MEMOIR by John McGahern…

I just finished reading the beautifully written, moving and sometimes infuriating Memoir (in the US- All Will Be Well: A Memoir) by the late Irish novelist John McGahern. I must admit I’ve never read any of his novels, but he was one of the most important Irish authors of the late 20th century, and having read his personal story, I would be interested in reading some of his other works too.

This book focuses on the writer’s young life during the 1930’s/40’s in Co. Leitrim, in the early days of the independent Republic of Ireland. He grew up in a rural setting in a very conservative and often repressive country heavily dominated by the Catholic Church in all aspects of life. Reading this book really highlights how much Ireland has changed since then- Ireland as I experienced it during my 5 years living there was SUCH a more liberal and outward looking society, and that rapid change is a story in itself and one I’m not at all equipped to tell!

Anyway, the young McGahern’s childhood revolved around his parents; his deep affection and close relationship to his loving and peaceful mother, and in stark contrast, his complex relationship with his violent, cold and domineering father. McGahern’s early life was spent mostly in his mother’s care before her early death due to cancer, and he shares beautiful memories of her profound trust in god, her gentle care for her many children, and her firm but clever way of dealing with her difficult (to say the least!) husband. After his mother’s death, which obviously effected him greatly, he and his siblings lived under the domination of their father, who was a man of great anger, violence and incredible self-centredness. McGahern’s childhood and teen years become a tale of survival under terrible and stifling conditions, and of his escape from those conditions through education and an ever growing love of literature.

One things that I couldn’t help but think about as I read this book was the two very different approaches to religion presented by McGahern’s parents. They were real people, so I don’t know if you can really say they are symbolic, because I’d say that ignores the complexity of real personalities and lives, but at the same time I couldn’t avoid thinking of them in somewhat symbolic terms. McGahern’s mother was a deeply devout woman, whose faith was no doubt deepened as she struggled to cope with her illness and husband, and her expression of that faith is truly beautiful, whatever your thoughts on religion might be. She trusted god to see her through all the challenges and she shares that faith with her son through her love, her gentleness and her hope that he’ll one day become a priest. On the other hand, McGahern’s father represents religion as a force of control and power. He is also extremely devout, and yet seems to see no contradiction in his professed devotion to the church and his beating of his children, angry and domineering behaviour towards basically every person he comes into contact with, and his absolutely self-absorbed attitude. For him, religion is a way to bend others to his will, a justification for him as a husband and father to exercise absolute authority over his wife and children, and a means to view himself as superior to others. I found him absolutely infuriating throughout the book, I must admit!

The book is an interesting look at life in rural Ireland in the first half of the 20th century, as well as simply being a very moving and well-told story, all the more so for being true. It is beautiful and uplifting, while also, at times, being difficult to read due to the painful situation and personalities presented. It’s hard to imagine surviving spiritually/physically/emotionally with such a father, but it’s obvious that it was the love of McGahern’s mother that saw him and his siblings through it all. Overall, an excellent read!

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The experiment begins!…

So, I first heard about elimination communication (EC) from a friend’s mom who was visiting Istanbul earlier this year. She’s a home-birth midwife and this was something she mentioned. I remember thinking the idea of little babies being ‘potty trained’ and pooping and peeing in little containers sounded a bit mad, and that was that. However, later, while looking into cloth diapering and related things, I came across the idea of EC (or natural infant hygiene or whatever else you might call it) again, and became rather intrigued. I obviously liked the idea of having fewer diapers to change, and then on the environmental side of things, fewer diapers used means fewer diapers to wash, less detergent and cleaner, etc., so it’s more environmentally friendly. And also, it’s about learning to communicate better with your baby, reading his signals for when he needs to go to the bathroom and helping him to stay aware of his body functions rather than getting him used to pooping and peeing on himself and then trying to retrain him when he’s a toddler. So, I ordered this book and decided I wanted to give it a try.

