Memoirs of a Geisha

I just finished the book and I have to agree with the reviews; it was hard to put down and refused to stay shut.

I’d like to first mention a bit of controversy surrounding the novel. It was written by a westerner named Arthur Golden. I wanted to know if this book was worth reading and so read up on his sources. Well, his main source was a real geisha named Mineko Iwasaki. The controversy lies in that he was allegedly not supposed to name her as the source since the geisha world is very secretive. She ended up getting into quite a bit of trouble with that world over this book and even some death threats.

I dug into it a little and it is hard to discern the truth. On one hand I would give a Japanese person the benefit of the doubt when it comes to honesty. But on the other hand I cannot see the author agreeing to this and then outing her anyway. She is the first person he mentions in the acknowledgements and she is integral to this entire work! My own theory is that Mrs. Iwasaki might have been fine with it but didn’t expect it to become as popular as it did which then caused problems and she needed to cover herself a bit. Otherwise Mr. Golden is just a terrible person. Again, it is very hard to understand this because as Japanese culture is based on honor I don’t think either side would have purposely done something so dishonorable as an outright lie (without excellent reason).

I read up on Arthur Golden’s background and as it turns out he is a member of the Ochs-Sulzberger family which owns controlling stock in the New York Times. That means trust fund baby. I had my suspicions when reading his brief autobiography in the book. He went to Harvard and majored in Japanese history. Who goes to Harvard and majors in Japanese history??? Trust fund babies do. Secondly how did he even have access to a former top Geisha? He comes from a very powerful family that knows other powerful families, that is how.

The rest of his autobiography says he then went on to earn an MA in Japanese history at Columbia where he also studied Mandarin Chinese. With all these Japanese studies why wouldn’t he study the Japanese language? Then he studied in Beijing, worked in Tokyo and then got an MA in English at Boston University. This is totally the autobiography of a rich kid with a fascination for Asia with the means to be a ‘forever student.’ The book was fantastic so Mr. Golden is a great writer. I guess he should be expected to be a great writer as his education would have cost a fortune!

However, I’m more interested in real history and from the source. So after this controversy arose, Mrs. Iwasaki wrote a book of her own called Geisha, A Life. Mrs. Iwasaki says many things are greatly exaggerated and even untrue in Golden’s book so now I have to read Mrs. Iwasaki’s book as I’d like a picture that is closer to actual history than Mr. Golden’s book, which is stated fiction, has given me.

This book became a popular movie but that created its own controversy. Three very popular Chinese actresses were selected to play roles that are 100% Japanese exclusive. This didn’t sit well with the Japanese or Chinese sides.

As for the story itself, I found myself imagining what it must have been like to be in that exclusive club found in only one town in all of Japan. Yes there were geisha elsewhere but it was in Gion where the old traditions held sway according to the novel and I’m assuming is based on historical fact. The elites would gather to drink and be entertained in a style only found in Japan. Perhaps it wasn’t that special at all to them, it was just how the upper class was accustomed to being entertained. Something that would seem otherworldly to a foreigner, or a time traveler was just a part of life to the men who frequented those places. The elites always have their places to play although in the West we do not have a culture of normalized female entertainment thanks to a Puritan strain that unfortunately continues to run through this country.

If I were to compare then my thoughts immediately go to the Moss Beach Distillery which was a play area for elites here in San Francisco during the ’20s and Prohibition. It was an entry point to California for booze from Canada and was one of the only place (if not the only one!) that didn’t get shut down all for the simple reason is that is where the elite of society liked to party. There you’d drink the sweet prohibited nectar of alcohol, listen to music, dance and maybe, just maybe, they had some dancing girls or something like that but nothing like a geisha.

Now days, it seems the tradition of female entertainment and geisha has evolved into hostess clubs in Japan. You still make conversation, drink and enjoy the company of a woman. Like geisha times this can also lead to sex but is not prostitution and at the volition of both parties. The money is paid for the company and drinks but if it progresses then that is more because both parties want to do so and money much less of a role.

In the modern USA you have clubs like The Battery in downtown San Francisco where the rich go to drink and look at each other. If there are women comforts then I imagine it is kept under wraps since prostitution is illegal thanks to those fun loving Puritans and the various Jesus movements that infect our entire society today. I’m sure things still go on in a big way but I’m not part of that world so wouldn’t know.

My Favorite Quotes:

Since moving to New York I’ve learned what the world “geisha” really means to most Westerners. From time to time at elegant parties, I’ve been introduced to some young woman or other in a splendid dress and jewelry. When she learns I was once a geisha in Kyoto, she forms her mouth into a sort of smile, although the corners don’t turn up quite as they should. She has no idea what to say! And then the burden of conversation falls to the man or woman who has introduced us – because I’ve never really learned much English, even after all these years. Of course, by this time there’s little point even in trying, because this woman is thinking, “My goodness…I’m talking with a prostitute…” A moment later she’s rescued by her escort, a wealthy man a good thirty or forty years older than she is. Well, I often find myself wondering why she can’t sense how much we really have in common. She is a kept woman, you see, and in my day so was I.

She cannot see the similarity because along with that Puritan strain we have a very strong culture of hypocrisy here in the USA. A good majority of people in the USA want to appear upstanding and moral yet they watch scandalous entertainment, segregate themselves and care very little for those unlike them, the divorce rate is well over 50% and the main motivator is greed. Need an example? Take a look at the President of the USA now Donald Trump. He is a con man and a crook yet the envy of a good part of American society. It makes no sense at all. And what about the wife that he bought Melania? She married Donald for money of course and anyone who says differently is an idiot and perhaps a voluntary idiot. How simpler it would have been if our society would just permit mistresses as socially acceptable. Then we wouldn’t have to go through this nonsense of pretending to be in love when in fact the guys want sex and the women money?

