Try to remember the kind of September…

My few weeks of hiatus from the Pond led me to the bustling city of Toronto. Just the second weekend of September there were over 80 events planned across the city: festivals, concerts, food fares, cultural celebrations… In the downtown core, road closures, frenzy and chaos. The main attraction with international focus of course is the Toronto International Film Festival. Since this is the first in person TIFF after two years of Covid measures, I chose to avoid the huge gatherings and stay closer to nature, far from the madding crowd… I’ll have to wait to watch the selections hopefully later in the year.

Then came the sad news of the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, 70 years on the throne, the longest reigning British monarch and the longest female sovereign in history. Politics aside, being born and raised during my formative years in the former British colony of Hong Kong, I much appreciate the freedom to grow up in an environment where East meets West, unlike what Kipling had surmised.

I studied both classical Chinese as well as English literature in school, donning a uniform in cheongsam (do google it if you’re not sure what it is) but wore bell bottom pants when out; grew up watching numerous kung fu movies while following closely all James Bond flicks; savoured home cooked Chinese meals as well as those from international sources; yes, and love the fusion of Hong Kong style western cuisine, street foods and snacks. A prime example is Hong Kong style milk tea with condensed milk, best to pair with a pineapple bun with a piece of ice cold butter in the middle, oh, and egg tarts.

Pineapple bun with butter, egg tarts at back.

Looking back, it was a period when I was free to explore different world views and thinking. I still remember following a classmate to a secondhand bookstore in an obscure alley after school, looking up books on psychology and philosophy; or one time, catching another classmate secretly reading her own book held under her desk during class. When I asked her later out of curiosity what she was reading, no, it wasn’t a comic book or a teen magazine, but Somerset Maugham’s short stories. That was my intro to the wonderful writer.

My nanny loved Chinese operas. She was a versatile, middle age woman who lived in our home and acted almost as my substitute mother. She read Dream of the Red Chamber at night before she slept, daytime too busy for her. I grew up reading Chinese translations of world literature for children and some Enid Blyton, while also saved up enough pocket money to buy my Mad Magazine. I learned to play the piano and listened to The Beatles and The Monkees. The first LP album in our home was My Fair Lady.

What do all these memories have to do with the Queen? For me, it was a period of growing up experiencing both East and West in a British colony that didn’t require its citizens to sing “God Save the Queen,” or demand The Union Jack be hoisted in schools. I’d enjoyed the freedom to explore despite a rigid home environment. If I were to write a memoir some day, it would likely be in the theme of a growing up where East meets West, where the fusion of the two is exciting and appealing, and where opportunities are plentiful, and I was free to live life in an interesting, borderless fusion of cultures.

So, it was the end of an era when the Queen passed. Now the world seems to have grown polarized, tempers flare when people of opposite views confront, and where the ominous observation by Kipling is becoming all the more acute as autocracy begins to prevail.

As I was wandering the lakeshore in Toronto, I caught sight of some lively monarch butterflies. It was a pleasant surprise, as I wasn’t expecting seeing them in such an urban environ. From one Monarch to another, may these monarchs be free and lively as they migrate thousands of miles south, following the instinct endowed by their Creator’s design.

From one Monarch to another:

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Midsummer Colours

As I look through my photos taken in the past few weeks, I find that the prominent colours are yellow and green. We don’t have bright red birds like the cardinal, so, I’ve long settled for yellow, green and blue as my summer colours.

Two goldfinches made my day, vibrant golden yellow. They seemed not to be bothered by my presence as they were too busy with their breakfast:

well except this one with attitude:

Another sort of yellow, unintended, for I was aiming at the wren. Only when I uploaded the photo did I notice the lichen on the stump:

Sometimes, an accidental shot needs not be deleted. Why, this looks like an impressionist painting to me:

This one most symbolic, for the colours yellow and blue remind me of a war-torn country with millions of her people fleeing from their homeland. May this tiny yellow warbler, always so full of life and song, be a symbol of resilience for the ravaged country of Ukraine:

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A Summer Splash

A few days ago, I happened to catch sight of a jolly yellow warbler bathing (or playing) in the water. He plunged right into the shallow stream, splashed around, after that flew up on a branch preening, singing, then splashed right back into the water and do it all over again just for the fun of it.

I’d like to tell you it was a bright, sunny day, inviting a cooling summer splash. But I can’t because it wasn’t. The day was grey, overcast, chilly even and with a thunder storm in the forecast.

This tiny warbler’s joie de vivre defies the gloominess of the day or any imminent storm… a mighty hard lesson to learn from a three inch creature.

