I was always afraid to read Jodi Picoult’s books. Thanks to an Oprah’s Book Club review and interview with Picoult of My Sister’s Keeper, giving me the impression that I would never emotionally recover from her stories. I mean, if Oprah was scarred or had some deep wound brutally ripped open, I didn’t think I’d stand a chance.
Fast forward to social distancing and quarantine days and TBR lists pile up like we’re in a pandemic or something.
The Book of Two Ways was not in any way a book of trauma as it was food for thought in that most delicious, lingering way after you clicked to the last page on your kindle.
Dawn is a death doula, someone who helps people transition through death. It is a thing apparently, though as one can imagine it doesn’t pay grandly. She is supported by her science professor husband whom she met at a hospice by a twist of fate, when both her mother and his grandmother were on their deathbeds.
Dawn had been a budding Egyptologist before she met Brian and had a daughter, Meret, with him. She had also been in love with someone else, someone she sees flashing before her eyes when she thinks she is about to die in a plane crash.
An urge to return to a turning point in her life overwhelms her as questions nag and haunt her. What if I had made different choices? What person would I have been? Had I made a mistake?
Themes, charactersand drawbacks
Questions like these will prompt readers into a one-click ebook purchase. Especially since we’re spending more time online these days.
This kicks off the story as we follow her in two different timelines or parallel universes. As a child I dreamed of being an archaeologist, imagining myself at the tombs of Egypt or somewhere else equally mesmerising and steeped in history. Consider this a fair warning: the novel doesn’t hold back on academic information and there were moments I skipped ahead the textbook details to get to the story-line. It just felt like too much information to dig through.
Besides Egyptology the story is rooted in themes of Quantum Physics, parallel universes, and the afterlife, playing scientific concepts against art and spirituality like an ideological ping pong match. Perhaps in some parallel universe another me is happily spending days under the Egyptian sun uncovering hidden artefacts.
Beneath all of these, is a unifying theme of love. Is it a choice or a feeling?
Plot and prose
Picoult spins prose so beautiful I regret not picking up her books earlier. Her words are raw and cut to nerve and bone. Like philosophical non-poetry, you repeat certain phrases now and then to feel it and let its wisdom and beauty sink into you.
I quote Brian’s character, “…Say you’re a passenger on a plane whose engines fail and you’re about to crash and die, should you take solace in the fact that there are other versions of you out there somewhere, that will live on? Or the inverse: should you feel worse knowing that there’s a version of you whose life is a disaster – a you that flunked out of school or became a criminal or got bitterly dumped and divorced…”
Why have I not ever considered that in another universe I didn’t turn out to be a homeless, rum-addicted pirate holed up in a cave on some God-knows-where deserted island? What makes us choose to mourn the lost opportunities and not rejoice in the disasters we possibly avoided?
When she writes about the mysteries of life that we never seem to have the answers to, she evokes a sense of wonder at how big, bright and brilliant the universe really is.
Dawn can easily be seen as a saint because of her dedication to her clients, though she’ll be first to admit that she isn’t. She does things that I don’t like, but on the whole she is just doing her best with the curve balls pitched her way, in a world without answers.
The plot leans by the tiniest degree towards literary style. It’s not fast-cars-space-monkeys-alien-murders action. It isn’t quite women’s fiction either. The entire story gave me the impression of abstract art, a painting of human life and love. Just like the story one of Dawn’s clients, Win related to her of performing artists Ulay and Abramovic whose works are entrenched in the idea of life reflecting art and art reflecting life, Picoult cunningly does the same.
Why you should read it
The Book of Two Ways will stir deep questions you knew you always had but were too afraid to acknowledge. And like all good art, it invites you in as a participant to find your own answers to those mysteries of Life.
He glimpsed the man emerging from the alley. That insufferable man. The last time he endured his company he was assaulted with tales of time travel. Utter nonsense. His stash of cocaine had mysteriously disappeared too. Intolerable!
It was too late to get away, the man was upon him.
“Well, would you look at this? Sherlock Holmes! Is that you?! Boy, am I glad to see you.” said the approaching man.
“Emmet.” Holmes nodded curtly. “Back from 1985, I presume.”
“Not quite. Try 2020. I’ll tell you all about it over a finger of whisky. What do you say?”
Written for Friday Fictioneers hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Write a story in 100 words or less. Click the frog to JOIN and submit your flash fiction and read what others have written.
I am so glad to be back and writing flash fiction after such a long while. Thanks to C E Ayr for this wonderful photo. I swear I saw this exact same side street in London years ago, but then again there must be hundreds of them.
