Monthly Archives: October 2018

WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

when breath becomes air graphic poem

blue quotation-marksAt age thirty-six, I had reached the mountaintop; I could see the Promised Land… I could see a nice catamaran on the [Mediterranean Sea]. I could see the tension in my back unwinding as my work schedule eased and life became more manageable. I could finally becoming the husband I’d promised to be…

I flipped through [my] CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious… The future I imagined, the one just about to be realized, the culmination of decades of striving evaporated.Paul Kalanithi

Paul Sudhir Arul Kalanithi grew up in Kingman, Arizona. After graduating  from Stanford University in 2000 with a B.A. and M.A. in English Literature and a B.A. in Human Biology, he found himself caught between the worlds of literature and science; neither a perfect fit for him in his quest to discover the answer to the overwhelming question – what makes life worth living?  What is a meaningful life?

After deliberation, he set a goal to attend medical school, but not before he explored more fully the nature of thought and consciousness; how man makes decisions, defines consciousness, and rationalizes his existence. After attending the University of Cambridge where he earned a Masters of Philosophy in History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine, he turned to Yale University of Medicine where he graduated cum laude in 2007. Armed with years of theoretical education, he now focused on practical experience and hands-on patient care.  He returned to Stanford University to begin his residency training and ultimately fine-tuning his focus onto the field of neurology. In his sixth-year of a seven-year training program to become neurosurgeon, Paul learns he has stage-four lung cancer.

Now cresting at the top of his field, having struggled with the long duty hours, strains on his personal life, he feels he has a good grip on his personal identity. He will soon become a doctor, counselor and adviser to his patients. He has stumbled and made mistakes along the way to understanding that he must fully understand his patients as a whole to offer the best care.

And now he stands facing his own mortality. He knows he will never have that long sought after career as a neurosurgeon. He has become the patient. His world has come to a full-stop. “Who am I now?”, he asks.

In the end, he became the writer; an early life goal. A man determined to leave a lasting legacy. A man opening his whole life to the world in hopes that in revealing himself, others will learn to face their own mortality and fears; to live life fully, unafraid and ready when the end arrives. Paul, according to his wife, wrote feverishly, determined to lay bare his faults and strengths, his terrors and joys, and finally his acceptance and willingness to face death straight on in his own terms.

It is a hard book to read. The squeamish might want to skip through his cadaver training. And he is strongest when he openly discusses his weaknesses, his lack of empathy for his patients, and the moment he realizes what he has become and makes the change for the better. At times I felt like a voyeur as he shared painful moments in his marital life with his wife, Lucy. Paul’s terminal diagnosis impacted his family’s present and future.

Sadly, Paul never got to finish his book. Some reviewers have found the book rather cold and at times impersonal. It must be remembered that the book was compiled from his copious notes and essays. He undoubtedly would have edited the material had he the chance to do so making it sound less like a doctor’s chart dictation and more fully exposing the full range of his personality.

Lucy Kalanithi’s epilogue is riveting and more fully exposes the “whole” Paul. Lucy’s sharing of Paul’s final hours had me in tears.

Readers personally struggling with terminal illness and looking for ways to make decisions about their own care or caregivers seeking inspiration and help on behalf of a loved one are encouraged to view Paul’s videos and interviews online. In the end, you will never forget Paul; he did make a difference. He let us view the meaning of life as he lived it.

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DEAR MRS. BIRD: a novel

DEAR MRS.BIRD

 A. J. Pierce

On 7 September 1940, the [German] Luftwaffe unleashed a merciless bombing campaign against London and Britain’s major cities. Instead of breaking morale, however,  the raids only galvanized the will of the British people for the rest of the war.”

War-time London is the back drop for this coming-of-age story of young adults trying to grow up in a fractured world. There’s something tender in watching Emmy Lake evolve from a day-dreamer to a “grown-up” with a clear eye to the feelings and needs of others. Figuring out the breach from childhood to adulthood is hard enough but facing your own mortality at the same time is something else altogether.

