On the Irreplaceability of Mothers: Reading Please Look After Mom

256 pp. Knopf.

Title: Please Look After Mom

Author: Kyung-Sook Shin

Publication Year: 2011

Genre: Literary Fiction

Source: eBook from library

In case you didn’t hear the news, or if you’ve been living under some kind of faith-based education version of a rock, Islam is pretty big on moms.

But why? I ask this not in opposition to the unfortunate instances of mothers who have neglected and failed their children, but something even more fundamental: what is it about motherhood that has such an honourable status? Why is dying in childbirth equivalent to martyrdom? How is it that just having a child perform good deeds is one of the only forms of ongoing goodness that is being recorded, long after one has passed on? Why is motherhood so inherently worthy in Islam?

For me, Please Look After Mom gives one answer to this question.

This is the story of a family that suddenly discovers that the mother has gone missing. As they are distributing flyers, asking everyone who could have seen her, and visiting every place she could be, the children and husband are submerged into the swamp that is the stuff of complex emotional relationships in a family. In the process of wrangling in this swamp, a richly and freshly textured understanding of their mother rises to the surface. For it’s only in her absence that her family realizes how this woman was more than just a mother and wife: she had dreams that she actualized through her children, she suffered from acute frustration that she let out by shattering ceramic lids of containers, she suffered from wounded pride and heartbreak when her husband brought home another woman, and she had a boundless capacity for generosity that only became apparent when its benefactors come to ask after her.

One of the most beautiful parts of the book is when the daughter asks her mother if she liked being in the kitchen. Her mother, who also has to attend to farming alongside household duties, confesses about the exhaustion she feels:

There’s no beginning or end to kitchen work. You eat breakfast, then it’s lunch, and then it’s dinner, and when it’s bright again it’s breakfast again. . . . When the kitchen felt like a prison, I went out to the back and picked up the most misshapen jar lid and threw it as hard as I could at the wall.

But then, softening, she adds:

But it was nice when you kids were growing up. Even when I was so busy that I didn’t have time to retie the towel on my head, when I watched you sitting around the table, eating, with your spoons making a racket in the bowls, I felt like there was nothing else I wanted in the world.

Without a moment’s passing, I immediately recognized this in my mother, that deep trance of contentment she gets into when we’re all around the table, eating. And this wasn’t it: I recognized, without having realized it earlier, how she bends over backwards to give me what I want: whether it be snow peas or a certain brand of tea or a headscarf in a particular colour. By being a mother, she is made to be a provider, a source of bounty, a nurturer of life just like the mother in this book is. Allah works through her to give me my provision, and He’s not going to skimp out on rewarding her for being the medium He works through.

I have been blessed to not have experienced anything like this. But by speaking to others who have experienced such a loss, my understanding is this: one of the worst things about the loss of a family member, especially a parent, is wondering whether you did enough while they lived. Your skin crawls when you remembered the times you lashed out at them. You ardently wish that you could somehow give back what they have given to you, and perhaps even wish that you acknowledged and thank them more properly than you did. And I imagine that you go through what the characters in this book go through: they are inflicted by memories, memories so wholesome, memories plagued with the realization that no one will sacrifice for you and love you as wholly as your mother does.

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On Conveyance and Connection

Once upon a time, Yann Martel visited the office where I was interning. A toast to Beatrice & Virgil was followed by a book signing exclusively for the staff at the publishing house. I was not exceedingly nervous or jittery, but the weight of the occasion pressed upon me: how do I convey to this man, in the space of the five seconds he took to sign my book, what it was like for me to read Life of Pi? That that book came to me during a time of severe spiritual drought and emotional isolation, that it kept me company for some long evenings of my first Canadian winter, that its difficult ending was incredibly self affirming to me about where faith and the story-telling experience intersect?

Of course I didn’t say all that. He took my book, asked me my name, and as he did so I managed to squeak something out about the life-affirming bit. A polite smile and nod, and his attention shifted to the next person.

In another more recent experience, I saw a scholar deliver a brilliant talk about being Muslim women in today’s age in a manner that pierced me, that recognized and gave meaning to the fact that I once tried to work in publishing, that suggested that perhaps the journey is not over yet. After the talk, she was inundated by members of the audience, and once her attention was finally on me, I forced something out that tried to do justice to what her speech had done for me. She nodded, still in a bit of a daze from the last woman who had tackled her, and before getting dragged away by the event coordinator, managed to say that she was glad to hear it.

These people didn’t mean to disregard or skim over what I was trying to convey. They just had their hands full, their minds full. Their cup overfloweth, and they are cognizant of and grateful for it.

Knowing all of this doesn’t at all change the despondency that comes from not being able to connect or reach those people in the windows of time that were presented to me.

It’s not about having heroes and expectations about their enthusiasm for my enthusiasm. It’s about the greater issue of how a person can only communicate so much to another, a phenomenon that gets especially pronounced when the parameters of time, space, and the connection of speaker/listener are more definite.

Sometimes I think that heaven is free, unfettered communication, when everything one wants to share and express to another flows freely and is received in its wholesome, original form without judgment or background noise to drown out the message.

Next time something like this happens, I’ll try not to be sad about the confines of worldly existence. I’ll try not to fret about the fact that the person really didn’t get what I was saying. I’ll convey what I can. The rest, I suppose, I’ll just convert into duaas and good vibes that hopefully turn into blessings. They may not need my validation, but if there’s a way I can give something else, something they need, so be it.