Here is the twist that an average American couldn’t understand. I do not look down on Melania nor think poorly of her at all. I’m sure she is a decent person whose great looks are both a wonderful asset as well as tremendous curse. She gets the money but has to put up with a husband as crass, vain and idiotic as Donald. I imagine she doesn’t love him at all and like geisha has to bury her true emotions and true loves due to circumstances. I for one am in favor of allowing for mistresses and doing away with the fairy tail nonsense of true, everlasting love. Real life isn’t a Disney movie for God’s sakes but a good majority of Americans are absolutely infantile that increasingly can barely get their own affairs in order. For a great example of and infantile man/boy look no farther than VP Mike Pence. Poor guy cannot even have dinner alone with a woman other than his wife, or something might happen!!! My God, it is all so depressing the way society has gone.

So in short, young women who are marring wealthy older men are “kept” women just as a geisha is kept. The difference is a geisha can keep the relationship much simpler and cleaner without all the fake appearances and bullshit we do here in the West.

An en is a karmic bond lasting a lifetime. Nowadays many people seem to believe their lives are entirely a matter of choice; but in my day we viewed ourselves as pieces of clay that forever show the fingerprints of everyone who has touched them.

In the West we have the illusion of making our own choices and controlling our own destinies. It is something we like to tell ourselves as part of our national character. Yes, we can control our own destinies and our futures are determined by individual choices there is so much about ourselves that is shaped by others. Here are some examples.

How many people share the same religion as their parents? I would guess it is around 80% or so and religion is something that is very hard to shake off when you’ve been brought up believing the nonsense and so does everyone around you.

How many people live further than 50 miles away from their parents? The typical American lives only 18 miles away from Mom and Dad.

How many children share the same education level as their parents?

How many kids share the same political opinions as their parents and/or those that surround them? If people were able to truly form their own opinions then shouldn’t we have a smattering of red and blue all over the place in the electoral map instead of huge blocks of red and blue?

So the fact is, we have gotten very good at telling ourselves we make our own decisions, that we are individuals. Nope, the majority here in the USA are pieces of clay shaped by those who have been in their lives.

Over the years, she probably succeeded in drinking herself to death. She certainly wouldn’t have been the first geisha to do it.

When I read this I think about the false faces we show to society. My first thought is to social media where everyone portrays only their best sides and that their lives are perfect. The reality of it is depression is on the rise, drug use is on the rise and we’ve got (mostly women) uploading picture after picture of themselves for social approval and to feed that need for “likes,” yet who are actually falling down a pit of depression.

I then think of actors such as Robin Williams, Chris Farley and many others who show a happy face, just like geisha, to the outside world but are dying on the inside. Seems we all have similar experiences as humans although our circumstances can be quite different. Same feelings, completely different worlds.

In summary, I certainly enjoyed the book and am looking forward to re-watching the movie. I also need to buy Geisha, A Life and read that as well. I noticed it is exactly the same price as Mr. Golden’s book but I imagine has not sold nearly as many copies. That is too bad.

Categorized as Books Tagged

Travels in Asia and Africa – 1325-1354 – Ibn Battúa

I heard about this book from Reddit and knew right away that I wanted to read it. I love history and traveling and here is a first hand account from a well traveled (for the times) man from over 600 years ago. This is unlike a history book. History books are the past seen through the prism of the historian and these can be tainted by the passage of time as well as the nationality of the author. From a first hand account I can gain a better idea of what times were really like and how people thought.

Furthermore, due to the time I spent studying in Spain I’m very fascinated with the Muslim/Moor identity as Spain was one of the borders where Christian civilization ended and Muslim civilization began. Spain was for a few hundred years a Muslim country and this is easily seen in its architecture as well as the traits of its people.

In understanding the past I can further understand the world today and it is easy to see that although much has changed the core identities when it comes to religion have not. We still have the same hatreds, same wars and same divisions as over 600 years ago.

Below are some passages I’ve pulled out that I found rather interesting and wanted to comment on.

To the world of today the men of medieval Christendom already seem remote and unfamiliar. Their names and deeds are recorded in our history-books, their monuments still adorn our cities, but our kinship with them is a thing unreal, whcih costs an effort of the imagination. How much more must this apply to the great Islamic civilization, that stood over against medieval Europe, menacing its existence and yet linked to it by a hundred ties that even war and fear could not sever. Its monuments too abide, for those who may have the fortune to visit them, but its men and manners are to most of us utterly unknown, or dimly conceived in the romantic image of the Arabian Nights. Even for the specialist it is difficult to reconstruct their lives and see them as they were. Histories and biographies there are in quantity, but the historians, for all their picturesque details, seldom show the ability to select the essential and to give their figures that touch of the intimate which makes them live again for the reader.

This is the opening and it is wonderful. Whenever we travel overseas we take pictures next to monuments and maybe read a blurb about it or two if that and then it is on to the next thing. There is a reason those monuments are there and when traveling to the ‘old countries’ these monuments go back centuries if not millennia. In the case of Japan one can see shrines and writings on the sides of roads whose meaning is only known to the monks if by anyone at all! I feel very thankful for today’s technology which can offer a glimpse into what the monuments are for without my smartphone they would just be another statue. How interesting the world is and how little we know of it!

This is the church of which they are falsely persuaded to believe that it contains the grave of Jesus. All who come on pilgrimage to visit it pay a stipulated tax to the Muslims, and suffer very unwillingly various humiliations.

