Posts tagged C.S. Lewis

Grumbling, where does it get you?

fish for saleI admit it, in yesterday’s blog I was “grumbling” a bit. But who can complain for long when you see a little kiosk that sells fish as in this photo? My nearly two years spent in Kazakhstan have had their happy moments with my students, great friends, beautiful scenery and light-hearted yet sincere fellowship. We all need each other to cope with the oddities of living in a different culture than our own. I need to embrace the good times with the bad; I enjoy the challenges of living in cultures entirely foreign from my own. Kazakhstan certainly qualifies but living in Almaty is hardly Kazakh, it has so much of the Soviet flavor to it that I am dealing with more than one culture and all its complexities. As foreigners, we are all trying to unravel the mystery of this great nation. So, I suppose grumbling never gets you anywhere. However, this blog is my form of venting and I feel better once I share some of my frustrations with you, dear readers. The following is what C.S. Lewis wrote about “Grumbling” in The Great Divorce:

‘The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. But ye’ll have the experiences…It begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticizing it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticize the mood, not even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.”sunset in AlmatyParliment former



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Columbine flowers and “Sensitivity” by C.S. Lewis

Zhamilya and NazgulThis photo is of two former Kazakh students of mine who just arrived in New York to do a Work and Travel assignment this summer.  They are cousins and are inseparable. I enjoyed talking to them before their departure about their plans to study in New York once they finish their summer jobs. Last semester when I had my students write about their grandparents, these two were particularly vulnerable to tears because they had just lost their dear grandfather.  I think my initial assignment to all students to tell me about their grandparents has great merit.  It gives this young, fresh talent a chance to convey their strong feelings of respect and love for their elders in ENGLISH!!!  I was happy to get to know Nazgul and Zhamilya better through finding out more about their wonderful grandparents.  Of course, their grandma doesn’t want to see them leave and be gone for so long in the U.S.  Yet, they are so full of life and excitement.  Wonderful to be around that kind of energy  and that is why I LOVE teaching!!!

These photos of columbine flowers are dedicated to these two students and their success in the U.S. Also, these flowers are close to our supposed new flat which is half the price of what we are paying now for a 3 room Soviet style apartment.  This new one has better air because it is higher up in the mountains, a 45 minute walk from my university (instead of 20 min) and is VERY Soviet style with only 2 rooms.  So, seeing these different columbine flowers perked me up because I will miss many things about the old place we lived in nearly two years. yellow columbinepurple columbinepink yellow columbine

I’ve probably quoted this passage from The Great Divorce written by C.S. Lewis, but it bears repeating:

“Did we pretend to be ‘hurt’ in our sensitive and tender feelings (fine natures like ours are so vulnerable) when envy, ungratified vanity, or thwarted self-will was our real problem? Such tactics often succeed.  The other parties give in.  They give in not because they don’t know what is really wrong with us, but because they have long known it only too well, and that sleeping dog can be roused, that skeleton brought out of its cupboard, only at the cost of imperilling their whole relationship with us.  It needs surgery which they know we will never face.  And so we win; by cheating.  But the unfairness is very deeply felt.  Indeed what is commonly called ‘sensitiveness’ is the most powerful engine of domestic tyranny, sometimes a lifelong tyranny.  How we should deal with it in others I am not sure; but we should be merciless to its first appearance in ourselves.”

I have to purge myself of the anger I feel toward a few of my fellow Kazakh teachers who do not know how much airfare costs for me to go home to the U.S. to be with MY family.  Such costs should be considered as part of my salary (as it was done in Ukraine where they paid for our flat and airfare) because apartment and travel costs alone eat up whatever salary I receive teaching my dear Kazakh students.

Meanwhile, an older Kazakh administrator told me the other day that she only spent $1,200 to get to New York on a round trip. (perhaps that was years ago on a different airlines)  Little does she consider that I travel during peak season to the Midwest when rates go up to $1,700 or $2,000 for a roundtrip so I can be with my own family.  Also, she probably already had her apartment given to her when she was a former communist party leader and so she doesn’t have to pay $1,000 a month for rent as I do.