***

Sabbath Pondering

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

–– Wendell Berry

***

Easter Sunday Rumination

In my end is my beginning. –– T. S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’ from The Four Quartets

In the past few months, three of our longtime friends had died, one from Covid, two from other health issues, all unexpected. What hope do three heartbroken widows have if not for that very good Friday and the magnificent Sunday shedding the hope of reunion in a glorious eternity.

The poet John Donne puts into words boldly in his 1633 sonnet.

Death, be not Proud

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Centuries later, a Kentucky farmer has written some down-to-earth lines. Wendell Berry’s poem for Easter calls for turning the belief into action. Resurrection begins now:

A Poem on Easter

The little stream sings
in the crease of the hill.
It is the water of life. It knows
nothing of death, nothing.
And this is the morning
of Christ’s resurrection.
The tomb is empty. There is
no death. Death is our illusion,
our wish to belong only
to ourselves, which is our freedom
to kill one another.
From this sleep may we too
rise, as out of the dark grave.

…..

He is risen.

Live out that Hope.

Practice resurrection.

***

Spring Cleaning

A Purification

At start of spring I open a trench
in the ground. I put into it
the winter’s accumulation of paper,
pages I do not want to read
again, useless words, fragments,
errors. And I put into it
the contents of the outhouse:
light of the sun, growth of the ground,
finished with one of their journeys.
To the sky, to the wind, then,
and to the faithful trees, I confess
my sins: that I have not been happy
enough, considering my good luck;
have listened to too much noise,
have been inattentive to wonders,
have lusted after praise.
And then upon the gathered refuse
of mind and body, I close the trench,
folding shut again the dark,
the deathless earth. Beneath that seal
the old escapes into the new.

–– Wendell Berry

Waiting for Spring

Waiting for Spring

Though cloudy skies, and northern blasts,
Retard the gentle spring awhile;
The sun will conqu’ror prove at last,
And nature wear a vernal smile.

The promise, which from age to age,
Has brought the changing seasons round;
Again shall calm the winter’s rage,
Perfume the air, and paint the ground.

The virtue of that first command,
I know still does, and will prevail;
That while the earth itself shall stand,
The spring and summer shall not fail.

Such changes are for us decreed;
Believers have their winters too;
But spring shall certainly succeed,
And all their former life renew.

Winter and spring have each their use,
And each, in turn, his people know;
One kills the weeds their hearts produce,
The other makes their graces grow.

Though like dead trees awhile they seem,
Yet having life within their root,
The welcome spring’s reviving beam
Draws forth their blossoms, leaves, and fruit.

But if the tree indeed be dead,
It feels no change, though spring return,
Its leafless naked, barren head,
Proclaims it only fit to burn.

Dear Lord, afford our souls a spring,
Thou know’st our winter has been long;
Shine forth, and warm our hearts to sing,
And thy rich grace shall be our song.

–––– John Newton

Hamaguchi takes ‘Drive My Car’ to the highway of life

Among the ten Best Picture Oscar nominees this year, one is Japan’s official entry for Best International Feature Film. That Drive My Car is nominated also in the Best Picture category as well as in Directing and Adapted Screenplay is a major boost for director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi. The most recent precedent would be the South Korean feature Parasite in 2020.

The following is my review of Drive My Car, a screen adaptation based on Haruki Murakami’s short story. I thank Asian American Press for allowing me to repost it in full here on Ripple Effects.

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Ever since his five-hour epic Happy Hour garnered accolades in 2015, Japanese director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi has continued to fascinate juries in the festival circuit. During a pandemic year, he made two features, both screened to high acclaims. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy won the 2021 Silver Berlin Bear Jury Prize and Drive My Car swept Cannes, winning Best Screenplay, the FIPRESCI Prize and the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury.

Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura in “Drive My Car”

Drive My Car is Hamaguchi’s creative and imaginative extension of Haruki Murakami’s minimal short story included in his collection Men Without Women. Two individuals unlikely to meet in ordinary circumstances, bare their soul to each other, one a stage actor and director Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the other, a young female driver Misaki (Tôko Miura). The conversations that take place in the car prompt them to confront their own past.

The film opens with a long backstory. Kafuku has a loving and intimate relationship with his wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a TV writer. Her story ideas come while the couple is making love. Both being in the arts, they support each other in an intimate way until one day Kafuku comes home unexpectedly and finds Oto in bed with another man. Kafuku walks back out quietly. The next day, Oto suggests they talk that night when he returns from work. Deeply hurt but fear for the collapse of their marriage, he delays coming home. When he finally gets home late that night he finds Oto has collapsed from a cerebral hemorrhage. She dies later without regaining consciousness. 

