Ten days of silence

“Wherever you go, there you are.”

I don’t know where that quote originated, but I do know it’s the title of a book on meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It’s also very true about almost everything in life, a fact that really hit home for me while I just so happened to be taking a ten-day silent meditation course. See how everything connects?

Seven years ago, when I was preparing to join the Peace Corps, I corresponded with a volunteer who had been in Mongolia for a few years already by that point to glean any wisdom he might have. One of his suggestions was that I take a ten-day vipassana meditation course before leaving. He had done it and found it to be very beneficial. Considering I was a grad student at the time and had only a few days between leaving grad school and flying to Mongolia (and that there are only about twenty centers in the States, none of which were very close to Montana), a ten-day course was out of the question. But it remained in the back of my mind. Who knows? Maybe if only I took that course, my life would be so much better. It’s haunted me these seven years, and I’ve finally found myself in a living situation and location that would allow me to take ten days to get off the grid only a couple of hours out of the city and not speak to anyone. I took advantage of it. And I survived to tell the tale.

Here’s how the course it set up: you agree to the Code of Discipline, which means no speaking, no yoga, no meals after noon (except fruit and tea), no killing, no makeup, no quitting. There were a few people who left in the first couple of days (my roommate included, which made my stay just a little bit more palatable), but for the most part, you are asked to trust the teachers and work hard till the end. Men and women are kept separate the entire time, with separate walking paths, separate entrances into the buildings, signs around the grounds to remind you not to desegregate the genders, sheets hung up in the dining hall to remove any distractions while eating, and separate sides of the meditation hall for each gender to sit. For everyone, regardless of gender, the wake-up bell goes off at 4am, and you go to bed at the earliest at 9:30pm. For some reason, I thought this would be fine. Only after I felt the confused circadian effects of sitting all day in dark spaces with my eyes closed combined with trying to find restful sleep at night with my head next to a wall with clanging pipes in it did I realize that it was not.

The first night felt like an omen. It was sprinkling rain and then just turned overcast, but by the time our ‘light dinner’ was done, it was raining hard. We were told that dinner and meditation times would be marked with the ring of a bell, and as we were walking through what felt like the forest between our dorm and the meditation and dining halls, we heard a sound. We hadn’t previously heard the bell to realize that it did, in fact, sound like a bell and not a siren, so we can be forgiven for thinking that perhaps this siren-like sound was just the dinner bell. It was actually a tornado siren, and the tornado warning lasted throughout our entire first meditation introduction that night. To get back to our dorms, we had to run in lashing, sideways rain and step in what felt like knee-deep puddles. I had only brought one pair of shoes, and, due to my forgetting to pack any kind of pajamas and resorting to one of the three pairs of pants and one of the shirts I brought to become substitute PJs, I was out two pairs of pants. This left me with exactly one pair of pants and no pairs of shoes. I was off to a good start.

By this time, the code of ‘noble silence’ was in place, so we couldn’t even commiserate or ask each other questions like, did your clothes also produce gallons of water when you got back?, or, is your shower as cold as mine?, or, is it just my shoes that smell so bad? We had to suffer alone together. Luckily for me, there were cubbies in the dorm hall with left-behind shoes from former students, so I nabbed a pair of knock-off Crocs to wear for the rest of the time. I’ve never worn Crocs in my life, but I can now see their utility.

The first full day was torture. Not the silence– I liked the silence and kind of wish all vacations had an option for a similar vow of silence. Nor was it the landscape– walking past the willows and cattails and bunnies and butterflies had a meliorative effect on me. Even the food tasted good! No, the torture was the lack of productivity and the pain. So much pain. I made myself sit for all ten and a half hours of meditation the schedule called for, and it hurt so much that I wanted to run screaming from the place. I hated it. I can’t stay here. I have to get out. This is terrible. What am I doing here?!? I didn’t see how I would come to appreciate any of it or even get used to it. If I had to summarize my thoughts that day, it’d probably be something like: I’ve made a huge mistake.

However. I also knew that I would always wonder What if? if I didn’t stick it out, so I made a game plan: shower on days 3, 6, and 9; shave legs on days 5 and 9; break up the ten days into segments, knowing days 4, 5, and 6 will be the hardest (and hoping that this knowledge will make them bearable); allow myself anything I needed to make it (naps, always choosing my room when given the option of the meditation hall or my room for meditations, doing yoga in the morning when I got up instead of the first meditation, letting my mind wander when it wanted). I would do this thing because I said I would. It just wouldn’t be as easy as I’d hoped.

The meditations themselves began with chanting by our teacher, S. N. Goenka, who died a few years ago yet continues to teach vipassana meditation to thousands around the world through his recorded meditations and video discourses (which we would watch every evening before retiring for the night). His voice was so calm and gentle, and his face was so kind (here's a clip if you want to see for yourself). I loved listening to him, even if I didn’t understand his chanting or agree with everything he said (like the part about reincarnation). When he spoke of equanimity and staying with the sensations of the moment as it is, not as we want it to be, I was with him all the way. Awareness and equanimity; this will also change; no clinging or aversion; all is impermanent. This was the good stuff. It just became a little difficult to keep in mind when my back was threatening never to work again by the 12348979th hour of sitting in the same position.

We were told not to open our eyes during the meditation hours and not to adjust our positions. If we absolutely had to adjust, we were asked to do so slowly and quietly. I opened my eyes a lot. I tried to keep them shut, but I had to check the time on my watch every five minutes, just to make sure time was still moving. And I liked looking at people, like our assistant teachers when they would whisper to each other or to their assistants when we were all supposed to be silent. (The female assistant teacher would whisper to the female teacher’s assistant to whisper to one of us students something, and the chain of reactions was comical to me. My favorite was their obsession with a 75-year-old student who breathed too loudly for their liking, so they were constantly shuffling over to tell her to breathe more quietly until they developed a system where they would just shuffle over and touch her somewhere as a signal that she needed to breathe quietly. I have no idea how she remained so nonplussed about the whole thing. I told myself every day that if she could make it, I could, too.)

Without being allowed to read at all during the course, I was hoping that my mind would fall back on books I’ve already read, so I was disappointed when my mind mostly went through reels of movie and TV show clips instead. The songs that ran through my head would also make a strange mix-tape (like the theme song to Sesame Street followed by Rihanna followed by Christmas carols). With all of that playing in the background, my mind did a lot of planning: what I was going to wear when I got back to work, a lesson on anger to do with the girls I volunteer with, which yoga plans I would do in the following weeks, how phone conversations with my siblings, my parents, and my best friend from childhood would go, what I would write in a blog post about the course (which is definitely not the one I'm now writing). I was supposed to be focusing on the sensations of my body, but that just gets so boring after a few hours (or minutes). Planning helped the hours pass with just a little less despair.

