Make of Yourself A Light

I may regret this post. I believe only once in the four years of this blog have I ever posted anything political.

At the moment, though, my country the United States of America, is causing a genocide and atrocities have already been reported. We have let down and made vulnerable an ally that has protected our soldiers, taken hits for them and us and has guarded a heinous and ruthless worldwide enemy. Our soldiers have relied on the Kurds, have befriended, taught and learned from them and have now been ordered to step away while watching helplessly as they are slaughtered by Turkish forces.

Anger, shame and my own sense of helplessness preoccupies me that the US has gone down this depraved path of allowing the massacre of those who protected us.

At times like this books, the words I cherish, are often my place of refuge, rest from my own troubles as well as those outside myself and where even for a moment I can hide before tackling the stresses I know are waiting. But today the ugliness, the disappointment of this country’s brutal failure as a leader in the world and the sheer impotence of anything I could possibly do to help, has overwhelmed me. No book is a solace right now. No author’s imaginary world feels safe, if even for a moment.

But still, this is what I do. I DO expect someone wiser than me among the myriad of my books, spines straight with contents that span the ages to have something for me. So, I stand in front of my bookshelves demanding something to reach out to me, to help me find direction, healing or some sort of inspiration, hoping my neighbors or anyone walking by can’t hear, “Books, say something. Books, speak to me.”

Finally, Mary Oliver answers. I shuffle through a collection. This poem does the trick, for now. As great as she is it only feels like a temporary healing, but that is worth something.

The Buddha’s Last Instruction

“Make of yourself a light,”
said the Buddha,
before he died.
I think of this every morning
as the east begins
to tear off its many clouds
of darkness, to send up the first
signal — a white fan
streaked with pink and violet,
even green.
An old man, he lay down
between two sala trees,
and he might have said anything,
knowing it was his final hour.
The light burns upward,
it thickens and settles over the fields.
Around him, the villagers gathered
and stretched forward to listen.
Even before the sun itself
hangs, disattached, in the blue air,
I am touched everywhere
by its ocean of yellow waves.
No doubt he thought of everything
that had happened in his difficult life.
And then I feel the sun itself
as it blazes over the hills,
like a million flowers on fire —
clearly I’m not needed,
yet I feel myself turning
into something of inexplicable value.
Slowly, beneath the branches,
he raised his head.
He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

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Make of yourself a light, Laurie. That is all you can do.

Madame de Treymes, Edith Wharton (1907)

And Madame de Treymes has left her husband?
Ah, no, poor creature: they don’t leave their husbands—they can’t.

 

treymesMadame de Treymes, published in 1907, is Wharton’s first work after The House of Mirth. As one of the themes in most of her fiction, this novella is very much concerned with the male/female dynamic around marriage. In this short work Wharton’s prose weaves a consummate tale of cunning and deceit, good intentions, hope and promise and the final let down.

The story revolves around the American Fanny de Malrive (née Frisbee) and her wish to divorce her husband. At this time in France, the husband must initiate the proceedings and though he granted a separation six years ago, he has not allowed for this greater termination of their union. As John Durham has proposed the need for a divorce is pressing and they hope the influence of Christiane de Treymes, her husband’s sister, can convince him. One of the issues holding back her consent to marry Durham is the requirement in the separation that she remain in France where her husband’s family has full access to their young son, which she believes will also be part of any divorce settlement. It is this control she fears and something she knows Durham cannot understand:


The moment he passes out of my influence, he passes under that other—the influence I have been fighting against every hour since he was born!—There is nothing in your experience—in any American experience—to correspond with that far-reaching family organization, which is itself a part of the larger system, and which encloses a young man of my son’s position in a network of accepted prejudices and opinions. Everything is prepared in advance—his political and religious convictions, his judgments of people, his sense of honour, his ideas of women, his whole view of life…Already he is only half mine, because the Church has the other half.

Gallantly, John responds, “If you’ll marry me, I’ll agree to live out here as long as you want, and we’ll be two instead of one to keep hold of your half of him.” And so, they are resolved.

