Category Archives: what i’m reading

Portraits of the Ladies

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Rereading “Portrait of a Lady” because I want to read “Mrs. Osmond,” its sequel of sorts, written some 150 years later by John Banville. How I quickly fell under the spell of James and his formal, precise language. There’s nothing loose or modern or elliptical about his prose in “Lady.” It’s as if James was tasked with telling the story as accurately and as plainly as possible and he does so in the unaccented voice of a vicar.

Here’s a lovely turn of phrase from the preface, about James’ experience of writing “Lady” when he found himself “ … in the fruitless fidget of composition, as if to see whether, out in the blue channel, the ship of some right suggestion, of some better phrase, of the next happy twist of my canvas, mightn’t come into sight.”

He goes on to lament the city he chose for his “composition,” Venice, as too rich with romantic and historical sites that are also too steeped in their own specific significance. Switching to the third person, he feels wrong in “yearning toward them in his difficulty, as if he were asking an army of glorious veterans to help him arrest a peddler who has given him the wrong change.”

And that’s just the preface! My reading and viewing this season has been backward-looking, to a more civil place and time: “The Crown,” “Alias Grace,” “Emma Brown” “(picking up, again a century or so later, on a half-finished Charlotte Bronte novel), “Bleak House” (produced by the BBC, streaming on Netflix) and “Death Comes to Pemberly” (P.D. James’ continuance of the story of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy). Come to think of it, all of these are about strong but economically disadvantaged women. Except for “The Crown’s” Queen Elizabeth who has so many other crosses to bear (including that horrible husband of hers).

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The Pause

 

Pause is the title of a essay by the poet Mary Ruefle about menopause. It is long and, in many ways not my experience. I never felt suicidal, wanting to kill myself “with a steaming hot turned-on iron.” Ruefle (hmmm… sounds like rueful?) writes in the third person, telling you what you will feel, with no small amount of conviction, which is why I feel the urge to disagree with her. However, this part sounds right to me, especially the italicized bit:

You have the desire to leave your husband or lover or partner, whatever.

No matter how stable or loving the arrangement, you want out.

You may decide to take up an insane and hopeless cause. You may decide to walk to Canada, or that it is high time you begin to collect old blue china, three thousand pieces of which will leave you bankrupt. Suddenly the solution to all problems lies in selling your grandmother’s gold watch or drinking your body weight in cider vinegar. A kind of wild forest blood runs in your veins.

This, and other behaviors, will horrify you. You will seek medical help because you are intelligent, and none of the help will help.

You will feel as if your life is over and you will be absolutely right about that, it is over.

No matter how attractive or unattractive you are, you have been used to having others look you over when you stood at the bus stop or at the chemist’s to buy tampons. They have looked you over to assess how attractive or unattractive you are, so no matter what the case, you were looked at. Those days are over; now others look straight through you, you are completely invisible to them, you have become a ghost.

I do feel invisible, which, Frances McDormand tells me is the best thing that will ever happen to me:

‘You become sexually invisible to both men and women. You gain the power of not giving a shit,’ McDormand says in a profile about her in the NY Times Sunday Magazine.

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Frances McDormand, Difficult Woman

And I love Ruefle’s last lines, finally hopeful, and explaining why the pause exists in the first place:

You haven’t even begun. You must pause first, the way one must always pause before a great endeavor, if only to take a good breath.

Happy old age is coming on bare feet, bringing with it grace and gentle words, and ways which grim youth have never known. 

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Behold the Upholder

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project, has a new book called The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too).

