Turning death into life
14 June 2007
I decide that as I have no inspiration for writing anything at the moment, I will take up cooking instead. I try a fish biryani. I became a vegetarian in 1998 but recently have felt, completely instinctively without any scientific evidence, that my body requires the protein that one gets from fish and meat so I cook the biryani. Having not eaten fish for many years I have forgotten about the bones and when one pricks my throat, I go into a panic and believe that I have been stabbed to death. I spend the rest of the day and night trying to extricate the bone that I imagine is lodged in my throat. No luck.
Decide, no more fish. I really can't stand the way it smells up the place.
Then because I have given up the idea of writing, it occurs to me that I could keep a journal and record the turmoil of thought and emotion that has been plaguing me in contemplating that I am in the last phase of my life. So despite my decision to stop writing, or perhaps because of it, I am back in front of my laptop.
15 June 2007
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the question is asked, ‘why do we prolong life?' And the answer is given, ‘To prolong life.' Because I cannot understand the answer, I still ask, For What?
We spend time and money in our efforts to prolong life: organ donations and transplants, vaccines, stem cell research, identifying the human genome, epigenetics, anti-aging recipes, the body cult, exercise and diet. There's Dr Mehmet Oz on the Oprah Show holding up a couple of omenta from autopsies: a small, thin one from a person with the ideal weight; an enormous, gangling one from a person not grossly overweight who died of a heart attack. Dr Oz doesn't mention how the other person died, the one with a healthy omentum that didn't prevent death. The good doctor exhorts us not to eat to kill ourselves. He tells us what to eat and drink and to exercise in order to prolong life. You look around and everywhere you see ‘people running for life,' (actually from death). Everyone is obsessed with survival.
Even in the movies. We have science fiction that takes us into the future of the future, into new worlds and parallel universes, through wormholes to escape the death of our planet. And we create Superman who lives forever beyond the boundaries of death. Is life merely a frenzy for escaping death? We stare the horror, Hannibal Lecter, in the face, and we do our best to contain it but we cannot evade it so we write paeans in praise of those who defy it. Though we each fear it for ourselves, we do not hesitate to dispense it for our own protection: armies, Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, the Janjaweed, the teenager who gave birth to a baby in her room, stabbed it, put it in a duffle bag and sent it off to be dropped in a deep quarry and Michelle Pfeiffer fighting Harrison Ford who must take her life to protect his own. In this life and death struggle, she lives, he dies but who is the victor? At the end she is shown in a graveyard putting a rose on a grave. She remains frozen in that moment and achieves immortality in the freeze. But that is not life and she cannot escape death even through fiction, the biggest promoter of the life factor.
Dylan Thomas looked death in the face and said, ‘Do not go gently into that good night,' so there are countless people telling you to ‘get a life' and if you listen, you find yourself engaging in frenetic activity, parachute jumping at age 70, to prove you are alive but we all know that we are alive, our obsession with death and dying tells us that and ‘getting a life' doesn't make you invincible. Why do we have to get a life, when we have one? Why is engaging in frenetic activity regarded as ‘really' living and a sedentary occupation like sitting down to read a book regarded as not. I realise that reading takes us into vicarious experiences but as I am not able to ride a motorcycle or climb mountains, I am glad to have these experiences vicariously. I'd rather have them vicariously than not at all. Reading gives new life.
But it doesn't make us immortal. Nevertheless, it gives us a chance to meet the immortal ones. Superheroes! Hamlet and Antigone, who go through cycles of reincarnation throughout the ages.
Immortality is what we give to our creations; but it was not given to us. And we cannot accept that. We have invented religious systems that deny this, that insist that this life is a mere initiation that allows us to graduate to eternity. There are those who embrace this notion in the pursuit of glory in another existence: suicide bombers, those who commit sati, the Pharaohs of old who took entire households into chambers underground. And why do we want eternal life? Look at Stephen King's mouse and policeman in The Green Mile. He gave them eternal life but what for? Even he, the creator, shows it as pointless, an existence of endless aging. Isn't it better to accept an end to life? But everything in our lives reflects the fear of death. The walls we build around our homes, our security systems, safety belts.
People run for life in the hope of escaping death. But death is ever present. We carry it with us from the minute we are born. But gerontologists prey on the elderly, looking for signs of death and decay to remind them of what needs no reminder, the individual apocalypse.
16 June 2007
I spent the early hours of this morning tossing and turning in bed trying to solve the puzzle of the bedsock. Some time ago I figured out the exact pattern for knitting a bedsock and then got involved in writing and all I remember of the pattern is that I once had it and it exists like a platonic ideal that I am trying to recapture. I have been going about the process in quite the wrong way - trying to remember what I did before which makes it a totally heuristic process and all my trials end in errors. I realise I am being quite unscientific and need to work out the pattern again without depending on it to emerge from memory complete and ready for use.
I feel I should embark on a Zen and the Art of Knitting Bed Socks. In that way, I would relate properly to the design and the technology involved in producing it. I know that the foot, for the purpose of bed sock manufacture can be reduced to a large isosceles triangle which when folded will cover the whole foot and the flexibility of the wool will allow it to stretch across the breadth of the sole.
When I started on the sock the day before yesterday, I cast on 41 stitches for the upper part of the sock, the cuff that fits around the ankle, and then proceeded to increase down the middle, with the first increase on either side of stitch 21, to form the hypotenuse of the two right angle triangles that are formed when you fold an isosceles triangle in half. But I couldn't get it to taper to the toe. I know I need to decrease stitches on the sides to reach the apex of the triangle but I didn't do that when I invented the pattern that first time. I only shaped the heel and the curve up to the toes. These attempts keep reminding that the foot is not simply a set of mathematical properties, length, breadth and height, it is a human thing with subtle planes, curves, arches and dips. But a bed sock is an artefact and it can be reduced to mathematical properties. I must divorce my foot from the sock and get on with it.