We are never certain about the crimes Fanny’s husband committed, be they against her and their marriage or something else, but his family willingly supported the separation. Divorce is another matter entirely, though. Christiane is the most important member of his family and she has always been sympathetic to Fanny, so it is to her she and John turn. However, when John asks for her support, she asks him for help with her own serious matter: she is in debt after having taken her husband’s and family’s money and now has no means to pay it back. The debtor turns out to be her lover and she wants John to bail him out. Blackmail? He hesitates with his answer as such a despicable request sinks in. She responds:

Do you mean to give me nothing—not even your sympathy—in return? Is it because you have heard horrors of me? When are they not said of a woman who is married unhappily? Perhaps not in your fortunate country, where she may seek liberation without dishonor., But here–! You who have seen the consequences of our disastrous marriages—you who may yet be the victim of our cruel and abominable system; have you no pity for one who has suffered  in the same way, and without the possibility of release?…I don’t pretend to deny that I know I am asking you a trifle. You Americans, when you want a thing always pay ten times what it is worth.

He won’t do it. He won’t help her in this way. But in the end, Christiane still presses her brother for a divorce.

Months pass as the proceedings and court papers are worked out and prepared. John has gone abroad with his mother and sisters to wait out the decision. Days before the divorce is finalized, John pays Christiane a visit. When Christiane tells him the particulars of the settlement, which Fanny does not know yet, he is shocked to realize Christiane’s “payback.” It slowly dawns on him this means Fanny may not be able to proceed with the divorce, which of course means their marriage is in jeopardy. The full weight of the deceit contained in the divorce decree will come after the marriage and the only moral thing to do is to tell Fanny the truth now.

Wharton’s long residence in France gives her intimate access to the contrasts between American and French culture and views of American individualism vs French ties to family, church and society, which are of major importance in this novella. The story and characters are just as vivid as if this was one of Wharton’s longer works. And the ending is just as shocking! (A major spoiler, but since this is a novella it won’t take you long to know)!

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My Edition
Title: Madame de Treymes and Three Novellas
Author: Edith Wharton
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Device: Trade paperback
Year: 1907
Pages: 70

Challenges: Back to the Classics

By the Waters of Babylon, Emma Lazarus, 1887

For the Fourth of July, 2017

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Vast oceanic movements, the flux and reflux of immeasurable tides, oversweep our continent.

From the far Caucasian steppes, from the squalid Ghettos of Europe,

From Odessa and Bucharest, from Kief and Ekaterinoslav,

Hark to the cry of the exiles of Babylon, the voice of Rachel mourning for her children, of Israel lamenting for Zion.

And lo, like a turbid stream, the long-pent flood bursts the dykes of oppression and rushes hitherward.

Unto her ample breast, the generous mother of nations welcomes them.

The herdsman of Canaan and the seed of Jerusalem’s royal shepherd renew their youth amid the pastoral plains of Texas and the golden valleys of the Sierras.

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In the Sierras. Onion Valley, I believe.

 

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(When I was looking for a poem for this holiday, I liked that this one deals with America as mother to refugees, which is both a historical idea and modern controversy. But it’s also personal…my mother’s side of the family came from Ekaterinoslav, as Lazarus describes above).

Confessions of a Political Junkie

Dear Readers,

I am deep in American political convention politics at the moment and my earbuds are stuck in every digital device I own.

I am neglecting my blog and your comments and I apologize.

But I cannot get enough of these crazy times, the highs and lows, the embarrassments, the joys and the amazement of our complicated political process. And the fact that history is being made in yet another election cycle!

Yet, if it wasn’t for the group reading of George Eliot’s Middlemarch and the oddly fascinating Blithedale Romance, by Nathaniel Hawthorne for needed breaks from the insanity, I would be…well insane by now.

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I hope to have two blog posts next week to make up for my absence, so we’ll see how that goes. On the other hand, I may need to check into a sanatorium, instead.

November cannot get here fast enough!