This is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now in the hands of the Israelis’. It is the place where the Crusaders fought to reclaim and the surrounding land still ground zero where the religions still fight for control. This is also the spot where one of the most exciting archaeological studies are taking place since for the first time ever have been granted access to open it. The whole world was waiting for the results but checking this article it looks like if Jesus’s remains are there or not is so far inconclusive. This is some real life Indiana Jones stuff and is truly incredible. Whether you believe in religion or not is irrelevant as this is history that has changed and continues to change the world and the findings could further change the world.

Thence to Ma’arra, whcih lies in a district inhabited by some sort of Shi’ites, abominable people who hate the Ten Companions and ever person whose name is ‘Omar.

Ibn Battuá was a Sunni and this passage is interesting to me as the Sunnis and Shi’ites still fight to this very day with Saudia Arabia on one side and Iran on the other. It is a dispute over how one interprets Islam and the wars of 600 years ago persist with even more devastating consequences today.

One day a Turk happened to be there, and hearing a broker call “nine and one,” he laid his club about his head “Say ‘ten,'” whereupon quoth he “Ten with the club.”

Again, this is Sunni vs. Shi’ite.

Land of the Armenian infidels.

I’ve learned a lot about the Armenians and their sad history. The persecution continues today with Turkey being a main offender.

Thence we journeyed to Ma’an, which is the last town in Syria, and from “Aqabat as-Sawan entered the desert, of which the saying goes: “He who enters it is lost, and he who leaves it is born.”

How frightening crossing the deserts must have been in the middle ages. In fact, without airplanes crossing a desert is still a formidable challenge today. Deserts represent a mythical land where the veil between life and death is very thin. It is no wonder this is where the idea of genies which come from “the Jinn” was born and all of the superstitions that come with it.

Isfahán is one of the largest and fairest of cities, but the greater part of it is now in ruins, as a result of the feud between Sunnís and Shi’ites, which is still raging there.

Additional testament to the war between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam.

We went on from there to the town of Ta’izz, the capital of the king of Yemen, and one of the finest and largest towns in that country. Its people are overbearing, insolent, and rude, as is generally the case in towns where kings reside.

Isn’t this still true today in our major cities? I’ve found the people of the countryside to be a refreshing change from the uptight and pretentious people that inhabit our modern cities. Some things never change.

Greek slave called Michael
I bought a Greek slave girl here for forty dinars.
He gave me a young Greek slave named Nicholas
Here my slave, on taking my horses to water along with a slave belonging to one of my companions, attempted to escape.
In this town I bought a Greek slave girl called Marguerite.

It was interesting to me that a man of religion would think nothing of taking slaves. Does religion not teach us that we are all God’s children? How does a religious person reconcile this with the taking of slaves. Religion is a blight on humanity full of contradictions and mind twisting feats of logic to explain why they believe and act the way they do. I wrote down the names of these slaves as these were real people, cared for as babies who were cruelly torn from their families and put into slavery. For me, these are not just a names from 600 years ago but real people that were born in a very cruel world and who I feel very sorry for. Looking at their names a feeling of sorrow envelops me and I feel their souls are close since I, one of the living, are remembering them.

A day’s march from this town (Ukak), are the mountains of the Russians. These are Christians, red-haired and blue-eyed, with ugly faces and treacherous.

One tribe encountering another. Nothing has changed in modern times and we are still as apart today as we were 600 years ago.

I was out one day with my Greek guide, when we met the former king George who had become a monk.

I clasp the hand which has entered Jerusalem and the foot which has walked within the Dome of the Rock and the great church of the Holy Sepulchre and Bethlehem,'” and he laid his hand upon my feet and passed it over his face.

This was in Constantinople and the Byzantine empire. He visited the Hagia Sophia and at this time it was still under Christian control. It wasn’t until 120 years later that it was conquered by the Turks and remains under their control to this day. I was amazed that the Emperor would touch Ibn Battua’s feet because they had been in the Holy Sepulchre, how religious he was! Kingdoms come and go and I wonder what further changes are in store for humanity in the next 600 years.

He who enters it must needs prostrate himself before the great cross, for this is a rule which the ancients laid down and which cannot be contravened.

This is the Hagia Sophia. Here I am reading an account from 600 years ago and in this quote they are referencing the “ancients” which was 600 or more years ago for them! How things involving religion remain the same even though we have made such advancements elsewhere.

The burning of the wife after her husband’s death is regarded by them as a commendable act, but is not compulsory; only when a widow burns herself her family acquire a certain prestige by it and gain a reputation for fidelity. A widow who does not burn herself dresses in coarse garments and lives with her own people in misery, despised for her lack of fidelity, but she is not forced to burn herself.

Each elephant has on its back a sort of large chest capable of holding twenty warriors or more or less, according to the size of the beast.

This reminded me of Lord of the Rings and how the evil men from the south rode elephants or “Oliphants” as the hobbits called them. JRR Tolkein got his idea directly from history which is described above.

Yogis, appearing in the shape of a tiger
The men of this class do some marvelous things One of them will spend months without eating or drinking, and many of them have holes dug for them in the earth which are then built in on top of them, leaving only a space for air to enter. They stay in these for months, and I heard tell of one of them who remained thus for a year. The people say that they make up pills, one of which they take for a given number of days or months, and during that time they require no food or drink. They can tell what is happening at a distance. The sultan holds them in esteem and admits them to his company Some eat nothing but vegetables, and others, the majority, eat no meat; it is obvious that they have so disciplined themselves in ascetic practices that they have no need of any of the goods or vanities of this world. There are amongst them some who merely look at a man and he falls dead on the spot. The common people say that if the breast of a man killed in this way is cut open, it is found to contain no heart, and they assert that his heart has been eaten.