The Diaper-Free Baby: The Natural Toilet Training Alternative

Well, I started out pretty much right away with cueing Liam when I knew he was pooping or peeing, which is the first step, but when he was so small, I felt too awkward holding him over something to go to the bathroom in. He just felt to floppy and fragile, so I didn’t really go beyond that. I tried having diaper-free time with him on a water-proof mat on the floor, but wasn’t really getting any clear signals about when he needed to go. I felt a bit intimidated by the whole thing and also just a bit afraid that if I tried it he’d just make a bit mess everywhere. So, I just stuck with a bit of cueing, and left it at that.

Then a couple of days ago, I was looking at the book again and talking to Richie about us giving EC a proper go. Over the past couple of weeks Liam has become so much easier to handle, not such a fragile little newborn, and he’s also a bit more communicative. Also, last week there were a number of occasions where, when I changed his diaper and let him air out a bit on the changing table before putting a new nappy on, it’ would be obvious he needed to pee again, so I was just sort of waiting for him to do it, and sometimes trying to cover him with the old diaper to avoid wetting and having to change another brand new one. A good few times, as soon as I’d get the clean one on, he’d pee, so I figured, I can tell when he needs to go in these situations, so rather than waiting for him to go in a diaper I might as well hold him over something and see what happens.

So, on Monday, after talking about it, suddenly I just switched gears and gave it a shot. On the first day, I caught 3 pees. Then the next morning, after his first feeding, I caught a pee and a big poop. Richie came over to help me with the logistics of clean-up while I was holding Liam, and little Liam just gave a big smile which was great! Yesterday we caught a good few pees and poops, especially right after he fed or during changing time before putting on a clean diaper. Again, last night and this morning, we’ve caught a few and Liam actually seems to like it. Sometimes he fusses and gets really fidgety during feeding, and a couple of times I’ve tried taking off his diaper and holding him over his little potty-basin, and he calms down right away. Then after a minute or so, he’s gone to the toilet and seemed happy as can be.

I’ve been quite excited about how things have gone so far and it’s kind of addictive! Catching a few makes me want to catch more! And we’ve already avoided quite a few messy diaper changes and that’s also fewer diapers to wash, so I’m happy about that! Anyway, we’ll see how things go and try to do a bit each day. It sounds like the key to the whole thing is to not take things too seriously or expect too much. So, I’ll just enjoy helping Liam when I can and make it a positive and pleasant experience for all of us.

Just hanging out and waiting…

Well, not really much to report. Things are good, but nothing particularly interesting happened last week. It does feel a bit strange not having to go to work, mostly in a good way! However, I know I’m definitely the kind of person that needs to get out of the house everyday for some stimulus from the outside world to keep me from getting bored and a bit cranky. I  managed pretty well last week, meeting up with friends most days, and getting out with Richie too when he wasn’t working. Apart from that, I’ve just been enjoying cooking more, which I wasn’t doing so much when I was teaching a bit more last month and when it was just that little bit hotter and the last thing I wanted to be doing was slaving away over a hot stove! It’s been good being at home more too because I definitely eat healthier when I’m at home more. Sometimes it seems like getting proper nutrition for me and baby is a full time job, constantly making sure I’m getting enough calcium and iron and protein and avoiding sugar and salt, getting at least my two litres of water a day, etc. And it’s nearly impossible to do all of those things when I’m out of the house a bit more. Anyway, it feels good to be eating and drinking healthily, but it’s also a bit of work.

I’ve been doing tons of reading in the last week or so, which has been great. I read an interesting and very thought-provoking book by author Jared Diamond called ‘Collapse: How societies choose to succeed or fail‘. In a nutshell, it’s about societies, past and present, who have either fallen apart as a consequence of wrecking their environment as well as other factors such as dealing with hostile enemies or the societal collapse of helpful allies, etc. It’s most certainly a book I will take some time to digest and think about, and then maybe write more about later. While I’m at it though, I definitely have to recommend another of Diamond’s books, Guns, Germs, and Steel, which is amazing! Basically, it looks at the reasons why different parts of the world developed as they did, why certain societies developed advanced technologies, domesticated animals and crops, became world powers,and others didn’t. Largely, these differences came down to the natural environments and resources available (or lacking) in various parts of the world. It’s a great book that gives clear reasons why, for example, former ideas of the racial superiority or inferiority are false, and developments aren’t due to innate characteristics of certain ‘races’ or people from certain areas or continents, but are rather the consequences of different availability of resources, historical exposure to and immunity to diseases and germs, and environmental differences. I loved this book and would love to read it again!

