have been through. Once settled in the refugee camp and as they begin their asylum process, Yusra finds a pool to train in and opportunities open up for her and Sara, and soon she is on track to attain that childhood dream, though not in the manner she expected, there remain hurdles to confront. And the trauma of others which they’re seeing daily on their Facebook timelines continues, lessening any joy they might feel.

When she is struggling to accept the offer of being part of the newly formed Refugee Olympic Team, it is her father who reminds her that it isn’t always about the swimming.

‘Very few Syrians get this chance to speak up,’ he says.  ‘You can be their voice. You know a big part of their story because you’ve been through it too. It’s an opportunity for all of us to be heard.’

It’s an incredible story of a young woman and her family, who becomes something of a reluctant heroine and inspiration for young people from the region and for refugees everywhere. It’s very honest, she shares her struggles in accepting the role and opportunity she is given, while being grateful to those who’ve welcomed, helped and made it possible, all the while aware of the continued struggles and horrors being faced by those who couldn’t leave or died trying.

Further Reading

Illustrated Children’s Book – Yusra Swims by Julie Abery

Article in Guardian – Butterfly by Yusra Mardini review – the refugee swimmer whose story swept the world

Women and Hollywood Article – Sally El Hosaini Will Direct Yusra Mardini Biopic “The Swimmers”

Holistic News – 2 Min Video Introducing Yusra Mardini, a Syrian swimmer that represented refugees at the Olympics in Rio.

Rio Highlights – Yusra Mardini’s 100m Butterfly race

Courageous Dreaming by Alberto Villoldo

How Shamans Dream the World Into Being

I have read a few books by Alberto Villoldo, my favourite and the best to begin with if new to his work is The Four Insights: Wisdom, Power, and Grace of the Earthkeepers.

It introduces the philosophical, spiritual and medicinal wisdom of the medicine men and women of the Americas, the concepts of serpent, jaguar, hummingbird and eagle consciousness and thinking, and is helpful in understanding the further learning his wisdom offers.

The Earthkeepers believe the world is real, but only because we’ve dreamed it into being. But dreaming requires an act of courage, for when we lack it, we have to settle for the world that’s being created by our culture or by our genes – we feel we have to settle for the nightmare. To dream courageously, we must be willing to use our hearts.

I’d had this book a while by my bedside and immediately turned to it to become my daily morning read at the beginning of this period of confinement we are currently in and what a Godsend. I loved it and wish it had been twice as long. I read a chapter a day and would recommend it as the equivalent to doing half an hour of meditation, the effect for me was very similar.

Not only is it filled with resonating wisdom, each chapter begins with the words of another great teacher, a collection of inspiring quotes that I’ve been playing with by putting images to them from my daily walk, to create a kind of story. Infinite possibilities as Alberto and Albert would no doubt agree.

Logic will get you from A to B.

Imagination will take you everywhere. Albert Einstein

Alberto Villoldo

Alberto Villoldo is a psychologist, medical anthropologist and renowned shamanic healer, who has studied the ancient spiritual practices of the Amazon and the Andes and now runs The Four Winds Society, an education facility for practitioners of shamanic healing and energy medicine and courses for individuals interested in cellular detoxification to grow a new body.

Once familiar with the four levels of perceiving reality, this book beautifully expands the concept further into ways of dreaming, levels of consciousness, of courage and of beauty or appreciation.

“It is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare”. Mark Twain

Photo by Samrat Maharjan on Pexels.com

It shows us how we are all living within our own stories, that they can either stay stuck in the past and put on repeat, or we can rewrite them and courageously imagine or dream a better version of ourselves and of our future.

Our situation may be a difficult one, but it’s only a nightmare if we choose to make that our reality. By taking the facts and writing a new story with them, we can script a different experience of reality.

To help illustrate courage at the level of eagle consciousness – the highest level of perception, where we’re able to see the big picture and the details all at the same time, where we are aware of that we are part of the all-seeing and all-knowing divine force of the universe, conceiving a world where we are in harmony and our lives are fulfilling, abundant and sustainable – Alberto uses the example of Prometheus’s Gift.

Prometheus

Prometheus was the Greek God of inspiration, craft and creativity, who held great sympathy for humans because he’d co-created them with Zeus. He saw them freezing and wanted to gift them fire for warmth, security and to alleviate hunger. Symbolically fire represents creativity and inspiration, it transforms and illuminates. He stole fire and gave it to humans, angering the Gods, who punished him for it.

Prometheus brought humanity another great gift – the courage to defy the gods, the ability to think original thoughts and to create – and this brash act was what really caused him to be so severely punished…But this act of defiance launched humans into our true journey, forcing us to mature and develop discernment.

Photo by Monique Laats on Pexels.com

He reminds us of the power of creativity and warns of the threats against it, citing many examples of genius that are now revered, who were shunned in their moment of innovation and inspiration such as Einstein and Van Gogh.

Being creative requires letting go of that big bucket of cold water you throw on yourself and your ideas when things start to become really interesting. You need to stop asking yourself , ‘Will anyone be offended?’  and ‘Who am I to ask questions?’ and instead inquire ‘What if?’

Holding on to old stories creates imprints in our energetic body or LEF (luminous energy field) even after the facts and circumstances change, those resentments and bad feelings create energetic cords that tie us to the players in the drama, which is why we then get triggered so easily and again when we observe those patterns in others.

We don’t see things as they are;

We see them as we are. Anaïs Nin

Symbols & Metaphors

Alberto Villoldo uses illuminating metaphors to help us see our situations from a different perspective and provides suggestions for how to change. Understanding our own tendencies is the first step, rewriting a better narrative of our lives follows. Learning to sever unwelcome ties and clear karmic baggage, all the better.

Seeing our lives as river with an accumulation of silt and imagining clearing it is liberating; decoding the symbols and metaphors of our dreams, where our subconscious solutions lie, tips us off to what our conscious mind resists recognising and provides us possible resolution.

We fight the current, yet we never clean the river.

Especially now, we are all being forced to confront what lies within us, the build up of silt that requires clearing, so the crystalline waters of our lives can flow more easily.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

When you start pouring beauty into your river, you’ll find that the waters are becoming clearer every day. To practice beauty, you must give up the ugly stories in which someone is a victim and someone else is the perpetrator. Practicing beauty means recognising what is pure and of value in every situation and in every person.

We are not in control of where the river flows, only of how clean we keep its waters.

I may go back to chapter one and read it again, to allow the wisdom to sink in deeper and help the river to continue to flow clean.

“Curing is the elimination of symptoms. Healing is a journey on which you discover the cause of your ailment and make fundamental life changes from diet to belief systems that will create health.”

Further Reading

Interview with Alberto Villoldo: Gaia.com

My Reviews

The Four Insights: Wisdom, Power, and Grace of the Earthkeepers

Shaman Healer Sage

The Heart of the Shaman: Stories and Practices of the Luminous Warrior

One Spirit Medicine: Ancient Ways to Ultimate Wellness (not reviewed)