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I really like the writer Penelope Green, so I read with more interest (than Rubin warrants?) a profile of the author and her slightly Jungian online personality quiz. I say slightly Jungian because it’s also slightly Cosmo-like, with your choice of answers tipping their hand toward your ultimate score or judgment. Green likened it to the Sorting Hat ritual, which makes me, as an Upholder, “a high-working Hermione type,” per Green. Briefly, Upholders like to comply with rules—both externally- and self-imposed. They value discipline above all, which is a good thing (in my view). But it’s my belief that good qualities have a flip side, and Upholders tend to feel discomfort breaking rules, sticking too rigidly to “promises,” even the most meaningless. Here’s an example: I’ll promise myself I’ll be home from gym, errands, whatever by 12 noon to start work. If I find myself at the Whole Foods at noon, I’ll feel pressure to get home, skipping what I need to do at the Chase, even though I’d be no more than 20 minutes “late,” with no one impacted. Except me, who still needs to go to the Chase at some point.

How does this help me, knowing I’m an Upholder? How does it make my life better, happier?  Rubin has built an enterprise around all this, so perhaps I have to dig (meaning “buy”) more—pod casts and an app, along with all her books.

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The Spectacular Now

I feel as if I’ve been circling around the book “The Power of Now” for a long time, happening upon its precepts here and there, even instinctively “knowing” some of them from yoga or the Bible. And I’ve listened to people reference “Now” phrases and nodded my head thinking “that’s so true.” But then Oli gave me a book in which they are all gathered up and linked to one another in an organized way. Organized so as to make a blueprint for thinking and living a certain way. The things I’ve heard: “operating from a place of fear” or “motivated by fear” (David); recognizing one’s own “poverty” (Betsy); “look up, look around” (some random guy I interviewed in Norwalk years ago) and “really look at things” (Oliver). “Enjoy yourself” (Gail). “Lilies in the field” (the Bible). And just a couple of weeks ago, Mary talking about feeling grateful she could play tennis, could move and could apply her skill to this game she loves: “remember to love it,” she said to me, “remember to have fun.” So many people trying to tell me things that I take in for a moment then obliterate with my habits and thoughts and busyness.

I finished “The Power of Now” on the plane home from California. Personally, for me, it speaks to my patterns of compulsive thought. My defensiveness. My resentfulness. My submission to “clock time,” although I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. I feel as if I’ve been given permission to stop with all the busyness, to value slowing down, quieting my thoughts, planning, planning, planning. I woke up last night in planning mode, my mind circling through when I’d exercise, or what I’d wear, and what I need to pack for two days in the city. Future tasks to be dealt with in the future, I thought. “Now” is the time to sleep.

And here’s a “Now” moment from the plane. I read “look up, look around” and so I did and there, out the smeary little window, was a shimmering jade-colored lake, encircled by snow-capped mountains. “Utah Lake,” the lady next to me told me. I’ll take it as a reward and an encouragement to keep looking.

 

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The Four Agreements

 

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The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz

Oliver* bought me The Four Agreements, a book he found helpful in breaking bad habits and moods and reframing how we relate to each other. That’s a lot for such a little book but I read it, because he gave it to me, and I was astonished at how applicable Don Miguel Ruiz‘ “agreements” are to my life and habits and moods and relationships.

{This is the disclaimer paragraph and one I will one day be able to skip, once I become a more evolved human being. I am wary of New Age and Self-Help and this book belongs on those shelves. I tend to shy away from easy appropriations of “ancient wisdoms” — the glib referencing of Buddhist, Mystic, Mayan, Whatever thought promoted as “wisdom” based on the very fact that it’s “ancient,” a tautological argument if I’ve ever heard one. And finally: written 20 years ago, selling 5.2 million copies in the U.S., translated into 38 languages — why I have never heard of it?}

But lately, I have formed the habit of challenging the hard little “truths” that are diverse in their content but share this: they are self-limiting. I ask myself: why do you believe that? what if you’re wrong? wouldn’t it be a relief to be wrong, to not know something, to let someone tell you, help you? isn’t it possible that the answer is not in your head and therefore you have permission to stop ruminating and just experience the world, finding or not finding answers elsewhere?

