Sunday, September 27, 2015

Stepping off

Thinkin' about it, dude?
In my youth, in the 70s and 80s, we had a swimming hole.

The Topsy Recreation site is a plot of volcanic rock and Ponderosa pine along the Klamath River, about 10 river miles west of Keno, Oregon. In the summer, teenagers would drive along curvy, 2-lane highways from Klamath Falls to Topsy, to drink beer and smoke dope and go swimming.

There is a particular spot just off Topsy Grade Road where we went. It is a flat spot at the top of lichen-clad lava rock columns, 30 feet above the river. That is where we would go.

The sun blazed in those days, almost every day. (Or that is how it seems now, 30 years later.) In the heat, the ripples on the water tantalized and invited. When you'd cooked long enough, there was a point on the rocks where you could stand and, if you worked up the nerve, you could take the plunge.

To do so, you had to steel your nerves. The river runs slow at the point (it is just above the dam). You can't see far into the murky water. And the jump itself, required commitment and follow-through. Once forward momentum had started, you had to keep going. You had to push off hard to clear the rocks below.

Lunge, plant, launch.

It was an act of faith. Thirty feet is a long way down. 

When you started the jump, when the thing in your brain tripped and started moving your body forward, there was a magical feeling that came over you. Even before your launching foot had lost contact with the scaly rock, there was a heart-stopping "no turning back now" moment. Determination and fear, exhilaration and resignation all at once.

For good or ill, the act was underway.

Today --now --as Maty and I spend our last weekend at home, that same sensation stirs itself from my memory. Forward momentum has commenced. A journey is upon me.

From Manhattan to Lisbon, thence across Spain and France. A Eurail pass and a vague itinerary. Five weeks. I'm looking for a muse. A once faithful friend who has become a stranger.

The act is underway.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Citoyen des États-Unis

Citoyen des États-Unis
Maty hit a big milestone today. Today, 228 years to the very day since the Constitution of the United States became the law of the land, Maty took the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance, administered by a federal judge in the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse. She is now a citizen of the United States of America.

Federal Courthouse, courtesy of Senator Hatfield
When I step back and examine the long journey this woman has undertaken, at how far she has come, I can only shake my head in amazement. Consider:

At 24 years of age, Maty left her family and home in the dusty African city of Ouagadougou, half a world away, to make a new life for herself in the far away dreamland they call America. She came here to serve as a nanny for a young family in Portland. The year was 2004 and the father of that family had been called to serve in the Iraq war. The mother, an immigrant from Africa herself, needed help caring for her two children. The baby boy, Matthew, was a special needs child.

At that time, Maty commanded a mere handful of badly pronounced English words and phrases. She was (and is) an excellent cook and a coiffure and she had (and has) a beautiful capacity for empathy and compassion, but beyond those, she had no "marketable" skills.

Nadia reassures Maty, who waits nervously to take her seat in the well of the courtroom
In the ensuing eleven years, Maty has:
  • learned to read, write, and speak English;
  • earned state certification as a nursing assistant;
  • learned to drive a car and obtained an Oregon State Driver's License;
  • joined a union and worked as a health care professional;
  • and now, become a citizen of the United States of America.
Naturalization oath administered 
She has also traveled, by herself, across the world and the United States and has surrounded herself with an entire community of people for whom she is family. (She also got married, somewhere in there.)

Thoughtful, when it was over
On the drive from the courthouse, Nadia and I quizzed her about her plans for the future. "I want to learn to swim," she said. "And I want to go back to school for more English studies."

So, although she's very proud to be a citizen of this country, she's not resting on her laurels.

Lady of the day and her proud hubby
Perhaps the most amazing quality of this woman, in my mind, is her humility. When I told her I planned to write a blog post about her Big Day, she told me, "Make sure to write that I say 'thank you' to God.'" She is devout, my woman.