I no longer believe in formal structuring of writing and have decided that organic growth is more exciting. That happened when I was writing the novel, I am present, which grew in its own way despite my attempts to structure it and it kept finding new directions and different ways to look at how we make meaning of our lives.
I watched a documentary on the Soweto Uprising and saw again a panorama of death but out of the ashes of that phoenix came the new South Africa. It took a good deal more death before the new phoenix could rise in triumph. After the Soweto documentary, I watched the Ghosts of Mississippi, the tracking down of the murderer of Medgar Evers who was shot outside his home in 1963. The film shows the efforts of a dedicated lawyer who finds the evidence that convicts the killer who had been tried twice before and acquitted by all-white juries. It showed a Jackson Mississippi; still clinging to racism after civil rights liberties had been won.
I got up to watch Everyman a BBC documentary series dealing with spirituality. I watch it because I am interested in people's religious beliefs, in the notion of faith and especially the objects of faith. It's not that I don't have faith. I do not believe we would have societies and a dedication to progress if we didn't have faith. But faith doesn't necessarily mean faith in God, especially a God that is a projection of human desires. I believe that God is immanent which I get from Hinduism but I do not believe in a supernatural presence; for me there is no connection of athman with Brahman. No. The way I see it, the connection of athman is with athman. I believe in human connection. In other words I think I am what is called a secular humanist. I believe in human connectivity and creativity. We live in an eternal question mark. We are surrounded by a mystery so deep, it can never be penetrated and it is up to us to find an answer to why we are here. I do not believe that there is an answer external to each one of us. Our purpose is to contemplate the mystery and find, each for her/himself a meaning. For me it is the same question as the one that Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance asks, why do we wish to prolong life? I am beginning to see the answer: it is because it is life. I have life and it is potential and that is the whole meaning of my existence. I am potential that I can either develop or neglect. I have community in which that potential can be developed or neglected and living in community makes sense of all the little things and the big things that people do for - not against - one another.
This morning the Everyman programme showed a documentary on Desmond Tutu. Watching it, (I have seen it before), I was again inspired by a man who has found through his religion, he is an Anglican, was the Archbishop of Cape Town, the means to be a complete person. His religion is for him not just the trappings, the rituals, the mantras, the platitudes, it is being in the full sense. He demonstrates that it can happen through formal religion. I have always thought that formal religion because of its insistence on God the Father blocked the growth of spiritual development as the individual remains forever a child. In the documentary there was this other religious leader, probably an archbishop too, whose patronising comment about Tutu placed him in that position as a child before God the Father. He said that Tutu's speeches/sermons lacked depth that he was not an original thinker and his utterances were not thought provoking but charismatic. It's Tutu's impish sense of humour that obviously confuses him. A man who thanks the missionaries, the forerunners of the colonisers, and says, ‘They gave us the Bible in exchange for our land. I think we got the better deal,' is making a statement that sounds tongue-in-cheek but it challenges the values by which we live. I believe it is a profound statement that provokes thought. I find it profoundly religious and in need of analysis. And I am glad of Tutu's sense of humour. It makes one realise that he has objectively thought of what he believes. Humour distances one from a preoccupation with self and helps one see truth as objectively as it is possible to be objective.
Tutu is for me an inspiration; a man who is living proof that life has meaning. So many believers and non-believers live in existential despair. I believe that Tutu, confronted by the contradiction of the callousness of Christian apartheid and the humanity of Father Trevor Huddleston, needed to reconcile these, and was forced into a deeper exploration of the meaning of his religious beliefs and discovered in them the means of living a life-giving life. I am so glad to have his example before me.
A few days ago, I was in a grey mood and began to look at the world as peopled for the most part with holograms. When I turn on the TV and see so many people who have adopted wholesale the trappings of the West, I feel disgruntled but of course, as a young person, I also gave up everything to do with the culture of my forebears and tried hard to insert myself into the dominant culture and grew up sustaining a view of myself as an inferior being. This view has made it impossible for me to relate to people in a meaningful way as I was obsessed with the notion that I was not good enough. Even now I am not entirely free of that curse. Now I see little black children in TV commercials, who are no longer African, and that makes me sad. Their parents, the products of apartheid South Africa, have passed on to their children, incipient feelings of inferiority.
I watch a programme called La Familia, thank God only the title is offensive. It is set in the rural Northern Province where I spent twelve years teaching at an education institution. In the programme, we see people who still love being African, who understand their culture and from it reach out to embrace ways that come from other cultures. Abandoning one's own culture totally, really turns one into a hologram. I am trying to escape virtual reality by going back to my neglected heritage. I have been on this quest for years. I can't change my behaviours; that would rob me of the little substance that I do possess but I can expand my understanding to incorporate the traditions from which I originate. Writing A Little Book of Tamil Religious Rituals, which I undertook in a patronising frame of mind (I was doing it for the people in Laudium), gave me a whole new understanding of my origins and in the end I found I had written the book for myself and it gave me an understanding of the people in Laudium that I did not have before. They are not the kind of hologram that I am; they have a different kind of hologrammic existence. They cling rigidly to customs and rituals that give them a sense of identity that is private and is meaningful only within a closed community. They don't realise that without the kind of exegesis of religion and its practices that is also a part of their tradition, what they cling to is an identity that is becoming increasingly misaligned in the twenty-first century. They will lose their children, if they have not already done so, who will regard them as cultural dinosaurs.