Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Fruit of Her Hands by Michelle Cameron

The Fruit of Her Hands: The Story of Shira of Ashkenaz by Michelle Cameron is the story of a Jewish girl, daughter of a Rabbi, growing up in 13th century Europe. It starts off as a typical historical romance: feisty protagonist who wants to break away from societal expectations and community tradition meets handsome stranger, etc. However, this novel is not a romance—it is a love story. Yes, Shira does get married, as she is expected to do, forcing her to give up the thing she loves most (studying the Talmud) but the relationship she and her husband, Meir ben Baruch, share is everything that a long and very lasting relationship should be with all of the challenges and celebrations that this implies. As with most novels that take place in any historical period, the author invites the reader to learn about the time. Cameron, because she is also writing about the Jewish community living in Europe, goes to great lengths to explain the customs and frequent Hebrew terms she uses. She occasionally goes too far, explaining the term within the sentence when such things are not only unnecessary, because there is a glossary at the end of the novel for those inclined to look up the terms, but bordering on insulting to the reader, especially after their first appearance with explanation because the second or even third explanation almost implies that the reader is too forgetful to remember from the first time and/or too lazy to look it up in the glossary. Cameron also defines things that were typical of the Medieval period as if the narrator, Shira, were writing for an audience of another era. Assuming even for a moment that Shira would write out her story in hopes of someone else reading it, she would not define a word like gonfalon; nor should Cameron who can rest assured that her reader has access to a dictionary and, if ignorant and inclined, can look up the word, something that a reader in Shira’s time would not be as likely able to do. She would also not be likely to say King Rudolph I because, really, until there is a Rudolph II it would be just plain Rudolph, wouldn’t it? Rather like World War I being known as “the Great War” until World War II. (If you look at coins of Queen Elizabeth I, you don’t see the “I” after her name and Queen Mary of Scotland was never followed by another Queen Mary of Scotland so she has no qualifier after her name. There are other things I found disappointing. None of the characters really grow or change over time. Shira has occasional moments of self-awareness that could lead to an epiphany of personal change or growth but she never realizes either. The other characters that fill out the community of Shira’s life never evolve into anything but who and what they are from their first appearance. The troublesome yeshiva student remains a problem; the intellectual and highly traditional one does as well. The Jews are mostly long-suffering and innocent while the Christians are mostly ignorant and hostile. There are exceptions to both broadly drawn delineations but they mostly hold true throughout the story. Even Shira’s own children’s characters are determined practically from birth and, as the story draws to its conclusion, nothing much changes. Having said all that, Cameron does a nice job of drawing her family history (she is a descendant of Rabbi Meir) with Jewish history (introducing the political characters and pogroms that made being a Jew increasingly difficult). She sprinkles the text with quotes from various sources including the Torah, the Talmud, and even other historical documents. Nor does she allow the story to sink into bodice-ripping romance. Instead, she honors, for the most part, the way these characters would think and feel under the occasionally horrifying circumstances and, even when Cameron has to manipulate the plot to afford Shira the opportunity to act as a witness to an incident, she manages to make Shira an interesting and trustworthy observer.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Denial in Dealing with Death

Elizabeth Mull left a comment on another site: Death tends to disturb people. No shit! I am reminded of a time when a friend of mine told me that her mother had died. I don’t think I was very supportive or exceptionally sympathetic. What I was, however, was scared. This friend was my age. Her mother was my mother’s age. If someone my age could lose her mother . . . I was scared and, because I was scared, I simply couldn’t deal with my friend’s loss. As a result, I wasn’t a very good friend to her. This year, with ten deaths in seven months, I have had more than sufficient opportunity to learn how to be a friend to someone who is suffering a loss. First and foremost, be present. Even when you can’t be there in person, be there in spirit. Send a note, food, and offer to help. If the other person doesn’t respond, don’t take it personally. Reach out again. Express your compassion in whatever words you can. Nothing you say will make an immediate difference but know this: saying nothing is more hurtful than saying the wrong thing could ever be. Remember, the first and foremost piece of advice and know that your words are your way of being present. Listen to and allow the other person’s grief. Each person grieves in their own way. Grief is different for different people and sometimes it is very messy, even ugly. But grief, like all emotions, needs to be honored. By listening to the other person’s grief—whether face-to-face or over the telephone or even via email—the grieving person comes to know that their pain is valid. Honoring grief is a grace that few know how to offer because we forget the simplicity of offering our presence. The Bible verse “God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son” is so often repeated for a reason. It is the presence of holiness given in sharing grief through compassion, the mutual (com) feeling (passion) of loss, that is a sacrifice of grace. This is a sacrifice, one offered in relationship to another. The Buddha taught the first Noble Truth: Life is suffering. We can choose to live in suffering or transcend it but we cannot deny it, cannot avoid it, and cannot define another person’s suffering from them. But we can do what the Buddha did, what Jesus did—we can sit with suffering, we can weep at what we see, we can touch the suffering world with our presence, even when all we are doing is listening. So be present. Even if all you can do is say, “I’m here. I’m listening.” I wish I could express how much blessing there is in knowing that a grief is heard in some way, that someone is listening to our tears. And the importance of this, of listening to someone else’s grief, is beyond words. All of us who are blessed with a long life, or even a long enough life, will come to a moment of profound pain, of inimitable loss. To go through these things alone . . . No. I’m sorry. Even the thought of going through the past few months alone is too unbearable. Because I know now that when someone says, “I have had a loss” what they are really saying is “I need to know that there is still love in the world.” Let me repeat that: When someone, anyone, says they are hurting what they are saying is that they need to know that there is love in the world. You can be the love in someone’s suffering world. You can be the manifestation of compassion, be the evidence of the unseen love in the world. Your love is there in a simple touch, a shared tear, the small acts of listening, of expressing even the most meaningless words. Because, as intolerable as loss and suffering may be, it is far more intolerable to believe that there is not enough love or compassion to have to go through life alone, unheard, untouchable. By denying another person’s suffering, by saying nothing in the face of grief, is to turn the other person into a leper. And hasn’t the grieving person suffered enough already? Haven’t we all suffered enough already? Now, this moment, be present, listen to the grief and give what compassion you can. Be a light in the midst of too much darkness.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Blogging for Dummies by Susannah Gardner and Shane Birley