Such superstition and myths continue to this day. Again, things change but remain the same.

I want a cabin to myself because of the slave-girls, for it is my habit never to travel without them.

I can’t imagine why. A religious man preaches against the sins of sex yet still engages in the practice. At least with him it wasn’t little boys.

“Are you going to go on the raft and leave us?” So I put their safety before my own and said “You two go and take with you the girl that I like.” The other girl said “I am a good swimmer and I shall hold on to one of the raft ropes and swim with them.”

This was a moment when they were sinking and at least Ibn Battua had the decency to think of his female slaves.

In the morning the infidels whom our troops had captured the previous day were divided into four groups and impaled at the four gates of the camp. Their women and little children were butchered also and the women tied by their hair to the pales….. This [slaughtering of women and children] is a dastardly practice, which I have never known of any [other] king, and it was because of it that God brought him to a speedy end.

Very violent the Middle Ages were. Oh wait, we’re still very violent today and nothing has changed. Only now this murder is done with air strikes and on computer screens. How civilized!

If he desires to take a concubine, the keeper purchases a slave-girl for him and lodges him in an apartment opening out of the hostelry, and purveys for them both. Slave-girls fetch a low price; yet all the Chinese sell their sons and daughters, and consider it no disgrace. They are not compelled, however, to travel with those who buy them, nor on the other hand, are they hindered from going if they choose to do so.

The Chinese seem much more compassionate here unlike in the West where if you found yourself in slavery you were in a very bad spot.

“What we thought was a mountain is the Rukh, and if it sees us it will make an end of us.”

It took me a minute to understand what they were referring to here but it is a mythological Roc which is an enormous bird that preys upon everything. This passage showed me how superstitious the people were for the time. Although nobody had actually seen these mythological creatures they were still very real to their minds. I imagine dragons, sea serpents and other creatures would have also been very real in their minds during this age.

Two months after this we reached Jáwa and landed at the town of Sumutra. We found its sultan al-Malik az-Záhir just returned from a raid, with a large train of captives. He sent me two girls and two boys, and lodged me in the usual manner.

More trading of slaves which seems to be all very normal at this time.

I had left a wife of mine there pregnant, and I learned that while I was in India that she had borne a male child, whereupon I sent to the boy’s maternal grandfather, who belonged to Miknása [Mequinez] in Morocco, forty gold dinars in Indian money. When I arrived in Damascus on this occasion I had not thought but to enquire after my son.
“He is dead these twelve years.”
“told him the name of my family he informed me that my father died fifteen years before and that my mother was still alive.”

I guess it was not a big deal to leave your wives pregnant and never to be seen again. I’m sure the idea of children and family was very different at this time compared to what it is today. It is stories like this that make my the story of my own DNA very interesting. To a modern mind you’d think it is just a succession of families in orderly progression but as we get further back in time it all turns into a bit of a mess. Looking at my own DNA I have traces of Nordic countries, some Southern and given how times were back then cannot imagine that one tribe would so easily accept someone from another tribe into their family. The story of humanity is one big mess and any common idea of “purity” from a certain land is a bunch of nonsense. We’re already a melting pot and erecting walls isn’t going to change anything. People will mix and we’ll all eventually become a blend no matter how many wars, walls, or hatreds come about through the years.

Categorized as Books Tagged

The Alchemist

I read the Alchemist for the first time around 1996, almost a decade after it was originally published.  Like many books I’ve read long ago I had forgotten most of it.  It was a chance encounter seeing it featured as a book to digitally borrow from my library app and I listened to it during a recent flight.  I had forgotten how profound the book is so decided to re-read it and highlight my favorite parts as add my thoughts.

This book really affects me but not for the reasons it would appeal to most.  I studied in Spain and from the moment I set foot in that country I was fascinated by its history studying in the ancient town of Toledo it was like I was actually living in history.  I walked the Calle de Pescado everyday and that street was even mentioned in Don Quixote.  I would climb the tower looking over the medieval city on a warm summer night and it was as though I could feel the Moorish invaders coming to take over the town from the south.

Not many people know the history of Spain but the Moors crossed over the straight of Gibraltar and conquered the vast majority of Spain.  It is for this reason that the Spanish people primarily have black eyes and hair.  They also often have Moorish last names such as a girl I dated with the last name Lopez Terradas Alanis.  Alanis is a Moorish name.

It was from my time in Toledo that I would visit different places and take time to just try to “feel” the history of the place.  Europe is so very ancient and we just don’t have that type of history in the USA so perhaps that is why history in Europe fascinates me so much.

Spain left its mark on me.  Coming to California I visit the old Spanish missions and when I look over the ocean I imagine the conquistador ships passing by and I think of the natives who, from a virgin land must not have know what these ships were.  Large vessels such as the Spanish ships would be as strange to them as a spacecraft landing in my backyard.

So when I read the Alchemist, which takes place in Spain and Africa I really identify with the story.  No, that isn’t the right word.  I ‘feel’ the story and it reaches into my soul.

I also set foot in Africa – Tangier – although I really hated that city because as it is mentioned in the Alchemist, port cities really are full of thieves.  We were taken advantage of by our tour guide who demanded much more money than what we had agreed and were also dragged to a carpet shop which we couldn’t leave until we bought something.

Now, let’s get to my favorite entries.

They climb the mountain to see the castle, and they wind up thinking that the past was better than what we have now.

I am guilty of this.  I romanticize history seeing only the knights, the banners, the old taverns.  However, I am getting better in thinking that this was not the life for most people.  I recently read Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village and wrote a post about it here. It really illustrated what normal life was like in the village and although it wasn’t glamorous I longed for a simple life with no notifications, e-mails or honking cars.  Again, I romanticized it which I shouldn’t have done as people couldn’t bathe much, there were diseases and always the threat of invasion.

