Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Pathologies: A Life in Essays, by Susan Olding

My father is a pathologist. The origin of the word contains clues to our riddled relationship. Pathos, meaning pity, desolation, suffering. Logos, meaning reason. The word.

Once, when I was fifteen, I asked him to describe his work. My friends had started to wonder what he did for a living. "Tell them a pathologist is a guy who uses big words and pisses in the sink," he said.
Part of the first season of Calgary's new Freehand Books, an imprint of Broadview Press edited by Melanie Little [see my interview with her on such here] is Kingston author Susan Olding's first book, Pathologies: A Life in Essays (2008). A series of personal essays working through various aspects of the author's life, from her relationship with her father, her sister's cancer and her own work as a counsellor and teacher, her essays move through her own infertility and finally adopting her daughter Maia from an orphanage in China. Olding's essays display a clear warmth and intelligence, and she can tell a story and work through the personal essay in such a way that the personal doesn’t turn into either sentiment, or matter-of-fact emotional dismissals. How does she manage to write pieces with such force, talking about the small essential moments with her daughter, wrapped up in the politic and social aspects of adopting a daughter, let alone a daughter that doesn’t look like her? The piece "At Lingyin Si," where she writes about where her daughter was born, begins:
At Lingyin Si in the city of Hangzhou, women come to pray for fertility. Although the name, translated variously as "Palace of the Hidden Immortals," "Temple of Inner Seclusion," and "Temple of the Soul's Retreat," suggests an oasis of tranquility and calm, the place is wildly popular with Chinese and Westerners alike, and all day long its crimson halls echo with the snap, gaggle, and stomp of tourists. Zen monks remain in residence, but the clink of cash registers louder than the chime of prayer bells.

That does not deter the hopeful. On a hot September morning, I stood inside the temple gates with a friend and our newly adopted infant daughters. Together we watched as one young woman paid her respects to Guanhin, Goddess of Mercy. Dropping coins into a wrought iron urn, she gathered sticks of incense and laid them, smoking, at the altar. There they lay against a hill of fruit, flowers, and two- and
ten-yuan notes deposited by other supplicants. The girl's sharp-edged haircut, fashionable clothes, and vivid makeup announced a modern sensibility, but the look on her face expressed reverence and fervent desire. Ignoring the pushing crowds, ignoring our prying eyes, she bowed and whispered her prayers.
Part of what appeals in her pieces is the play of structure, such as the interplay of sections in the essay "Mama's Voices," back and forth from "play," "stop" and "rewind," writing out her daughter's Fisher-Price tape recorder. Still, one of many of the fragments that strike comes out of a piece called "The Easy Way" (in that other mothers have said, because she adopted, she had her daughter "the easy way"), that writes:
I ask Mark for his perspective. He's lived with me a long time; he ought to know. How has becoming a mother changed me? "You're more patient," he says. "And less. More patient with Maia. And less patient with the world."
[Susan Olding reads from Pathologies as part of a four-author Freehand Books launch in Ottawa on September 18]

1 comment:

Kay Bratt said...

I love the excerpt about China. It is so descriptive, I feel like I am there as a witness to the young woman's plea to be graced with fertility.