Yet this same older teacher and administrator is the one who is “sensitive” about students knowing so much more than she does about computers while she is getting more behind as each semester passes.  She does not feel the unction to practice on her computer to improve her skills.  At the same time she probably resents the fact that I keep banging on the same drum about all Kazakh and Kazakhstani teachers need to be using their computer skills in the classroom for the benefit of their students. Perhaps they feel “hurt” when I so much as suggest that they should use e-mail to get students’ homework instead of getting paper hard copies from them only during class time.  Sometimes I really question why I sacrifice so much to teach in Kazakhstan but then when I run into former students like Nazgul and Zhamilya who are eager to learn, the sacrifice does not feel so heavy.

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“Vis Medicatrix Naturae” and Dr. “Eye-Bottoms” Daughter

Thankfully I’m feeling much better from last week’s episode with high blood pressure scare. I have since found out that many people on this side of the Tian Shan mountains are plagued with this ailment. Perhaps that is why Type A personalities need to be duly warned about not taking on more than they can handle, we need to be more relaxed like the native Kazakhs have learned to be in order to survive. The following is a short quote from C.S. Lewis about healing and medicine. Then I will write about Leila, the daughter of the “Eye-Bottoms” doctor or opthalmologist I met last week.

“There is a sense in which no doctor ever heals. The doctors themselves would be the first to admit this. The magic is not in the medicine but in the patient’s body – in the vis medicatrix naturae, the recuperative or self-corrective energy of Nature. What the treatment does is to stimulate Natural functions or to remove what hinders them. We speak for convenience of the doctor, or the dressing, healing a cut. But in another sense every cut heals itself; no cut can be healed in a corpse. That same mysterious force which we call gravitational when it steers the planets and biochemical when it heals a live body, is the efficient cause of all recoveries.” By C.S. Lewis, from Miracles, ch. 15

I met the 40 year old daughter of the kind doctor who I met last week when I went to the three clinics to check my high blood pressure. (See earlier blog) The good doctor had given me his daughter’s phone number at their home. Leila had just recently returned from the U.S. as of four months ago, last December after studying three years at community colleges and universities in Nevada and California. Her father is 72 years old and her mother is 71, Leila is an only child and she is single. She admitted that many of her friends are now divorced raising children on their own, so she feels fortunate. But she also feels a responsibility to take care of her aging parents once they are retired. There is no one else but her to do this duty.

I asked her about her father’s background and how he got involved with ophthalmology; she gave me an answer later after telling about his family and his growing up years. He was the youngest child in his family being born in 1936. His father, Leila’s grandfather, left the collective where he worked to fight in the Great Patriotic War in 1941; he was badly injured there and returned home to Aktobe only to die shortly thereafter. He had fought in western Russia or Ukraine somewhere but Leila was not sure where. She explained that her father didn’t talk much about his family or early childhood. He had older brothers and sister but some of them had died in their younger years, not from starvation but other childhood diseases. One of his older brothers had become an oncologist and perhaps there was a personal motivation on both brothers’ part to help those who are ailing, that’s why they became doctors.

Leila’s father attended medical school in Almaty and later went to Moscow for more training in ophthalmology. She remembers going up to Moscow with her folks as a young child in the mid 1970s and people seemed kind then. Many nationalities from different parts of the former USSR have left Moscow; it is mostly comprised of Russians. Her father was a good eye surgeon and went twice to China to do eye surgeries because the Chinese have many eye problems. About 12 years ago her father went to Xian (place of terra cotta soldiers) for one year and the second time, his wife, Leila’s mother went with him to another city in China. She loved it in China. [this is unusual because most Kazakhs try to keep a healthy distance from anything Chinese]

Leila admitted that while she was growing up she never heard that collectivization was a bad thing; all Kazakhs would agree the Great Patriotic War or WWII was very bad. However, it was only when she started reading from history books while studying at Kazakh State University in Almaty and later by reading Russian media that she found out there was another side to what Stalin brought to Kazakhstan with collectivization.