The boy could see in his father’s gaze a desire to be able, himself, to travel the world – a desire that was still alive, despite his father’s having hard to bury it, over dozens of years, under the burden of struggling for water to drink, food to eat, and the same place to sleep every night of his life.

Adults are good at hiding this.  Everyone gets caught up in a current and before they know it they have a mortgage, a family and responsibilities.  The windows of opportunities that were available after graduation start to close one by one.  They forget their dreams but looking around them and seeing this is what pretty much everyone does they believe this is just how life is.

I couldn’t have found God in the seminary, he thought, as he looked at the sunrise.

I too enjoy a good sunset evidenced by my collection of sunset pictures here.  When watching a sunset I feel at peace but also aware that another day in my life has come to an end.  The feeling you get when watching the sun go down connects you with the earth, with nature and makes you realize you’re lucky to be alive.  The pressures and stress of life just melt away.

It’s this:  that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate.  That’s the world’s greatest lie.

So many people feel as though they do not control their own lives and when things get hectic some people say to “Let Jesus take the wheel.”  For me, I take the wheel and make changes.  My life has changed so much since I was in school based upon my decisions.  I’ll expound upon this as there is another quote about currents and how they take you to unexpected places when you make a decision.

At that point in their lives, everything is clear and everything is possible.  They are not afraid to dream, and to yearn for everything they would like to see happen to them in their lives.  But, as time passes, a mysterious force begins to convince them that it will be impossible for them to realize their Personal Legend.

That force is life taking hold.  The responsibilities pile up and people feel trapped.  It is hard to cut the cord once you become entrenched with family, a house, good friendships and a decent paying job.  The last time I was completely free was just after college and I’m glad I took the opportunity to go overseas.  That decision has changed my life dramatically.

In the long run, what people think about shepherds and bakers becomes more important for them than their own Personal Legends.

People are always concerned about what others think.  This is what drives them to buy fancy cars or show off their wealth in some form or another.  It is only by gaining confidence in yourself that one can free themselves from the opinions of others.  When you have a lot of confidence it doesn’t matter what others think and they begin to admire you.

“A practice of infidels,” he said to himself.  As a child in church, he had always looked at the image of Saint Santiago Matamoros on his white horse, his sword unsheathed, and figures such as these kneeling at his feet.  The boy felt ill and terribly alone.  The infidels had an evil look about them.

I’m having a hard time finding the name origin as it is buried in some Spanish tome but if I remember correctly his name was actually something like San Xago de Matamoros which later became Santiago for ease of pronunciation.  What most don’t realize is that he is known for killing Moors or Muslims who invaded Spain.  Today we see the name Santiago everywhere but the meaning has been lost, especially in the English speaking world.

There had been a time when he thought that his sheep could teach him everything he needed to know about the world.

Today, people think that the propaganda sources of the news or various talking heads can teach them everything they need to know about the world.  Everyone always thinks they know everything already.  What I’ve learned is that you must keep traveling, must keep reading to really learn.  I feel as though I learn the most when I read old books without the taint of current thinking.  By reading old books and passages I can get a sense of how they really thought instead of seeing it through the lens of a historian who puts his or her own spin on it. I want to hear directly from the source of someone who lived in the time period I’m reading about.

When someone makes a decision, he is really diving into a strong current that will carry him to places he had never dreamed of when he first made the decision.

This has been my life.  It was from the simple decision to study in Spain that lead me to study again in France and Mexico.  It was also from this decision that I decided to find a job overseas which lead to a trip and later moving to Vietnam.  Then a friend in Vietnam moved to California and here I find myself with a Japanese wife.  I would have never imagined this outcome from that decision to study in Spain.  The current was strong in my case and has carried me very far from my origins indeed.

We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it’s our life or our possessions and property.  But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand.

The richer you become the greater fear you have in making major life changes.  It is easy to do so when you have little, you can just up and go.  I’ve seen throughout my life that as people pile on possessions they become weighted down unable to move under the pressure of all those material things.

“I’m alive,” he said to the boy, as they ate a bunch of dates one night, with non fires and no moon.  “When I’m eating that’s all I think about.  If I’m on the march, I just concentrate on marching.  If I have to fight, it will be just as good a day to die as any other.
Because I don’t live in either my past or my future.  I’m interested only in the present.  If you can concentrate always on the present, you’ll be a happy man.

This could come straight from a book on mindfulness or from Buddhism.  The mind always wants to race from one thought to the next which creates a disorderly mind.  Best to concentrate on the present moment, no past, no future, just be in the moment.  “Life is to be savored” as the Panda’s say in World of Warcraft.  Enjoy living it and not thinking about so many things.

Actually, it wasn’t that those things, in themselves, revealed anything at all; it was just that people, looking at what was occurring around them, could find a means of penetration to the Soul of the World.

“If good things are coming, they will be a pleasant surprise,” said the seer.  “If bad things are, and you know in advance, you will suffer greatly before they even occur.”

This is so very true.  One example is the Fighter’s Cup I participate in which is a karate tournament.  The actual fighting is tough but sometimes it seems thinking about it is even worse.  The fight lasts two minutes but the anxiety caused by thinking about it can drag on for months in advance.  Thus our karate motto “Don’t talk about it, don’t think about it, just sweat.”

And that happiness could be found in a grain of sand from the desert, as the alchemist had said.  Because a grain of sand is a moment of creation, and the universe has taken millions of years to create it.

