Don't you love a thoughtful gift? When our youngest daughter handed out our birthday presents, my husband Richard unwrapped folds of white tisssue to reveal a handmade mug. He held it and examined it at eye level. She explained how when she saw it she thought of him. He loved the weight and pronounced it to be perfect..
When he flipped it over we saw LUCY scratched across the base. In this mad, busy world it helps to know there are artisans out there who craft beautiful, useful objects.
Now, although we expressed paroxysms of delight at our mugs it was the thoughtfulness and love behind the gift we appreciated.
Also it spoke to our tradition. We love to sit on the porch, hand curled around a cup, sipping steaming espresso to savor the day. That contemplative time spent talking, laughing and listening symbolizes our family.
We are spread apart. Our oldest daughter lives in Cambodia. Her coffee is often a cold brew over ice in sweltering hot, 100 degrees. Her commute is via tuk-tuk or lately bicycle and trailer. Our grandchildren are strapped-in-helmet-wearers as she pulls them through Pnom Penh. In that city we found out that which side of the road you drive on is a suggestion. That means traffic is chaos. Imagine schools of fish tagging alongside a tiger shark as they swim en mass.
Weddings take place in the middle of the street. There's no land or gardens so for a week families celebrate in the middle of busy thoroughfares. This means traffic must reroute as able tuk-tuk drivers negotiate back roads. When we left Cambodia I'm ashamed to say we drove right through a wedding marquis on the way to the airport. I waved and smiled at the people eating cake. Our driver shouldn't have done it but as he told us later he didn't see any chairs and we didn't have the extra hour needed to negotiate back roads. No one seems to get angry at these things there.
And when we Skype with her usually we are sipping coffee. Ours steams while hers is icy. It is the constant.
We do not see our family state-side often either. So our visits are extra special like strung pearls on a necklace. When we are together good food, fun and laughter ensue. We hug and cry when they leave.
But this time we have a handmade mug to hold as we sip to salute the day.
I have been thinking a lot about committing cultural suicide.
“Paro, there are so many grey hairs in your head. You have to start applying more coconut tel or soon you will look like me!” my grandmother, sixty-eight years young, jokingly said as her wrinkled hands, softened by manual labor and untold stories, braided my thinning hair. “Paro,” she continued, “tomorrow Kunal’s parents are coming to see you.”
“Why?” I asked, though I already knew.
“He wants to marry you,” she answered, with a hint of annoyance in her voice. “You want to get married, don’t you?”
I sat there in silence. While she massaged my temple, I pondered my roots. I envisioned an image of me over two decades ago, snugly wrapped in my mother’s arms, as my father and her decided what to call me. Parvati, I came to be known, the earthly representation of the Hindu goddess of love and romance. As Hindu mythology would dictate, Goddess Parvati, full of zest and intellect, repeatedly rejected suitors her father King Himavan suggested because her heart was set to marry Lord Shiva. To cultivate his love, she would meditate, clean and decorate Lord Shiva’s cave, bringing fruits as an offering of her affection. To convince him further, she emerged on a penance in the forest with no food or clothing to shelter her. It was then that Lord Shiva was captivated by Parvati’s radiance and fell in love with her. A legendary union. Perhaps my name was chosen to foreshadow my romantic future.
There was no Lord Shiva for this Parvati. I’m an unwed twenty-five year old medical student in New York. Examining this through a South Asian magnifying glass roughly translates to a thirty-two year old spinster waiting for her ovaries to post their “Sorry. Closed. Come back tomorrow,” sign. My marital status, or lack thereof, concerned my family.
I thought back to my grandmother at age 25. She had agreed to marry my grandfather after an initial meeting, without the slightest hesitation. In fact, the transaction culminated after a cursory interview. Both parties exchanged a few pleasantries, their names, age, height, occupation, and caste status. Their contract was monitored by half a dozen nosey relatives gossiping over plates of steaming samosas. At the end of that evening, the decision was final: she was to marry this man at the end of the following week. There was no backing out.