Can you believe I only watched Back to The Future this year for the first time? I love movies, but somehow couldn’t get into this story. Until lockdowns became a thing and we all started trying new activities / hobbies.
Hope you enjoyed this encounter of two unique characters. I would love to listen in on this conversation, wouldn’t you?
Most people can set goals. Sometimes we go on to achieve them. Then there are times when we struggle with motivation and persevering through the obstacles that inevitably pop up.
When that happens we tend to blame ourselves and we either push through or fall through. If you manage to push through and keep the momentum going then, good for you!
But if you fall through with your plans to achieve a particular goal, the emotional aftermath can trigger a downward spiral. The shame and guilt knocks your confidence and the next time you pursue a goal it will take even more willpower and blind faith in yourself. And you’re not even sure you still have those.
If this happens once or twice, I’d say to just plough on through that resistance. If falling through with your goals tends to be a consistent result, then it may be time to pull back and get back to the drawing board. (Or vision board.)
Achieving goals is meant to be challenging.
It’s part of the growth process of shaping you and your reality. However, if you have less and less motivation surrounding a particular goal causing you to release the pressure on the gas pedal, maybe it isn’t entirely your fault. It may not be that you didn’t try hard enough or that you didn’t rise up to the challenge.
It all begins with our why.
Why set goals in the first place? Probably because we want to achieve something. But what if we were motivated by something other than what is true to us? What if the goals we set for ourselves were borne out of a need to fit in, or please others, or be accepted, or a desire to be loved? What if these goals didn’t originate from an authentic place within us?
Think of motivation as a natural consequence of either external pressure (like stress resulting from financial troubles that prompt you to work two jobs or launch a business) or internal expansion.
Internal expansion is what happens when you feel inspired, curious, creative, energetic.
It’s energy rising within you and then expanding outwards exerting pressure on everything else, prompting you to take action. It makes you want to do that little bit more. Dig deeper than before.
It isn’t as extreme as fleeting inspiration, that rush of adrenaline at the beginning of something new. Motivation arising from internally expanding energy is more balanced, never aiming to build Rome in one day.
Have you ever attempted something just out of interest and not out of pure ambition? You were not invested in a defined outcome but you were just ready to try something different? Maybe it was a cooking class, a gardening course or starting to workout at the gym.
You followed the program and got great results! Or maybe it didn’t go as expected. It didn’t discourage you though, because something kept you going back to do more. You wanted to try again. Improve just that tiny bit. Then you know what this internally expanding motivation feels like.
Needless to say, of the two types of motivational pressure I’d much prefer to go with the second. It puts me in charge of the direction I’m going. As much as possible, I’m going to want to harness this kind of motivation.
Internal expansion only comes from being true to yourself.
There’s no other way. We can fake being curious about something that bores us to be polite, but it won’t carry us for the long term. We can experiment with creativity, but we cannot keep the creative juices flowing long enough for something that doesn’t stimulate us.
Even when it gets tough and we’re ploughing through those challenges, what gets us through it, is reconnecting with why we’re doing it in the first place.
So if your goals are forever on the horizon and you lack the drive to persevere through the challenges, then make some coffee and re-examine your goals. Ask yourself if it is something you truly want for yourself.
A good acid test
If nobody ever knew of your achievement, and you never earned a dime for it (money problems aside) would you still feel driven to figure out the challenges as they come? And would the achievement still be worthwhile to you?
Our society is obsessed with defining what it is to be a woman. A woman can defy her culture’s rigid ideas of gender roles only to ram right into a modern-day secularist on the street bemoaning her lack of living up to the liberated female, adorned with degrees, tight jeans and high heels.
It is difficult for people to simply allow a woman to be who she chooses to be, that we justify forced hormonal treatment for those that do not fit the female definition. As in the case of athlete Caster Semenya, compelled by the IAAF to undergo hormonal treatment so that she performs more like a woman is expected to perform in sport: Like a girl.
We cling to one consistent idea of what it is to be female.
Femininity is normally defined as soft, nurturing, beautifully pleasing to the eye, graceful, compassionate, polite, and composed.
All good qualities. But qualities that present no challenge to any authority presuming to rule over her too.
Is it any wonder that in a history such as ours riddled with male-domination, more often than the other way around, that we continue to define woman as a willing, cooperative creature, (that doesn’t run too fast)?
Women do it too.
Just the other day I saw a post on social media celebrating women stating that ‘our softness and compassion is our strength.’ Evocative and uplifting, this instagram-influencer meant to inspire.
It follows the same silky thread of femininity such as ‘motherhood is the essence of womanhood’ or ‘there is no love greater than a mother’s love.’