So, apart from housework, social life and reading, it’s just waiting time. This is week 35, so not much longer to go before baby arrives! And thinking about that is taking up most of my braincells at the moment, which is why I don’t really have too much of interest to write about on this blog!

How to Live…

I recently devoured a fantastic book about the Renaissance writer and ‘inventor’ of the essay, Michel de Montaigne. ‘How to Live: A life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer’ by Sarah Bakewell is a fascinating look at an inspiring man.

I’d first heard about Montaigne from Richie, who read an abridged version of his essays in university I think. What made him sound so interesting to me is the fact that he wrote about all sorts of topics in a very open-minded and questioning way. He sounds like a man fascinated with life, with human nature, with everything around him. I also like the fact that he seems to be a great humanist, honestly looking at himself and everything around him, and yet doing so with a sense of humour, not taking life too seriously, and maintaining a positive view of humanity.

So, Richie bought this interesting book, which is a biography of the man himself, as well as being a history of other people’s interpretations and reactions to him over the centuries since he lived and wrote. I loved it and now I can’t wait to get my hands on the essays themselves and read Montaigne’s actual ideas!

Anyway, it was an inspiring read about a man who enjoyed humanity (and animals too!), who devoted himself to living well, being in the moment, questioning everything and avoiding close-minded or dogmatic thinking, especially remarkable since he lived during a time of great violence and religious hatred in France’s wars of religion. A great book to make one think again about what it means to live a good life and really experience the world with a fresh perspective.

This and that…

Well, at long last, we have internet again. So, time for the updates.

First of all, we met a new doctor last Friday and she’s great! I’m really excited! She’s very supportive of natural birth and pretty much gave me all the answers to questions I was hoping for. She even had training last year with the author of my favourite ‘birth book’ (that I’ve read so far) called ‘Active Birth’. She has a private practice, which was in a lovely flat in Kadikoy, on the Asian side of the city, and it was so quiet and homey compared to the always-crowded American Hospital where we’ve been going. She likes to work with a hospital, also on the Asian side, who basically let her do her thing, which is great because I guess she’d be considered very unconventional here in Turkey. The only thing to figure out is how we’ll actually get to this hospital on the big day, since it’s pretty far away from where we live. I have no idea really, but we can figure that out later.

This coming Friday, I’m meeting the new doula, an American woman who has lived in Turkey for years. I spoke to her on the phone yesterday to arrange a meeting place/time, and she sounds nice anyway. She said she is available around my due date, so that’s a good start anyway. So, Richie and I will be meeting her in a couple of days to see what she’s like. I feel really happy and relieved that these things are coming together so nicely!

So, I think it is official that my emotions are slaves to the weather. Summer is finally, really here, and my entire mental outlook is so different. I’m sure that ‘morning sickness’ and all the early pregnancy stuff didn’t really help this winter, but still, I seem to get depressed and all that every winter to some degree. Now the sun is shining, the birds are singing and there’s a lovely smell of green and warm air and blossoms about, and I couldn’t be happier. All those happy summer associations have hit me. I keep recalling happy summer memories, relaxing in back gardens, barbecues, our amazing holiday last year, all those sort of festive summer activities that one normally does at this time of year. I feel full of energy and just so so happy that the good weather and sun are finally here to stay!

Hopefully, we’ll be heading off to Ireland this coming Monday. I’m going to the doctor tomorrow and hopefully she’ll give me the go-ahead to travel. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. It’ll be great to spend lots of time with Richie’s family, plus two of our best friends, Diarmuid and Andrea, are getting married and we’ve been looking forward to this trip for ages. Richie’s the best man, so he’ll definitely be going anyway, but it’ll be really disappointing if I’m not able to go. Anyway, I’m trying not to worry about it too much until I hear what the doctor has to say.