One day in the middle of my time there– around days five and six– my stomach started feeling weird. I skipped dinner (as in, the serving of fruit they provided) the first night it happened, and the next day, because I didn’t think skipping would be a good idea two days in a row, I told myself I would go to the dining hall, if only to eat a banana. But I fell asleep in my room before dinner and woke up ten minutes after it had already started. I was never late to anything, and I wasn’t really ready to wake up, so I was really disoriented: what time is dinner again? Am I supposed to be there right now? Why didn’t I hear anyone? I forced myself to get up, and as I left the dorm building, I noticed that the sky looked stormy. I decided against bringing an umbrella and regretted it halfway to the dining hall when I heard thunder and felt the rain start to sprinkle. I passed an older Russian woman running with her arms spread out, like she wanted to get wet or something (why?), and I soon started to run as well to try to beat the rain. Right as I was getting to the dining hall, HUGE drops of rain started falling. They were spread out from each other, and I thought their size and the sound of thunder meant a big storm was about to hit. I yanked open the dining hall door and rushed in, breathing hard and splattered from the water bombs. I stood there looking at all the other women sitting silently at the tables, and they looked silently and blankly back at me. The rain!, I wanted to warn them through our silence, but when I looked out the window where some of the women were already looking, there was no rain. It had stopped. There was hardly any sign it had fallen at all. The only rain that fell fell right on me, right as I was coming into the dining hall. I tried to act normal and nonchalant, but I ate too quickly and left before anyone else. I was dry the whole walk back to the dorm and, as it just so happens, the entire rest of the ten days. I still wonder if that whole sequence was just a dream.

On Day 10, the course allows the students to speak with each other so that our entrance back into the real world is less of a shock to our systems. Of course, the question everyone asked each other (and the question I most dreaded) was, ‘So how was the course for you?’ I didn't think I'd be able to answer honestly (‘It was terrible.’), so I tried to dodge that question. Somehow one such conversation began with swapping background info about ourselves, and when asked how the Peace Corps and foster parenting were for me, I answered, ‘They were like this week.’ I think they understood what I meant.

That’s what I think is the sad thing about my doing this, though: just how much it resembled other experiences in my life, where I found myself in situations I wanted to be in until I got in them and realized just how much I wanted out of them. Waiting for this course to end felt like waiting for all of those other things to end– the feeling wasn't new to me. I told myself by Day 2 that I shouldn't do this anymore, sign up for things that I pressure myself into for reasons other than actually wanting to do them. Moreover, during that waiting time, I realized that I wasn't changed– I wasn't any more ‘enlightened’; my life wouldn't take a previously unforeseen path just because I finally took the course; I was, however unfortunately, still me. My thoughts, my moods, my crankiness, my fatigue, they were all still there. Wherever I go, there I am. Which usually means, just because the scenery changes, I don't magically become a different (read: better) person.

But here's the good part: I realized just how much I like my life, because I am finally in an unforced situation, doing things I actually want to do. I like the people in my life. I like where I live and what I do. Goenka (and Seneca) would say that I shouldn't cling to these things, as they can just as quickly be taken from me, just as easily upset a ‘balanced mind’, and I know. I get it. But I am grateful for them all the same– there haven't been many phases of my life where I've felt so wholeheartedly content for such a sustained amount of time. That's a big deal.

The morning we were released, I hitched a ride with a fellow student who was leaving as early as we were allowed. I couldn't handle waiting longer than that. When I got home, the joy I felt on entering my apartment was unmatched: I felt so happy being there, unpacking and cleaning and existing in this place where I can sleep and talk on my own schedule. After I showered (in hot water!), I spoke to each of my family members, feeling like I had been kept as a prisoner somewhere with no ability to contact them. I just missed them all so much while I was away. I missed my life.

Now that I’ve been back for a couple weeks, I have returned fully to the world of electronics and sundry distractions. It feels good. The meditation course is behind me and has become just another experience to tell others about. I try to remain equanimous and accept the impermanence of every moment, but I'm not very good at it. And I might visit YouTube every now and then to catch a glimpse of Grandpa Goenka. But would I recommend this course to others? Probably not. Would I do it again? No. Am I glad I did it once? Yes. Because you know what? At least now I won’t be haunted by the ghost of vipassana.

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The best books that I read in 2017, pt. 1

It’s almost the end of June, meaning half the year has already gone by, and I’ve been reading quite a few books to keep me busy during that time. I didn’t want them to pile up before sharing my favorites (some are just too good to keep to myself!), so here’s a list of what I think is worth recommending. I’ll add part two at the end of the year to make my 2017 list complete.

 

The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino

Baron in the Trees

This was my first Calvino book, and it did not disappoint. It tells the story of a young boy who climbs a tree out of defiance and ends up living in trees for the rest of his life, as told by the narrator, his younger brother. It was well-told, bringing life in that country and time alive in the reader’s imagination and rendering the experience of living (and loving) in the tree tops realistic. It reminded me of Ivan Turgenev’s First Love a bit, mixed with something else familiar and endearing to me that I can’t quite place. I’m glad to have chanced upon this sweet book.

“This he understood: that association renders men stronger and brings out each person’s best gifts, and gives a joy which is rarely to be had by keeping to oneself, the joy of realizing how many honest decent capable people there are for whom it is worth giving one’s best (while living just for oneself very often the opposite happens, of seeing people’s other side, the side which makes one keep one’s hand always on the hilt of one’s sword).”

 

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

war and peace

I never thought I’d read this book (because of a distaste for Anna Karenina after reading it years ago), but now that I have finally done so, I’m very grateful. Despite being 1386 pages (and aside from the very boring epilogue on free will), it was so easy to become engrossed in the story. Like a true Russian novel, it contained drama and sadness, but it was also comical at points, as well as loving and romantic and cheeky and spiritual and philosophical. I can understand why it has remained a classic for so long. The complexity of relationships and the thorough understanding of human nature, as shown through the characters’ facial expressions, gestures, and innermost intentions, was enchanting. I felt I could see through people while I was reading it.

