• Betty Bastai

The Interpreter Of Maladies Reminded Me of My “Otherness”

Updated: Feb 15

I would like to introduce you to Rob Brezsny’s horoscopes. You may wonder what they have to do with my art project Memory Loop. Well, I wondered that too until I read what he had to say about my sign (Virgo) a few weeks ago. I have never been a “fan” of astrology. I used to read my horoscope when I had time to kill at hair salons or doctors’ offices. But since I moved to Albuquerque in 2018 I have become a regular reader of Rob Brezsny. He has his own website and he is also featured in more than 100 publications including our local weekly paper called Alibi. Why am I hooked? Because it is entertaining and informative, it rarely talks about planets and their alignments and it never tells you whether or not you will win a lottery. It’s more sophisticated than that. He often quotes writers, artists or philosophers that I have never heard of. I don’t know how he keeps discovering new material in order to write 12 different horoscopes every week without repeating himself over and over. He must research them as thoroughly as a Nobel Prize winning scientist.

This time it is my turn to quote one of his Virgo horoscopes because, unexpectedly, it became relevant to book # 5’s journey to the free little library # 5. This particular horoscope covers the week of June 25, 2020. Since then, certain events have unrolled like a magic carpet with a frequency that has never happened to other Memory Loop books before.

“In accordance with upcoming astrological portents, I urge you to engage in a vigorous redefinition of the term "miracle." That will open you up to the full range of miraculous phenomena that are potentially available in the coming weeks. For inspiration, read this passage by Faith Baldwin: "Miracles are everyday things. Not only sudden great fortune wafting in on a new wind. They are almost routine, yet miracles just the same. Every time something hard becomes easier; every time you adjust to a situation which, last week, you didn't know existed; every time a kindness falls as softly as the dew; or someone you love who was ill grows better; every time a blessing comes, not with trumpet and fanfare, but silently as night, you have witnessed a miracle."

(Rob Brezsny, Freewill Astrology, freewillastrology.com/horoscopes/archives/2020-06-25/virgo)

The events that I alluded to earlier were little miracles. Let me explain:

Sunday, March 1st: The Interpreter of Maladies is the second book that I donated to a free little library. By chance I found him at my favorite thrift store, Savers, the day before it shut down. Originally I went there to look for clothes. After flipping through hundreds of unwearable garments for more than one hour I felt “shop dizzy” and dispirited. It was a relief when I absent-mindedly bumped into a bookcase full of used books and noticed a familiar paperback. His cover’s color scheme reminded me of book # 4. Its design brought to mind a particular exotic place, a place saturated with intense smells and blaring noises, a place hidden in book # 3 as a 1992 calendar bookmark, a place where I worked in 1992, a place called India. Cheered by this find, I left the store holding a paper “time machine.”

Tuesday, June 23: At 7:30 am I rode my bicycle to a park that was close to free little library # 5 to type a fourth copy of letter # 5 to reader # 5 (I call it “letter R # 5”). It was yet another test because I wanted to see if I was able to fit the edited letter on one side of an 8.5 by 11 inch sheet of paper. This time it worked but I reluctantly had to hyphenate some words when I reached the right margin in order to “squeeze” as many letters as possible on each line (getting the spacing right is the trickiest part of typing these letters). Unfortunately, no passersby commented on the sound of my typewriter or asked me what I was typing. When my session was over I thought that it was going to be an uneventful “Memory Loop day.” But fate had other plans and surprised me when, unexpectedly, a strange chain of circumstances occurred.

As soon as I finished typing letter R # 5 I packed my stuff and walked with my bicycle to the street on the west side of the park. Then I decided to change gears before riding the bike so it would be easier to go uphill but I forgot to push the pedal while I was turning the gear and all of a sudden the chain came off. I turned the bike upside-down and while I was trying to put it back onto the chain ring a driver stopped by and asked me if I needed help. Surprised by this unforeseen offer I almost replied: “No Thanks! I’ll be all right.” But instead, within a few seconds, I changed my mind and told her: “Well, you can help if you want.” So she got out of the car and told me what to do while I was adjusting the chain. Fortunately, it was not a serious problem and the chain started to work again after turning the bike upright and pushing the pedal.