Finally, I’ve been reading some great books lately. A few weeks ago I read a book by Dutch writer Geert Mak, called An Island in Time: The Biography of a Village. Although he is writing from a journalistic perspective, his books read like novels, with such vibrant characters and amazing depictions of time and place. I’ve read two of his other books and they are equally amazing. Basically, he lives in a small village in rural Friesland and documents the huge changes in rural life over the last fifty years. While he focuses on the specifics of this particular village in the Netherlands, the book is illustrative of the rural revolution that took place and continues to take place throughout much of Europe. It’s fascinating and beautifully written. I was sorry when it ended.

Then last week I devoured the Odyssey, by Homer. Last year I read the Iliad, and was blown away by how readable, moving and modern it was, despite being thousands of years old. The Odyssey is a very different type of story, less grave and more fun, but it was definitely enjoyable. Now, sticking with ancient classics, I’ve just started History of the Pelopennesian War by Thucydides. I understand that he and Herodotus are sort of the ‘fathers of history’ as we understand it today. I had so much fun reading Herodotus’s Histories last year, and it’ll be interesting to see the contrast in Thucydides’s style. Herodotus is pretty colourful and full of interesting tales and stories of all varieties. Thucydides seems to be a more serious type of guy, leaving out all the ‘fluff’ such as potential involvement of the gods in human affairs and tries to just stick with the facts. It’s interesting so far, so we’ll see how it goes. I still think that reading these ancient Greek classics is way more fun while living in a place connected geographically to it all. Having seen some ancient Greek/Roman sites and being in a country that figures into stories like the Iliad and Herodotus’s Histories, it all seems a bit more real. I get a better feeling of what it all might have been like and I love having a better frame of reference for all of this stuff.

Well, this is a super long update, so I guess I’ll leave it at that!

I heart Herodotus…

As you may have gathered at this point, I love history. I can’t get enough of it. And during our holiday, we visited the hometown of the great Father of History himself: Herodotus. I think I want to adopt him as my personal hero.

Anyway, one stop on our coolest-ever holiday was Bodrum, formerly known as Halicarnassus, in southern Turkey along the Aegean coast. We took a bus from Kuşadası to Bodrum. It took about two hours, and it was really lovely to have a drive through the mountains. There were so many olive trees everywhere! I love them! There is  a myth about the founding of the Greek city of Athens, that illustrates the importance of the olive tree in the life of Mediterranean cultures. In the olden days, Poseidon the sea god and Athena, the patron goddess of civilization, war and wisdom (among other things), were in a bit of a competition with each other over who would be the most favoured god of the Athenians. They each offered the Athenians a gift, and wanted the people to choose which they liked best, and consequently, which god they preferred. Poseidon struck the ground and a spring of running water appeared, but the water was salty and not very useful. Athena, on the other hand, gave the people the olive tree. This was clearly the superior gift, since it would provide wood, oil for cooking and as fuel, and food. It was a pretty good gift, and one that is still giving today! I can’t imagine life without olives! In Turkey, and elsewhere, olive oil is used for every type of cooking, and olives are probably eaten by just about everyone in Turkey on a daily basis. I actually think we consume olive oil in some way or another for every meal of the day! Yum. When you go to the markets or shops here, you also have tons of choice in olives. In America, you can get ‘black’ or ‘green’ olives in a can. They’re okay. But here, you can choose from like twenty varieties, or possibly more! You get to sample them, like you’re choosing a nice bottle of scotch or tasting wine. Some are more tart, or fruity, or salty, or bitter. Ah, so delicious. And good for you.

But I digress. So, Bodrum and Herodotus. First of all, Bodrum was gorgeous. It’s a very busy, but very lovely resort town. It was a bit expensive, but we found plenty of cheap and relaxing things to do there. I especially loved sitting at the beachside cafes and bars, drinking a glass of wine while listening to the sea lap up against the pebbly shore. It was so relaxing and the history nerd in my found it really cool to imagine Herodotus growing up in this same town, perhaps sitting on this same beach 2500 years ago, and setting out from this harbour on his amazing world travels!

During the course of the year, I’ve twice read his famous book (or I suppose, collection of books)- The Histories. Back in his time, you could get away with such a simple title for your great work, because essentially, it was the first real history book in western civilisation, hence Horodotus’s title: the Father of History!