“In that glance, apart from all circumstances of warfare and of judgment, human relations arose between these two men. Both of them in that one instant were vaguely aware of an immense number of different things, and knew that they were both children of humanity, that they were brothers.”

 

How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton

how proust can change your life

This was such a lovely, charming, insightful book. It was subtly funny and endearing, giving the reader advice on life from Proust’s writings while simultaneously being a sort of biography on Proust. Not only did I learn about Proust– about whom I previously knew nothing about and now feel an affinity for– but I got to see why his writings are worth considering and how they were influenced by his life.

“Lucien Daudet felt that Proust possessed ‘an unenviable power of divination, he discovered all the pettiness, often hidden, of the human heart, and it horrified him: the most insignificant lies, the mental reservations, the secrecies, the fake disinterestedness, the kind word which has an ulterior motive, the truth which has been slightly deformed for convenience, in short, all the things which worry us in love, sadden us in friendship and make our dealings with others banal were for Proust a subject of constant surprise, sadness or irony.'”

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“The happiness that may emerge from taking a second look is central to Proust’s therapeutic conception. It reveals the extent to which our dissatisfactions may be the result of failing to look properly at our lives rather than the result of anything inherently deficient about them.”

 

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal

enc of an ord life

I loved this book — snippets of Rosenthal’s life, arranged alphabetically in an encyclopedic manner, still somehow giving me a thorough profile of her as a person. Her love of life is contagious and inspiring but also tragic in that her life was so short (she has recently died of cancer). I was wondering how to capture this simultaneous happiness/sadness, and she does it herself in the W section with ‘wabi-sabi.’ There are so many coincidences like that in this book. I wanted to keep reading it forever and have everyone I know read it, too.

“Evidently, if you put yourself on high marshmallow alert, high button alert, high injustice alert, high whatever alert, the world will gladly accommodate you.”

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“OPINION, FRAGILE FOUNDATION OF STRONG
The two people laughing and drinking and carrying on at the next table are annoying, stupid, childishly conspiring, and clearly beneath you, until they invite you over to join them.”

 

Nonrequired Reading by Wislawa Szymborska

nonrequired reading

I had no idea what this was when I started reading it and thought it was another book of poetry by the author, but it turned out to be really brief essays on books she read. Some were more or less reviews, while others were thought tangents prompted by the books. All were entertaining in some way. I learned from what she wrote, but I was also impressed both by her humor and the directions her mind would veer from the books she was supposedly writing about. This is by far my favorite book of hers that I’ve read.

“Detached observers always ask in such cases: ‘So what does she (he) see in him (her)?’ Such questions are best left in peace: great love is never justified. It’s like the little tree that springs up in some inexplicable fashion on the side of a cliff: where are its roots, what does it feed on, what miracle produces those green leaves? But it does exist and it really is green—clearly, then, it’s getting whatever it needs to survive.”

 

The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton

consolations of philosophy

I loved this. I learned so much more about philosophers I had only heard about (like I felt after reading At the Existentialist Café) and realized why they are considered so wise: Socrates, Seneca, Epicurus, Montaigne, and Nietzsche. (I’m leaving out Schopenhauer because I didn’t like the chapter on him.) I was shocked to find excerpts of the philosophers’ writings not only interesting but also relevant to life and aligned with what I have found to be true myself. I wish the copy I read hadn’t been a library book so that I could keep it and reference it when I like.

“We aren’t overwhelmed by anger whenever we are denied an object we desire, only when we believe ourselves entitles to obtain it.”

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“The greatest works of art speak to us without knowing of us. As Schopenhauer put it: The . . . poet takes from life that which is particular and individual, and describes it accurately in its individuality; but in this way he reveals the whole of human existence . . . though he appears to be concerned with the particular, he is actually concerned with that which is everywhere and at all times. From this it arises that sentences, especially of the dramatic poets, even without being general apophthegms, find frequent application in real life.”

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“Not everything which makes us feel better is good for us. Not everything which hurts may be bad.”

 

Selected and Last Poems 1931-2004 by Czeslaw Milosz

selected and last poems

I was afraid of reading a whole book of Milosz’s poems because I thought they might be beyond my understanding or maybe even boring, which would ruin the reputation I hold in my head of him. This book proved me wrong and made me admire, appreciate, and like Milosz even more than I expected to. He writes about life, about his sins and his turning towards and away from religion, about the people he knew who no longer exist, about his younger self who exists no more, about the tragedies he’s witnessed, about guilt and love and aging. It felt like he was writing my own soul.

[from If There Is No God]

“If there is no God,
Not everything is permitted to man.
He is still his brother’s keeper
And he is not permitted to sadden his brother,
By saying that there is no God.”

 

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell

how to live

The subtitle for this book is: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. (The question being, ‘How to live?’) Montaigne strikes me as being a spontaneous, understanding, somewhat lazy man, and his writings capture life as it is so perfectly that it’s easy to forget they were written in the 1500s. This makes me want to read his Essays (like the mentions of them in Consolations of Philosophy and Nonrequired Reading did). I would highly recommend this book to others.

“If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays. I would make decisions; but it is always an apprenticeship and on trial.”

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He [Montaigne] knew the dangers of writing too unassumingly about his actions in the Essays: “When all is said and done, you never speak about yourself without loss. Your self-condemnation is always accredited, your self-praise discredited.”

 

Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi

survival in auschwitz

A deeply poetic, probing, and clear-sighted book about the author’s experience in the Buda work camp of Auschwitz. He captured the psychology of deprivation, hunger, and slavery so clearly that you wonder why this book isn’t read in classes attempting to study those very phenomena. I ate this book up and was sad when it ended– his writing, his story-telling, was that engaging. This is by far one of the best books, one of the most important ones, I’ve ever read.

But this was the sense, not forgotten either then or later: that precisely because the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts; that even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness; and that to survive we must force ourselves to save at least the skeleton, the scaffolding, the form of civilization. We are slaves, deprived of every right, exposed to every insult, condemned to certain death, but we still possess one power, and we must defend it with all our strength for it is the last– the power to refuse our consent.

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For those interested in the companion book, The Reawakening is a good follow-up to Survival in Auschwitz, as it covers the year after Levi leaves the camp in Auschwitz and is placed in Russian camps, waiting for repatriation in his homeland of Italy. It is much less harsh, though at times still a struggle to get by, but it is nevertheless filled with the tension of living in limbo, of anticipating the time he can finally return home. Just as before, his writing is beautiful enough to be read forever.

