Some thoughts on thinking

After my post a few months ago about no longer identifying with the label of ‘feminist,’ the response was swift and mostly silent: I felt a virtual chill, telling me that I had become a pariah to the circles that once accepted me. With as small of a reader/follower base on any given social media platform as I have, it is not hard to notice when the numbers fluctuate or when the comments and likes slow. Slow they did; down the numbers went. It stung, but I had tried to prepare myself for it: it comes with the territory of changing your mind. I have to accept the consequences.

Over the past couple of years, I have been thinking more about thinking and about how my group affiliations have stood in the way of my truly examining something rather than sharpening my thinking skills. This bothers me. I don’t want to have ready-made, knee-jerk reactions. I want to have thoughtful and generous responses. But that’s also scary, because a thoughtful response does not always align with the group’s approved set of responses, and standing outside of the group is a cold, lonely place.

Alan Jacobs (I guess I’m on an Alan Jacobs roll right now) writes about the importance of thinking and the effects it (or its opposite, not thinking) has on life in How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds. Much of the book is about how we bypass thinking in favor of our social group and at the expense of the outgroup(s). I say ‘bypass’ because what often happens is that we rely on words, phrases, or subjects not only to convey meaning but also to signal our membership in the group. Jacobs writes,

“The more useful a term is for marking my inclusion in a group, the less interested I will be in testing the validity of my use of that term against—well, against any kind of standard. People who like accusing others of Puritanism have a fairly serious investment, then, in knowing as little as possible about actual Puritans. They are invested, for the moment anyway, in not thinking.”

Of course, not only can we not escape thinking within of a social context, but we are made for and by the social world. Everything I believe, everything I think, I learned from someone, even if it was someone who lived hundreds of years ago whom I’ve encountered only through books.

“To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for ‘thinking for herself’ they usually mean ‘ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.’”

The painful part (or one of the painful parts) of being written off so easily after writing my post on feminism was that my change of heart was attributed to some corruption done by ‘the enemy.’ I was accused of falling prey to the mistaken and destructive ideology of the Other. Before I was an independent thinker; after I was brainwashed. It felt like I was only seen as human as long as my ideas aligned with everyone else on the ‘right’ side. Once the ideas starting differing, I became at best a weak victim, at worst a repulsive, dismissable piece of scum. Jacobs addresses this phenomenon:

“This is a point worth dwelling on. How often do we say ‘she really thinks for herself’ when someone rejects views that we hold? No: when someone departs from what we believe to be the True Path our tendency is to look for bad influences. She’s fallen under the spell of so-and-so. She’s been reading too much X or listening to too much Y or watching too much Z.

[…]

And yet even the briefest reflection would demonstrate to us that nothing of the sort is the case: there is no connection between independence and correctness, or social thinking and wrongness.”

I should point out that the response to my post was not entirely negative. My fear exceeded the severity of the response, and those I was most afraid of disappointing, for the most part, didn’t seem to be disappointed at all. They were able to hear me out and love me all the same. Jacobs describes it well:

“I had chosen to interact with people who had very little in common except that I knew—from experience—that they wouldn’t write me out of their own personal Books of Life if I said something they strongly disagreed with.”

Thankfully, those in my closest circle don’t write me out of their Books of Life when I say things that are wrong, offensive, or merely different from what they think. Jacobs goes on to differentiate ‘true membership’ from the deceptive and potentially dangerous membership of groups based solely on like-mindedness. Because my family is the base from which I function, I especially identified with the definition of true membership as C.S. Lewis put it:

“Lewis explains: How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogeneous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself….If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure.”

As I have wrestled and questioned and challenged myself to hold a little less tightly to my own thinking, I have begun to appreciate the beauty of a social network that consists of varying political, religious, and philosophical perspectives, “…for there can be more genuine fellowship among those who share the same disposition than among those who share the same beliefs, especially if that disposition is toward kindness and generosity.”

The facelessness of the Internet and dichotomization of our political climate in general leans less toward kindness and generosity, though, and more toward dehumanization and argument-as-war. We easily slip into ideology mode, actively seeking out what we already agree with and ignoring (or attacking) what we don’t.

“When people cease to be people because they are, to us, merely representatives or mouthpieces of positions we want to eradicate, then we, in our zeal to win, have sacrificed empathy: we have declined the opportunity to understand other people’s desires, principles, fears.”

