If I have trouble putting together a Real blog post, it’s not because I haven’t been soaking up the sights and thinking about so many things. Now that I am actually here, I have been reading about and discussing with Kate and Tom Indian history, language, politics, slums, and religion.
The night before Baby Raj was born, Tom projected maps of India on the big screen and gave a little talk on various of these topics — it was the best sort of lesson for me, the map presentation helping me to tie bits of knowledge together in my mind. Perhaps there’s a chance I will retain more than a smidgen.
My “studies” are interspersed with or carried on in the midst of Baby Immersion. Just being in a home where a newborn baby lives and breathes and will stare back at you with no feeling of awkwardness — it’s too sweet.
This baby will have Indian nannies as long as he lives here, so some of the first words impressed on his pliable mind will be from Indian languages. But which ones? Hindi is not the primary language spoken in these parts, and India has designated 30 languages as “official” languages of the nation. According to Census of India of 2001, India has 122 major languages and 1599 other languages.
20% of Indians speak Dravidian languages, which are not even related to Indo-Aryan languages such as Hindi. These and other non-Hindi speakers have fought against proposals to impose the Hindi language in southern India. The Indian constitution does not give any language the status of national language, but the authorized version of laws is required to be in English, and the business of the Supreme Court is conducted in English.
I’ve learned very few Indian words, mostly names of food. But I didn’t learn the name of the Diwali festival treat above before eating the last one in the house. Almost everyone I encounter seems to speak at least a little English, but sometimes I can’t understand one word in a whole sentence by the most fluent speakers, because of their accent.
Everywhere we go I feast on colors, and feel myself to be somewhat ghostly in appearance in contrast to the Indian women in their rich attire. I’m sure I will come home with a few new and bright, concrete items to go with the images on my computer and the imprints on my mind. New dishes are constantly being set out on this banquet table.
With winter coming on, it’s time I gave a report about a book I read on my Kindle, under my wool blankets last winter: The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country by Helen Russell. Why did I choose this book in the first place? It had something to do with the erratic and perplexing workings of my mind in that first year of widowhood, combined with the popularity of the concept of hygge and the instantaneous nature of Kindle shopping.
Once I began, an unhealthy curiosity took hold and overcame my better impulses; I wanted to find out if the author decided to stay a second year. I also hoped she might reveal moral principles in herself, or a change of attitude, or anything to show that she was more than an unemployed journalist using the Danish experience to make a buck.
Russell’s husband had been offered a job with LEGO, and after some deliberating about leaving her job and mother behind in Britain, they decided to try it for a year. Why not, when it’s known to be the happiest country in the world! During the year that they live there, she writes about various aspects of Danish life, and gives the reader tons of statistics (which I didn’t check) from various research studies not specifically about Denmark, to show that maybe the Danes are on to something. She does not hide statistics about the sky-high divorce rate, the highest anti-depressant use in Europe, high suicide rate, how people change jobs frequently (certainly not because they are unhappy at work), but the many people she asks personally always say that their happiness level is either 9 or 10.
What bothered me was how the author didn’t appear to like the Danish people, her new neighbors and friends. She uses them as humorous subject matter for her book, but if she likes living in Denmark, it doesn’t appear to be out of appreciation for the natives. Also, I kept waiting for her to show that she held to principles against which to assess the culture, but by example, she quickly got over an initial concern over the way Danes casually expose children to pornography, and seems to easily absorb whatever socialist values are expedient, in trade for living in a welfare state with free everything.
It may be that Russell is only trying to maintain an objective stance as a journalist; when she lacks her own ideas, she finds some statistics to throw out there. We are told about the Danes, “They cherish their freedom to indulge every whim,” and they “really enjoy themselves, safe in the knowledge that they’ll be looked after if (or rather, when) anything goes wrong.” This is important, because “women here have the highest rates of lung cancer in the world, and Denmark also tops the overall worldwide cancer charts for all types of cancer in both sexes.” Related statements are about how they are “among the highest drinkers in Europe,” and “smoke with zeal.” She also lets us know, using language I find oddly travelogue-ish, that Denmark is the “top spot for STI’s [a.k.a. STD’s] in Europe.”