This  quirky story about pipe-dreams and friendships is nestled among the craters in the road and the blackout curtains of war-time London. When we first meet twenty-two year-old Emmeline “Emmy”, she has a steady job as a legal secretary and serves in London’s Auxiliary Fire Service  as a part-time night-shift telephone operator. She loves the looks she gets when she wears her “smart Navy blue uniform with gleaming buttons, stout black shoes, and [is] proud as punch in [her] cap with its AFS badge”.

corona 1926 typewriterEmmy differs somewhat from her closest friends. The others have jobs that take them up-close and personal to war. One working in the war office and the other involved in a fire brigade that spends dangerous hours putting out fires and searching for survivors and victims. Emmy, glides through the mayhem with a smile and a stiff upper lip. Her deepest wish is to become a smartly dressed lady war correspondent calmly describing how well the Brits are doing to defeat Hitler.

A chance glance at the classified ads of the London Evening Chronicle one day, revealed a job opportunity she thinks was tailor made for her. Believing the ad is looking for a junior newspaper reporter at the Chronicle, she doesn’t realize until after being hired, that she will work for Women’s Friend, a failing women’s magazine, housed in the same building as the Chronicle. It takes several attempts by the office manager to convince her that she is now a part-time typist for The Problem’s Page and working for Mrs. Henrietta Bird, a woman outfitted with a myopic view of life, a foghorn voice and the disposition of an irate howler monkey.

Emmy squares her shoulders and takes on the challenge but it isn’t long before she just can’t help herself from interfering in Mrs. Bird’s business. Just as she involves herself in the lives of her friends, with the best of intentions of course, not always appreciated, she secretly answers letters Mrs. Bird has rejected, forging Mrs. Bird’s signature and violating her Confidentiality Agreement.

As she fights her conscience over her deception and the fear of discovery over her letters at her day job, she receives a telegram about her fiance, and fearing the worst, is shocked to learn he is alive, but married to a stranger he met overseas. Adding to her personal stress is finding herself facing the war head-on at night in the Fire Service. The war is happening right over her head now, literally. The Germans have amplified their bombing runs and the Blitz crushes London.

Returning to her home after a long hard night at the Fire Service, she witnesses her best friend’s boyfriend return to a collapsing building to rescue a doll for a little girl he had just saved. Emmy, unable to control herself, demands he stop putting himself in danger for the sake of Bunty. Emmy and Bunty’s lifelong friendship fractures after Emmy’s continued efforts to stop William from doing his job leads to a terrible tragedy.

ARC EdelweissBut dear reader, not all is lost. Emmy pulls herself out the ashes, finds new love, and sees the world through a broader lens. She learns that life is not just all about you. Emmy and England will recover.

Thoughts

Dear Mrs. Bird is a tribute to the strengths of women in wartime. The letters rejected from Mrs. Bird and answered by Emmy are thought-provoking. The sacrifice of self-interest for a great good during wartime deserves respect and admiration. I was a bit leery in the beginning as stories about sappy goofy young women tripping over giddy visions of themselves turns me off. I grew to respect Emmy and the rest of her friends. I don’t know how I would respond under the same circumstances, but I would like to think I would have done as well to serve my country and my friends and family.

Good read.

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COLOR of LIGHTNING: a novel

VIOLENCE AND SEXUAL ASSAULT

 

North Texas was a good place to be a black man; slave or free, they were all expected to carry arms… a person could pretty well do what he liked and he could be whatever he took a mind to as long as he had a strong back and a good aim.

 

Color of Lightning, published seven years before the bestseller, News of the World,  illuminates the untamed frontier with its Indian raids, legions of wagon trains determined to settle the land, and the heavy presence of military forts to enforce taibo or “white man’s” laws on the indigenous peoples. 

This is not a made-for-TV setting with the good guys in white hats and the bad guys in face-paint and feathers. It is a graphically violent story of two cultures; one struggling to maintain centuries old traditions and the other determined to expand and subjugate the earth and native populations. The book is heavy with emotion and should be read with an eye to each side’s perspective.