When we sit and contemplate nature, the trees, the ocean or even a grain of sand it is an absolute miracle that there is something in this universe rather than nothing.  I read a book entitled “Why Does The World Exist” by Jim Holt and it speaks about this very thing.  Where there was nothing, suddenly there was something and this something is everything we see including us.  All of creation should put us in awe.  We look at the stars on a warm summer night and are in awe.  We wonder what is out there?  Well, we’re standing on something we call Earth which is a part of it all.  We are made of stardust and so we are apart of it as well.  However, life and society have their demands and we forget just how amazing everything we see actually is.

Most people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place.

How we think about the world determines how it actually is.  It is all in the perception.  Living overseas I wondered why it was that some students had a terrible time while others had a great time.  Some of it is due to environment but even in a bad environment your mentality determines what type of experience you will have.  For example, living in Toledo was wonderful yet some managed to have a bad time and want to go home.  Living in a ghetto in France wasn’t very nice yet many of us had a ball.  It is all in attitude and perception.

So if you remain fearful of the world and think of it as dangerous, the danger is all you will see.  For me, I don’t think driving around Saigon at 3:00 AM on my motorbike would be very pleasant but I loved doing this.  The streets were empty, the town quiet and I was smart enough to not get into any danger and appreciate the beauty.  I wouldn’t recommend doing this in some parts of Oakland however.  😉

“Your eyes show the strength of your soul,” answered the alchemist.

The eyes have been called a “window to the soul.”  With a bit of practice you can always tell what a person is thinking, or if they are lying by looking them right in the eye.  There are so many tells and it is easy to see.  You can also see sincerity, love, and passion very easily in the eyes.

And they found the Philosopher’s Stone, because they understood that when something evolves, everything around that thing evolves as well.

I’ve found this to be true.  I previously mentioned that mindset determines your experience.  Well, it seems the world does physically change whether your perception is positive or negative about something.  Some call this the Law of Attraction and I find it generally holds true.  We’re connected to this universe in ways we don’t and cannot begin to understand.

Remember what I told you:  the world is only the visible aspect of God.

There is so much we cannot pick up with our five senses.  Some speak of a sixth or even seventh sense.  There is something there which we do not perceive but sometimes can catch a flicker of when in quiet meditation, or at the moment of sleep or waking when you turn the brain off and just be still.

The wind has many names. In that part of the world, it was called the sirocco, because it brought moisture from the oceans to the east.  In the distant land the boy came from, they called it the levanter, because they believed that it brought with it the sands of the desert, and the screams of the Moorish wars.

I can imagine this very clearly.  I felt it on the breeze during those warm summer nights up in the tower overlooking the city of Toledo.  I felt the history, I felt the long dead spirits whispering in that wind.  I’d love to stand in a field in Andalusia and just take it all in.

The wind began to blow again.  It was the levanter, the wind that came from Africa.  It didn’t bring with it the smell of the desert, nor the threat of Moorish invasion.



Categorized as Books Tagged

Montaillou – Life in a Medieval Village

I just finished Montaillou by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.  This took me over half a year to finish not because it wasn’t great, but because I have two young boys and thus free time is non-existent.

I learned of this book in a Reddit post and quickly bought it as it is right up my alley.  Montaillou is simply a study of medieval life in a small mountain town (Montaillou) in southern France around the year 1300.  The records are drawn from the Inquisition which was very active in the region trying to put a stamp on the Cathar beliefs which were spreading.  The Inquisitor, Jacques Fournier kept excellent records and thus have given us a peek into the normal, everyday life of the residents of this small village.

What fascinates me about the book is it is not a history book but rather, as Michael Ratcliffee of The Times” puts it, “A classic adventure in eavesdropping across time.”

Here are my favorite entries:

Escaunier of Arques, elaborated as if it were and article of faith his hatred for tithes, mingled with other heretical propositions:  The priests and the clerks, he cried, because they are wicked, extort and receive from the people the first-fruits and the titles of products for which they have not done the smallest stroke of work.

A really rich man was not a wage-earner like himself but a farmer and landowner with enough wealth to be able to use others to work for him.

– It looks like not much has changed in how to become really rich.  Although we’ve moved from an agrarian society to an information/technology one the basics are the same.  You must own the product and have people do the work for you.  However, in this age it is the CEO who must guide the ship to keep the enterprise from smashing on the rocks.

‘With the riches Satan shall give you will never be satisfied, however much you possess.  He who has will always want more.  And you will have neither pause nor end, for this world is not the realm of stability; and all that is of Satan is only passing and doomed to destruction.’

– This is as true today as it was back then and was quoted in Game of Thrones which I’m watching.  People will always want more and never be satisfied.  Should that cease to occur our Capitalist society would no longer function.  We are ‘consumers’ which in this age of greed is like a bacteria which consumes and devours until nothing is left at all, our society cannot stop.  The best solution I’ve found to this comes from Buddhism and meditation.  You have to stop the “grasping mind.”  The mind is always grasping for something else but through meditation one can control it, let those thoughts simply pass through and then you will be at peace.

‘Three times the house of my father and mother were destroyed for heresy; and I myself cannot cure myself of heresy, for I must hold the faith my father held.’

  • This is also very true today:  people will follow the religions of their fathers and that is why we call entire countries either Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist, Jewish and so on.  If humans were an intelligent species you would imagine these beliefs would change over time but they do not.  Technology and knowledge may increase but the stubborn persistence of religion, of beliefs thousands of years old stay strong.  For me I was raised Catholic and it was only until I left the Church but came for a Mass that I really listened and understood how bizarre it all was.  Here are people living in an age of technology and science yet they believe that bread and wine change into a living God and consume it.  The priest tells God what we know, what to do and when to do it.  “We know, You are, We ask…..”  We don’t know as much as we think we do about the universe, we’re completely lost and have made up religion in order to stomp out that fear of the unknown, of what this reality actually is.