“…something had happened that only the few wise ones among us had foreseen. Liberty, the improbable, the impossible liberty, so far removed from Auschwitz that we had only dared to hope for it in our dreams, had come, but it had not taken us to the Promised Land. It was around us, but in the form of a pitiless deserted plain. More trials, more toil, more hunger, more cold, more fears awaited us.”

(I’ve posted even more excerpts from the books here.)

 

Theft by Finding by David Sedaris

theft by finding

A selection of Sedaris’s diary entries from 1977 to 2002, this newest book of his gives a glimpse into Sedaris’s life that the stories in his other books don’t show as fully (though, of course, his stories come from the experiences he writes down in his diary). He has such an ear for the bizarre, from conversations he’s a part of to those he overhears, and even for situations that are strange yet overlooked by so many of us as we go about our day. You’d think that weird stuff happens more with him, but it might just be that he makes a point to notice it.

“If nothing else, a diary teaches you what you’re interested in.”

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“That’s the thing with a diary, though. In order to record your life, you sort of need to live it. Not at your desk, but beyond it. Out in the world where it’s so beautiful and complex and painful that sometimes you just need to sit down and write about it.”

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“A woman on All Things Considered wrote a book of advice called If You Want to Write and mentioned the importance of keeping a diary. It was valuable, she said, because after a while you’d stop being forced and pretentious and become honest and unafraid of your thoughts.”

 

Ledoyt by Carol Emshwiller

Ledoyt

I didn’t think I’d read anything else by this author after reading her sci-fi short story collection The Start of the End of It All (I’m just not a big fan of sci-fi), but because Ursula K. Le Guin praised this so much in Words Are My Matter— and because it wasn’t sci-fi at all but rather a drama set in the American West in the early 1900s– I gave it a shot. Le Guin was so right. Every page made me feel something; it was so rich with character and emotion and environment, despite a level and almost stoic writing style, that I fell deep into the story and had a hard time resurfacing. It is a heartbreaking story, but it is also full of love.

“But maybe that was one reason why she liked him, that he left it all up to her, never made a move and wasn’t going to. He gave her plenty of time and space to get back to feelings she had closed off for so long. Even the frustration– that he came so close and yet never quite close enough.”

 

Primo Levi on human nature and surviving Auschwitz

I had never heard the name Primo Levi before reading it in an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin. She described this person as ‘a writer who never spoke anything but the truth, who lived a year in Auschwitz, and knew about injustice.’ I was intrigued, but it wasn’t until I came across his name again a short time later in something Anne Lamott said, where, again, he was described as a wise soul and speaker of truth. If two of my most admired authors admire the same person, there’s probably something to that. So I decided to find out what that something was, and I borrowed his book Survival in Auschwitz from the library, only to discover that it was so breathtakingly powerful that I needed to read his follow-up book The Reawakening as soon as I could. His writing is meditative– there is truth, yes, but it is often under the guise of a penetrating understanding of human weakness. Yet he writes without judgment, and in doing so allows his readers to judge for themselves. As he explains,

“I must admit that if I had in front of me one of our persecutors of those days, certain known faces, certain old lies, I would be tempted to hate, and with violence too; but exactly because I am not a Fascist or a Nazi, I refuse to give way to this temptation. I believe in reason and in discussion as supreme instruments of progress, and therefore I repress hatred even within myself: I prefer justice. Precisely for this reason, when describing the tragic world of Auschwitz, I have deliberately assumed the calm, sober language of the witness, neither the lamenting tones of the victim nor the irate voice of someone who seeks revenge. I thought that my account would be all the more credible and useful the more it appeared objective and the less it sounded overtly emotional; only in this way does a witness in matters of justice perform his task, which is of preparing the ground for the judge. The judges are my readers.”

And so, as readers, it is our job to listen carefully and to listen well, for Levi has much to say, and ours is no small task.

At the beginning of Survival in Auschwitz, he writes that he knew he had to survive if only to let the outside world know what happened:

The need to tell our story to ‘the rest’, to make ‘the rest’ participate in it, had taken on for us, before our liberation and after, the character of an immediate and violent impulse, to the point of competing with our other elementary needs. The book has been written to satisfy this need: first and foremost, therefore, as an interior liberation.

[…]

We are in fact convinced that no human experience is without meaning or unworthy of analysis, and that fundamental values, even if they are not positive, can be deduced from this particular world which we are describing. We would also like to consider that the Lager was pre-eminently a gigantic biological and social experiment.”

He goes on to describe the human psyche in a way most of never consider, that survival is not just based on having a goal but that even the moment-to-moment petty disturbances act as something to which our minds– and our survival– can cling:

“Sooner or later in life everyone discovers that perfect happiness is unrealizable, but there are few who pause to consider the antithesis: that perfect unhappiness is equally unattainable. The obstacles preventing the realization of both these extreme states are of the same nature: they derive from our human condition which is opposed to everything infinite.

[…]

It was the very discomfort, the blows, the cold, the thirst that kept us aloft in the void of bottomless despair, both during the journey and after. It was not the will to live, nor a conscious resignation; for few are the men capable of such resolution, and we were but a common sample of humanity.”

However, once Levi and the others reached the camp, the devolution of their spirits was swift, and the toll it took was immense:

“Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so. Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.

[…]

Imagine now a man who is deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, in short, of everything he possesses: he will be a hollow man, reduced to suffering and needs, forgetful of dignity and restraint, for he who loses all often easily loses himself.”

In fact, the image that comes to Levi’s mind when he thinks of the atrocities that happened in Auschwitz is that of the man who has lost himself:

“They [the Muselmänner] crowd my memory with their faceless presences, and if I could enclose all the evil of our time in one image, I would choose this image which is familiar to me: an emancipated man, with head dropped and shoulders curved, on whose face and in whose eyes not a trace of a thought is to be seen.”

But though the Muselmänner may have lost himself completely, no man remained entirely whole. Survival in Auschwitz did not reflect just one human characteristic that some may have had and others didn’t; it reflected all the ways we as humans are willing to sacrifice in our determination to live. It was a rare person who didn’t have to stoop below his own morality in an attempt to save himself.

“Many were the ways devised and put into effect by us in order not to die: as many as there are different human characters. All implied a weakening struggle of one against all, and a by no means small sum of aberrations and compromises. Survival without renunciation of any part of one’s own moral world– apart from powerful and direct interventions by fortune– was conceded only to very few superior individuals, made of the stuff of martyrs and saints.”