This prologue takes 40 minutes and that’s when the introductory credits appear on screen. Hamaguchi will take another two hours and more to tell the rest of his story which begins two years after Oto’s death. Despite the three-hour duration, the film captivates with thought provoking parallels between art and life and reveals the characters’ existential anguish with a quiet poignancy. 

Kafuku loves to drive his fire red Saab 900. He practices his lines while driving by interacting with dialogues recorded by his late wife Oto. As this main section of the movie begins, Kafuku is driving to Hiroshima to direct Anthon Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at a theatre festival. However, upon arrival, he is disappointed to learn that due to insurance stipulations, he is not allowed to drive but the festival has provided him with a driver to drive his car. She is twenty-three year old Misaki (Toko Miura). 

The audition soon takes place. Kafuku has chosen actors from various Asian countries who deliver their lines in their native language including Korean, Mandarin, Japanese, Tagalog, and Korean sign language used in a most poignant way by a deaf actress. With such a cast, this performance of Uncle Vanya will be a powerful display of shared humanity.

Coming to the audition is Takatsuki (Masaki Okada). Kafuku recognizes him right away as the man he had seen making love to his wife in his home. To Takatsuki’s surprise, Kafuku casts him in the lead role. The two start to have talks with each other outside of the rehearsal, the subject they share: Oto.  

The parallel between the lines in Uncle Vanya Kafuku practices in the car and his real-life predicament is startling, and poignantly so. If he had returned home earlier that fateful night he might have been able to save Oto. Seized with guilt and grief, he recites the lines, ‘I am forty-seven years old. I may live to sixty; I still have thirteen years before me; an eternity! How shall I be able to endure life for thirteen years? What shall I do? How can I fill them? … If only I could live the rest of my life in some new way!’

A play within a film and lines corresponding to the real-life situation of the character is an intriguing way to tell a story. The mirroring effect can be emotionally gripping. Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) comes to mind. As Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) practices the lines of the play she’s going to perform with the help of her assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart), she is actually describing her own predicament. 

Reticent and appearing nonchalant, driver Misaki has a scarred childhood. Hearing the lines spoken in the car and as Kafuku talks about his guilt and loss, she too opens up. Two characters with a shattered past is thrown into each other’s internal turmoil, thus begins the healing of wounds and a step towards recovery. The aerial shot of the red Saab smoothly moving on the highway could well be a metaphor for the tranquility and freedom both occupants are seeking desperately.

A twist in the plot makes Takatsuki unable to perform in the play. Kafuku takes up the role as Vanya, a miserable man despondent with life. In a cathartic, final scene of the play, the lines are delivered in silence as the deaf actress playing Sonya encourages Vanya with her expressive sign language. The audience in the theatre, close up on Misaki, read the subtitles above the stage: ‘We must live our lives. Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We’ll patiently endure the trials that fate sends our way…’ As she finishes her speech pointing to eternal rest when they see God, the stage lights dim, with an oil lamp offering a tiny flicker of flame.

The last few minutes of the epilogue wraps the feature with a gratifying end.

____________

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples

Reading the Season: Sabbath Poems by Wendell Berry

Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poems are an apt respite for our busy Christmas Season. A lover of nature––yet not a pantheist––his belief is specific, the Creator behind all that he can see and hear when he goes out to take long walks or work on his farm. However, his poetic imagination can deftly ripple out from the specific to the universal.

The following poems are selected from This Day: Collected and New Sabbath Poems, 1979-2013, all relating to Christmas and striking a deeper resonance as they end.

+++


Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning’s light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own white frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.

+++

Born by our birth
Here on the earth
Our flesh to wear
Our death to bear

Our Christmas tree is
not electrified, is not
covered with little lights
calling attention to themselves
(we have had enough
of little lights calling attention
to themselves). Our tree
is a cedar cut here, one
of the fragrances of our place,
hung with painted cones
and paper stars folded
long ago to praise our tree,
Christ come into the world.

+++

The incarnate Word is with us,
is still speaking, is present
always, yet leaves no sign
but everything that is.