Pierre Maury’s sense of fate was thus not vulgarly magical but loftily philosophical.  In him as in others it is simply a very old peasant idea quite natural in societies where there is no growth and, where people literally have no choice.

Fate, which underlies this phrase as it does so many others, is thus seen as the shepherd’s vocation; and mountain liberty is the happy counterpart of the migrant’s destiny, even if he has to sleep under the trees, to freeze almost to death in winter and be soaked to the skin by autumn showers.

  • Complete freedom, this is a dream for the entire human race.  Here in America we believe we are ‘free,’ yet we are living in a system in which we must get into our cars, drive to an office and work the vast majority of our lives so as not to starve and die.  True freedom would be the ability to live life exactly as you wish.  However, we are programmed from birth to believe in certain ideas, to work within the system, to follow the rules.  This is also portrayed in Game of Thrones by the ‘Wildlings’ who live north of the wall, separate from the various kings in the south who rule over their subjects and make them behave in a certain way.

Behind the commonplace idea that a man is the product of his education lies the more complex notion of a physical link with the bread which built the body, and, through the bread, with the land which produced the grain and to which the man will one day return.  The soul of man is bread. 

– “Man is the product of his education.”  We are not born with inherent knowledge and thus taught what to believe, that is ‘programmed’ to use technological terminology.  I just spoke of this in my previous comment so nothing further to add.  But in this quote I like the relationship between the land, the body and the importance of bread.  Perhaps this is the link in why bread is featured so prominently in the Bible.  Bread gives us life in the physical sense since it provides nourishment and so religion has given it a spiritual link as well since without it we would die in both the literal physical sense as well as in the spiritual sense.

So Maury chose instead to desire few objects, and to transfer his wants to other kinds of wealth, which for him took the place of family:  temporary unions with mistresses in the pastures or the taverns; a full network of human relationships based on both artificial and natural fraternity, on compaternity, on pure friendship or friendship through association  He liked this life-style, based on fate freely accepted – but is this not the very definition of Grace?  His destiny was a destination.  For him, sheep meant liberty.  And he would not trade that liberty for the plate of gritty lentils often held out to him by friends, employers or parasites, offering to marry him, to help him settle down, to have him adopted into a rich family.  But he saw his destiny as travelling over hill and dale, with friends everywhere and temporary sweethearts.  Material wealth would have been literally a burden to him.  Maury had few possessions, but he was not destitute.  And when he lost those few possessions he lost them with a smile, for he knew that by working he could easily get them back again.  Well shod for his long journeys in a pair of good shoes of Spanish leather – the only luxury he allowed himself – detached from the goods of this world, careless of the almost inevitable certainty of being arrested at some time by the Inquisition, leading a life that was both passionate and passionately interesting, Pierre Maury was a happy shepherd.

  • Maury is free and he lives in grace.  To me living in grace is to not ‘try’ or perhaps a better word is ‘fight.’  He glides through life shaping it to his wants and desires all without much effort.  I feel that the same is true for my life:  once I stop fighting and just let life run its course while remaining positive I find that things start to go my way, that I’m successful.  Yes, I do work but instead of always pushing I just find that perfect current that takes me where I want to go.  Should I wish to change the direction of my life I climb out of the river and find a new one that is going where I wish to go.  There is some effort required in changing streams but once it is done life becomes easy again.  The stream of course is a metaphor for my mental state and provided I’m in the right one, life is grand and things in the physical realm begin to go my way.

As late as the eighteenth century, many people considered that to emit an odor of unwashed body was a sign of personal virility, at least in men.

– They still do in Europe!  Here we are, a conscious organic organism which is comprised mostly of bacterial cells!  We perspire, emit odors, excrete waste, shed all while applying chemicals to make us smell and look better.  Aside from the occasional bath isn’t all of this just a fight against our natural state?

Many people were of the opinion that pleasure in itself was without sin, and if it was agreeable to the couples concerned it was not disagreeable to God either.  As for the idea that to pay for one’s pleasure was to be without sin, it was long to remain widespread in this region.  Detailed records of the Inquisition have revealed this attitude unaltered among many Spanish peasants in modern times.

– And then came the Christians which taught that humans are inherently bad through original sin.  We must live a life of misery, abstaining from many of the pleasures of life to atone for this made up ‘sin.’ Through reading this book and the thoughts and ideas of adherents centuries ago we learn that religion has been shaped and transformed through the ideas of men, not necessarily of God.  There are many ways to interpret ancient texts and is the reason we have so many religions and sects today.

Towards a lover ‘patient, complimentary and discreet’, offering both respect and temptation.

  • This quote helps me expound on my previous point; is it a sin to have a lover in our society today?  Of course it is, that is the legacy our puritan fore-bearers have given us.  I think this quote is referring to a mistress instead of a wife since it says ‘discreet.’  You’re in trouble with the law should it be a financial transaction and with religion as well due to their rules on adultery.  To take on other lovers seems to be a normal, human inclination which is suppressed by religious ideas which always make their way into laws of the state.

But in the institution of marriage as it then was, the woman was regarded as an object – an object loved or an object beaten, as the case might be.

Like the troubadours, they regarded real love as something outside legal marriage.

  • Marriage is a societal contract which helps keep things stable.  Our ideas are unlike those of the ‘savages’ which roam in tribes and many of which had no such ideas to stick with one lover throughout their lives. Marriage is mostly a religious idea.

Every married woman could expect a fair amount of beating some time or other.

  • This is unfortunate and I’m glad no longer the case with most relationships and laws against this practice in place.  At least we’ve made some progress as a species.