And yet, similar to the idea Levi brought up in the beginning about happiness and unhappiness, he brings up another interesting part of human nature that we may overlook in easier circumstances: the phenomenon of having something to feel fortunate, despite being mired in misfortune.

“Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live. It is raining, but it is not windy. Or else, it is raining and is also windy: but you know that this evening it is your turn for the supplement of soup, so that even today you find the strength to reach the evening. Or it is raining, windy and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium — as sometimes happens, when you really seem to lie on the bottom — well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining.”

Thankfully for us, Levi never had to resort to touching the fence or throwing himself under a train. Before his second winter and amidst the deepest doubts that it would ever happen (“Do you know how one says ‘never’ in camp slang? ‘Morgen früh‘, tomorrow morning.”), the Russians liberated the camp, though this doesn’t mean it ceases to haunt Levi.

“Because one loses the habit of hoping in the Lager, and even if believing in one’s own reason. In the Lager it is useless to think, because events happen for the most part in an unforeseeable manner; and it is harmful, because it keeps alive a sensitivity which is a source of pain, and which some providential natural law dulls when suffering passes a certain limit.

[…]

It is man who kills, man who creates or suffers injustice; it is no longer man who, having lost all restraint, shares his bed with a corpse. Whoever waits for his neighbour to die in order to take his piece of bread is, albeit guiltless, further from the model of thinking man than the most primitive pigmy or the most vicious sadist.”

No one should have to experience that, should be forced to reach a place to have figured that out. And yet he did. Millions did. For what? What possible explanation could there be for such a time in our history? Levi tells us that it is better not to understand.

Perhaps one cannot, what is more one must not, understand what happened, because to understand is almost to justify.

[…]

We cannot understand it [Nazi hatred], but we can and must understand from where it springs, and we must be on our guard. If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again. Conscience can be seduced and obscured again– even our consciences.

[…]

Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions….

[…]

It is, therefore, necessary to be suspicious of those who seek to convince us with means other than reason, and of charismatic leaders: we must be cautious about delegating to others our judgment and our will. Since it is difficult to distinguish true prophets from false, it is as well to regard all prophets with suspicion. It is better to renounce revealed truths, even if they exalt us by their splendor or we find them convenient because we can acquire them gratis. It is better to content oneself with other more modest and less exciting truths, those one acquires painfully, little by little and without shortcuts, with study, with discussion, and reasoning, those that can be verified and demonstrated.

Who could resist admiring such a man?

Why feminism can no longer be the shield I carry

“It is the business of youth to recoil from the counsel of gentleness, of scepticism. Doubt becomes an obstacle, for a youth has need of faith and ideals to give free rein to the impetuosity borne within. And even the most radical, the most absurd illusions, as long as they inflame, would in his eyes have more importance than the most profound wisdom, which saps the strength of his will.”

-Stefan Zweig, Montaigne

 

If I were guilty of one thing– and I know that I am guilty of more than just one– it would be the overzealousness that comes from attaching oneself to an idea (or an ideal) and then proclaiming that idea as truth wherever one goes. This is often associated with youth, as Stefan Zweig captures eloquently in the quote above. In youth, everything is new, and that newness translates into a lens through which we view the world. How could we not have known? we ask. How could they have kept this from us? Even believing we have seen it all and that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’ is an overtly cynical stance we embody when we go through our angsty, misanthropic phase. There is no such thing as moderation. We know only the extremes. And by ‘we,’ of course I mean ‘me.’

As a young Christian, I was staunchly on the side of the Christianity I was fed. I bought it, and I believed it was right to try to sell it, too. I wish I could say that I dropped proselytization when I dropped the label of Christian for myself, but I’m afraid that I just gave it a makeover when I put on a new suit: that of the Liberal Feminist. My eyes were opened to the world, and I thought that everyone else’s should be, too. This happened again and again, like when I learned of the horrors of meat processing and became a vegetarian; when I found out about the atrocity that international adoption often is; when I learned about sweatshops overseas and decided to buy only clothes made in the States or already used (an admittedly brief stage)– all of which are worthy causes (my intention by mentioning them is not to discredit them). I tried all of these on for size– and even ended up keeping some– because someone with conviction told me to. Energy is contagious. That can be a really useful thing, and I always hope that my enthusiasm will in turn inspire others. It’s just that I have become wary of myself and of my proclivity for being persuaded by a well-made documentary.

Which is an ironic statement, because the reason I’m now writing this is that I watched a documentary yesterday. The Red Pill is a film by Cassie Jaye about the men’s rights movement. As a self-proclaimed feminist before she started working on the film, she delved into the ideas, statistics, and passion that fuel the movement– and she found that it’s not all bad. In fact, it’s not bad at all. Men do have a hard go of it: they are disproportionately killed in combat, on the job, and by suicide, disproportionately convicted of crimes and imprisoned for them, disproportionately left with little to no rights in custody battles, disproportionately drop out of (or don’t even enroll in) school, and more. This doesn’t also mean that women don’t have a hard go of it. It just means that gender roles hurt both men and women, and that we can’t just focus on one, especially when the other is deeply hurting. (Brené Brown learned this and changed the direction of her research based on the epiphany. Read Daring Greatly for the wonderful insight she shares.) Equal rights should mean that we really and truly look at all sides of the issue to make it equal for everyone. Unfortunately, as it is, we have replaced one status quo of privilege for another, and it’s not making things any better.

I could write a lot more about The Red Pill. It ignited that old familiar spark in me that would have me standing in the town square, yelling to all the other villagers about the truth of the world as I’ve discovered it to be, if only I lacked any social awareness. But something bigger than the movie happened: I realized the futility and danger of sticking a label on oneself. If only I could be like Montaigne– that ‘patron saint of all thinkers on this earth’ (Stefan Zweig again)– who distrusted labels from the very beginning, seeing how they cause unjust prejudices and serve as a hindrance to the thinking mind. He even had a mistrust of stating anything too strongly: “Assert nothing audaciously, deny nothing frivolously.” He was a great observer. To be able not to deny anything frivolously, one has to be able to observe, to take in, to listen.

I think this is one of the biggest problems we have as a society today, that we don’t listen enough. And not just to each other in our personal lives, but (especially) to each other in our political ones. The ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality is prevalent no matter which side you’re on. It’s heartbreaking. Labels mark the divisions, but they also provide a sense of community, however false or loosely connected it may be. With a label, you’re at least part of a group. Who cares if you don’t see the other side as full human beings? You’re on the side with only ones who matter anyway.

