A terrible thing happened to me last week. I was utterly absorbed in The Poisonwood Bible. I could smell the damp, humid air of the jungle. I could feel the insects crawling on my skin. I was infuriated by the pig headedness and ignorance of the preacher who thought it was his God given right to stamp his version of Christianity on the people of the Congo. I ached for his wife, whose personality and vivacity had been trampled by this man who had no compassion for anyone, least of all himself. I was fascinated by the various personalities of their four intriguing daughters. I longed to learn more about this flawed family; about this man, whose cruelty and intolerance seemed so at odds with the faith he professed so strongly; about this country, simmering with the tension of a soon to erupt civil war. I have not come across such an evocative, heady novel in a long time.
I took The Poisonwood Bible with me wherever I went. I was on the subway to Brooklyn last weekend, reading away. I got to my stop more quickly than I realised, jumped up and dashed off the train. It was only later that I noticed it was no longer in my bag, and that in my rush I must have left it behind me on the seat! Desperate, I rushed to the library. Hurrah! A copy was listed as on the shelf. I hurried over to ‘K’. Was it there? No, it was not. The New York Public Library is a fantastic resource, but they are terrible for misshelving books. If the copy was somewhere in the library, I had no clue where it had been left, so I sadly gave up and took out another book instead; Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. She’s speaking at St John the Divine later this month and I was enthralled by her autobiography Through the Narrow Gate when I read it years ago, so I decided I’d go to the talk and read her latest book before I went. Personally, I think compassion is the most important thing humans can possess; both for themselves and for each other. Without compassion, we are nothing. It’s not just about feeling bad for other people or giving $1 to a homeless man on the subway, it’s about a general mindfulness for other people and how our actions impact others on a wider scale. As Armstrong says in her book, compassion – the notion of doing unto others as you would have done to yourself – is at the heart of every religious faith’s teachings, and yet somehow, it is remarkably absent in the world, even amongst supposedly religious people. The world today is characterised by its intolerance, its violence, and its selfishness. Armstrong suggests that this can be changed, by following twelve steps to become more compassionate people.
I’m not quite finished reading yet, but already I have had my eyes opened to how quickly and easily I make judgements, form irrational dislikes and prejudices, can take my bad mood out on others, and generally be lacking in anything remotely like compassion frequently throughout the course of an average day. I have always considered myself a compassionate person, but this book has shown me that I’m really not! It’s good to learn this and I have taken a lot from Karen Armstrong’s words so far. Putting yourself in other people’s shoes is a wonderfully humbling experience and I am taking steps to ensure that I exercise more compassion as I go about my everyday life. It’s exciting to think that just one small action of kindness can have a profound ripple effect. I know how good I feel when someone does something wonderful for me, and how it makes me more willing to put myself out for other people. Just this morning I was running horrendously late for my train as I had to wait a ridiculous 8 minutes for the subway, and as I ran breathlessly from the subway station and down 125th street to the commuter station, in 80 degree – it’s about to thunderstorm humidity, I might add – I saw my train come in on the elevated railroad above the street. In a fit of optimism, I continued to run, hoping against hope that I’d make it up the stairs to the platform in time. I didn’t. As I reached the platform, panting like no slender woman of 24 should – I really need to improve my fitness levels – I saw the train begin to pull away. My face must have said it all, as the friendly conductor I speak to every morning spotted me looking distressed through the window and immediately pulled the stop cord and the train ground to a halt. He prised the doors open, motioned for me to jump on, and several other red faced people who were also running late managed to dive on after me, too. We all breathlessly thanked the kind conductor for saving us from being late for work, and there was a general feeling of mutual joy and camaraderie as we all took our seats and laughed about our good luck. That conductor could have just let the train carry on going, but he put himself in my shoes – knew how he would feel in my position – and did what he could to help me out. Now that’s compassion in action. It doesn’t take much, but that little action elevated that man from ordinary to extraordinary, and put a bit of magic into my day. What if we all did one thing like that, each and every day? What a difference it would make!
Alongside Karen Armstrong’s wonderful, thought provoking book, I am also steaming my way through The Group, by Mary McCarthy, which was kindly sent to me by Virago as thanks for hosting Virago Reading Week back in February. I spent 5 hours in a dodgy hair salon on the wrong side of the tracks in Brooklyn on Saturday, playing Kevin to my flatmate’s Whitney as she got her weave done. She was terrified of something bad happening while she was there or while she was coming home late at night, so like the good soul I am, I offered to go with her. Not that I’m much protection, seeing as I barely have the strength to open a jam jar lid, but I did grow up in South East London, so I can talk the talk at least. I curled up on a chair and prepared for a long wait, and was surprised by how quickly 5 hours flew by with The Group for company. It’s a fantastic portrayal of the lives of 20 somethings in 1930’s New York, and I am very much looking forward to telling you more about it when I finish reading.
So that’s been my week in reading. If you’re reading this and you live in New York, and came across a copy of The Poisonwood Bible on the L train, I hope you’re enjoying it! I hope to find another copy very soon, so that I can continue the story of the Price family and their ill advised presence in the Congan jungle…