In a more succinct way, the Four Truths guide seekers (and everyone else) out of the jail-like constructs of habitual thought and out into the wide-open lands I like to call “possibility.” And here they are:

  1. Be impeccable with your word — this is about honesty, but also a caution against toxic judgment and gossip.
  2. Don’t take anything personally — the most salient for me, who assigns meaning to casual words, smiles, even glances, rejecting people because I know how they really feel about me. Put another way, in a Psychology Today article written by John A. Johnson: “Because each person sees the world in a unique way, the way that others treat us says as much about them as it does about us.”
  3. Don’t make assumptions — ties closely to #2 but also my self-challenge, above, and best summed up as: confused? just ask!
  4. Always do your best— this is a hedge against that internal judge and jury that critiques every word and action and finds them lacking. Do your best, whatever that is, and move on (if only to silence Judgey McJudge).

Funny, in the telling of them, they seem so self-evident and exactly the sort of overheated leftovers a skeptic would expect from a long-ago Buddhist/Mystic/Mayan/Whatever meal. But that’s the assumptive way (self-help is garbage), to which the self must ask: what if you’re wrong? *Also, Oliver, what a guy!

 

 

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Jerkish

 

“Humanly impoverished” is one of the ways novelist Philip Roth describes Donald Trump in an email to Judith Thurman for a New Yorker article. Further, per Roth, Trump is:

“…ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognizing subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”

I’ve always admired Roth but, at the same time, felt excluded from Roth’s world, even as a reader: I’m too fond of resolution, kindness and civility. I react to him in the same way I react to overly (in my estimation) sardonic, sarcastic, cerebral but dark-world-view-professing people in my IRL. Why? I don’t know. I’m not the sunniest of all sunbeams. Perhaps it’s a lack of confidence in my own intellect. Insecurity, let’s say, the root cause of so much human conflict.

All that said, I’ll put “The Plot Against America”on my reading list.

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Philip Roth

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The Guest House

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Mary, my Mother-in-Law

Another profile in the NY Times magazine, this one about a doctor who lost three limbs when in college and now tries to bring a “good death” to those who reside in what’s called the Guest House, part of the Zen Hospice in San Francisco.

“Good death” is something I thought about when I visited my mother-in-law, Mary, who lives in a memory care facility in Orlando. She has severe dementia and, after falling and shattering an elbow, was in a rehab that simply wasn’t equipped to accommodate patients with memory loss. We spent a weekend relieving Steve’s sister, Laura, who also lives in Orlando and is mostly tasked with her care. Observing Mary, in pain, in an unfamiliar place, in adult diapers, not remembering not to lean on her elbow, addled by medication, I wondered about sustaining life after the mind goes and the body breaks down.

By most yardsticks, hers is not a good life. Would a “good death” be a better choice? Simply put, it’s not a choice we can make and it feels like heresy even talking about it. And that is exactly what Miller spends his life working at: inviting death into our lives, our relationships, our conversations. He’s looking to “disrupt the death space,” a mission statement that sounds perfect for the Silicon-Valley VC community he solicits.

The article never links Zen Hospice’s “Guest House” to the Rumi poem, but I did, so here it is. Perhaps it’s something of a cliche to rely on Rumi for Life’s Big Ideas. But it continues to amaze me how the work of a 13th-century Sufi poet endures. (Some of his relevance is explained by this New Yorker article.)

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.

Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

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Taking the God out of Good

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Get Right With God

From a profile of Bart Campolo: “Atheists and agnostics have long tried to rebottle religion…to get the community and good works without the supernatural stuff. It has worked about as well as nonalcoholic beer. As with O’Doul’s, converts are few…”

Campolo is a one-time evangelical minister who lost his faith suddenly — or so he thought — as a result of a bike accident and concussion. When he finally fond the clarity and courage to share his loss of belief with friends “they treated me like an obviously gay man coming out of the closet. ‘People were like, yeah we’ve known this for a long time.'”