This is what I think feminism has become. It has become the great security blanket for anyone who has taken the right college courses and read the right books and wants to be included with the right people as being on the right side of history. It has become an umbrella term for whatever we want it to mean, as long as it means we show up where all the other feminists are and use the same hashtags as the other feminists and take the same angles as the other feminists. It has become the mask we wear to fit in rather than a lens we use to consider one of many sides to a situation; the rule book we’re given with all the answers written out so that we don’t have to come up our own. In other words, it’s become a religion for those of us who thought we forsook religion long ago.

That’s an uncomfortable thing to admit.

But it is not just a problem for feminism, or liberalism, or radicalism. It’s a problem for any ideology, where dogma trumps doubt, and questioning is viewed as disloyalty. Problems are not usually mutually exclusive, though from the reactions of those within groups, you would think they were. I believe strongly that the way women are treated and viewed is often degrading and objectifying, but I also believe strongly that the way men are expected to provide, to sacrifice, and to shoulder every burden stoically is detrimental for everyone. Everything is interrelated– issues are almost always intertwined. What is so difficult about trying to allow for the complexities, for the paradoxes, for the both/and? Uncertainty. And who wants to live with uncertainty? Ideologies have given us an out: they will provide certainty; all they ask in return is for our unquestioning devotion.

Only now am I beginning to see how frightening that is.

The inimitably wise and magical Amy Krouse Rosenthal wrote, “I’ve come up with this explanation: people change. It’s as uninteresting as that. People change. […] We use these defining truths to help us stay in the lines of ourselves. We think we have to hold on to these labels, we feel comfortable holding on to these labels, but it turns out the labels are removable, you can peel them right off.” I think that’s what I need to do now. Strip myself of a label I’ve clung to for years, one that is much easier to continue wearing than it is to shed. It’s a long time coming– from conversations I’ve had to reading thinkers I admire deeply, who eschew the comfort of conforming to party lines in favor of thinking with their whole minds and thereby being true to themselves– but it is still scary. As my boyfriend put it, it’s like leaving the cult, which is no easy thing.

I have to, though. I don’t want to shy away from the ‘counsel of gentleness, of scepticism.’ I don’t want to pursue radical and ‘absurd illusions’ instead of wisdom. I want to think for myself and decide the best that I can what is right and wrong and worth fighting for. I want to engage with the world from a thoughtful, curious, open place. And I want to do the hard work of wrestling with ideas rather than allowing a label to do the work for me. I just don’t think I can do that if I continue to call myself a feminist.

Ode to spring (in several haikus)

An unnoticed bush

One day covered with blossoms–

Ephemeral joy

 

Sun at an angle;

Leaves on trees hanging, opaque,

Become translucent

 

Dry, brown, weed-like plant–

Nevertheless you’ve charmed me:

Rusted elegance

 

Shadows of branches,

They dance around as we talk:

Our lunch in the park

 

One week every year,

She blooms into pink beauty,

A heart opening

 

Walking to the train,

Hands not hidden in pockets,

His fingers clasp mine

 

Outside my window

White trees blow their white blossoms,

The snow I welcome

 

Birds in the morning,

Indifferent to me in bed,

Please go on singing

Imagined possibilities

“The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.” -Ursula K. Le Guin

I only have one criterion for judging a book or movie/TV show: does it offer an emotionally honest, thoughtful, and nuanced perspective of human relationships that allows us to imagine new possibilities for our lives? For having only one box to check, far too few works actually meet this criterion. Most present life and its interactions/miscommunications in a predictable, unproductive trajectory and allow us to go on living how we always have, sometimes even offering ways of doing it worse than we have. As the opening quote would suggest, this might not be an accident– certainly, there are people who profit from keeping things as they are, from bombarding us with mindlessness, and from perpetuating the myth that what we see is human nature, leading us to believe that ‘we can’t change our nature. But I don’t believe that myth, and I’m longing for better ways to live; I think we all need our imaginations to be challenged to come up with some. That is why Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home impressed me so much: it offered an entirely different mode of life in such a comprehensive and thorough manner that I came away feeling like so much more was possible, that we don’t have to follow the same old script.

With Always Coming Home, I took a long time to figure out what I was even reading. I thought I had picked up a novel, so I was quite confused when the novel-like portion of the book stopped all of the sudden with a note that it would pick up 150 or so pages later. What could possibly take that long to get back to the story? I wondered. Eventually, I realized that I had picked up a fictionalized archive, anthropological and literary in nature, making it feel like both a study of a civilization and also a library of that civilization. The more I read, the more in awe of Le Guin I became– she created an entire language for this book! It was incredible.

Once I realized that this was a collection of pieces of a civilization– one that supposedly exists years in the future after we all mostly die from the toxic poisons we pump into ourselves and our earth– I was able to start grasping what that civilization valued and how it worked. This is what made the book pass my test. The characteristics most valued were generosity, mindfulness, and equanimity; those least valued were violence (war), power, and greed. Wealth was measured by how much a household gave to others; keeping things for oneself was looked down upon. Hunting was for adolescents and viewed as something to grow out of. Poems and songs were almost always written to be given away. Animals and nature were respected and were even called people in the book’s language; humans were seen as part of nature, not separate from it and certainly not above it. Family lines were matrilineal: men married into women’s homes, rather than women marrying into men’s, and children traced their family lines through their mothers, not their fathers. Everyone had their role in their towns, and that role helped the town meet their people’s needs. Whatever they in the town couldn’t make by themselves, they traded for with other towns. Their lives didn’t sound easy, but they did sound meaningful. They lived with purpose.**

What brought it all together for me and made me see more clearly this strange new world was its juxtaposition with a group of people who lived very differently than the one the book was about. This group built a city of cement, made its women stay indoors and cover their faces, hoarded their possessions rather than shared them, and spent their energy on conquering all the land and people they could. I may be slow to pick up on symbols, but I did recognize which of these two groups’ values most resembled those of the society I have grown up in. And the reflection was not a pretty one. It made the other way of living that much more appealing, that much more profound. (It was suggested that this conquering group of people self-sabotaged themselves somehow to the point of disintegration– their hunger for power was not sustainable; their source of power not true.)