From Leila’s mother’s side of the family she was from the city and perhaps from a fairly wealthy part of society. She would have been unaware of what life was like in the countryside and what collectivization did to some Kazakh families back in the 1930s and 1940s. Collectivization was considered a “social experiment” and in some cases it benefited some people while it didn’t help others. Leila’s mother had a more tragic life where her mother had died before her father went off to fight in the Great Patriotic War. She was orphaned at a young age with only an older sister because her father, Leila’s grandfather died in the Great Patriotic War. The two girls were taken in by their grandparents who were already pensioners. Her mother is a chemist and Leila’s father and she were married when she was 24 in 1961. They have been married 48 years.

Leila has traveled widely and recommended that I should travel to Uzbekistan to see old artifacts of a life from antiquities. Almaty doesn’t show much of historical life from the Kazakh past, perhaps the city of Taras would be the best place or Turkistan. She also told me that Mongolia has had a lot of influence on the Kazakhs. She acknowledged that she doesn’t know her own Kazakh language very well.

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Animal Farm Literacy: Achievement and Pretense

When I lived and taught English in communist Red China in the late 1980s I had heard of the ironic motto “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” This facetious slogan for the masses goes along with the “iron rice bowl” policy I wrote about a week ago.  I heard at a Kurbanait holiday supper last night a variation of this care-worn slogan again, “We pretend to teach while our students pretend to learn.”  I hope that more than just pretense happened in my classroom this past semester.  Some of my students achieved great things, they wrote inspiring words in English, their second or third language. I’m very proud of them. The following is what C.S. Lewis wrote about pretense:

 

There are two kinds of pretending.  There is a bad kind, where the pretence is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you.  But there is also a good kind, where the pretence leads up to the real thing.  When you are not feeling particularly friendly but know you ought to be, the best thing you can do, very often, is to put on a friendly manner and behave as if you were a nicer person than you actually are.  And in a few minutes, as we have all noticed, you will be really feeling friendlier than you were.  Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already.  Mere Christianity, Book IV, Ch. 7.

 

Yesterday I finished the book Animal Farm, it is a short little “fairy tale” which takes an hour or so to read.  Then I looked up what the allegory was for all of George Orwell’s farmyard characters.  The following is what is commonly known, I had guessed right on the pigs  

Napoleon = Stalin and Snowball = Trotsky. 

Squealer the pig = Molotov and the Soviet paper Pravda

Major, the boar = Marx (Lenin?)

Minimus the pig = Gorky

Farmer Jones = Russian tsar

Frederick, the neighboring farmer, owner of Pinchfield = Hitler

Mr. Pilkington, the other feuding farmer = U.S. and U.K.

Battle of the Windmill = WWII

Mr. Whymper = George Bernard Shaw (I had thought he might have represented Walter Duranty)

Hens = kulaks who destroyed their eggs like the farmers who destroyed their produce

Sheep = masses

Moses the Raven = Russian Orthodox religion

Horn and hoof green flag = hammer and sickle

Boxer, the hard working horse = the proletariat

Mollie = bourgeoisie or nobility, the Russian diaspora

Benjamin, the donkey = the author, George Orwell

 

Writing can be a powerful thing if the meanings of words come across successfully to your reading audience.  The pen IS mightier than the sword and I hope my Kazakh students catch the essence of writing down their thoughts as often as possible so that what is documented can be looked back on in the future.  Practice makes perfect and their writing can eventually stir others to action for the betterment of this great country of Kazakhstan. 

 

The story of Animal Farm showed that those animals (the pigs and dogs) who could write the Seven Commandments on the side of the barn had power over those animals who remained illiterate.  In fact, those who wrote had power to change the meaning of the laws by adding just a few words to the end of each law in order to twist the commandment to their advantage.  Our memories are also important to remember the original truths.  My students have better memories at their young age than us older folks. Institutional memory is important to have in order to counter the lies and pretense that harms rather than helps.

 

We, as older veteran teachers, have the experience like the donkey Benjamin, to outlive the pretense and charades that went on during the former Soviet Union.  It is an achievement that the Animal Farm in real life was demolished 18 years ago but there are still remnants of the old thinking that is residual in our institution of higher learning.  What will it take to have a REAL education to change society?  Perhaps when teachers stop pretending to teach and REALLY teach and have a classroom full of students who REALLY want to learn.  That would be an achievement in any country, not just in Kazakhstan!  I think it happened in my classroom, I am hopeful and optimistic for Kazakhstan’s future.