As Georges Duby has said, the Christ of the Roman age was the hero of the Parousia, ‘Jesus returning on the Last Day, in all his glory, to judge the living and dead.  In the thirteenth century there appeared the more learned figure… of Jesus the wise man.  But the preaching of St. Francis emphasized the Passion, and the theme of suffering developed throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, so that the royal crown was replaced by the Crown of Thorns.

– Again, religion is being transformed to the ideas of men who interpret the old texts in their own ways.

Paradoxically, one of the most striking examples of the general respect for the body of Christ is the attitude of Raymond de Laburat, an anti-clerical peasant of Sabarthes.  He said he would be glad to see all the clergy, from the Pope to ordinary priests, go ff to the Crusades to be destroyed by the Saracens.  He would be even more delighted to see the churches razed to the ground.  Then Mass would be celebrated on the land and in the fields, and the peasants who, like him, had been excommunicated and driven out of the churches, would at last have the great happiness of seeing the body of their divine Master in open air.

  • Take religion out of the stone buildings under control of the priests.  Get out into actual creation and appreciate what was created by God, not constructed by man.

Throughout the high Middle Ages, men of the Church, including St. Bernard and S. Dominic, had passionately promoted devotion to the Virgin Mary.  In 1254 the Council of Albi raised the Ave Maria to rank with the major prayers, the Credo and the Lord’s Prayer, which were theoretically taught to everyone over the age of seven.

  • Again more modification of religion by man.

Fertility cults both human and agricultural, which at first sight seem conspicuous by their absence, were unspoken rather than non-existent and, in fact, incorporated in the cult of the Virgin.

– I’ve learned that many of the customs and traditions in Christianity (of which I’m most familiar) have their origins in pagan beliefs and rituals.  These ideas were incorporated by the Church to convert these ‘pagans’ more easily to the Christian belief.

We have already seen the privileges a priest might enjoy with his female parishioners.  It may be that immoral priests were only a minority among the clergy of Sabarthes, but they were numerous enough, and very much in evidence.

  • The liaisons with females might have decreased in our day and age but as the news has shown illicit relationships with young boys has not.  What normal, healthy man would decide to take a vow of celibacy?  At age 41 the priests are now in my age group and I can easily see there is something wrong with them.  They are not the sort I’d associate nor have anything to do with.

The Pope devours the blood and sweat of the poor.  And the bishops and the priests, who are rich and honored and self-indulgent, behave in the same manner…whereas Saint Peter abandoned his wife, his children, his fields, his vineyards and his possessions to follow Christ. 

They call themselves little or ‘minor’, and they are big.  Instead of saving the souls of the dead and sending them to heaven, they gorge themselves at banquets after funerals.  And then they own too many silks.  And do you think that their great houses were built by the labor of their own hands?  No, these friars, they are wicked wolves!  They would like to devour us all, dead or alive.

  • An entry to show that a good majority of these priests are depraved.  Yes, there are some good ones who are truly trying to live a good and spiritual life but that is not the majority of them.

The people of Montaillou were fond of having a nap, of taking it easy, of delousing one another in the sun or by the fire. Whenever they could, they tended to shorten the working day into a half day.

  • This is another natural human inclination.  We should enjoy this creation we find ourselves in but the lords, CEOs, stockholders and so on wish to work us to death in order to increase their own personal wealth.  That is the system we are in.  In a perfect society and through the work of our ancestors in building cities, creating technology life should get easier for all of us.  But even with the clothes, cars and material wealth created we find ourselves with higher rates of mental illness, of drug addiction and overdose and of general discontent.  The system we live in is very bad in consideration of where it could be if love and mutual respect prevailed instead of greed.

Moreover, magic was especially a feminine province, and in the mountain villages of the early fourteenth century the cultural gap between men and women which was introduced by parish schools in the sixteenth century did not exist.  Later, segregation by schooling made some boys literate but left most girls completely ignorant.  They thus became, more than ever, the preservers of natural, non-scholastic culture, and also more and more suspect to the men.  And mistrust of women soon turned into suspicion of witchcraft.

– Excellent point and something I did not consider as to the origins of witchcraft.

So, after a certain time spent in penitential wandering from church to church, the dead prepared for their second death.  This meant their entry into the ‘place of rest’, which was also on earth, in a place which was agreeable but vague or even unknown.  This ‘second death’ took place at All Saints.

  • The Chinese also have this idea and even a kanji for it.  I’ve written about this in the past and will place it here:
  • Not too many people know this, but I think it’s called 聻, an ancient character… Yes in Chinese culture, a ghost can die too, when a ghost dies, the form and spirit disappear 形神俱灭,never comes back to another life 永不超生。Chinese culture believe that after people die, they can become something/someone else in another life 投胎。But a 聻 wont. Of course those could be some kind of superstition 迷信 in the culture, not everyone believes it”


Once they reached the place of rest, they were no longer in contact with the messenger of souls, and thus lost touch with the living.

Man had not only a soul, which most people believed to be immortal, but also a spirit.  When someone was asleep and dreaming, the spirit might escape from his body.

The soul, he told them, remains in the man’s body all the time; but a man’s spirit or mind goes in and out, just like the lizard which went from the sleeper’s mouth to the ass’s head and vice versa. 

in the 1970s there was still a Clergue in the local telephone directory.  Now its people are abandoning the fields up in the mountains, and so threatening the stability of an ancient habitat which neither repression nor contagion was able to destroy.

Not much to say on those last few quotes so I’ll leave them as they are.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book because in learning about the past I can better understand our present circumstances and why things are the way they are.  My main takeaway is that although we’ve progressed in science, economics, technology and many other areas we as human beings remain much unchanged.