His story is also about the rise of secular humanism, which neither excludes nor insists on God. Do good deeds, devote your life to them even, but don’t blame yourself if you can’t conjure belief. Crucially, humanism gives ex-believers like Campolo a platform to stand on that’s called neither atheism nor agnosticism. This makes me wonder: why do we need platforms? Why not just be good and do good? Maybe it makes the fall from belief less precipitous. Maybe it makes for a softer landing as compared to the drifting downward into the blackness of atheism. Maybe we just need to call ourselves something.

The article stopped me hard at “supernatural stuff,” an offhand catch-all for things (for me anyway) like Jesus as the son of God, his immaculate birth and miracles, his resurrection. What if Jesus was a prophet who tried to bring people into a more goodly (but not Godly) way of being? What if he was the son of a man, say Joseph, and not the son of God? What if there is no God? Can’t we still believe — in goodness, in helping others, in giving to others?

To read, perhaps: “Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe” (Gary Epstein, 2010).

 

 

 

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ID

Susan Faludi writes about her father, a Holocaust survivor who would change his name, nationality, religion and, at the end of his life, gender. The profile in The New York Times has much to say about identity, with, for me, this being the real question: “Is identity what we choose to be or is it the very thing we can’t escape?”

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On my list of books to read: “In the Darkroom.”

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Why Poetry?

Why now? Why at all? Daniel Halpern’s essay in the New York Times found answers to these questions by emailing notable poets and researching what past poets said about their medium. There are anecdotes that get to poetry’s essential nature. The Greek Poet Yiannia Ritso was jailed, wrote poems on cigarette papers and walked out at the end of his sentence wearing his collected poems stuffed in the lining of his jacket. From Moonlight Sonata (1956) about an old woman in an old house, thinking about death, translated from the Greek.

But who can play this game to the end?
And the bear gets up again and moves on
obedient to her leash, her rings, her teeth,
smiling with torn lips at the pennies the beautiful and unsuspecting children toss
(beautiful precisely because unsuspecting)
and saying thank you. Because bears that have grown old
can say only one thing: thank you; thank you.
Let me come with you.

Then there’s the Ukraninain poet Irina Raushinkskaya, also jailed, who wrote her poems on bars of soap and when she had memorized them, washed them away.

Are these two stories true? Is poetry true? What is true? What is truth? These are the questions poetry puts before you, like leaves on a tree, waving madly, like vivid flags, in the wind, if only you would stop to notice them. If only you could get out of your own thoughts and notice them. From Raushinkskaya’s I Will Live and Survive:

I will live and survive and be asked:

How they slammed my head against a trestle, 

How I had to freeze at nights, 

How my hair started to turn grey… 

But I’ll smile. And will crack some joke 

And brush away the encroaching shadow. 

And I will render homage to the dry September 

That became my second birth. 

And I’ll be asked: ‘Doesn’t it hurt you to remember?’ 

Not being deceived by my outward flippancy. 

But the former names will detonate my memory – 

Magnificent as old cannon. 

And I will tell of the best people in all the earth, 

The most tender, but also the most invincible, 

How they said farewell, how they went to be tortured, 

How they waited for letters from their loved ones. 

And I’ll be asked: what helped us to live 

When there were neither letters nor any news – only walls, 

And the cold of the cell, and the blather of official lies, 

And the sickening promises made in exchange for betrayal. 

And I will tell of the first beauty 

I saw in captivity. 

A frost-covered window! No spy-holes, nor walls, 

Nor cell-bars, nor the long endured pain – 

Only a blue radiance on a tiny pane of glass, 

A cast pattern- none more beautiful could be dreamt! 

The more clearly you looked the more powerfully blossomed 

Those brigand forests, campfires and birds! 

And how many times there was bitter cold weather 

And how many windows sparkled after that one – 

But never was it repeated, 

That upheaval of rainbow ice! 

And anyway, what good would it be to me now, 

And what would be the pretext for the festival? 

Such a gift can only be received once, 

And perhaps is only needed once.

Poetry is personal and for me it makes me read more slowly, stop to notice a frost-covered window, rise above words concerned with politics and celebrity and anything that starts with a hashtag. That’s why.

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