A Warm Winter Day

Today is a balmy 5C (41F) winter day. Sunny with no wind, and the Pond is teeming with life and beauty. For the first time in two months, I take my camera out and soak up the scenery.

The chickadees which flutter even in -20’s temperatures are out in full force. Glad to see woodpeckers too, basking in the sunlight:

Yes, those are buds on the branches!

Glad to see a family of deer out enjoying the afternoon sun. This one comes right up to me, maybe hoping for a snack:

While I’m glad to see the woods teeming with activities, what capture my attention are the ice patches, melting and dripping in the warmth of this mid-winter afternoon:

Buds on tree branches and melting ice in January? Just a mid-winter interlude of hope… like a mirage in the desert. No matter, I’m enjoying every bit of this new year blessing.

***

Reading the Season: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s God is in the Manger

Reading the Season is an annual post on Ripple Effects in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Christmas festivities. An interlude to find rest and to ponder on the reason for the season. Lately, I reread the popular fiction All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr; my mind is haunted by the horrors of a world war raged by a madman. And then I came across this book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger: Reflections of Advent and Christmas. What a timely discovery!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a pastor and theologian in WWII Germany. A brilliant intellectual who received his doctorate from the University of Berlin at age 21, Bonhoeffer bravely stood against Hitler, involved in the Resistance, captured, imprisoned, and paid the ultimate price. He was hanged at the Flossenbürg prison on April 9, 1945, just two weeks before the Allies marched in, and three weeks before Hitler took his own life.

Here are a few excerpts from Bonhoeffer’s God is in the Manger:

The lack of mystery in our modern life is our downfall and our poverty… Living without mystery means knowing nothing of the mystery of our own life, nothing of the mystery of another person, nothing of the mystery of the world… It means remaining on the surface, taking the world seriously only to the extent that it can be calculated and exploited, and not going beyond the world of calculation and exploitation. Living without mystery means not seeing the crucial processes of life at all and even denying them.

Replace the word mystery with miracle…

***

Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous… God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.

***

God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment.

***

For the great and powerful of this world, there are only two places in which their courage fails them, of which they are afraid deep in their souls from which they shy away. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ.

And you think he’s intense and serious, well, yes he is, brilliant in insights and brave to speak truth to power. But from his other writings, there’s also humour, equally enlightening. Here’s a quote taken from Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas. (Click on the link to my read-along post)

If you board the wrong train it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.

Have a restful and joyous Christmas Season!

_____________________

Reading the Season in Previous Years:

2021: Sabbath Poems by Wendell Berry

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

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust: A Movie Reviewer’s Long Take

“Life is too short, and Proust is too long.” ­­– Anatole France, French writer and poet

Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, the Nobel laureate Anatole France died in 1924, three years short of seeing the publication of the complete seven volumes of Proust’s autobiographical novel In Search of Lost Time.

My reading journey began in 2013 when I read the first two volumes, Swann’s Way and Within a Budding Grove, as a Read Along on Ripple Effects. For reasons I can’t recall, it took me a few years to get through the third volume The Guermantes Way, finishing at the beginning of 2018. After that, I thought, that would be all for me.

I’m glad I came across Emma’s Book Around the Corner in January of this year to learn that 2022 is the Centenary of Proust’s death (July 10, 1871 – Nov. 18, 1922). That prodded me to finish up the remaining three volumes. Also, since I own the Modern Library six-volume box set, I hate to see it as just a decorative item, however smart it does look.

So glad I finally finish the last three volumes this year in nine months, just in time for the centenary of Proust’s death in November: Vol. IV Sodom and Gomorrah, Vol. V The Captive and The Fugitive (originally in two volumes), and Vol. VI Time Regained. For me, a hobby Proust reader, not until I come to the last volume Time Regained do I realize the significance of the first three volumes and why Proust writes in such minute details about the narrator’s childhood and youthful experiences.

There are many websites and scholastic discussions on this 4,300 page autobiographical novel. Instead of summarizing––an impossible task for me––I’ll pick out those passages or ideas that have stirred up some ripples within me filtered through the lens of a movie reviewer, hopefully offering something that’s different and easy to chew.

At the end of Volume VI there are over 200 pages listing characters, places, and themes. Some of the subjects in the 44 pages of Index to Themes include beauty, brothels, dreams, literature, language, music, painting, politics, the Dreyfus Affair, anti-semitism, war, love, sexuality, old age, death… just to name a few. Imagine you’re standing by a smorgasbord of a huge array of culinary offerings, yes including those that are hard to digest or don’t agree with your system, and you can only eat so much, of course you would pick and choose your favourite foods. So, here’s what’s on my plate at this buffet.

In the last part of Vol. VI: Time Regained, the narrator discovers the crucial dimension of Time. Surely, Time over the years has rendered many people he has had crossed path with in his life frail and infirmed, or lost their good looks due to ageing, and some have died, like Swann. But the subliminal power of memories allows him to relive his childhood experiences once again and see these people reappear in his mind as he had known them in his youth. His memories have preserved them like they have not grown old.

So the end of this long book brings readers back to the beginning. It’s not so much about going back, but rather, bringing the past to the present as the two form a continuation of life. Yes, a virtual back to the future.

A reader bearing with him from the beginning and now reaching this eureka moment can feel the narrator’s joy in discovering this secret chamber deep in his psyche where he, unknowingly, has stored up treasured moments of his past. The length of the book could well be a virtual reality as we see his life unfold at a slow pace, then vicariously feel the joy of the discovery of this hidden, mental treasure trove years later. Sharing such ecstasy with readers has now become the purpose of his writing:

The happiness which I was feeling was a product not of a purely subjective tension of the nerves which isolated me from the past, but on the contrary of an enlargement of my mind, within which the past was re-forming and actualizing itself , giving me –– but alas! only momentarily––something whose value was eternal. This I should have liked to bequeath to those who might have been enriched by my treasure. (VI: 513)

The above quote found towards the end of the long book brings readers back to the beginning. Many movies are just like this, a bookend finish: The last scenes bring viewers back to the beginning scenes, revealing their significance and then move on to wrap up the whole work. That’s the feeling I got when reading the last volume, Time Regained. Proust brings us back to the pleasure of enjoying the madeleine soaked in tea, the ringing of the bell on the garden gate when he was a child waiting impatiently for his mother to see Swann off so she could come up to kiss him goodnight, Combray memories, the Swann and the Guermantes way––precious scenes to go one full circle back to the beginning–––to regain Time, to cherish a life in continuity. Call it the Circle of Life if you will, but to the narrator, the present has never been separated from the past.

Another ripple from my mental pond is how mindful the narrator is in his everyday living. BTW, he is also called Marcel, so I take it as Proust’s own view of things. His exceptional sensitivity and the minute details in his observation and introspection form the signature of his book.

As I read how he’d stop and see things and people with incisive perception, a movie quote comes to mind. Nope, not from any old sage but spoken time and again by a high school wise guy who wants to play hooky for a day. In a very Proustian posture, Ferris Beuller (Matthew Broderick) lies in bed one morning as he considers a good reason for skipping school that day:

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while you can miss it.” –– from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986, directed by John Hughes.

Ferris Bueller might not have read Proust, but just shows how relevant Proust can be in contemporary life.

Click here to the next Proust Post:
Proust and the Multiverse

***

Past Proust posts on Ripple Effects:

Proust Read Along: Swann’s Way Part I, Combray

Proust Read Along: The Swann and Gatsby Foil

Proust Read Along: Within a Budding Grove

How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

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:

***

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:

***

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.

___________

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