Still, many things that seem self-evident to me are debated by others. I read this book and tried to hear the voices that would argue that this alternative way of life would actually be better. I feel very strongly about using my singular question to guide my book and movie preferences, though I understand that judging someone for not doing something they didn’t intend to do in the first place isn’t very fair. But I want to have more hopeful, more imaginative conversations sparked by more hopeful, more imaginative inventions. I am not interested in the same old methods and same old lines we are familiar with. Even if someone doesn’t like an invention such as Always Coming Home and can articulate where they disagree, we can nevertheless have a worthwhile conversation about that. We just have to keep looking for better alternatives until we’ve created it ourselves. Le Guin wrote it best in her book:

“We have to learn what we can, but remain mindful that our knowledge not close the circle, closing out the void, so that we forget that what we do not know remains boundless, without limit or bottom, and that what we know may have to share the quality of being known with what denies it. What is seen with one eye has no depth.”

We can’t stop looking.

 

 

**I wouldn’t read An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz until later, where I learned that such practices were not invented by Le Guin but rather by the indigenous peoples of the United States before there was ever such a thing as the ‘United States’. There is an uncanny resemblance particularly between the Haudenosaunee people and those described in Always Coming Home. This adds a whole other layer to the book, creating an ironic yet profound circle of sorts by having society return, through its own destruction, to what it was before society destroyed it.

A photographic history

When we were kids, my siblings and I would put in one of our home videos and watch ourselves as even younger kids do whatever things kids do in front of cameras. We loved it, waiting for our moment in the spotlight and then laughing at the absolutely hilarious things we said or did. It was our way of affirming about our own family what David Sedaris wrote about his:  “Ours is the only club I’d ever wanted to be a member of.”

So, being home over Thanksgiving and Christmas, I did something reminiscent of those home-video-watching days: I sifted through old photographs of my family, most of which I don’t remember having seen before. My siblings weren’t around to laugh with me, though, so I laughed by myself and tried to get my mom and dad–whichever was passing through the kitchen (or not working) at the moment– to join in when I’d find a really good one. I made stacks of the ones I wanted to keep and then used an iPhone to take pictures of them so that I’d be able to look at them whenever I wanted. (I didn’t want the responsibility of carrying around the originals, for fear I’d lose them or ruin them forever. The downside is that some of my pictures-of-pictures aren’t very good, because lights and shadows are just hard to work with, you know?)

One might think that I would have gotten tired of looking at old photos at that point, especially old photos that I had already looked at. But I hadn’t. I wasn’t tired of it at all, and the more I looked at them, the more I wanted to look at them. I went through them on my phone after going through their physical copies, and I would stop at each one, studying it, as if fitting it into a puzzle. In fact, that’s exactly what I was doing: in these photographs, I found pieces of my childhood that I didn’t know existed and pieces of myself that I didn’t know were so visible. These photographs told a slightly different story than the one my siblings and I have come up with about ourselves over the past several years; they were an anchor to an otherwise free-floating and constantly-adapting sense of self and family. In statistics, the more data you have showing a particular pattern, the more you can trust that it is telling you something. There were so many photographs showing the same patterns, and the more I studied them, the more I started trusting what they were saying.

In the beginning (my beginning, of course), the photographs of my sister Caitlin and me show an adoring younger sister (me) and a lively, animated older sister (Caitlin). Her hair was constantly messy, her face smiling, and her posture always caught in some movement. Meanwhile, I looked on with eyes of admiration. My smile was one of pride, and even though I don’t show as much fearlessness or carefreeness, I look like I’m just happy to be there.

When my brother Caleb was born, not much changed in Caitlin’s appearance or activity, but I had a new role: now I was an older sister, and I seemed to revel in it. From two days after Caleb was born, I am pictured holding him, cuddling him, or trying to get close to him. I must have believed he was like one of my beloved dolls come to life. Even when he is a toddler and a little boy, I am still there, hugging him, playing with him, treating him like precious cargo. I adored him.

Connor was born when Caleb was four and I was six, and the pictures are very much the same as when Caleb was born, only I was not so small. The pictures show me holding her or putting my fingers in her closed hand, and even when we’re both older– I in elementary school and she as a toddler and then an elementary school kid herself– she is seen clinging to me as I stand there with a smile, like I both welcomed it and was used to it. Not long after, our relationship would be very different, when I went through my teenage need to separate from my family to be an ‘individual.’ We eventually came back around to find each other as friends, but only after a lot of years and a lot of hurt. These pictures look so innocent and loving. It almost hurts me to look at them, knowing I was so open and affectionate at one point in my life.

The pictures that make me happiest, though, are those with my dad in them. If I had to guess, there aren’t as many pictures of my mom and us kids because she was more comfortable being behind the camera. But, as a result, we have some really good ones with my dad. He’s not doing much in some of them– just sitting, standing, or lying on his back– but he’s still engaged with us somehow, whether it’s holding us up in a circus-like hold or sitting between us as we take some weird pose around him, or even reading to one of us while the other two play in the foreground. I like these pictures because they’re reminders that our dad was present in our childhoods; he wanted to be around us.

That’s what keeps drawing me back to these pictures, I think, over and over again: the unrestrained joy, in all of its various comportments. So different from the stoicism we showed (more like I showed– see below) when others were around, these pictures show the unfiltered expression of who we are underneath all we’ve become, underneath the layers of socialization and self-consciousness. They are evidence of a happy and safe childhood, of children who were wanted by the adults in their life and who were enjoyed by them. The adults– my parents, in particular– gave us enough boundaries to feel protected, and within that safety, which cannot be overstated, we experienced the freedom to play, which in turn gave us the freedom to become. Aside from a perhaps unconscious wisdom of how fleeting childhood is, the fact that my parents took pictures and videos of us in our most candid moments reveals how much they believed our personalities worth cherishing.

fullsizerender-6

And perhaps most poignantly, they tell me something that I had forgotten through the years of hormones and silence and political discord: that not only did my parents love us, but at one point, long ago, they liked us, too. And to a child, that makes quite a difference.

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The best books that I read in 2016, pt. 2

It has been a record-breaking year for me: I’ve read 104 books so far in 2016, including a psychology textbook on love and a 500+ page autobiography of Agatha Christie (neither of which made it onto this list). I don’t know that I will ever reach that high of a number again, but I did it this year somehow, for some reason. The upside to that is that I have a lot to share. So, as promised, here are the best books I read between September and December this year (because my favorite books from the other months already have their own list).

