Flowering of the Heart

Never can I write of Damascus

without my fingers becoming

a trellis for her jasmine.

Nor can my mouth speak that name

without savoring the juices of her apricot,

pomegranate, mulberry and quince.

Poem by Nizar Qabbani.

Translated by students in the Iraqi Student Project

Never Can I Write of Damascus: When Syria Became our Home, by Theresa Kubasak and Gabe Huck is a memoir of the couple’s years with the Iraqi Student Project, preparing Iraqi refugees in Syria in to attend college in the U.S. Huck and Kubasak chose the work of creating educational opportunities for Iraqi young adults as their way of compensating in some small way for the damage done to Iraq by the U.S. invasion. They chose Syria because it had welcomed such large numbers of Iraqi refugees. Little did they know that in seven years they would be leaving Syria themselves, and that this country they came to love would be flooding the world with its own desperate refugees.

If I were not about to retire from education, I might use this book in a first-year seminar, teaching college students how to explore intellectually, do critical thinking, engage in civil discourse, and appreciate learning, language and culture for their own sake. The model of highly motivated learning in the ISP groups is fascinating, as they discovered world literature and poetry in discussion groups and worked together in writing workshops, to a large extent self-directed with guidance from Kubasak.

Through this book, I’ve learned more about Syria than I have ever learned from the news. I got a clear feeling for what it must be like to leave your home and your possessions because your life is in danger and your country at war within itself, and also for how Syria made room for refugees, first from Iraq and then from its own disrupted society. Though they make occasional references to politics, most of all Huck and Kubasak have written a love letter to Damascus: its language, its architecture, its food, its artisans, its spirituality, and its people. Damascus as it was. The city in this memoir is full of music, dancing, fresh fruit juices, family, prayers, creativity, and most of all friendliness and generosity.

The authors use excerpts from student writings, interviews with local residents, and quotations from books and poetry to illustrate the themes of each chapter. One moving story is from an Iraqi refugee. She tells about stopping in Mosul on a cold night as one of many escaping to Syria, taking shelter in a mosque. The travelers didn’t know each other, but little by little they drew closer to each other for conversation and for warmth, and thus they spent the night, comforted by each other’s human presence and warmth. They were Shia, Sunni and Christian in that group, and it no longer mattered at all.

My final meeting with my Virginia book club was special. It’s the only time we’ve had the author of the book we read join us. Two of us in the club know Theresa Kubasak as our yoga student, and we invited her to talk with us and share the in-depth stories behind her memoir.

As our guest, she did something quintessentially Syrian. Eager to share Syrian culture with us, she brought food: fresh hummus seasoned with garlic and sumac, freekah (cracked wheat with slivered almonds), figs and dates stuffed with walnuts, and the wonderful soft flatbread that she describes in her book as something people often carry home on their heads. The generosity and sociability of the Syrian people is the life force that animates the book. She embodied that spirit. In addition to cooking for us, she brought two of the books of the poems and essays written by the Iraqi refugee students she and her husband worked with, and a long white curtain inscribed by a number of the students with the best lines from their essays about spiritual life. For a while, it hung over a door in my apartment, words written by young people in Damascus. There was something moving about its presence, a scene from their lives carried into ours, bearing their words in their handwriting. One of the writers, Mustafa, had signed his name over a sketched bank of fluffy clouds. A book club member who volunteers helping Syrians resettle here was so entranced by the small volume of the student writings that she read some of the poems over and over and then had to share them aloud with us.

Another member of the club asked Kubasak what was difficult or different in returning to the U.S. after seven years in Damascus. She described a day during their readjustment to New York, where they had been living before they took on the Iraqi Student Project, including this anecdote as part of her answer: After going to various institutions and businesses on errands, she looked at her husband and remarked, “We’ve been to five places today, and no one has offered us tea.”

Not all book clubs will be so fortunate as to be able to invite the author, but if you’re in a club and need something important, moving and different to read, I recommend this. Have some Syrian food as you discuss it, and apricot or pomegranate juice and tea.

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What is Pleasant to Live Through …

… seldom makes a good story. I was reminded of this as I searched for something interesting to say in an e-mail to a friend. I wanted to stay in touch and to hear from him, but my sane, steady, enjoyable life provided little material. Hello. I’m happy. My students are great this semester. My yoga classes are going well. I’m reading good books and I’m writing. In conversation, a lot could flow from any of this, but in writing, not much.

