So writes Janet Malcolm in her Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography in the recent The New York Review of Books (XVII, 7). Invention and self-love – these are secret ingredients that Malcolm claims make the best autobiographical brews. Indeed, we have all suffered through autobiographies bursting with unwarranted detail that could be of interest only to the author, or done in a severe spirit of self-castigation that would make even the hardiest reader wince in embarrassment. It is a story of the extraordinary, then, of great drama, that we want to read, no? Not being able to acquiesce with this rather reasonable statement made me squirm a bit.
I got up from my chair and went to the bookshelf. From among my shabby paperbacks stood out a few dignified library hard-covers, still stubbornly collecting fines. One that I was searching for - Fragrant Palm Leaves – was a set of journals from 1960s written by a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. I settled back in my chair and opened the book, randomly.
“I prefer to stay in during the afternoon. I read, write, prepare lessons, and answer letters. Sometimes David comes to the apartment with Steve, and we eat dinner – quietly and peacefully – in the living room. Steve and David continue their conversation while I wash the dishes. When I wash the dishes, I feel relaxed. The water is warm and soothing. Sometimes I even play with the soap bubbles and hum childhood songs. I wipe the stove clean, put things away, and then take a hot shower, change clothes, and join Steve and David."
Really? Washing dishes? I opened the book on another page.
“When Auntie finishes ladling the broth, she sprinkles fish sauce and fresh herbs into the bowl and sets it on the tray. Then she wipes a pair of chopsticks with the clean cloth that hangs on her carrying yoke, and hands them to the customer.”
I closed the book, knowing well that no matter which page of the book I were to open, there would be another inconspicuous detail, ensconced gently between the more properly dramatic themes of the book – political exiles, hunger strikes, and Buddhist revelations. I realized, then, that rather than the background of the story, these details were really the foreground, and that the endless cups of tea that the author had prepared and enjoyed and then told us about preparing and enjoying, that these were the sumptuous feasts which stimulated the appetite, that presented the challenge inherent in any good autobiography – to live better.
I got up from my chair. I can have tea, too. And it can be every bit as rich as one I have read about. I walked to the kitchen. Yesterday’s dishes were piled in the sink, and the sight repelled me so, that I wanted to give up my tea. But, no, if a Vietnamese monk could enjoy his tea in a forest where tigers and ticks abound, I would not be deterred by a sink full of dirty dishes. I flipped the switch of the kettle, wondering with irritation whose turn it was to do the dishes. The click of the teapot signaled I should put the teabag into the cup, and within a few seconds, I had a steaming cup of tea in my hands. I stood there happy with myself. Except… I should really have a cookie with it. And so loaded with the cup and the cookie, and some cashew nuts (for later), I arrived back into my living room and slipped back into my chair. Then I opened the Fragrant Palm Leaves again and read, while sipping on the tea and snacking on the cookie, wondering all the while why it all seemed so much more sumptuous in the book.
Perhaps the quotidian is tedious to others only if tedious to oneself, only if it fails to enrich, deepen, and broaden the experience. It is a rare person and a rare book that can make us understand that nothing is tedious in itself no matter how quotidian, and that what stands between us and joy in everyday experience is our own mindless self. And so Thich Nhat Hanh’s book managed to show me, ever so gently, that if I didn’t know how to drink my tea – it was not tea’s fault.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. (1966). Fragrant Palm Leaves: Journals 1962-1966. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
Malcolm, Janet. Thoughts on Autobiography from an Abandoned Autobiography. New York Review of Books, April 29, 2009 (Volume LVII, Number 7), p.16.