 

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

between-the-world-and-me

This book was mesmerizing– poetic, fierce, informed. It read like a modern James Baldwin and was written as a letter to the author’s son about growing up as a black man. His words challenged and convicted me yet inspired me at the same time. He showed a passion and a maturity that I admire– his willingness to wrestle with what he’s learned, both from others and from his own mistakes/life, is something we need more of. This book should be required reading for everyone, alongside James Baldwin and The New Jim Crow.

“I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. That is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being ‘politically conscious’—as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.”

==========

“But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion.”

 

Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry by Jane Hirschfield

nine-gates

Nine essays about various aspects of poetry, they intelligently and eloquently capture an elusive topic. While an intriguing challenge to keep up with mentally, Hirshfield’s writing also made it easy for me to get lost in her selections of poems and poetic explanations. I wrote down so many excerpts to revisit and reconsider. This was such an entrancing book.

“… there are times when suffering’s only open path is through an immersion in what is. The eighteenth-century Urdu poet Ghalib described the principle this way: ‘For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river–/ Unbearable pain becomes its own cure.’

[…]

Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and life.”

 

19 Varieties of Gazelle by Naomi Shihab Nye

19-varieties-of-gazelle

Nye is such a beautiful writer (her book You and Yours made it into my last list). She writes from the U.S. and from Palestine, Israel, Iran; she writes about her father and her grandmother and her uncles and the people who never left their countries and the people who were killed. She wants the nonsensical violence and warring to stop, and she focuses on the people– their day-to-day lives and their kindness– to reveal over and over how crazy our world is. Her poems are sad and honest and lovely.

“Like clothes on a line saying

You will live long enough to wear me,

a motion of faith. There is this,

and there is more.”

[from Arabic Coffee]

 

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

nothing-to-envy

As something who knew virtually nothing of North Korea before reading this book, I felt I was learning something from each page. This book was as readable as an intense drama and as informative as a textbook. I was drawn in and couldn’t put it down. It is a shame that North Koreans are living like they are in our modern times. I don’t know what the answer is, but it is so sad that starvation and death at the hands of a regime are going on. This book exposes that amazingly.

“Guilt and shame are the common denominators among North Korean defectors; many hate themselves for what they had to do in order to survive.”

==============

“While the persistence of North Korea is a curiosity for the rest of the world, it is a tragedy for North Koreans, even those who have managed to escape.”

 

Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio

loitering

This is a collection of essays, loosely organized around three themes: our west, ‘strategies against extinction,’ and reading. D’Ambrosio is a gifted writer– his vocabulary is extensive, his outlook is self-deprecating and humorously gloomy, and his thought process is both equanimous and stream-of-consciousness. The fact that he came from a big family and shared both the positives of siblings and the hardships of dysfunctional parents made the essays that much more intriguing. His writing was fun for me to read and easy to get lost in.

“The difference between the truth and a cliché is the difference between what we really know and what we’ve all heard about.”

==============

“What’s the point of being right if it’s only safety in numbers? The history of being right and how wrong it’s turned out to be is a long one.”

 

The Moth edited by Catherine Burns

the-moth

The Moth is a podcast that shares stories told by people around the world. Before they are performed, they are carefully cultivated and worked out with the Moth editors so that they have maximum punch when delivered. This book is a collection of fifty of those stories in written form (obviously). Each story was so incredibly compelling– they made me laugh and cry and think about life. I would recommend this book to anyone. Stories are the thread that connects us to each other, and a well-told story can be exactly what we need.

“I realized that’s what life is. There are these moments of beauty, like moons and oceans, and then there are moments of horror. And then it’s good again. And then it’s horrible and kicks you in the face. And then it’s good again. And then it’s horrible and a pigsty, because that’s what life is. But then for a  moment it’s good. And for me that was enough.”

[from Perfect Moments by Brian Finkelstein]

 

Selected Poems by James Wright

selected-poems-by-j-w

These poems took me immediately into the places they were about, wrapping me in a different time and environment. There was an outright disdain for the poet’s native Ohio (and America in general), yet he wrote so much about it, either because he loved it despite himself or because he wrote what he knew, what was in his bones. His love for Europe, Italy in particular, was apparent and made for lovely writing, too, but he wrote just as well about the grimier parts of life.

“Suddenly I realize

That if I stepped out of my body I would break

Into blossom.”

[from A Blessing]

 

It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too) by Nora McInerny Purmort

its-okay-to-laugh

A week after miscarrying what would have been her second child, the author’s father died of cancer, and six weeks after that, her husband died of cancer, leaving her a widow with a toddler to raise alone. Despite the utter sadness of that, this book is full of hilarity and joy and love. She has three siblings with whom she is close, and not only were she and her husband partners in the true sense of that word, but you can see how much he taught her by being so kind and generous. This book was almost impossible to put down. I cried a lot and laughed a lot and am really happy a book like this was written.

“Then, we just had to decide how many kids we wanted, which seemed a great topic to have over entrées. I said four, because that is how many my parents had and it really seems like the right balance. One is unacceptable. Two is just too lonely, especially if your only other sibling is a jackass. Three is all right, I guess. But four? Four is perfect. Four teaches you your place in the order of things. You learn to be gracious when you’re on top is the hog pile (is that just a thing my family did?) and patient when you’re squished at the bottom. You learn to live with being farted on. You learn to be a part of a team.

[…]

He loved his family the way I love mine: like they are the world’s best-kept secret.”

 

The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K. Le Guin

the-wave-in-the-mind

This is a wonderful collection of essays and talks on ‘the writer, the reader, and the imagination.’ Le Guin is such a sharp thinker, able to bring in elements of such disparate veins of thought as feminism and Taoism and anthropology into her writing and criticisms fluidly. She is opinionated yet seems so grounded, as if I could have a conversation with her if I happened to run into her. I want to keep this book for everything I learned from it and can learn from it still.

“However, at some point, around forty or so, I began to wonder if he really knew what he was talking about any better than anybody else, or if what he knew better than anybody else was how to talk about it. The two things are easily confused.”

============

“The question has been asked before but I haven’t yet got an answer that satisfies me: why do women cripple their feet while men don’t?”

============

“Her work, I really think her work

isn’t fighting, isn’t winning,

isn’t being the Earth, isn’t being the Moon.

Her work, I really think her work

is finding what her real work is

and doing it,

her work, her own work,

her being human,

her being in the world.”