On her wedding day, my grandmother was adorned in a crimson red sari decorated with sapphires and jewels along its border, her mother’s diamond necklace and earrings, her hair tightly tied in a French braid at the back of her head, and a traditional chanlo settled on the center of her forehead. Her wrists were lined with a pattern of choodiyans revealing the glistening auburn henna tattooed midway up her arms. The luminous wedding hall sheltered the sacred canopy, the mandap in the center of the room where the ceremony was to be held. After the invocation to Lord Ganesh, requesting peace, truth, and friendship, she picked the betel nuts and rice from a maroon matli, walked seven times around the scorching flame of the Agni sthapana, and just like that she was a stranger’s wife.
Shortly after her impetuous wedding, my grandmother quicky embraced her wifely duties. She would rise each day at 4 AM and carry a garland of flowers and the same matli full of water to the Auranga River, watching each petal float away under the awakening sun’s blanket of warmth. Several years later, my mother, a mere toddler, would run alongside helping my grandmother carry her daily fill of fresh water. My mother inherited both my grandmother’s matli and her silence when it came to my mother’s arranged marriage to my father.
After my mom passed away, my grandmother, father and I left India to start a new life in the States. My grandmother’s beloved matli, silently perched next to the plasma screen in our living room, now held my mother’s ashes. The once thick vines under the maroon exterior were barely discernable, but the origins of our family pedigree never faded.
“Answer the question, Paro”, my grandmother hissed interrupting my thoughts.
“Sorry, what was the question?”
“Kunal’s a nice Indian boy. He will keep you happy. You’re of age now, beta. Time for you to start thinking about marriage. You want to get married, don’t you?” she repeated.
Yes, I thought. I do want to get married. To Taylor.
I’ve written several “as-told-to” stories over the years. I share in the excitement of those authors when they see their words in print and their names as the byline. They get the credit they deserve for their wonderful stories that would otherwise go unpublished.
But what about the credit due to the person who critiques the manuscript? My writer friend Becky graciously critiques my manuscripts for me. She does a great job with suggested changes or improved wording. Many times, she spiffs up a dull title. Her critiques are greatly appreciated, and perhaps some of my manuscripts wouldn’t sell without her help.
Years ago, I was in a six-person critique group. Each of us brought a unique, valuable asset to the critique sessions. One member was excellent at making sure our openings began in the middle of the action to grab the reader’s (and editor’s) attention. One was good at catching grammar errors. Another made sure our essays and articles included take-away messages. Sections that needed expanding or areas that were irrelevant were discovered by other members. Alternative titles were offered when the original ones seemed like they could use more spark. We were honest with our critiques but also kept them positive and encouraging. We were free to accept or reject any suggestions, of course, and we always made sure we didn’t lose our own voice.
It’s understandable that bylines for critiquing are impractical, but, this is one time that the readers will see the credit given. Thank you, Becky! You deserve recognition for your help with my manuscripts, and today you are receiving it.
fish swim free
into the deep
but onshore it’s just me
so many appointments to keep
I don’t have time to peep into the deep
where dolphins dance and blue whales sing to Nemo’s band
I don’t take time to peep into the deep
where we swore promises to keep
but when you join with me
diving down deep
we’ll float free
Beneath the Pier
Beneath my pier the ocean flows
and sea-wrack hangs to dry.
I find shade where salt spray blows.
O’erhead, the sea birds cry.
Midst a wood of piling trees
angled this way and that
trunks are barnacled past my knees.
Now, what think you of that?
Within my makeshift cave of wood
and sand and thund’ring sea,
no demands, just wet beach sands--
a haven built for me.
It's summer--lazy days and beach reads are the popular ideal of the season. It's a great time for reading romances, so here's my salute to the genre. Hope you enjoy. -NK
THE HOLE STORY
“Hey, Pete!” Fred called over the backyard fence.
“Whatcha need, Fred? Man! That is one humungous hole. You dig that?”
“Sure as shootin’. Took all night. She’s a beauty, ain’t she?
“Can’t say’s I ever seen one quite like it. What’s it fer, anyway?”
“Anniversary present. I figure a couple o’ tarps an’ some water, an' Gladys’ll have the best swimmin’ pool in the whole neighborhood.”