These are empowering statements for women everywhere giving them an esteemed role in society and an identity to mould themselves around.
That’s wonderful. Except, they are just statements. With no real underlying value other than that which we have given it. Statements which derive its value from the preconceived ideas of what society believes to be feminine.
Reality is slightly more gender-neutral
The truth is compassion and tender-heartedness are human qualities not only female qualities. Everyone has it to some degree and not necessarily related to gender. Continuous exultation of these narrow ideas in this way, only perpetuates the amiable, cooperative image of woman that influences decision-makers in the legal system and in society.
A woman unable to conceive is no less a woman than one who has birthed an entire football team. A father is just as capable of great parental love as any mother.
On the other hand, men are perceived to be more stoic, logical and strong. All qualities that support the authoritative positions they hold in society outnumbering women almost two-fold.
Where do we get these ideas from?
I don’t know. Here’s one possible explanation. Humans have a driving need to label things in order to understand them better and navigate the world by being able to identify and differentiate between objects. Otherwise how else would we communicate with one another?
So it starts with using obvious physical differences to identify woman from a man. Later, we start to wonder whether these differences mean anything. With limited knowledge, we draw conclusions on a single major difference between men and women: women are capable of conceiving and carrying a child to full term and nurturing the child after its birth.
We take it as conclusive evidence that the gods or nature has bestowed upon woman the very qualities it takes to rear a child: compassion, softness, and emotional intelligence. And assign these qualities almost exclusively to women.
We also think that having these qualities is mutually exclusive with more masculine qualities such as logic, critical thinking, and strength.
Most mothers will tell you that they learned how to raise children on the job. It wasn’t always something that came ‘naturally’.
Civilisation and gender roles
When we begin to build our societies requiring systems and procedures, we delegate to women the tasks that fit those perceived qualities influenced by her reproductive abilities. We even produce religious texts that prove what we knew all along and to cast away any lingering doubts about a woman’s place.
Here, she is confined to for aeons to come. Tending to the home and hearth, kids and dinner. All other activities of society are deemed inappropriate, unsuitable and not fit for her nature. Perhaps even dangerous for the foundations of society itself.
To soothe her complaints, because nobody wants to be around a nagging broad, we praise her position as wife and mother and create different versions of the sacrificial and almost martyr-like woman whose only goal is the betterment of society through serving her household. And reproducing the next generation.
Today, women strive to live up to these legendary versions of the ideal woman while trying to pursue her own interests. It is a monster juggling act of full-time home responsibilities, care-giving and career commitments. Not to mention maintaining impossible modern standards of beauty too. Defying the ageing process and the body’s refueling signals, we are accustomed to aiming for the unachievable and battling shame when we don’t.
These notions of the feminine woman are so ingrained that it still baffles people to meet a woman that doesn’t want children or who has committed to a career opting out of traditional family life and the juggling act. Secretly, we wonder about her true sexual orientation or mental health. Worse, we may judge her as selfish, inconsiderate and thoughtless.
Radical women are choosing to go grey naturally as they age, eat till satiation, and go make-up free.
Radically choosing to be normal and human.
Interestingly, men don’t face similar barriers or obstacles on their path of self-actualisation. In a society that places economic value and thus economic power in roles outside of the home, men tend to move out into the world at large without ramming into a myriad of social expectations.
Only when men want to move into roles inside the home do they face a social backlash that castrates their masculinity.
Where a woman is selfish for pursuing her own interests and opting out of family life, a man is looked down upon for wanting to be a full-time father and husband. Diminishing his masculinity for doing what is viewed as a female role.
This hints at the true value of women in society
Whatever her contribution it is not equal to that of a man. Which is why we continue to struggle with gender inequality across all spheres of life. We still have unequal wages. We struggle to envision her as a capable leader of our countries. We continue to define her nature, capabilities and position in society despite the fact that women have proven time and again that gender is no basis for ability, contribution or role.
Anything associated with the female gender is not taken as seriously as it would if associated with males.
Computer programming was a predominantly female industry in its early days mainly because people associated it with menial office-type work more suited to women. Only when it boomed did males enter the industry and dominate it.
Frills and ruffles, seen as a very feminine piece of clothing was at first a unisex piece of clothing. Today female engineers wouldn’t dare wear frills on the job for fear of not being taken seriously by her male colleagues.
Frills, like femininity, are seen as too frivolous for ‘serious’ workplaces.
What is a woman if she doesn’t fit the definition of femininity?
What we perceive as feminine and masculine are simply qualities that we assigned to a specific gender. In reality, these are human qualities that every men and woman are capable of emulating.