_______________

‘Reading The Season’ over a decade:

2020: Jack by Marilynne Robinson

2019: ‘A Hidden Life’ – A Film for the Season

2018: A Verse from Madeleine L’Engle’s The Irrational Season

2017: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

2016: Silence by Shusaku Endo

2015: The Book of Ruth

2014: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

2013: Poetry by Madeleine L’Engle

2012: Surprised by Joy by C. S. Lewis

2011: Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle 

2010: A Widening Light by Luci Shaw

2009: The Irrational Season by Madeleine L’Engle

2008: The Bible and the New York Times by Fleming Rutledge 

2008: A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis

Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write by Claire Messud

Intrigued by the title? I was, and that prompted me to investigate further. The subtitle pushed me out of indecision: an autobiography in essays. I’ve read two of Messud’s novels, The Burning Girl and The Woman Upstairs, both I couldn’t embrace wholeheartedly. However, the title of this non-fiction jumped out at me.

I’ve appreciated Claire Messud the memoirist and critic much more than Messud the fiction writer, albeit I admit I’ve read only two of her seven novels. The first part of this autobiography in essays reveals her multicultural roots and the various geographical locales that had made up who she is as a writer. A French father born in colonial Algeria and a Canadian mother, what an interesting fusion of culture.

Messud has left footprints and therefore collected memories in many parts of the world. She writes about her growing up years moving from Connecticut to Australia then to Canada and back to the United States, and later her travel to Beirut, an emotionally torn, love trip both for her dying father who had spent his childhood there with fond memories, and for herself.

In the eponymous essay, ‘Kant’s Little Prussian Head’, she writes:

“I can echo Walt Whitman in asserting that ‘I contain multitudes.’ I am who I am because I was where I was, when I was; and almost all of it is invisible to the world. This is true, of course, for each of us” (80).

Messud is generous in sharing the intimacies of her family relationships, especially those of her parents’ and grandparents’. I’ve found too that certain parts of her novels are based on real life experiences and encounters, e.g. the character Cassie in The Burning Girl.

The second part is both taxing and satisfying as she critiques on various international writers and artists, making up a good list for me to explore. Even though I haven’t read some of them or seen their artwork, I find the essays informative, insightful, and exemplary in critique writing. Her prose is elegant and inspiring, and at times, exhilarating.

The Camus essays are captivating for me in terms of the historical backdrop and political situations of Algiers and the tough handling by the then French government. Camus the pacifist had to confront issues of violence, colonization and post-colonial dilemmas.

Her essay on Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go elicits more poignancy from the already devastating fate of the characters Kathy and Tommy. In particular, she sheds new light into the moving scene where Kathy embraces the pop song Never Let Me Go longingly.

The essay on the photographer Sally Mann is mesmerizing. In an interview, Mann had said, “unless you photograph what you love, you are not going to make good art… it’s always been my philosophy to make art out of the everyday, the ordinary” (290).

Herein lies the dilemma of privacy and art making as Mann had candidly photographed her children growing up and her husband who is afflicted by muscular dystrophy, thus making her a highly controversial artist. Anyway, herein lies the dilemma of a memoirist, I suppose, like Messud’s book, there has to be the revealing of relational intimacy and private lives in order to imbue authenticity and truths in an autobiography.

Back to the essay ‘Kant’s Little Prussian Head’, Messud has, in her ingenious way, explains to her readers how she gets the title from. I’ll leave it with you to explore instead of me clumsily paraphrase. However, I’d like to conclude by quoting this moving episode of Messud and her mother who was afflicted with dementia:

“In the last two years of her life, she was often quiet––she who had been so vitally social––and once, as she sat in silence, I asked her what she was thinking. With a wry and wistful smile, she answered, “Shards of memory, and new worlds discovered”(82).

To store up and share fragments gleaned from the ruins of the past is just one of the reasons for Messud to write, as well, for her readers to collect and keep in our own trove containing our own shards of memory, as we all share the magic of these lived experiences through the literary and the arts.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples

Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write: an autobiography in essays by Claire Messud, W.W. Norton & Company, NY, 2020. 306 pages.

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The Brothers Karamazov Part IV and Epilogue: Hope and Redemption

The main thrust and climax of the novel is in Part IV with the courtroom drama of Dmitri on trial for killing his father Fyodor Karamazov. Worthy of any writer of legal thriller to emulate, both the prosecutor Ippolit Kirrillovich’s and the defence attorney from Moscow Fetyukovich’s closing speeches are epic in their scope.

The trial is a spectacle not only locally but the case has ‘resounded throughout Russia.” It would have been a viral streaming in today’s online media. Interesting to note that the opinion of Dmitri’s guilt is divided along gender lines: “many ladies quarrelled hotly with their husbands” as they like to see an acquittal while men want Dmitri locked up and sent to Siberia. Now, such polarized views within a family is another phenom we’re familiar with nowadays.