She’s less non-committal about the many more wholesome customs she learns about. When a neighbor tells her about the importance of church confirmations, saying, “It’s tradition!” she calls the concept “That old chestnut.” One belief I’m sure was inculcated before she ever left the U.K. is “…sometimes the practice of religion goes against human rights, for instance in the case of abortion.” That she doesn’t say whose human rights she is thinking of, we must chalk up to her not being in the habit of thinking outside the box that the typical journalist these days is ensconced in, and not even being aware of her bias. She states in several places her assessment that religion doesn’t really mean much to most Danes, but if it is “going against” something in the popular culture, I am encouraged.
As to hygge, Russell does try to learn to slow down, to burn candles and eat pastries in the winter as she’s told to do, and she credits this more relaxed life with ending her infertility. Though it means that the grandmother will be across the sea, the couple do decide to stay another year.
I can’t help wondering if her new friends read her book, and how they felt about it. Maybe they don’t like to be the targets for her sarcasm… but probably she is a good neighbor in real life and they forgive her for not treating them as more than superficial-sounding book characters. I don’t like to think about the possibility that the author and her subjects truly have been reduced to mere contented, or sated, consumers; but when I factor in all those alarming statistics, the image I get of what people are doing on those long winter nights is not inspiring.
This winter, I will be glad not to live in a frigid place like Jutland. I will work on my own style of being cozy at home, and it will no doubt include the reading of many books. But reading this one hasn’t made me want to pursue anything Danish, and it has done nothing at all for my hygge.
“What Was Said to the Rose” is a poem by Rumi, the Sufi mystic. I listened to it along with several others on a recording played through my car’s stereo on my drive up to daughter Pippin’s house last month.
For the first hour or more I didn’t listen to anything. I am surprised to find that I like just looking at the scenery in our beautiful state. I live in Northern California, and so does Pippin. But she is five hours farther north than I am, and still not at the top of the state.
Some people who have never been here imagine the cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco and have no idea that there is anything north of the latter. But if you’ve read my blog very long you know that there is a wide realm of land to love, and every time I drive through it I love it more.
It is said that Rumi is the most popular poet in the United States. I have one book of his poems, which I rarely crack, and I heard a recording of the translator Coleman Barks reading Rumi a few years back. I enjoy Barks’s personality and southern drawl almost as much as Rumi’s poems. You can hear him reading this poem on a YouTube recording;I think it might be from the same event I was listening to.
Rumi was a Persian Muslim mystic in the 13th century. It seems that the order of whirling dervishes was formed to propagate his poetry and wisdom. He does write as though his meditation and asceticism opened his heart to God, whom he calls “The Beloved” in many poems. The tone of this one is representative of many that I have read, and it inspires praise and joy in me. The version I transcribed here does not have the first line as its title.
WHAT WAS TOLD, THAT
What was said to the rose that made it open
was said to me here in my chest.
What was told the Cypress that made it strong
and straight, what was
whispered the jasmine so it is what it is, whatever made
sugarcane sweet, whatever
was said to the inhabitants of the town of Chigil in
Turkestan that makes them
so handsome, whatever lets the pomegranate flower blush
like a human face, that is
being said to me now. I blush. Whatever put eloquence in
language, that’s happening here.
The great warehouse doors open; I fill with gratitude,
chewing a piece of sugarcane,
in love with the one to whom every that belongs!
–Jalal al-Din Rumi, 1207–1273, translated by Coleman Barks
Perhaps I listened to some music after Rumi. I hope I didn’t jump right into Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes, which though it references the ancients, is on the opposite side of the literary world from Rumi. I reviewed Rick Riordan’s earlier series a few years ago, about Percy Jackson the demigod and his adventures with the super dysfunctional divine side of his family. I can’t remember much of that one book I read, but when I discovered that the author had more recently retold the original Greek myths (starting with Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods) I thought it would be an even more helpful and fun addition to my haphazard effort to be better educated.