I thanked the woman and thought that was the end of our encounter. Instead, she asked me what I had been typing with my manual typewriter earlier on. It turned out that she regularly comes to the park to walk and has been seeing me typing several times but did not want to interrupt. I told her all about my Memory Loop art project and the dynamics that have been going on between the books that I have been shelving in little free libraries and the readers. I asked her if she uses them and she told me that she had just donated some books once. By sheer chance, it happened that before leaving the house I remembered to take with me my last handmade business card. Even more extraordinarily, I remembered that I had it on me and gave it to her. I invited her to check my website and my profile on GoodReads. This nice conversation was a great way to start a new day. It made feel less isolated in a world where human relationships have been profoundly altered by the social impact of the current pandemic.

Thursday, July 2nd: Temperatures in Albuquerque have reached the upper 90s° and lower 100° F (from 35 to almost 40° C). God knows when it was last time that such a thing called rain fell over the city. I usually don’t go to the city parks that I pick as venues to type my Memory Loop letters in the afternoon because the sunlight is very harsh and it’s hard to find a picnic table that is in the shade. I don’t know exactly why today I made an exception to this rule. I am surely glad I did because I would have never imagined that I would have such a memorable encounter. I was typing away when I had a funny feeling that someone was watching me. I lifted my head, looked to my right and saw a young man and a child standing next to a tree thirty feet away from me. We loudly greeted each other and I thought that they would walk away, but instead, the man asked me what I was typing. I explained to them my Memory Loop project, then he asked me the URL of my website. This time I forgot to grab my small red wallet with my business cards and offered to write the URL on a piece of paper but he didn’t like that idea so I yelled to him the URL hoping that he would understand it correctly. I think he typed it on his smartphone.

While all this interaction was happening between me and him, I noticed that the child couldn’t take her eyes off the manual typewriter. She was totally mesmerized by it and walked closer to the picnic table to have a better look without breaking the social distancing rule. It turned out that she liked to read and, maybe, write because she showed me a little notebook that she was carrying inside her purse. She also presented a small stuffed animal (a blue dog?). She apologetically explained that it had something missing, either an ear or an eye. I cannot remember. That toy resonated with me because I have an old soft dog with a missing ear that an Irish child gave me as a gift in the early 1990s. So I told her that the lost part made her dog special and more interesting.

We kept talking for a little longer and then some of their friends showed up so they had to leave. Our last exchange of words was: “Nice talking to you!” I felt a lot of positive energy buzzing around me as if a hummingbird spent lots of time inspecting me at all angles to figure out whether or not I was a giant exotic flower. In other words, I was extremely delighted that I made their acquaintance. Now I have decided to make the Irish one-eared soft dog my Memory Loop Action Art Project mascot. I really hope to meet this family again one of these days.

Friday, July 3rd: I woke up at the crack of dawn to type a copy of letter # 5 at a city park that was close to free little library # 5. This time not only did the striker of key A get stuck but key R too. I had to keep reminding myself that it was not a good idea to try to type these letters in a hurry and slam my fingers on the keys as if the extra applied force would make the task easier or go faster. So I slowed down whenever I got impatient, which helped somewhat. Then I noticed that the text was getting paler and paler as I was typing.

It got to a point where its paleness was unacceptable by my standards. Most of the ribbon was worn out and shredded at the top so it was not surprising that there was hardly any ink and it was more difficult to read. In the past, I managed to type letters with a look that was both “faded-artsy” and intelligible by sliding the ribbon to less beaten spots. Instead, I had to type every single word twice before some ink appeared on the paper no matter where I moved the ribbon. It was taking me triple the time to type a line than before. Feeling a bit anxious about not being able to finish the letter before nightfall, I decided to inspect the ribbon carefully.

I removed its spool covers and examined its entire length. Relieved, I discovered that there was an entire section that was in pristine condition. After winding the right spool to the end of the ribbon I started typing again and this time the words were half black. With a slight sense of exasperation, I checked the ribbon again and visually compared the two spools. I found out that I had forgotten to feed the ribbon that was wrapped around the left spool under a piece of metal that was part of a movable piece of the spool. Using a pen I pushed the ribbon in the right position and, this time, the letters were black all the way from the bottom to the top. However, the length of this well-preserved section of ribbon was rather short, so after reaching a certain number of words I had to rewind it to the beginning of the good part.

The hiccups with the Remington did not end here. At some point, when I tried to rewind the ribbon the left movable metal frame that keeps it in place got stuck and I could not move it forward to the right anymore. Frustrated, I thought that this mechanical problem would have put an end to my typing. Then, I got super stubborn and refused to capitulate to the whims of the typewriter. I turned the machine around to have a better view of the back of the spools and with dismay I noticed that one end of a tiny spring, made of very thin wire, came off from a tiny hole. “There is no way that I can put that spring back in its original position without the help of a pair of long tweezers!” I thought. Brushing that obvious fact aside, I tried to fix the problem using the pen again and my fingers, but it ended up being a waste of time that made things worse. In fact, the entire spring came off! However, the spool was now free to rotate and I was able to rewind the ribbon again! I wrapped up the spring in a piece of paper and carefully tucked it inside a little purse that I carry with me when I don’t wear pants with pockets.

