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Monday, February 9, 2009

A Lengthy Miscellany

Another misty morning arrives on Hammock Creek, and adventure beckons.

David and I love flea markets. One of our first outings together was to the Bank Street flea market in Kalamazoo, and many a summer weekend we trekked out to Paw Paw to roam the aisles of tables and blankets spread out in sun and shade with everything from baby clothing and used books to deer antlers, tires, china bric-a-brac and tools old and new. There are no flea markets in or around Traverse City, however, and it’s something we miss Up North, so it’s a treat here in Hernando County, Florida, to find ourselves poised between two flea markets, the big, indoor USA Flea Market south of us and the more rural, low-key, outdoorsy Howard’s Flea Market up north of Chassahowitzka. We went to Howard’s on Saturday. It felt like old times. It felt like dear little Paw Paw! Here’s David, happy to have found just what he came looking for, a pair of TV “rabbit ears” antennae (he jokes that they may soon become “collectible”) and a second folding chair for us to take to the beach (in case it ever gets warm enough).

You never know what you will find at the flea market, which is part of the fun. The items pictured here caught my attention and made me think of friends Bob and Ellen back home. They will understand why if they see this picture.

Another place we always feel at home and happy is Tarpon Springs, and it was last Friday, sitting on a bench overlooking the mouth of the Anclote River, that I finished The Bookseller of Kabul, reading the final chapter aloud to David, even though doing so required many pauses to explain the relationships between characters. The end was difficult. From my vantage point of freedom and happiness, I didn’t want to believe that Leila gave up hope, that she did not “fight for” (his phrase, as reported by the author) a life with Karim and a career as a teacher, and that for the rest of her life she would be no more than an almost invisible servant, lowliest member of the family. These are real people, not fictional characters, I kept reminding myself. I wondered if Sultan, the bookseller, or any of his English-speaking family members, had read this book and what, if anything, that might mean for the lives of any individuals in the story. It is such a huge responsibility, I always think--writing and publishing intimate details about the lives of living human beings. How does one dare?

In general terms, I also think about how impossible—no, not impossible but certainly miserable!--life can be when authority is absolutely divorced from responsibility rather than residing in the same person, so that orders come from outside the will of those who bear the burden of carrying them out. Susan Och’s comment a few days back stayed with me. She mentioned a scene near the end of the book that shed light for her on why terrorism exists. I’m guessing (Susan, tell me if I’m wrong) it was the chapter in which a Western journalist, looking for adventure and headlines, found two sides struggling for power, each making identical accusations about the other, while he knew all along that the U.S. was playing the factions against each other (as the journalist did too on a much smaller scale) and arming both sides. But besides armed power struggles between military and/or terrorist groups there are innumerable smaller struggles within and between individuals. Mansur and Aimal, though they work outside the home, are no happier than their aunt, the family drudge, and they are no closer than Leila to finding a way out of the prisons of their lives. (The patriarch’s rule is absolute. The only family member who has been in a literal prison, and still a risk-taker, he is the only one in the family free to make decisions for himself, as well as for the others.) The struggles seem, on the surface, to be against the weight of tradition, but it is tradition narrowly interpreted and rigidly imposed, its natural evolution condemned, that suffocates these people. What they struggle against, finally, I realize, is hopelessness. Hopelessness—in an individual soul, a family, a neighborhood or a country--is fertile ground for violence, violence itself a subculture that flourishes where other culture is not allowed natural growth.

Earlier last week, we ventured north on Hwy. 19 to visit Callahan’s Books. Still among the living! The shop has undergone massive organization since its inception and is filled with narrow, space-saving shelves filled with paperback books, arranged by author within categories (mystery, romance, adventure, etc.), but against the back wall we found an assortment of hardcover books, and it was on these shelves (after first scoring a paperback Walter Mosley that I haven’t read before) that I found several irresistible titles. One of them absolutely insisted on being purchased and read: Dr. Nina and the Panther. What a title! Would the panther be roaming the scrubland of northern Florida? Or maybe northern Michigan? A quick look sufficed to tell me that the encounter took place on a wooded mountain in Pennsylvania, but there was still something about this book--. It was not a novel but, like the one I had just finished, another true-life story. It was also similar in being absolutely compelling from start to finish. Beginning it on the evening of the day I finished The Bookseller of Kabul, I was close to the end by nightfall.

In the case of Dr. Nina and the Panther, the life presented by the author is that of her own mother. The child Nina, we quickly learn, had to face much more than a panther to make her way in the world. When three older siblings die in rapid succession, followed by the newest baby in the family (there were other older children who had already left home), Nina’s mother detaches emotionally from the two little girls still living. It is their father alone who continues to bestow attention and affection on them, but the mother’s growing attachment to the Seventh-Day Adventist faith spells the end of her marriage and for the girls’ family life with their father. Their mother takes them to a summer Adventist camp in Pennsylvania, and when the camp breaks up at the end of the season, mother and children stay on in the mountains for three years, living in a tent. Nina’s mother continually assures the children that “the Lord will provide,” but it is young Nina who puts food on the table.

She gathers mushrooms, berries and nuts in spring and fall and hires out as a farm laborer in summer. In winter she and her sister are home-schooled by their mother (this the mother seems to have done very successfully) in geography, history, mathematics, Greek, Latin and French. They also study the Bible and learn it practically by heart. When a relative back East offers a home for the mother and younger child but says she cannot take two children, Nina’s mother matter-of-factly decides that her older girl will have to travel by train, alone, to Chicago, to live with an Adventist family. Nina would have arrived in Chicago barefoot had it not been for the intervention of a kindly shopkeeper who insisted she take a pair of shoes and socks on credit. In Chicago, after being examined extensively by the high school principal, twelve-year-old Nina is placed in the senior class and graduates with the class, after only one year of formal schooling.