A few years ago, I was talking with a new acquaintance at a faculty holiday party, and he mentioned that he was reading The Lord of The Rings for the first time. I had read it my freshman year in high school. Yet, when he mentioned the passage that stood out most strongly for him, it was one that I’d often thought of in the decades since reading it. Tolkien sums up the passage a long and pleasant time for the travelers in his story in one or two lines, then adds that things that are agreeable to live through are often dull to tell about, but things that are hard or even terrible to live through make marvelous tales. Authors tend to feel affection for their characters, and yet to make good stories, we have to put them through challenges. No life would remain pleasant if it didn’t require us to do something difficult. And that’s where the story is—growth through pain or danger.

At the last meeting of my book club, each us got the others caught up on her summer. One person was getting divorced, another had seen a friend through a major crisis, and another had taken her peace studies students to Hiroshima, a place that literally went through hell to become what it now is, a city dedicated to peace. And I … had been on vacation. Needless to say, the most compelling narrative wasn’t mine.

I had tons of fun, but my friends had more questions about a medical weirdness that took place shortly before I left for New Mexico. Because what makes a better story? “I went on vacation and it was great,” or “I had a posterior vitreal detachment?” They were fascinated by the phenomenon of having the gel in my eyeball partially detach and getting flashes of light and a giant floater in one eye. “How big is it? Like, the size of blueberry? Is it always there? Do you have to have surgery?” (Smaller than a blueberry, in case you care, and no, and no.) Ah, we humans. We love icky, scary stuff, and you can’t get much ickier than eyeballs.

I thought the divorce story was amazing, a much better story. Not for the conflict but for the grace. The couple who are parting ways took a long-planned backpacking trip together even though they had decided they would end their marriage. I’ve talked to each of them about it and they’re glad they had this final adventure together. backpacking_bechler_canyon_18430518468It’s their story, so I won’t tell any more of it here, but I can see in it the qualities that make the best stories. In a way, it ties in with the peace studies story and the helping-a-friend-in-crisis story. It had value and purpose, and took strength and courage. It made them grow and change. And in its difficulty shines its beauty.

The Risk of Enjoying Something New

Humans are attracted to familiarity and recognizable patterns. We like music with tunes: melodies have patterns. Routines and habits are patterns we don’t have to think about, and having them spares us from making millions of minute choices in a day. Rituals are patterns to which we pay deep, contemplative attention. Habit: tea at my desk while I grade papers. Ritual: a Japanese tea ceremony.

Novelty is nether habit nor ritual, and it can feel incredibly uncomfortable even when it’s trivial. I read an interview in a medical journal with a physician who included nutrition in his treatments. He said—using hyperbole, I hope—that people would rather change their religion than what they eat for breakfast.

I like to ask my college health classes, “How many of you think tofu tastes bad?”

Ten or twelve hands out of twenty-five usually go up.

“How many of you have tasted tofu?”

About half the hands go down. A few others go up. In other words, some have tried it and know they don’t like it. Some people have tried it and found it enjoyable. Others have decided in advance that it’s going to taste bad without ever trying it. On a zero-to-ten scale of risky behaviors, trying a new food is a one or a two. Nothing terrible happens if you don’t like it, and you might find that it’s delicious.

In my freshman seminar, I encounter a few students who resist unfamiliar books. “It’s too long—I don’t like long books.” “I never heard of the author.” “I don’t read non-fiction.” “I’ve never read any kind of philosophy.” Behind this resistance is often the dread of being bored. Some take the risk and read deeply and engage with the book whether or not they entirely like it. Others guarantee boredom by skimming, getting the result they dreaded in the first place.

My book club makes me venture beyond books I would choose for myself, and through them I’ve expanded my reading horizons. How big a risk is it, after all, to read a book I might not like, or to read outside my habitual patterns? If I truly dislike a book, I give myself permission to stop reading after forty or fifty pages, but that’s a decision I’ve only made once with a book club selection.

Over the years the club has chosen books some books we all loved, many we disagreed on, and a few we unanimously didn’t like. The nonfiction book Winged Obsession, about a collector and seller of illegal and endangered butterflies, sounded great in reviews and in blurbs from established authors, but every single one of us thought it was poorly written in spite of the solid research. (It was still worth reading. I learned a great deal about butterflies and about law enforcement in Fish and Wildlife.) The humorous indie novel The Scottish Movie delighted us all with its quirky insider’s look at the movie industry. The book isn’t famous nor is it blurbed by the famous, but it was fun.  It’s the only indie book we’ve read as a club and I remember how amazed the other members were when they saw the price. An e-book for $2.99? I read a lot of indie books, but they’re used to paying $7.99 or more. At that price, an unfamiliar author wasn’t much of a risk for them.