I am working on understanding better, which means listening more and reacting less. I’d love to have more interactions styled after the debates described in this post by Robin Sloan, in which one person states her position, then the other person must re-state the first person’s position to that person’s satisfaction, then the second one states his position, and then the first person must re-state the second person’s position to his satisfaction. Even if I don’t find people who want to engage in an actual debate or listening session like that, I still love having it in my mind– a mental practice of truly hearing the other side, almost embodying it, before pushing my own viewpoint.

“After switching back and forth for a while, you may find one of [the viewpoints] philosophically or practically superior to the other, but the one you like less won’t be totally alien to you. It’ll be a world you could live in if you had to, even if you don’t particularly want to.”

We must have patience to listen like this.

“This matters because it’s when our forbearance fails that the social fabric tears. The key to strengthening this necessary forbearance . . . is that you have to be willing to switch codes. You have to be willing to inquire into someone else’s dialect, even, or especially, when it’s a moral dialect. You have to risk that impurity.”

This brings me back to where this post began: my own perceived impurity from writing my post a few months back. Impurity, to the ingroup, is cause for expulsion and excommunication. Though I am trying to think better, in some ways it feels like I’m walking alone in the wilderness. Even Jacobs, who advocates for Learning to Think, warns that the effects may not be wholly positive:

“I can’t promise that if you change your mind you won’t lose at least some of your friends—and that matters, because if you learn to think, genuinely to think, you will sometimes change your mind.”

My hope is that this process of seeking understanding and of genuine thinking catches on, that it becomes less lonely than it has been. More than anything, I am not trying to close people out with my ideas, even as they change. I am just trying to be true to the truth– whatever that is– rather than to the precariousness of social acceptance. As Jacobs says, “Thinking is hard.”

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On book lists and reading for pleasure

It occurred to me this week that the book lists I create every few months to post here on my blog may come off as ‘must-read’ lists, lists that prescribe what someone should be reading or should enjoy when they are reading them, lists that only serve to create anxiety in me when I come across them myself because they make me feel like I’ve been reading and enjoying the wrong things, wasting time that could have otherwise been spent in the nobler and more worthwhile pursuit of reading those specific books on those specific lists. That is most definitely not the feeling I want to recreate with the lists I post here.

In The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs, Jacobs argues for reading by ‘Whim,’ not out of duty or force or the desire to seem smart. The basic tenet is to read for pleasure—because you feel like it and because you enjoy it—and stop reading something you don’t enjoy or you’re just slogging through to be able to ‘have read.’

This is the whole point of the lists I make: to point out some books that I found enjoyable to help others gain some footing on the not-always-easy-to-navigate path of figuring out what to read. After all, we only have so much time in this life, time we’d rather not spend trying to find something to read, let alone something we actually want to read.

“One of the most widely quoted sentences of Sir Francis Bacon—it comes from his essay ‘Of Studies’— concerns the reading of books: ‘Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.’ . . . I think Bacon would have applauded Clay Shirky’s comment that we suffer not from ‘information overload’ but from ‘filter failure.’ Bacon’s famous sentence is really a strategy for filtering.” (Alan Jacobs)

That said, I don’t expect anyone else to like everything I like, to appreciate my filtering. I️ may not even like everything I like now at a different point in my life. Jacobs writes, “. . .there is little reason to think that a book will be especially interesting or helpful to someone else just because I like it. Another person may not have my inclinations, interests, or personal needs.” If my own interests and needs are different, depending on when you ask, then it is logical to assume that yours will differ from mine.

And yet, I make these lists and share them anyway. I want to offer as wide a selection as possible so that those with more limited tastes or tastes that vary drastically from mine may still find even one book that piques their interest, one they might enjoy reading and forget for a few minutes that reading often feels like hard work. I want my lists to be full of books that don’t feel like work, even if some are more daunting or challenging than others (War and Peace, anyone?). Someone might be craving an intriguing challenge, and my hope is that my lists provide some encouragement toward that end.

“Some forms of intellectual labor are worth the trouble. In those times when Whim isn’t quite enough, times that will come to us all, we discover this. Such work strengthens our minds, makes us more capable of concentration, teaches us patience— and almost certainly a touch of humility as well. . . .” (Alan Jacobs)

But sometimes we find ourselves reading something we thought would bring us pleasure or that we thought we were up to the task of reading only to find that we are having a hard time continuing. Because I have struggled with this so much in my life, learning late the freedom that comes from closing a book before finishing it and not picking it back up again, I make it a point to let others know they can do the same. I’m pretty much an evangelist for leaving uninteresting or unenjoyable books behind. My advice for those who need to know how it ends, who need closure of some sort: look up the book on Wikipedia and read the plot there. It will save you so much time and headache. Still, I won’t be able to tell you when you need to desert a book. Unfortunately, we all have to decide that for ourselves.

