Category Archives: what i’m reading

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.

 

IMG_2325

Tagged , ,

The Four Agreements

 

51k0n1i3fll-_sx336_bo1204203200_

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!

 

 

Tagged , , ,

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.

170130_r29373illuweb-1200x953-1484959968

Philip Roth

Tagged , , ,

The Guest House

mary

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.

Tagged , , , ,

Taking the God out of Good

photo

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).

 

 

 

Tagged , , , ,

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?”

0101-faludi2-blog427-v4

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

Tagged , ,

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.

Tagged ,

The Year of Living Danishly

Denmark is prides itself on being one of the happiest places to live in the world. But I bet it’s a quiet pride that doesn’t disparage other people and their ways and I bet they celebrate it by being together, cozily, in their well-designed living spaces.

These are my bets because I just learned the word hygge, by way of a book called “The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country.”

Writes author Helen Russell, “Hygge seems to me to be about being kind to yourself – indulging, having a nice time, not punishing or denying yourself anything. There isn’t so much enforced deprivation in Denmark. Instead you’re kinder to yourselves and so each other.”

51SCCk7fxAL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

It’s seductive to think you could just move and be happier. But I guess people have always done this with mixed results: The Pilgrims, the Donners, me.

Tagged , ,

the forgiveness project

27THISLIFE-master675-v2

Frederic Luskin, a psychologist and the head of the Stanford Forgiveness Project, offers thoughts about forgiveness when “when you’ve been harmed by someone you’re close to and must work through all the conflicting feelings to get to a place of dignity and peace.”

Reading even these words gives me the thrill of coming upon something that can help me. A project! I love projects because I love plans and focus and work. More to the point, I am so uncomfortable with indecision. Much like Caroline “it’s not that I can’t make up my mind, it’s that I can’t stop making up my mind,” that’s how much she is troubled by indecision.

Dr. Luskin’s advice is standard: honestly apologize (no “I’m sorry but”), ask for forgiveness, practice forgiveness. Here’s what reading it triggered in me: forgiving is not the same thing as reconciling. You can let go of the blackness of blame — forgive in other words — but still decide to step away from the relationship, for awhile or forever. Maybe, even, you can’t know if reconciliation is possible until you forgive?

Tagged ,

the always available elsewhere

“When you sense that a lull in the conversation is coming, you can shift your attention from the people in the room to the world you can find on your phone…You can put your attention wherever you want it to be. You can always be heard. You never have to be bored,” From the NY Times article, “Stop Googling, Let’s Talk.”

We see families at restaurants or even — if we’re honest —in our own living rooms lost to their own devices. In each others’ company but communing with others: texting, posting, Instagarmming. The Times laments the rising generation and its inability to converse. But it’s just as prevalent among my generation and in the company of my own husband. He needs to know something that, in his mind, will add to the conversation, bringing up a relevant fact or YouTube clip. But it’s distracting and even the kids hate it: “Stop Googling,” they say.

Tagged