Prosecutor Kirrillovich knows how to pull the strings of the jury made up of twelve men. They all have preconceived ideas of what the name Karamazov stands for: sensual, unprincipled, depraved. They’ve come to take revenge on a reckless murderer who has committed parricide. The Brothers Karamazov could well have inspired Sidney Lumet’s classic film 12 Angry Men.

Kirrillovich’s beginning remark is notable. While the case has caught raving interests across the country, the alleged cudgelling of a father by his son with a pestle is no longer a surprise, and that’s his commentary on society at large:

“We’re so used to all that! And here is the real horror, that such dark affairs have almost ceased to horrify us! It is this, and not the isolated crime of one individual or another, that should horrify us: that we are so used to it… our lukewarm attitude towards such affairs, such signs of the times, which prophesy for us an enviable future?”

Signs of the times? In 1880? Just wonder what Dostoevsky would think if he were around today.

Defence attorney Fetyukovich draws the twelve men of the jury from their emotions back to rationale, for the evidences presented by the prosecutors are circumstantial as no one has actually seen Dimitri commit the murder. ‘Since he was in the garden that night, he must have killed him’ just wouldn’t stand as an argument, the same with since he had money with him that night, he must have stolen from his father for the sum after killing him. Above all, that Dmitri is ‘stormy and unbridled’ and has offended many in town doesn’t lead to the conclusion that he is the murderer.

That is precisely the war waging inside Dmitri, while he may be reckless and unscrupulous, and admittedly a scoundrel, he’s also a passionate human being, honest with his feelings and thoughts, and earnestly seeks spiritual redemption for his sins. But the murder of his father he vehemently denies.

Who killed Foydor Karamazov? Before he hangs himself, the lackey Smerdyakov has confessed everything to Ivan, including the premeditated faking of a debilitating fall as an alibi, the detailed sequence of events, the actual weapon used, and how he hid the money stolen from the old man. So, it’s unfortunate he didn’t live to confess in court. Did he kill himself to frame Dmitri? I’m inclined to think so, a scheming fool such as he. Smerdyakov reminds me of Uriah Heep in David Copperfield.

While leading the jurors to use their rationale in the first part of his speech, the orator Fetyukovich appeals to their pathos later to conclude. Alluding to Christ and other Biblical references, he calls for the salvation and regeneration of a soul. Dostoevsky has presented a foil between the prosecutor and the defence attorney: one calls for judgement, the other, mercy.

In the forward of the novel, the author has stated that his hero is the youngest son Alyosha, the one who comes out of the monastery and goes into the world. But in the courtroom chapters, Alyosha plays a minimal role. In the wrapping up of the whole book, the last chapter of the Epilogue, Dostoevsky lets Alyosha have the final words. In the school boy Ilyushechka’s funeral, Alyosha rouses up Ilyushechka’s school mates––the next generation of Russian youth––to a pledge of love and goodness:

“… let us all be as generous and brave as Ilyushechka… dear friends, do not be afraid of life! How good life is when you do something good and rightful!”

“Yes, yes,” the boys repeated ecstatically.

“Karamazov, we love you!” a voice, which seemed to be Kartashov’s exclaimed irrepressibly.

“We love you, we love you,” everyone joined in. Many had tears shining in their eyes.

…..

“Karamazov!” cried Kolya, “can it really be true as religion says, that we shall all rise from the dead, and come to life, and see one another again, and everyone, and Ilyushechka?”

“Certainly we shall rise, certainly we shall see and gladly, joyfully tell one another all that has been,” Alyosha replied, half laughing, half in ecstasy.

“Ah, how good that will be!” burst from Kolya.

…..

“And eternally so, all our lives hand in hand! Hurrah for Karamazov!” Kolya cried once more ecstatically, and once more all the boys joined in his exclamation.

Ah… the redemption of the name Karamazov.

***

Hope you have enjoyed this Read Along. Here are the links to the previous sections on Ripple Effects:

Part I: What a Family!
Part II: What Sparks Joy
Part III: The Murder Mystery Begins

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One or Two Things

One or two things are all you need
to travel over the blue pond, over the deep
roughage of the trees and through the stiff
flowers of lightning–––some deep
memory of pleasure, some cutting
knowledge of pain.


For years and years I struggled
just to love my life. And then

the butterfly
rose weightless, in the wind,
“Don’t love your life
too much,” it said,

and vanished
into the world.

––– Mary Oliver, lines from “One or Two Things”

***