25 November 2012

Faith, Truth & Pi

            Life of Pi by Yann Martel is one of those books that I can’t stop thinking about, can’t stop talking about, can’t stop wanting to re-read.  It’s billed as a story that will make you believe in God, but really, it will make you revere the power of words and their unbelievable strength when woven into a story.  And when I heard that this novel would be made into a movie, I was skeptical and even a bit fearful that no filmmaker’s vision would be able to do justice to the story.  I shouldn’t have worried; Ang Lee does an amazing job.  The film is very true to the book and, if it’s even possible, adds much color and dimension.  When I go to re-read it (again), I know I’ll hear the lovely sing-song Indian accent of the actors.  {Insert ‘spoiler alert’ here.  If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie and would like to remain surprised by the twist at the end, stop here.}  As much as I enjoyed the book and the movie, I think that I enjoyed the wonderful conversation Dan and I had about faith and truth and religion afterwards. 
                The story begins in India, at a family-run zoo.  The boy narrator, Pi, grows up experiencing many lessons on animal behavior at the zoo.  He also cultivates his spiritual self by following tenets of Hinduism, Catholicism, and Islam, much to the consternation of his intellectual family, who can’t really fathom why he would be attracted not only to one faith but three.  These two aspects of his personality set the stage for the second part of the book, which begins as his family leaves India to seek a new life in Canada.  Along with many of the zoo animals, the family boards a cargo ship, which sinks in a storm.  Pi reaches a lifeboat and survives.
            The story proceeds with an unbelievable thread:  Pi is not alone on the lifeboat.  An injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker are also on board.  Soon, only Pi and the tiger remain, and through Pi’s knowledge of animals and his deep, multi-faceted faith, they both survive, not only life at sea, but also an encounter with a floating carnivorous island.  Many months later, their boat washes ashore on the west coast of Mexico.  Richard Parker disappears into the jungle and Pi is discovered and taken to a hospital where he recovers.  Japanese officials investigating the sinking of the ship visit him hoping to learn what caused the ship to go down. 
            They do not believe his story - and neither do you, right?  Because it is difficult to believe.  It is difficult to believe that a teenage boy could survive more than two hundred days lost at sea.  It is even more difficult to fathom that he could survive with a Bengal tiger, right?  It is improbable, impossible, an absolute fiction.
            And so Pi tells another story to the agents.  In this story, Pi and his mother make it to the lifeboat along with two crew members from the ship.  After one of the crew members kills the other, and then Pi’s mother, presumably to use their flesh for bait to fish, Pi kills the other survivor.  The Japanese officials draw parallels between this story and the first, claiming that the zebra is the injured crew member, the hyena the murderous one, the orangutan is Pi’s mother, and Pi is Richard Parker.  Logically, they cannot believe the first story because it is filled with too many strange happenings.  When pressed by Pi, though, they say that they prefer the version with Richard Parker.  And that is the version of the story which goes into their official report.
            Of course, the second story is far more believable than the first.  But it is a horrible story, filled with the darkest horrors of the inhumanity man is capable of; and yet there are many instances of our inhumanity to one another in the real world.  Read the papers and you’ll find them on a daily basis.  There are documented instances of desperate people who resort to murder and cannibalism to survive.  The Donner Party and the rugby team whose plane crashed in the Andes are two well-documented instances.  Rare as it is, murdering someone else to ensure one’s own survival does happen, but it is so taboo that no one wants to even consider it as a possibility even in a fictional setting.
            I say this because I know in my heart that there was no tiger.  Richard Parker was a figment of Pi’s imagination.  It was an aspect of his dark self that he had to allow to take control, and then had to tame, in order to survive.  I know this.  But if you were to ask me what this book is about, I would reply, without any hesitation, that it is a story of survival, of a boy and a tiger adrift at sea together.  And even though I know the truth, I choose to believe in the fanciful fairy tale that comprises the majority of the book.
            And of course, isn’t that what faith is?  Believing in something that is unbelievable, something that isn’t supported by facts or truth.  Believing in something in spite of knowing that another story exists that is much more plausible, much more probable, much more likely.  It’s human nature, I think, to want to turn away from the darkness of the truth:  that man is often inherently evil.  Pi is nearly saint-like, in his uncomplaining suffering due to his strange name, his unwavering faith during his many great trials.  He is so good, so much better by far than any of us.  And, if someone as pious as Pi obviously is, having a capacity as a child to accept more than one faith, to see that what it is that unites us is more beautifully powerful than that which divides us - if he can resort to murder, what of the rest of us?  And if he could succumb to the darkest depths of inhumanity, what of the rest of us?
            We just simply cannot believe that Pi could stoop to murder, even if it is to avenge his dear mother.  We would rather see the truth cloaked in tiger’s hide than accept this truth, regardless of how unrecognizable it becomes.  The actual story is just too awful to fathom.
            When Pi and Richard Parker arrive at the carnivorous island, they are in the most desperate of straits.  They are literally dying and this strange island, populated by meerkats appears to be their salvation.  They are able to nurse themselves back to a reasonable state of health, but Pi begins to identify strange and disturbing incidents that eventually cause them to flee back to the lifeboat and continue their journey.  The island is, essentially, a mirage of salvation and not true deliverance from their suffering.  Once they realize what the island is capable of, they escape.  And so what are we to make of this?  The actual path you are to walk is fraught with dangers and storms; you must learn to weather these in order to survive to find your true purpose.  Something that is too easy, too simple, that offers too much, is a dangerous diversion along your way.  Humans have a way of seeking out the easiest way of doing something rather than the best way.  The island represents shortcuts, a way of trying to get out of doing the hard work that is required.  The lesson is to beware of the easy way out; something too good to be true usually is.  Pi recognizes this and knows that to stay would ultimately risk everything, in spite of what little he has left to lose.
            And so Pi and Richard Parker do persevere, and upon reaching Mexico, Richard Parker disappears without a backward glance, without any meaningful gesture, nothing.  Pi is devastated by this, but ultimately realizes that sometimes our most defining moments in life are quiet and unceremonious; that sometimes we have to continue on alone to discover the beauty within us; that from great loneliness we can find a means to comfort ourselves.
            Life of Pi proves to us that faith requires a suspension of belief (or is it a suspension of disbelief?), a willingness to believe in that which is impossible even when we consciously know it to be impossible.  Pi’s survival, his taming of the beast - this is what we’d all like to believe ourselves capable of, especially in our bleakest moments.  And like the Japanese officials, I choose to believe in the power of a good story over the darkness of the human condition.