There are men and women who embody qualities on the feminine end of the spectrum and men and women on the masculine end. These qualities hardly influence sexual orientation, skills or any of the numerous other things we associate with gender.
I am in no way propagating against femininity or soft-natured women who love frills and heels.
I’m saying it’s totally possible and normal to be feminine and logically analytical at the same time. It’s possible to be masculine and nurturing. The list goes on forever.
Let’s be more aware of how we perceive each other
Sometimes when we look at men and women only through these preconceived ideas of gender, we may fail to treat them as human.
Their fins broke the water’s surface before dipping beneath the waves. Jasmine squealed and paddled belly-down on her surfboard towards them. Before they disappeared she counted at least four dolphins. Ben better get this shot right.
Ben noticed Jasmine heading for the pod of dolphins, watching her in the phone camera’s view. He dared not disappoint her this time. Where did the dolphins go?
A large dorsal fin knifed through the water not far from Jasmine, exciting Ben. Then his heart stopped. The phone slipped from his hands and he shouted at the top of his lungs.
Written for Friday Fictioneers hosted by author Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Write a story in 100 words or less. Submit your flash fiction by clicking on the frog link below. And read other awesome flash fiction.
“Shh! Be quiet. And no you can’t play in the park. Wait here.”
Mama pushed me gently backwards into the bushes. “Remember -“
“I know, I know. Don’t go anywhere.”
I watched her figure ripple in and out of the shadows thrown by the park lights. Another figure joined her. A man. A different one than the other night. Together, they disappeared behind the restrooms.
Five-year-old me knew Mama wouldn’t be long. I jumped out of the bushes and watched the cars honking on the street. The lamp-lit windows floated in the tall buildings.
I didn’t feel so alone anymore.
Written for Friday Fictioneers hosted by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields. Write a story in 100 words or less. Click the frog to submit your flash fiction and read other stories too.
What if we viewed the root of racism as a competition for a perceived lack of resources?
On the surface, racism appears to be about hate based on the colour of a person’s skin. I’m not quite convinced hate is the root of racial discrimination. It may play a role, but it comes about as a natural by-product of man’s separation from each other through ‘tribal-like’ power struggles.
The Ancient Egyptian angle
Almost five years to the day, I wandered into the Ancient Egyptian museum (Muzeo Egizio) in Turin, Italy. I literally stumbled upon it because I had no clue where I was. Not wanting to look like the lost female solo traveller that I was, I decided to go into this museum to look at artefacts while I figured out my next move.
Most curious of all the artefacts were the translated letters between people of those times. You got the sense that they were just like me and you. These letters revealed that people experienced issues with their parents, bad career choices and mounting debt. Although that’s for another post.
To protect the artefacts, some were placed behind glass, and others were roped off and heavily guarded. It felt weird that an Italian security guard was protecting Egyptian artefacts. Why was it weird? Because these were Egyptian artefacts in Italy.
On the one hand, you could see it as a European celebration of Ancient Egypt’s history and culture. And that’s great. It’s heartwarming to see one nation appreciate another.
Coming from a business background, I tend to be more ‘economical’ of people and their motivations. The artefacts clearly serve as a tourist attraction. Perhaps even as a basis for an academic research centre. All of which bring people, who bring pocketfuls of spending money.
There’s been a lot of modern debate about whether these museums and their foreign artefacts should be considered stolen property. I won’t go into that. I’ll just say that while the transaction might be legal they were probably obtained under unfair conditions. One of those conditions might be colonialism.
Colonialism and racism
In Colonial times racism was more blatantly practised. The systems, beliefs and practices of the colonising-country were forced upon the colonised people. By various systems, including restricting trade with the coloniser, native resources were reserved for the powers that be.
Colonisation began in the 15th Century and by as recent as 1914, (that’s just last century), Europe controlled 84% of the entire world.
The subjugation of races to another is of course not confined to European colonialism. History presents many different situations of one race dominating another. Often on intra-racial or inter-tribal levels like the Roman Empire or the English conquering the Scottish tribes. The same occurred in African Kingdoms and South American Kingdoms of the pre-colonial era.
How the preference for white skin began
European colonialism was the most recent and most widespread occurring from the 1600s onwards. Its fingers reached from the eastern continents of Asia to Western lands of America and down towards South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope.
Undoubtedly, the most expansive and given its recent time in history, the most influential. Hence, directly influencing the preferred and most privileged skin colour of modern times ie white skin.