I’ll do that, and I’ll dream of a heaven that transcends our conception of connection.

On Reading The Gifts of Imperfection

This book piqued my interest when I received a notification from Meetup telling me that someone was forming a group based on this book. As you might imagine, the notion of a book that warrants a group unto itself definitely makes one want see what it is all about. So, intrigued by the book’s currency, needing a gentler read, and feeling a bit empty in the soul food department, I permitted myself to splurge and download the book, hoping against hope that it would give me a formula to live by, some explanation of the inexplicable contortions my nafs can take sometimes.

Well, no book can ever live up to such grand expectations. But I’ll be forgiving, and do my best to focus on what’s important: the self awareness this book gave me by taking on the form of an emotional glossary.

I may have not found the book to be overwhelmingly brilliant or life changing, but I do give the author props for being an academic who so sincerely, earnestly, and passionately shares her work and her findings for the betterment of the human condition. Often, attempting to capture the human experience from a sociological or psychological standpoint tends to engage with distilling, freeze-drying, and vacuum-packing material in the form of obscure academic journals that few people will ever read. So one especially refreshing aspect of this book was how such work becomes humanized, how Brown breathes life into the patterns that emerge from her qualitative research to reveal what it is about people who are living full, wholehearted lives.

One might expect this book to make a case for how imperfections are our saving grace, but the true essence of the book lies in the second part of its title: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Cliched as the sentence sounds, I believe there is something is to be said about how Brown outlines this process. Embracing who you are, she says, is about engaging in wholehearted living, and wholehearted living “is about engaging with the world from a place of authenticity and worthiness.” By letting go of what people think, practicing courage, compassion, and connection, and feeling worthy of love and belonging every bit as much as wanting it, Brown illustrates how we can live in the now rather than elusively chase happiness.

If that sounds too vague and New Age-y for your liking, I don’t blame you. (If you do care for it, then you should read the book. You’ll like it a lot.) But even though this book’s “feel-good” aspect is cloying at times, even though it panders to Oprah-watching soccer moms with social calendars bursting at the seams, I’m glad I bought it, and here is why.

The Gifts of Imperfection does an incredible job in describing the phenomena that constitute our beings. The book did not completely work for me a whole, but Brown’s definitions of concepts such as shame, faith, and joy have created portals in my understanding of myself that I know I will work onwards from. I may not have the full picture that Brown intended me to see, but I now have a self-aware emotional vocabulary that helps me understand myself, my relationships, and my being part of this world in a way I could  not before having read this book.

So this isn’t a review as much as a compilation of a few of the definitions I found especially powerful:

  • Connection is “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” Kind of ties back to my post on friendship. Maybe a relationship that’s so focused on giving doesn’t qualify as a connection, simply because those are no more than one-way streets. Brown goes on to highlight that we need to receive with open hearts as liberally as we give with open hearts, and that attaching judgement to receiving help means attaching judgment to giving help. One of the things that drew me close to Islam was the discouragement of reminding another person of the good you did for them. What Brown says here is taking that one step further: don’t just not remind them. Don’t think of the fact that you’re not reminding them.
  • “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honour the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.” The things that hinder love include shame, disrespect, and betrayal and “love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed, and rare.” How’s that for wisdom that can save thousands in couple’s therapy?
  • Shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Brown makes a compelling case for why the silence about the things that trigger shame is destroying the fabric of our beings and societies. Since shame is her area of expertise, she was especially eloquent in drawing out its dark forms, its connection to vulnerability, and how it can be mastered as a means of connection.
  • Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us.” I suppose I always adhered to a definition that factored out the “each other” part. Spirituality, I tend to think, is about me and that greater power, and that’s it. But maybe not. Our rows for prayer are made to resemble that of the angels. Even angels pray in a congregation. Even angels are social.
  • Addiction is “chronically and compulsively numbing and taking the edge off feelings.” This is one of the profound lessons the book taught me. We often tell ourselves that because drinking is forbidden, we as Muslims are made to confront our realities rather than escape from them. What Brown points out, however, that the numbing process doesn’t have to just be through food or drinking or drugs or sex. It could be watching eight back-to-back episodes of a sitcom. It could be–and this was news to me–staying busy. Yes, staying busy to numb oneself is an addiction, a phenomenon Brown calls “busy-aholicism.” The idle mind may be Satan’s workshop, but I suppose too much of something is never a good thing.
  • Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.” It was surreally unnerving to see, in print, the definition of something I’ve practiced for years, but have never really been able to put words to. And now I think of faith in strange times, and wonder if this is why the ummah is so fragmented, so confused, so figuratively plagued. The stranger our times get, the greater leaps of faith are needed to hold fast to our tradiiton.
And that is why we need more. We need more than to know that being there for a friend is the be-all, end-all. We need to know more about what it takes to sustain a marriage. We need to truly let ourselves go, allow our loved ones to see our real selves and not have them look away. We need to counsel and be counselled in the light of our faith. We can’t let our cultural baggage be a means of division and have self-help books come in and save the gaps. We need to go back to the tradition and build on it. And we need to pray to Allah to make us worthy of the majestic bounty that can result from a fusion of advances in sociological and therapeutic research and the wisdoms embedded in our beautiful traditions.

Note: In compiling these quotations, I have done my best to adhere to the fair use guidelines outlined here