At some point during this struggle with the typewriter a man walked by the picnic table and asked me if it was a such and such model. I replied that it was not. It was a Remington, but I could not tell him the model or the year that it was manufactured. He was pleased to see a manual typewriter and we agreed that nowadays it is rare to see someone using such an old-fashioned machine, especially outdoors. Then, I proceeded to tell him all about the mechanical problem that I was having. I had a feeling that he was curious to see what was wrong with it, but because of social distancing he could not get closer to the picnic table so we wished each other “Have a great day!” He carried on with his walk and I resumed my typing until the letter was done. I returned home eager to ask my landlady if she had a suitable pair of tweezers. I got lucky. With all the patience that I could muster and the help of a head flashlight I was able to put that fragile spring back in its place without breaking anything.

Saturday, July 4th: When I opened the library’s door I was almost shocked to see how packed it was with books. Weird! A few days ago this library was almost empty! There was just one lonely book on the main shelf. It was about writing, among all things. I shuffled and re-shuffled those volumes for a good 15 minutes in an attempt to find room for all those books, including book # 5, and thankfully succeeded.

Eventually I got my recording gear ready and after the first few takes, a man showed up on the sidewalk where I was standing. He took me by surprise because my eyes were focusing on my equipment and I didn’t hear any footsteps. He was curious to know what I was doing. I immediately asked him if he was the owner of that library. He was. “Great!” I thought, “This is my first chance to talk to a FLL’s owner!” I began to explain to him the Memory Loop project.

He told me that building the library was his daughter’s idea. They worked on this project together. She decorated it with bright colors before they decided to glue bicycle parts to its sidewalls. His daughter also painted the word READ! on the front of the post that holds the library above the ground. Imaginatively, they constructed the doorframe with wooden rulers. He explained that the little landscaped area where the library stands belongs to the city. Originally it was covered with concrete. He was able to get his neighbors involved and collaborate with the city to turn that boring lifeless and impermeable surface into a pleasant little garden covered with drought resistant native plants. The area is divided up in four quadrants so he and three other neighbors maintain one quadrant each. I complimented him for reaching out to them and being the driving force that made one corner of Albuquerque more esthetically pleasing and, with the addition of the free little library, a hub for reading and book exchange. I mentioned that his cheerful kiosk was the first little library that my landlady and I saw in Albuquerque.

I asked him if he used the free little libraries that are now scattered all over. Surprisingly, he did not. He built the library because he was interested in providing his neighborhood with a small structure for residents to swap books at their own will. He mentioned that he mostly read magazines in electronic format because when his eyes struggle to make out the words he can enlarge them by moving his fingers on the screen of his tablet instead of having to wear reading glasses.

While we were chatting away, a constant stream of people walked alone or with their dogs, jogged or pushed strollers in the streets that border the little green oasis. Suddenly, a man and a woman arrived. The woman was on a mission to find an interesting book to read and browsed the titles without finding anything exciting. I told her that I was planning to donate an interesting read as soon as I had finished my recordings. She didn’t reply and walked away with a disappointed expression. “Wow!” I could not help but think, “I have never seen folks looking for books so early in the morning before. This FLL is really popular!”

After this interruption, the FLL # 5 owner and I kept talking until he excused himself and walked back to his house. I resumed the recording of video and audio clips but the peace didn’t last very long. At some point I heard a male voice yelling something. I looked up and saw the library owner standing in his front yard pointing to a mug that he was holding. Eventually, I understood that he was offering me a cup of coffee. “Wow! Today is an extraordinary day full of little miracles!” I told myself with a smile. I grabbed this rare opportunity to prolong what had been an enjoyable conversation with a neighbor. Before he walked away for the last time I gave him my business card that, luckily, I remembered to bring with me.