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Hannah Arendt’s Totalitarianism vs. Animal Farm Literacy

I’m ensconced in my office with students’ files, papers, portfolios, exams, checklists, and scoring rubrics.  I’m familiarizing myself once again with the Excel spreadsheets in order to efficiently do my final grades for my four classes (about 60 students to account for).  I was interested by what C.S. Lewis wrote about Individualists and Totalitarian.  In our “western” institution of higher learning I’m struck with what we are required to do with our Central Asian students who have been taught by those former Soviet teachers who were under a totalitarian, communist form of government over 18 years ago.  It will take a generation or two to sift out the rigidity of one form of teaching to allow the students (and teachers) to breathe freely on the shallow academic air of freedom of expression and freedom of thought.

 

“When you find yourself wanting to turn your children, or pupils, or even your neighbours, into people exactly like yourself, remember that God probably never meant them to be that.  You and they are different organs, intended to do different things.  On the other hand, when you are tempted not to bother about someone else’s troubles because they are ‘no business of yours’, remember that though he is different from you he is part of the same organism as you.  If you forget that he belongs to the same organism as yourself you will become an Individualist.  If you forget that he is a different organ from you, if you want to suppress differences and make people all alike, you will become a Totalitarian.”  From Mere Christianity, Book IV, Ch. 6

 

In 1951 Hannah Arendt had published her seminal volume of “The Origins of Totalitarianism” coining the phrase which essentially means: A type of government that has total control over all aspects of its citizen’s lives.” From Answers.com.  Hannah was a Jew from Germany who was married to a Russian who had fled the Soviet Union’s form of totalitarianism.  She lived safely in New York where she could boldly write about her views of both forms of government, Soviet Union’s communists and the fascist Nazis.  Heavy stuff of which my Kazakh students have been writing about since the former regime of communism greatly affected their great grandparents and grandparents in the early days of collectivization in Kazakhstan and the subsequent call to arms to fight for the “Motherland” during the Great Patriotic War.

 

To stay on the lighter side, I’m reading Animal Farm and enjoying George Orwell’s view of the Soviet Union by taking a fictional spin around a farmyard once the animals had rebelled against Farmer Jones.  I’m guessing that Jones was the Russian tsar and that Major, the horse, was Marx and that the two pigs who don’t get along are Stalin and Trotsky. 

 

I had to laugh when I read the following about what Animal Farm’s rules were laid out for all the beasts of the newly emancipated farmyard.  This concerned their supposed reading and writing classes which were a seeming success:

 

“As for the pigs, they could already read and write perfectly.  The dogs learned to read fairly well, but were not interested in reading anything except the Seven Commandments.  Muriel, the goat, could read somewhat better than the dogs, and sometimes used to read to the others in the evenings from scraps of newspaper which she found on the rubbish heap.  Benjamin could read as well as any pig, but never exercised his faculty.  So far as he knew, he said, there was nothing worth reading.  Clover learnt the whole alphabet, but could not put words together.  Boxer could not get beyond the letter D.  He would trace out A, B, C, D in the dust with his great hoof, and then would stand staring at the letters with his ears back, sometimes shaking his forelock, trying with all his might to remember what came next and never succeeding.  On several occasions, indeed, he did learn E, F, G, H, but by the time he knew them it was always discovered that he had forgotten A, B, C and D.  Finally, he decided to be content with the first four letters, and used to write them out once or twice every day to refresh his memory.  Mollie refused to learn any but the five letters which spelt her own name.  She would form these very neatly out of pieces of twig, and would then decorate them with a flower or two and walk round them admiring them.” (p. 21).