It is more hilarious than the original series. I think that it might also be more entrenched in the middle-school vernacular, including that four-letter “S” word for anything disappointing or bad that is so mainstream now that my own grandchildren are using it in my presence. It’s a sign of the degradation of society, but I guess that fits right in with this collection of stories, because certainly the Greek gods exhibit lots of degraded behavior themselves. Still, it makes me not want to recommend the book to kids.
As I drove up the interstate I could not helping laughing out loud at the lighthearted descriptions of the silly gods and goddesses and the way that Percy tells the drama and draws the characters using modern-day cultural phenomena and slang. Aphrodite sits around reading fashion magazines and looking at herself in the mirror, and various beautiful humans and gods are described as “hot.” The egotism of many of the gods is easily recognized as being like that of some foolish celebrities in the news, or the kids at school who get into trouble, or hurt someone innocent, because of their stupidity and selfishness.
I played a few minutes for Kate the other day and she laughed a lot, too, but she could see why after a couple of hours of these stories I might get tired of them. Is it really necessary to write for such a narrow target audience? How soon will these books sound dated to that age group? I don’t really care that much. The stories are hugely entertaining even for this grandma, and I hope Riordan won’t stop writing for a long time. I don’t know that I will buy a hard copy, though, even though the illustrations are well done.
I turned off my tablet when I got close to Pippin’s house. I drove into the driveway and unloaded my goodies, including an armful of books for the children that I had bought at the thrift store. We read about Ping and Paul Bunyan, and I was glad that these dear hearts aren’t at the age for hearing about Percy and his cohorts yet. They’ll be ready for Rumi sooner.
Several articles I’ve read lately strike me as worth sharing.
Boredom is a topic that comes up a lot, maybe more so in summertime, when some people have more time to be bored. In “The Quiet Alarm” Andreas Elpidorou explains why “Boredom is precious, but there’s nothing particularly good about being bored. Its unpleasantness is no illusion, its subjective character no taste worth acquiring. We should give thanks for it – and avoid it like the plague.”
I’m not sure what I think about all of this; perhaps Boredom is so related to Time that it’s one of those realities that I could muse on for a long time and get more and more confused – but never bored! Read the whole article here.
The threat of boredom comes to mind when I think of cocktail parties, but David Brooks uses them as a metaphor for the exciting “online life” in his article “Building Attention Span”: “Being online is like being a part of the greatest cocktail party ever and it is going on all the time….” He says that “This mode of interaction nurtures mental agility,” or what he calls “fluid intelligence.”
He contrasts that with “crystallized intelligence,” which is what we get more of in offline learning, “…the ability to use experience, knowledge and the products of lifelong education that have been stored in long-term memory.” This kind of learning leads to wisdom, and goodness knows we need that. Read the whole article here.
Fr. Stephen Freeman’s recent article “Why the Orthodox Honor Mary” begins a discussion that continues in the resulting comments, contrasting the humility and submission of Mary as something to recognize and emulate, with the actual veneration of her as an aspect of our worship of God.
A fascinating bit of Bible exposition is in the comments where Fr. Stephen explains Jesus’s words to Mary at the marriage of Cana, and the meaning that becomes clear when you see that they hearken back to the story in I Kings of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. Read it all here.
To end on a lighter note, how about some coconut cake to have with your iced tea on a summer afternoon? (If you are in the Southern Hemisphere, even better – just make that hot tea.) This picture of Emily Dickinson’s Handwritten Coconut Cake recipe, and the accompanying text, do encourage me that if I get back into the kitchen more, it won’t necessarily mean a lessening of my writing output. I do wonder what the form of the coconut ingredient is intended to be, but it would be fun to experiment with one of my favorite foods.
As I write, the sun has yet to emerge in my cool corner of California, but by mid-afternoon the situation will probably have changed enough that I could sit outdoors with some tea and some more reading material from which to glean. Happy reading to you, too!