In the real-world of 1860’s west Texas lived a newly freed slave, Britton “Britt” Johnson and his wife, Mary. The Johnsons built a home in a settlement along Elm Creek, not far from the Brazos River, and about 10 miles from Fort Belknap. It was a peaceful place with nice neighbors and a promise of new life. The smart and enterprising, Britt, soon established a successful freight wagon business serving the civilian and military communities.

October 13, 1864, Britt Johnson was away buying supplies when over six-hundred Kiowa and Comanche Indians made a murderous raid along Elm Creek. Britt’s wife, Mary and two of their children, Rube and Cherry were among those captured. Britt’s oldest son, Jim, was murdered. The specific details of Mary, Rube and Cherry’s rescue by Britt do vary but his valiant efforts and success are without question.

Through the author’s imagination, Britt is brought to life; a man’s man- proud, brave, courageous, fearless- strong in will, dangerous to his enemies and tender in heart to those in need of compassion and understanding- and capable of mistakes.

We ride alongside Britt as he sets out to rescue his family, making an unlikely friend along the way with a temporary outcast Comanche named Tissoyo. We feel the freedom of riding alone in the unfettered  land and smell the danger that lies in every shadow and thicket.

Our hearts break as we follow behind Mary Johnson and Elizabeth Fitzgerald as they are force marched to faraway Indian villages, suffering unprovoked violence, starvation, and inhumane living conditions. We yearn to offer support as they fight to survive; working long painful hours in the daily rigors of subsistence life with rudimentary tools and ingenuity. We feel each mother’s pain as their children are adopted by tribal families; enchanted by the simple lifestyle, the loving attention and for Britt’s son, Jube, the sense of belonging and power as a warrior. 

Meanwhile, Samuel Hammond, the newly appointed Indian agent, arrives in Texas, armed with good intentions and deep spiritual convictions. The newly redesigned Indian Bureau has turned over management of the frontier to various religious denominations. The Quakers have been given control of  Comanche and Kiowa-Apache territory. Sure of his God and sure of his mission, Samuel forbids armed guards to be present when distributing monthly rations of food and supplies fulfilling the agreement of a recent peace treaty. The efforts to force the tribes into submission with garden tools, calico and Bibles fail; the natives determined to maintain their territory, independence, and freedoms to their last breath. Samuel becomes entangled in the orders from his religious leaders to avoid violence and the reality that religious conversion will not happen, that war is inevitable, and that force is the only way to destroy the will of the tribes.

Samuel looked all about himself on the bare plains and thought what a miracle of endurance it was to live like this solely on God’s bounty, on whatever came to hand, in this sere country… People of great courage and fortitude, born with an unsatisfied wanderlust… And he must bring this to an end. That was his job. That was why he was here.

The Comanche and Kiowa leaders and warriors -unduly cruel, seemingly heartless, devoid of civilized morality, and terrifying to behold – are justifiably distrustful of the “Americans” and their threadbare peace treaties and broken promises.The tribes are caught between worlds; one world, that of the past, with no borders or boundaries, free to follow the seasons and the new world with its imaginary borders, fenced in properties, and self-centered landholders. The new people have brought deadly illnesses like smallpox that have decimated their ranks. The majestic buffalo, a vital resource, are being hunted to near extinction. What choice do they have but to rail against an enemy intruder?

Tissoyo said they were near the estado of Colorado… What is an estado?
The name of a place.
There is supposed to be a line nobody can see.
That’s right.
How do you make a line if it can’t be seen?
It’s only on paper.
You never know what the taibo will think of.

THOUGHTS

The book struggles a bit in the beginning but once the characters reach the panorama of Texas it takes off.

Samuel’s story is the weakest link. His character is naive and it is no surprise the tribes have no respect for him.

The unvarnished descriptions of the gang rapes, unwarranted brutality, and dehumanizing murders, necessary to authenticity, led me to the Rolaids bottle more than once.

I was most affected by the inability of some captives to return to their old life, forced by circumstance to be forever stuck between worlds.

And ending on the beauty of the author’s writing and the peace that solitude on the plains can bring, I leave you with an early morning view from horseback.

There are no mornings anywhere like mornings in Texas, before the heat of the day, the world suspended as if it were early morning in paradise and fading stars like night watchman walking the periphery of darkness and call out that all is well.

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