“That so? What’s she think of it?”
“She was right here all night givin’ me di-rections. Ask her. Hey, Gladys! … Gladys? Uh, Pete? You see any o’ them dirt piles movin’?”
I was sitting in the far corner of the Winter Garden, surrounded by stone and cold trees, when I re-read this opening sentence: “Dear Catalpa, it’s twelve below out, and I’ve got dead flowers on my kitchen table.”
So opens Ars Botanica, a memoir by Tim Taranto revolving around a series of letters addressed to his unborn, aborted daughter. Like other masterful writers, Taranto establishes an entire roadmap for the story ahead in the first sentence: the opening line addresses “Catalpa,” the botanical name for the daughter he would have had, then goes on to paint a picture of season, death, domestic life, and nature. Reading these words, sitting in such a beautiful space, I felt a synchronicity. This book encountered me in a time of need and stuck in a way I hope it will for many other readers. In his words, Taranto captures all the contradictive beauty of the nature and life he describes: Ars Botanica is structured but eclectic, brutal, beautiful, gut-wrenchingly sad, and brimming with hope.
Though Botanica is written primarily as a series of letters, the memoir also features chapters, poetry, and flash-sections, which function essentially as field notes. These subsections of the book are titled with a plant, fossil, or artifact and paired with its Latin origin name. This style is refreshing, and lends itself to an overall tone of curiosity and discovery. Ars Botanica (“botanical art” in Latin) makes an interesting statement in its structure alone: for an art like botany, where plants are studied in a consistent attempt to classify, define, and categorize them, we sure do have a hard time keeping nature in order. What are plants if not symbols of life? Taranto’s narrator writes in an effort to maintain some sort of control over his life after the loss of his daughter and her mother- who withdrew from her relationship with Taranto post-abortion- to make sense of his grief, and yet the beauty of this work comes through its defiance of categorization.
Brutality and beauty burst out of these scattered and unexpected moments. Taranto’s language is flowery in that it is vivid, but his voice is concise and honest. He tells the story of his life with his girlfriend, essentially a ghost story told about a lost mother to his dead daughter, but even as he describes how the relationship fell apart, he expresses tenderness and intimacy just like any story of how two lovers met. “Like every good thing I possibly see,” Taranto writes, “I’ll see it once for her, and another time for me.” And the reader sees what he sees, too. Through nature, weather, and the passage of time, he charts the course of a marriage not in law but in experience and love. So much of his life is almost there: a girlfriend who is almost a wife, a corpse who is almost a daughter. What works here, and avoids being preachy or sentimental, is that Taranto’s profound thoughts are born of quiet, human moments. After her procedure, Taranto’s girlfriend asks him to pick her up and hold her. He writes to Catalpa, “I can’t be sure that I am not, at this moment, still holding her.”
Yes, Botanica’s premise alone is genuinely tragic and sad. But to ignore this work in light of this fact is a disservice to Taranto as well as to whoever may read it: Taranto’s depiction of grief and suffering does not wallow. He states his experience as fact and moves on, which is often more emotionally resonant than beating a reader over the head with sadness. Early on, a doctor friend of his says to him, “What a gift you have to feel so deeply, and what a burden, too.” Even in his weakest moments, he writes of seeing blooming flowers, or cactuses surviving in the harshest conditions. He inspires the question: how different are we from plants, really? We’re all trying to survive.
Taranto’s writing is born of suffering, but is about surviving and thriving in a beautiful world. He seeks to find beauty in even the most tragic moments, to find acceptance in all parts of the world, including and especially those finite ones we cannot control. Ars Botanica is lyrical, emotional, and honest: an excellent memoir. Through his honesty about pain, Taranto’s work becomes universally relatable. I finished the book in that same cold garden, genuinely touched by the “sense that maybe time was more than a measure of decay,” and that Ars Botanica is more than just ruminations on plants, but on the resilient nature of life and love.
Ars Botanica will be released June 19th, 2017 by Chicago indie-publisher Curbside Splendor.
available from amazon.com
Writer Jenny Harp is a New Zealander grandmother who lives in the United States with her husband and loves God, life and family.