21 November 2012

Present Blessings

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday.  I like it because of what it isn’t as much as for what it is.  Thanksgiving lacks the consumerism and commercialism that plague most other holidays.  There is no gift-giving and gift-receiving angst (is this what he or she wants / needs?  is it the right size?  color?  am I spending enough?  too much?  Or:  I didn’t get you / your kids anything and I’m not prepared to reciprocate.).  Thanksgiving is the least awkward of the holidays and is blind to religious divides and cultural gaps. 

This holiday is uniquely North American, born of gratitude for better-than-expected results from a work ethic that we cannot even imagine today.  It celebrates a time in our nation’s history when our potential was yet to be achieved, yet to even be outlined.  Our nation’s greatest achievement, the Constitution, was a mere dream, still too abstract even to foment an idea.  And this holiday grew from a call for help that was heeded and granted, from hands reaching across cultures to prevent failure.  Lately, reaching across divides to help accomplish what is best for all has been vilified.  But this concept of helping one another for the greater good is one of the strongest, best foundations of our nation.

As you gather around the table with family and friends, reflect on those less fortunate than you.  No matter how dark your days may be, there are many worse off than you.  Draw strength from the words of Charles Dickens, who saw more abject poverty in his lifetime than most of us can fathom:   Reflect upon your present blessings, of which every man has plenty; not on your past misfortunes of which all men have some.

Thanksgiving is a time to consider all that is good and pure and right, which is often more than we realize.  Whatever feast is piled upon your table, I hope that your elbows are crowded between those you love, that your glass is never empty.  May your heart be filled with love and gratitude for all that has been, and all that is: here, now. 

13 November 2012

Dappled Markers

That Sunday was one of those glorious November days,
leaves gold and gentle flame,
like the sun’s warmth against my skin. 
Rumors of the storm on the way still implausible, improbable,
and yet,
knowing that Indian summers never last in spite of their popularity among us,
the forecast made that Sunday more ephemeral than most.
And so, I pushed aside the weight of work’s dreaded week
and pulled on my gloves.  Outside,
in the mottled shade of the trees,
high clouds skittering far above,
I heard the whisper of my old English professor,
surely gone by now: 
Glory be to God for dappled things - for skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow
and into the garden I strode, the tasks in mind: 
shaking the delicate cosmos stalks to
release their black needle-like seeds, raking
the expired vines, and finally,
drawing a thick black blanket of mulch
up to the chin of this small plot of mine,
tucking it in, cozy and ready to sleep until spring.
With each seed that fell, each leaf that crackled, I thought again
on Pied Beauty and how these days of fall
are as intense in their loveliness as the blooms of spring. 
This dying, this swansong of color
a reminder of the beauty and serenity of surrender,
of these markers of the passage of time,
of our basic need for the rest and respite winter months provide,
a reminder of all that we’ve borrowed and will never repay.