The allocation of resources clearly went to one race who claimed a superior right over the other based on race, nationality and skin colour. Many scientific studies were performed to compare the colonising race to the natives. These same studies were also used to justify gender roles that still have their sticky fingers in humanity’s collective mindset today.
Needless to say, these scientific inquiries were rigged to serve the ruling opinion of the times: that white was superior to black.
The 20th Century shook things up
The devastation of the First and Second World Wars triggered colonial powers to backtrack out of their territories, granting new-found independence to colonised countries.
And with the US Civil Rights movement racial equality became a foundational institution of leading nations, eventually having a domino effect on South African Apartheid.
It is easier to re-write an entire governmental system than to re-wire the human mind. Just because things seemed to change for the better doesn’t mean things are better or that people’s minds are re-programmed.
Even after the ink has dried on the new legislation, people still hold on to their beliefs about the superiority or inferiority of their race. Both mindsets are the result of centuries of propaganda and brainwashing.
Some who benefited from racist systems feel it slipping away and become defensive. Rallying against affirmative action labeling it anti-white and lashing out at any pro-black movement.
It isn’t hate that drives people to do this. Not really. It’s fear. Fear of not being able to enjoy the privileges and resources they once had easy access to: like better jobs, better education, and better living conditions. There are only fifty places left at an esteemed university or one seat left on the bus. In the old days, it used to be reserved exclusively for whites.
Psychological effects of colonisation
Lighter skin is viewed as more trustworthy, more attractive, more intelligent. Less dangerous. Whatever. I refer to the aforementioned ‘studies’ of colonial scientists. This isn’t just across the white-black divide but within darker-skinned race communities too. Hispanics, Indian and Asians have shown to favour lighter skin for beauty.
Beauty is another discriminatory factor that allows you easier access to resources. Ever heard of the saying that she’s so beautiful she can get away with murder? It echoes the truth because more attractive people have access to better jobs, better partners, and they are perceived to be just better overall.
We’re still talking about perception. In reality, neither skin colour nor beauty or lack of it, (nor gender) gives any reliable indication of a person’s intelligence or capabilities. Nor does it justify assigning privileges based on nothing else than superficial criteria.
But people don’t fight or wage wars against so-called ugly people to the extent that we wage war against other races.
War and conflict is a grapple for power. Which gives rise to hate. We naturally want to secure the best resources for ourselves. We extend this desire to our own family. By ensuring that our race is guaranteed the best, we secure it for ourselves on a larger scale. We reduce the competition by cutting out whole sections of humanity effectively reducing the pool of candidates.
It matters if your forefathers ate at the king’s banquet
Under hundreds of years of white authority and dictatorship, people start to believe that if they were white, their lives would be better. They wouldn’t be slaves. This mentality was compounded on a daily basis for hundreds of years, generation after generation. Kids grow up listening to dinner conversations about the other.
Depending on what table you were seated at, the other was superior. The proof was in the fact they lived in the best houses and wore the best clothes and you worked as a slave for them without any choice in the matter.
Or if you ate at the king’s banquet, the other was naturally predisposed to error and of lower intelligence and thus in dire need of a higher race to rule over them.
Just because it happened in another century doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an impact today.
If Egypt can’t get back their artefacts dug up in their land crafted by their ancestors, due to a transaction made decades ago; then why do we think the psychological effects of colonialism would disappear at the scratch of democratic pens on anti-racist legislature?
One quick look at my social media feeds and timelines, where people get on their virtual soapbox or express comments they think nobody else reads, is enough to prove to me that people’s perception of black people (and darker-skinned people in general) hasn’t changed significantly. Not only that, but people’s understanding of the modern-day struggles of those who come from a previously disadvantaged race-group is politely shallow at best.
How it affects us today
The opposite of love is not hate. It’s fear. And what’s fueling dangerous racist behaviour is persistent, low-level fear of not getting the things you need like a job or a house. In a world of that has become a melting pot of different races in one country, it is easy to fall back on outdated beliefs of racial superiority and inferiority to ensure on some level that certain resources continue to be reserved for the former colonial race.
This low-level persistent fear gives rise to fear of the ‘threatening’ other fueling unfounded beliefs such as ‘black men are inherently more dangerous‘. In heightened fearful states, we react in one of two ways to fear: fight or flight. Aggression is driven by fear. So is self-preservation. Perhaps this is what drives racist aggression.
One person’s fear of black skin due to systematic generational social brainwashing is the tip of the iceberg of the effects of our accumulated human existence.
Most of that existence was defined by dominating one another and securing resources for oneself. Something which still continues under modern political and social systems.
Only because, essentially, humans haven’t evolved beyond a continuous quest for power over others.