By the age of 24 Nina was licensed to practice medicine. It was no easy path from high school graduation to medical degree for a woman in horse-and-buggy days, but then her path had never been easy. So what, I keep asking myself, made it possible for Nina to persevere? And what would it take for Leila to pursue her dreams?

Neither American society nor the Seventh-Day Adventist Church was encouraging girls to study medicine at the beginning of the 20th century. Quite the contrary. Nor did Nina’s mother encourage her to think she could become a doctor. Her mother did, however, educate her daughters, and she taught them to inquire and to reason as well as to read, inculcating a habit of free inquiry. The mother’s very helplessness, along with the father’s absence, instead of crippling the girl, seemed to propel her out into the world on her own. If no one was going to take care of her, very well then—she would take care of herself! When Nina entered medical school, she was one of only five women in her class. Only two of the five graduated with their degrees in medicine.

Leila’s life could not be more different. Her brother, strong and successful, cannot be questioned by wives or sons, much less by a younger sister. Leila is literate, but education, even for boys in the family, does not mean asking questions. Necessity does not push Leila out into the world to make a living; on the contrary, social expectations and taboos conspire to keep her from just such a fate. Sultan (it was only coincidence that we had bought Sultan date-filled cookies the same week I was reading this book) would say that his sister, his wives, his mother and daughters are sheltered from the world. He provides the shelter—and in an apartment building riddled with bullet holes, it would be hard to argue that his protection is unnecessary. How many women in Afghanistan find it possible to persevere in the face of their obstacles? Endurance can be hard enough. Perseverance sometimes seems superhuman.

I draw no conclusions here. To do so would be facile. The list of differences one could draw up between the two societies and the historical periods in which Nina and Leila came of age, between their families, the differences in temperament between the two young women—that list would be endless. The more I reflect on their lives, the more complex my questions become. One fact only tangentially related to my questions keeps coming into my mind over and over again, too: It is that the most effective method of population control is the education of girls. An editorial in the newspaper this morning about the contributions of Ruth Bader Ginsburg also made a connection for me. Anyone else on this? On what it takes for girls to see professional success as a possibility in their own futures?

Finally, here is a glimpse of something that says "old Florida" to me.


Anonymous said...

Your delight in flea markets reminds me of all the fun I had at Indiana farm auctions. (They're sort of a competitive version of the flea market.) I still have a few of the kitchen tools I bought for pennies nearly 40 years ago. Now I'd be more interested in collecting the stories of the families whose goods were being sold off--but that's only because I don't cook much anymore. If I did, I would certainly like to find another of those nut grinders with the glass jar and the red metal shaker top. Or a good crockery mixing bowl like the one Rob the Firefighter broke when he was in his gawky adolescence.

P. J. Grath said...

Hey, Gerry, my mother still has her old nut grinder, and it is exactly as you describe! I prefer flea markets to auctions because I can go at my own speed and don't have to wait for something to come up for bids. Also, I don't really like bidding, which means I never bargain for a better price, either. If I want it, and the price is reasonable and I have the money, I buy.

It always fascinates me to see what people respond to in any single blog posting, too. Good to hear from you!

dmarks said...

There used to be a flea market in Copemich, but I think it is long gone. Newaygo has had one too.

dmarks said...

My best flea market story was going to an electronics flea market in southern Ohio.

I looked down at one table a plaque caught my eye among the electronics. It was a WCCW "Good Guy" award. Not only that, but it was an award to the mother of a friend of mine. The friend and her mother lived in Traverse City. Needless to say, I bought it and returned it to the award winner.

I have some extra pairs of rabbit-ears.

Susan Och said...

It was around page 262, when Tajmir, the reluctant interpreter for the American journalist, finds himself on the roof of the hotel with a bunch of Afghan soldiers who, he is sure, would just as soon kill both him and Bob as look at them. they are on the roof, an exposed position so that Bob can use his satellite phone. The soldiers are not interested in murder, though, they are fascinated by the phone and they keep asking whether Bob can really talk to America with this device.

One of them exclaims in a sad voice, "Do you know what our problem is? We know everything about our weapons but we know nothing about how to use a telephone."

P. J. Grath said...

I do recall that scene, Susan. Bad news for Kabul in this morning's newspaper, too. I thought of Leila right away. Having an individual life to connect to the news makes it much more immediate.

dmarks, we went to that flea market in Copemish once, but I heard it wasn't going on any more.

P. J. Grath said...

Oh, p.s. on flea markets: not good for book-shopping! Not down here in Florida, anyway. Almost nothing but romance novels. But every bookstore we've visited, I've found good books and have bought them!

Anonymous said...

Hopelessness seemed like such a chronic problem in The Bookseller of Kabul. Men and women all seemed so resigned, though the 'bookseller' was much less so. It was so sad that so many felt that those who wielded so much control over their lives didn't really care about them.

What struck me was that every time Leila came to a hurdle in reaching her goals, she would wonder if she didn't want to be a teacher *enough* - How much is enough? I wonder.

While in Kabul my son read extensively in his spare time. On his return home from this second tour he abandoned his longtime pursuit of a career in criminology for one as an English teacher. Reading books changes lives. Hopefully the bookseller's books are breathing hope into more people with every passing year.

P. J. Grath said...

Perhaps we need to hope and pray that hope becomes contagious and becomes pandemic throughout the world. I like thinking of your son becoming an English teacher, Amy-Lynn. That's a start.