Blogging for Dummies by Susannah Gardner and Shane Birley is another of the many “Dummies” books and, like the other books in the series, is overflowing with information about blogging. The focus in this text is mostly on building a blogger (or blogspot) blog but many of the tools and ideas are easily used with other blogging sites. (That the book focuses many of its suggestions on blogger is not a surprise because Birley is a developer for the site and anyone who reads the book and complains about this fact didn’t look closely enough at the cover.) This book is more about the business of blogging. This is the resource for you if you want to know: • how to make your blog look pretty • how to drive traffic to your blog • how to track that traffic • how to add “bells and whistles” like vlogs, podcasts, etc. Not everyone wants to do these things, of course, and some people blog for the sake of blogging. For those who are looking for ideas on how to make the content of your blog more interesting, there really isn’t much information here that can or will help. This is meant to be an informational resource and not an inspirational one. There are a lot of books on journaling overflowing with prompts and such that a blogger could use to develop content so perhaps there isn’t much need for this type of information. However, I think that a chapter more devoted to assist a new blogger in developing a style beyond the mere appearance of the page would have been interesting. Finding your personal voice is not an easy thing and it takes practice. I also feel that the authors dropped the ball by not addressing the issues of cyberstalking and cyberbullying. Although filtering comments is touched upon, what to do about someone who is harassing you in other ways, following you from website to website, creating false/fake journals as if they were your own, etc., is not mentioned at all. If this were an older book, I could see why this would be so but there is now enough evidence that anyone and everyone can be a victim of online abuse and to not provide information to the reader on how to deal with these things is a significant oversight. As with most books on anything involving the internet, much of the content will be dated before too long. I recently looked through a magazine that is only ten years old and, when I tried to look at some of the websites featured as “best of the best” all of the sites were gone. The same will probably serve true for many of the sites mentioned in this book. I guess I would recommend this book to anyone who has a blogger/blogspot account who really wants to make it something bigger or better than the basic templates will allow or to the person who thinks of their blog as a business, a way to make money or get some sort of professional exposure. For the person who is wondering how to create a blog that will have lasting power for the reader and for the blogger, this book offers no real suggestions. And for the blogger who is not concerned with writing to an audience, there is little information, outside of the technical template redesign, to be found in the pages of this book. It’s good, as good as any of these Dummies books are, but it is not what I had hoped to read.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Sense of Suicide

Early this year, a friend of mine confided in me that her father had tried to commit suicide. She confided in me because she was afraid that others might judge her, might look down on her in some way. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, the thought that anyone would think less of her because he was in too much pain or too angry or impossibly desperate or simply beyond hope to hold on for another day. On Saturday, my best friend from junior/high school emailed me to tell me that her brother had committed suicide the day before. I didn’t read the email until Sunday and since then I have been trying to make sense of this, somehow. But how? In August my mother’s friend ended his years of struggling with depression by killing himself. I didn’t know what to say to my mother and did a google search.

condolence suicide “sympathy card”

When the answer came up with hundreds of links, I thought, “Some things should not be found.” The fact that I found anything, let alone hundreds of things, meant that the need to find the right words to ease someone’s grief through a loss by suicide was not something so rare, so unheard of, that there were no answers for the question . . . What do you say to the survivors? It is too obvious to say that there are no words that will bring peace in a situation like this. I can only imagine the rapacious questions that are tearing through my friend right now, the same ones with which my mother probably flagellated herself.
  • What could I have done?
  • What should I have said?
  • Was there anything I could have done and said to change this?
  • If I could, what would I do differently?
  • How can I go back and make this not be happening?
  • Did I say I love you while I had the chance?
  • Did I say it clearly enough, loudly enough, often enough?
  • How many hours of tears will I cry before I can breathe again?
  • Will I ever forgive myself for this?
Or maybe these are not the questions that are asked. Maybe there is too much pain for questions. Is there a point where one becomes so saturated with suffering that all questions, all sorrow, finally falls away? I’m tired of this year, of ten deaths and incurable diseases. I’m tired of trying to make sense of something that makes no sense, of asking questions that have no answers, of asking questions that should never need to be asked.