“The better we know ourselves the better we will be able to make some of the decisions that all readers must face— for instance, and notably, the decision to persist in reading a book that fails to delight. . . . For if this particular book is not fixing me pleasure now, it may give me pleasure later, if I allow it to do so. . . . I needed to learn, as I eventually did, that if I set a book aside today I am not thereby forbidding myself to return to it later— nor am I promising to do so. To everything there is a season, and, by corollary, everything is sometimes out of season. . . . But no one will be able to tell me when that season comes; I will have to discern that for myself, with the aid of many years of reflecting on the kind of reader I am.” (Alan Jacobs)

Another concern I had while thinking all this over and its relevance to my posts was that I might be giving off the impression that to be a good or interesting person, you should be a reader. Jacobs puts it best:

“ …we have gone long enough without raising the question of whether reading makes you a better person. The short answer to that question is No. It doesn’t. And the long answer doesn’t differ too dramatically from the short one.”

I don’t think people should read, just as I don’t think people should eat kale every day or get up at five in the morning to do yoga. Life is miserable when we only do what we think we should, and when we’re miserable, we’re not our best selves. To reiterate, I want my book lists to provide direction toward pleasure. Edification is sometimes the point of some of the books I recommend, but I recommend them with the implied caveat that you read them if you are looking for edification. Otherwise, just ignore them.

“The extreme reader, to coin a phrase, is a rare bird indeed. (‘I have done what people do, my life makes a reasonable showing,’ Lynne Sharon Schwartz writes.’Can I go back to my books now?’) Such people are born, not made, I think; or mostly born and only a little made. They take care of themselves; they always go back to their books.”

I know that not many people read as much as I do. I don’t see that as anything to flaunt. It just is. I take care of myself and get back to my books— that could easily summarize my life. But I share the best of what I read in case even a non-reader wants something pleasurable in the form of a book. And if none of my suggestions are up your alley, if I could impart the one rule (again, from Alan Jacobs) that I try to read (and live) by so that you are not discouraged in your own reading journey, it would be this:

“Read what gives you delight— at least most of the time— and do so without shame.”

May you choose to read and re-read the books you want to read when you want to read them just as freely as you choose not to read when you don’t want to read.

Downtown (a poem)

I wanted to catch the very next train, even though
I was only heading home and a train
comes every few minutes. I just can’t
be bothered to wait or get home ten
minutes later than I have it in my mind I
want to get home. So I was rushing across
the street, keeping my eyes on my book
but aware of the man hassling a guy walking
to the same corner I was heading from
the other side– which is to say, they
were heading my way. I picked up my
pace but couldn’t avoid the hassler,
who had clearly struck out with the guy
he had been hassling. ‘Excuse me, ma’am.’
‘Hm,’ I said, pained. It takes so much
effort to pretend to be humane sometimes.
‘Would you be able to tap me onto the train?’
I said yes– how could I not?– but we still
had most of the block to walk to get to
the train. I didn’t slow my pace, and he–
with great effort, I imagine– picked
up his own to keep up. He was short,
dirty, disheveled. He was carrying a plastic
bag. He asked for another favor– a few
dollars– but the convenience of debit
cards almost guarantees that at any point
in time, I will have no cash on me. I said
that maybe some of the people waiting
for the trains would have something.
‘Nah, they’re assholes down there.’ I said
that’s probably true. He mentioned Chicago
services, how unhelpful they are; I asked
where he was before and how the services
were there. He brought up the all-too-common
problem: no ID, no good. We were underground
by then. I tapped him on, and he managed
to get two temporary train cards from
visitors heading to the airport. We rode the
escalator down, talking about the weather
and winter’s coming. I wished him luck and
went to my usual place to wait for the train.
There were still several minutes before
it arrived. Another guy asked for a train
card. There is so much need here, I thought.
I couldn’t help him. I wondered what
would happen to the men when it gets
colder. I waited for the train some more,
got on, went home. I followed my normal
routine, got into bed, went to sleep. The day
wasn’t all that different from any other,
and there’s not much about it worth
sharing with anyone. And yet. One thing
continues to haunt me, all these weeks later:
I could have slowed down.

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