Now, I know what you may be thinking: this history book was written 2500 years ago, by some old Greek guy. It’s probably painfully dull and dry and archaic. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Despite the common (and often faulty) assumption that old things are always boring, this book is quite the page turner. Herodotus travelled all around the Mediterranean world and with his unquenchable curiosity, tried to learn about all the peoples and cultures he encountered, including, but not limited to, various Greek city states and colonies, the Lydians, Egyptians, Babylonians, Massagetae, Ethiopians, Indians, Scythians and their neighbours, Libyans and Thracians, all various peoples that populated Herotodus’s world. He also tells the story of the great war between the Persians and the Greeks, which included the battles of Marathon and Thermopylae, etc. (The film 300 is about part of this war).

What makes this book spectacular though, isn’t just the broad and interesting content; it’s also the way he tells his stories. He was a man who truly seemed to respect the cultures and people he wrote about. He tries to give different versions of stories, weigh up the most likely possibilities, and present things for the reader to consider and come to conclusions about. Overall, the book is lacking a sort of biased cultural superiority that you might expect to find in such ancient ethnologies, or even modern ones for that matter. It seems that Herodotus, a Greek man from Ionia, saw value in every culture he researched and you get a sense that he is writing as a cultural equal and not with the condescending ethnocentrism that many people have even now, when they are talking about cultures other than their own. He also actually went to most of the places he wrote about, spending most of his life travelling around the world. I think he must have been an extremely interesting person with so many amazing insights and so much knowledge. If I could choose anyone, living or dead, to have a conversation with, Herodotus would definitely be a top choice.

One thing that has been so enjoyable about reading (and re-reading) the Histories is that so much of it takes place in what is now Turkey. There were so many important events and interesting ethnic groups and tribes and kingdoms and empires here, and it really adds a whole new dimension to my understanding of Turkish, Middle Eastern, Western and just overall world history.

And this isn’t boring old dry history. It is absolutely full of interesting characters, adventures, dramas, legendary feats, wars and battles. There are brilliant descriptions of beliefs and customs and practices in so many different locations and cultures. He paints the pictures so well that you feel like you’ve visited Egypt or Babylon and seen it all for yourself. You could scarcely find a more interesting, informative or humane travelogue written today!

So, I really STRONGLY recommend reading Herodotus’s Histories. It just might change your view of the world and history and life!

Anyway, more on the Bodrum experience coming soon…

Nine Lives by William Dalrymple…

Last week I devoured this book about spirituality in modern India. It was amazing, eye-opening and beautiful. I highly recommend it as a way to get at least a small glimpse into the complex world that is India, and to get a taste for some very different ways of looking at religion, god, and the meaning of life.

The book is in the form of nine short autobiographies, where essentially the writer lets the people tell their own stories, while occasionally asking questions or adding his own bits of background or experience to illuminate parts of the stories. Most of the chapters feature individuals on the fringes of Indian religious culture, either because they are part of non-Hindu religions, i.e. Jainism, Sufi Islam, or Buddhism, or because they participate in practices that challenge or defy the mainstream Hindu culture and live outside of the caste divides or Brahmin interpretation of religion.

The thing I love most about this book is its humanity. These personal stories are so real and touching and full of life. I think the author certainly makes an effort to show the ordinariness of these human experiences, which I imagine is a challenge when showing worldviews, practices and beliefs that can be so wildly different from the beliefs and worldviews of most westerners. The first story in the book, about a Jain nun dealing with the death of her best friend, literally brought tears to my eyes, it was so moving and beautiful; uplifting and tragic. And I loved, loved, LOVED the final chapter of the book and the way the whole reading experience was brought to a close, with the life affirming story of a blind minstrel, expressing his love of god through song and fellowship with his fellow minstrels, and singing that the only path to divinity is found within the human heart. After reading that final chapter I felt so happy to be alive!

I always find it uplifting, challenging, and inspiring to consider the way other people think and believe. I am ceaselessly amazed by the great diversity of human experience and culture. It is wonderful, awe-inspiring, strange and exciting to be a part of the human race in all its variety.