Expensive risks are the hardest. The decision to move. The decision to open a business. To travel to a new place. Some of my yoga teacher friends have been to India. One of them had a blissful experience, staying in an ashram where tiny tame deer came to the patio. The other got some kind of fungal infection and spent the whole trip sick—and yet, she didn’t regret the journey. Its lessons were profound.

Some of the risks people take on a daily basis are so comfortable they feel safe. The phone is familiar, and so is the car. I remember riding with a friend who took both hands off the wheel while driving on a curving road—one hand to shift gears and one hand on his phone. When I pointed out what he’d done, he acknowledged that he hadn’t even noticed. That’s what’s risky: not noticing. While we need some routines and habits, going through life without paying attention is dangerous. We risk our lives with distracted driving, risk boredom by skimming the surface of books or experiences, or risk missing a new experience altogether by not even realizing we could have it.

My last book club gathering included an off-topic discussion of the various unexpected new things members’ aging parents were doing. Making maple syrup. Taking water aerobics. Learning to paint. I have a seventy-nine-year-old man in my Gentle Yoga class who is learning this skill for the first time. Everyday novelties can open doors and break old patterns.

A few years ago I read a study done by a professor at Northern Arizona University on inducing happiness. His experiment involved having people do random acts of kindness, take on small achievable new goals and reach them, and make minor variations in their routines. Compared to a control group, the people who made these little changes became measurably happier.

Taking minor risks like trying new books, activities or foods can add up. When I try something new and different, not only do I feel the satisfaction of achievement but the quality of my attention changes. With awareness, even the familiar can become new and different.

 *****

The Scottish Movie

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/15841493-the-scottish-movie

 

 

But I HAVE to Finish It: Cleaning One’s Literary Plate

My book club met last night and one member was debating whether or not to complete a Pulitzer Prize winning modern classic that was last month’s selection. A good book, but it didn’t engage her. We all admitted to our discomfort about not finishing a book. I’m the only one in the club who writes reviews, so the other members’ reluctance has nothing to do with that. It’s the relationship with the book. We respect them, and feel guilty about giving up on them.

 This came up on the same day I posted what I think may be my last two star review. I don’t regret reading the other books I rated that low because they had strengths that made me care, and made me want to critique them like a beta reader. This last one exhausted me. I never should have made myself finish reading it, and reviewing took hours of self-torment about how to say what I thought without being cruel or snarky. The only thing that kept me going was that I had agreed to review it. Even though the group I was reviewing for says it’s okay to stop reading, no questions asked, I felt obligated due to a shortage of reviewers.

Other people have liked this book. I didn’t. How important is that, compared to the stress of reading it and the greater stress of reviewing it? I think there are some people who take pleasure in writing bad reviews, but I’m not one of them.  If I’d cut loose and verbally torn the book up, that would have been easy but self-indulgent, and no use to readers in deciding if they might like the book or not. I revise reviews obsessively for days, especially the bad ones. I enjoy polishing the good ones and the in-between ones, but the bad ones are torment, out of proportion to their importance. My opinion is not that valuable, and I’m not being paid. Reviews are useful, but I can stop reading and write “did not finish and be done with it. If everyone did that, though, no one would ever get a bad review, just a “did not finish”, which is uninformative to prospective readers. Some get distrustful when an author has only good reviews. They think that the writer must have bought them, or had friends and family write them, even if the good reviews are genuine.  Also, I’ve read many posts on Goodreads in which people say that the things a reviewer disliked in a critical review made them want to read a book. The mean, vitriolic reviews get disregarded. The thoughtful bad reviews don’t.

Still, I hate writing them. It’s much worse than getting them. I can read a critical reaction to my own work and be done with it. I decide if I see a valid problem pointed out that can make me a better writer in future books, a perception so at odds with most reviews that it’s not important, or simply an expression of taste for a different kind of book. It takes a minute. But when I’m reviewing I don’t think of it as something the author or potential reader will move through that way. Maybe I take it too seriously. For now, I’ll review what I finish, and I’ll only finish what I find valuable to read, whether it’s for pleasure and entertainment or for making me think and learn, deepening my perspective. If I don’t like a book, I’m letting it go. I need to spend my time writing, and reading other books.

How do you feel about not finishing a book?