 

May my students grasp the ideas I have presented them this semester with searching on the electronic research databases (Ebscohost, ProQuest, SAGE, InfoTrac, J-Stor) and NOT Googling for information or using Wiki-pedia.  May my students know how important a thesis statement is to help guide them to creating a manageable and readable essay.  May my students long remember to look up the intricacies of the APA formatting style on their own and know there are many other versions out there with their own picky rules (MLA, Turabian, Chicago, etc).  May my students enjoy writing as a way of expressing themselves.  May they always have a curiosity and love of learning and NOT do what everyone else is doing with cutting and pasting (better known as plagiarism).  May my students find out what information they need which is out there for them to synthesize and may they use their critical thinking skills to let others know just what smart students they really are!!!  After all, that is what education is all about, to find answers to life’s problems and find ways to solve questions for the betterment of mankind.

 

 

 

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Thankful for George MacDonald

Our university just finished a week of alcohol, drugs, AIDS, green awareness with skits, plays, movies, shows and banners all over campus. Sin reigns and wrecks young lives wherever you go whether in the U.S., U.K. or Kazakhstan. Seems that George MacDonald knew about sin in his corner of the world over a hundred years ago and he had a gift in putting his fictional stories to paper. For that, I am thankful.

George Macdonald was a Scottish novelist, poet, clergyman, and author of children’s stories. He was born in 1824 at Huntly, in the western part of Aberdeenshire. He attended the country schools, and went to Aberdeen University in the 1840s, taking prizes in chemistry and natural philosophy. His writings were instrumental in C.S. Lewis life conversion and has a large following still almost hundred years after his death in 1905. George MacDonald published over fifty volumes of fiction, many of which have been thankfully modernized into everyday English by Michael Phillips.

My husband and I would read MacDonald books aloud to each other switching off at each new chapter, sometimes we discussed the intricate verse or ponderous prose. Books like “The Curate’s Awakening,” “The Shepherd’s Castle,” “Musician’s Quest,” “The Lady’s Confession,” “The Marquis’ Secret,” and “A Daughter’s Devotion.” We must have devoured about seven or eight of them our first several years of marriage. The following is a sampling of MacDonald’s poem which I believe fits my situation in Kazakhstan.

I said: “Let me walk in the field”;

God said: “Nay, walk in the town”

I said: “There are no flowers there”;

He said: “No flowers, but a crown.”

I said: “But the sky is black,
There is nothing but noise and din”;
But He wept as He sent me back,
”There is more,” He said, “there is sin.”

I said: “But the air is thick,
And fogs are veiling the sun”
He answered: “Yet souls are sick,
And souls in the dark undone.”

I said: “I shall miss the light,
And friends will miss me, they say”;

He answered me, “Choose tonight,
If I am to miss you, or they.”

I pleaded for time to be given;
He said: “Is it hard to decide?
It will not seem hard in Heaven
To have followed the steps of your Guide.”

I cast one look at the fields,
Then set my face to the town;
He said: “My child, do you yield?
Will you leave the flowers for the crown?”

Then into His hand went mine,
And into my heart came He;
And I walk in a light Divine,
The path I had feared to see.

George MacDonald

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More Autumn Leaves and a “Drip”

more-fall-leaves

While I was growing up, no one enjoyed being called a “drip” but then again there were far worse names to be taunted by.  The response that some children would chant back to such an insult was the poem below.  Seems to me that Nature right now IS beautiful in Almaty where the trees are still hanging on to some of their colorful leaves.  More leaves are being absorbed into the grass, if they are not swept up first by the city workers every morning.

 

A drip is a drop

A drop is water

Water is rain

Rain is nature

Nature is beautiful

Thanks for the compliment!

 

I’m also reminded from the above ditty of what the British author C.S. Lewis wrote in his book “Mere Christianity” Book IV, chapter 2.

 

“…some people think that after this life, or perhaps after several lives, human souls will be ‘absorbed’ into God.  But when they try to explain what they mean, they seem to be thinking of our being absorbed into God as one material thing is absorbed into another.  They say it is like a drop of water slipping into the sea.  But of course that is the end of the drop.  If that is what happens to us, then being absorbed is the same as ceasing to exist.  It is only the Christians who have an idea of how human souls can be taken into the life of God and yet remain themselves – in fact, be very much more themselves than they were before.”

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