"And say thank you to Matthew, too. He's the reason I came here."
Maty and Matthew
Maty. So full of love and compassion. And so determined and strong. America and I are lucky to have her.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Book review: All the Light We Cannot See

As near as I can tell, Anthony Doerr's latest novel, All the Light We Cannot See, is the current favorite of book clubs all across America. I learned of the book because my mother had read it as the selection for her book club. And fellow book club member Jim Kidwell's mother had also read the novel because it was the choice for her book club. It stands to reason, considering that the novel was this year awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. And judging from the reception the novel has received from the literary press, Anthony Doerr has set his feet firmly on the path toward that most elusive of states: "successful novelist."

All the Light... is set in the small seaside town of Saint-Malo in France during World War II. A blind French girl, Marie-Laure, huddles in the home of her eccentric uncle, abandoned and alone, the unwitting guardian of a secret treasure. At the same time, a conscripted German soldier, Werner, the orphaned German boy with a talent for understanding radio circuitry, works to find the source of radio signals that have been emitting from within Saint-Malo, relaying information to the French Resistance. Even as the two of them ponder their respective predicaments, pamphlets warning of impending bombardment blow through the streets of the nearly-empty town.

As the novel progresses, we learn the circumstances and events that have led to this situation. Marie-Laure is the daughter of the locksmith at the Paris Museum of Natural History, separated by the tides of war from her father and her Paris home. Werner, because of his technical acumen, has been conscripted into the National Socialist movement, where he is told that cruelty and ruthless efficiency are virtues. As the war grinds forward, these two protagonists, seemingly set upon divergent and opposing paths, are somehow drawn together, somehow presented with an opportunity to bring about the triumph of compassion and humanity over unspeakable evil.

I found Doerr's prose to be compelling and humane. He masterfully sets a mood of dreadful expectation in the opening lines of the novel and that expectation is maintained. He has a knack for inserting descriptive sentences at precise intervals so that the reader never loses a sense of being present in the moment. I found it interesting and perhaps suiting that Doerr does not delve deeply into the specifics of Nazi cruelty, but skirts delicately around the most horrible events.

Consider this excerpt. Werner has come to the sick ward of the Nazi youth training camp to check on his friend, Frederik, who was beaten by bigger, stronger boys in the school:
A single bed with blood in it. Blood on the pillow and on the sheets and even on the enameled metal of the bed frame. Pink rags in a basin. Half-unrolled bandage on the floor. The nurse bustles over and grimaces at Werner. Outside of the kitchens, she is the only woman at the school.
"Why so much blood?" he asks.
She sets four fingers across her lips. Debating perhaps whether to tell him or pretend she does not know. Accusation or resignation or complicity.
"Where is he?
"Leipzig. For surgery." She touches a round white button on her uniform with what might be an inconveniently trembling finger. Otherwise her manner is entirely stern.
"What happened?"
"Shouldn't you be at noontime meal?"
Each time he blinks, he sees the men of his childhood, laid-off miners drifting through back alleys, men with hooks for fingers and vacuums for eyes; he sees Bastian standing over a smoking river, snow falling all around him. Führer, folk, fatherland. Steel your body, steel your soul.
"When will he be back?"
"Oh, she says, a soft enough word. She shakes her head.
So much is said without elaborating on the horrible details of what happened to the boy. Some might call this a cop-out, but I disagree. In much of today's literature, gruesomeness and unsettling details seem to be the trend. (Read any Cormac McCarthy novel for examples.) But I found Doerr's approach more palatable and no less effective. Any book that deals with Nazis and World War II is necessarily going to touch on some nasty subject matter. But this novel is written in such a way that even my delicately sensitive mother could enjoy it. And one can easily argue that by leaving the details to the reader's imagination, the cruelty is more mysterious and terrible.

All the Light We Cannot See is a poignant coming-of-age novel, with well-drawn characters that I genuinely cared about. It successfully depicts the cruelty of war and the corruption of National Socialism, of how it victimizes even its own adherents.

After reading this book, I'm eagerly anticipating Doerr's next novel, whatever it may be. I highly recommend this novel.