At last, I was alone again and finished my recordings without any more disruptions. Then, as usual, I packed my gear and went home. I was in very good spirits and thought “What a memorable early morning!” While riding the bike, I could not stop reflecting upon Faith Baldwin’s quote about miracles. I wondered how many times in my life I had experienced little miracles that I initially dismissed. My perception at the time prevented me from appreciating them fully. Now I feel that my awareness of them has expanded and I am more grateful when they happen. Back in my bedroom, I checked the footage. It was OK for the most part, but my perfectionism kept nagging me until I satisfied it by making the decision to re-shoot one particular video clip all over again. I ended up keeping The Interpreter of Maladies until the following morning.

Sunday, July 5: I got up at 5:30 am with the goal to be at free little library # 5 as soon as I could. The race against the sun had begun. When I stood in front of the library I could not believe that it was filled with more books than the day before. I could not close its door with the provided latch. So, like yesterday, I spent a fair amount of time moving the books around in an attempt to free some space for book # 5. This time it was impossible to fit The Interpreter of Maladies without taking some books out or building an extension to the library on the spot. At the end, I decided to take the book about writing (the one that was all alone a few days ago) and another one that was an unexpected surprise. I exclaimed: “What a cosmic coincidence!” The book was about Indian recipes and, I wouldn’t have ever guessed, the Indian zodiac, which is our western zodiac! And here I am circling back to the beginning of this post and Rob Brezsny’s horoscope! Furthermore, I realized that cooking and food play an important role in some of the stories of book # 5. How bizarre!

While I was filming, I detected through the corner of my left eye something moving behind the bushes. It was a woman. With some apprehension, I noticed that she was holding a plastic grocery bag. Next thing I knew, she pulled out a large book and purposefully started to walk toward the library. Immediately I hollered to her that the library was totally crammed beyond its capacity and she wouldn’t be able to push her book inside it. Luckily, she stopped and commented that it was empty only a few days ago. Then she added that she would put her book in another library. I mentioned that there was a new one on Tulane and explained where to find it. Before leaving the site she remarked: “You are doing a good job!” Pleasantly surprised by her comment, I was so worried about my race against the sun that I didn’t ask her to explain what she meant. It will remain a mystery, I guess.

Afterward, the FLL # 5 owner appeared in his front yard and we exchanged greetings. I also yelled to him that he needed to build a bigger library to accommodate the books that, all of a sudden, had been “flooding” his kiosk. By that time, I already decided to re-shoot all the takes that I did yesterday. I was getting the camera ready when a man with a friendly snow-white puppy asked me if I was recording audio or taking pictures. I replied: “Both!” He didn’t end the conversation there. He wanted to know more. Feeling anxious about the sun that was emerging from the top of the FLL #5 owner’s house, I walked closer to him and asked him if he wanted my business card. After he took it, I excused myself and resumed shooting.

I must say that since I began the Memory Loop Action Art project last January I have never had so many welcoming interruptions and conversations with strangers. I rushed to take the final photographs despite the fact that, by now, the sun was in front of me looking straight into my eyes with his full blinding strength. At some point I had to tell my perfectionistic and pedantic self to shut the hell up so I could end the shooting session quickly. Finally, I was ready to go home when the FLL # 5 owner approached me. I took the opportunity to ask him if it was OK to mention our conversations about his library in this post. Kindly, he agreed and after chatting a little bit longer he left to attend to some family business and I gave one last “blessing” to book # 5 wishing him in bocca al lupo! (lit. “Into the wolf’s mouth!” = Good luck!). While I was riding back home I felt energized despite the intense heat that had already crept in and thought that it had been another extraordinary early morning full of little miracles.

Monday, July 6: For some reason, I searched the author of book # 5 (Jhumpa Lahiri) online again and found a Wikipedia article about her that I had missed. When I read that she now lives in Rome and has started to write books in Italian my jaw dropped…

Tuesday, July 7: After attending a meeting at my neighborhood community garden, I went to a nearby park to stretch my back and chill out in the shade of Siberian elms. These trees were introduced to Albuquerque decades ago to provide some respite from the intense summer heat. They are certainly doing a good job of providing a lot of needed shade. Unfortunately, this is at the expense of native species because these elms are invasive. Soon after sunset, I decided to ride my bike by the free little library # 5 to find out whether book # 5 was still there. It was 8:39 pm. I opened the door and moved some books out of the way to have a better view of the shelf and saw that it had “evaporated” in the evening heat. Who knows…Perhaps the woman who was looking for something appealing to read on the 4th of July remembered my comment, came back and picked it up. In any case, I hope that his new home is as temporary and welcoming as Savers had been.

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Thank You and Happy Reading!

Memory Loop Action Art Project/Book 5

The Interpreter of Maladies

by Jhumpa Lahiri

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Year: 1999

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