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Chapter XVII

because you never know someone from the very beginning

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Books

Life of Pi

I recently finished reading Life of Pi by Yann Martel.  If you have not read it, I strongly suggest it.  There were many quotable passages in the book…examples:

“I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently.”

"Don't you bully me with your politeness! Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?"

I love that last line – what is your problem with hard to believe.  One other passage struck me in particular.  It was the chapter on fear.  It seems particularly relevant in this turbulent time.  Words I wish I had written myself:

"I must say a word about fear. It is life's only true opponent. Only fear can defeat life. It is a clever, treacherous adversary, how well I know. It has no decency, respects no law or convention, shows no mercy. It goes for your weakest spot, which it finds with unerring ease. It begins in your mind, always. One moment you are feeling calm, self-possessed, happy. Then fear, disguised in the garb of mild-mannered doubt, slips into your mind like a spy. Doubt meets disbelief and disbelief tries to push it out. But disbelief is a poorly armed foot soldier. Doubt does away with it with little trouble. You become anxious. Reason comes to do battle for you. You are reassured. Reason is fully equipped with the latest weapons technology. But, to your amazement, despite superior tactics and a number of undeniable victories, reason is laid low. You feel yourself weakening, wavering. Your anxiety becomes dread.

Fear next turns fully to your body, which is already aware that something terribly wrong is going on. Already your lungs have flown away like a bird and your guts have slithered away like a snake. Now your tongue drops dead like an opossum, while your jaw begins to gallop on the spot. Your ears go deaf. Your muscles begin to shiver as if they had malaria and your knees to shake as though they were dancing. Your heart strains too hard, while your sphincter relaxes too much. And so with the rest of your body. Every part of you, in the manner most suited to it, falls apart. Only your eyes work well. They always pay proper attention to fear.

Quickly you make rash decisions. You dismiss your last allies: hope and trust. There, you've defeated yourself. Fear, which is but an impression, has triumphed over you.

The matter is difficult to put into words. For fear, real fear, such as shakes you to your foundation, such as you feel when you are brought face to face with your mortal end, nestles in your memory like a gangrene: it seeks to rot everything, even the words with which to speak of it. So you must fight hard to express it. You must fight hard to shine the light of words upon it. Because if you don't, if your fear becomes a wordless darkness that you avoid, perhaps even manage to forget, you open yourself to further attacks of fear because you never truly fought the opponent who defeated you."

The Glass Castle

I just finished the book The Glass Castle.  Some controversy around this book – people loved it, others hated it to the point of not being able to finish it.  Without expounding on others’ views, many of which I totally understand, I was deeply pulled into this book.  It’s an amazing story of childhood, with jaw-dropping incidents that will horrify anyone with an ounce of compassion for kids.  But mostly it’s a story about survival and forgiveness, and how the two play into one another.  I found many of things the parents did entirely unforgivable, but as I thought about it, I don’t know how I would have reacted had I been the kids.  These are, after all, your parents.  It’s hard to give up on people, especially your own flesh and blood.

But damn these people were manipulative and horrible, and irresponsible and to add insult to injury…entirely capable.  Not incapable, CAPABLE. 

Some might wonder, what is the point of reading this book?  I left the movie Babel wondering why I bothered.  What was I supposed to take away from that mess of disasters and despair?   I found this book thought provoking.  We all have issues with our parents.  If we didn’t, the world would not be in therapy and Prozac would not be a household name.  And for me, this made me think about those relationships, and how they affects me now as an adult, and what I was capable of accepting at age 20 versus now.  I am glad to say my issues are nowhere near these – not even in the same ballpark – but the thoughts remain and they are healthy questions to ask. 

I cannot and should not describe it further.  If you are curious, read it and see how you think you might react.

Eat, Pray, Love

I finished the book Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert the other day.  About a zillion people seem to be reading this book, and with good reason.  I loved it.  I had heard comments from friends about it before and while I was reading it such as:

"I loved the first two parts but did not like the third."
"I really liked it but am not sure I really got it."
"Quick read.  I found it funny more than anything else."

After finishing the book, I find all of these comments surprising and totally different from my read.  I felt like I knew the author.  To my friend who made the last listed comment, she is a bit younger (mid-20s) and I suspect has never had her heart broken – and god bless her.  This book was certainly written with a sense of humor but it was far from funny.  It’s not Augustine but it is certainly not a shallow funny beach read.  Gilbert wrote sentences I wish I had written, relayed her experiences in ways I found incredibly close to my own, and conveyed her personality in a way that made me want her as a friend.  The kind of friend you can talk to about life and meaning and whether or not God exists and what it means to be spiritual…all while splitting a massive plate of fries and a bottle of wine.  Or two.  A few things in particular stood out:

  • Her description of the Yogic path on page 122 is nicely put.  I especially like the part about realizing that somewhere deep inside each of us is a "supreme Self" who is eternally at peace (LOVE the supreme self!  Like a Yoda for each of us.  I shall call mine George).  She goes on to discuss how yoga is an effort to be present and a way to access that supreme self, from which we can regard ourselves and our surroundings with poise.  Well if that does not make me want to twist into poses, I don’t know what does.
  • In continuing to discuss mindfulness (page 132), she talks about how Buddhists talk about our "monkey minds"…through our non-stop thoughts, we swing from branch to branch, unharnessed and undisciplined, allowing our thoughts to rule our lives and emotions.  Our thoughts more than reality, I should say. 
  • On page 174 she talks about a stillness meditation whereby the participant stays completely still for some period of time.  No itching, no scratching, no moving.  Fascinating.  The effort is to not always and immediately react to something happening to you or around you.  But to have patience and to realize the  wisdom and truth of the phrase "this too shall pass."
  • And finally, on page 260 she discusses happiness.  She suggests that happiness is not something you fall into but something you work for.  It takes effort.  My favorite sentence of the book appears here.  In discussing happiness, she writes "You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings."

I just love that last sentence.  So if you cannot tell, I am a fan.  And yes, it is a nice beach read.  But who said the beach cannot also be a place for thoughtfulness?

Chasing Daylight

I just finished an extraordinary book titled Chasing Daylight.  You can get it here.  I had read about the book on about 500 blogs, so I finally said "what the hell" and bought it to see for myself if it lived up to the hype. 

Well any book that brings me to tears lives up to the hype, in my opinion.

It’s not a big book.  It’s not high literature.  It’s a plain, straightforward, sensible, humble memoir about death.  As someone who thinks about death more than the average person (I have planned my funeral.  Most of my friends know what to expect – fried chicken, a New Orleans band, dancing.) I was excited to read about it from the horse’s mouth…from someone who was in the midst of the experience.   As much as it was about death, it was also about living and acceptance.  The art of acceptance.  I am not sure there was anything earth shattering in this book, but sometimes it’s the simple reminders that have the most impact.  A few of the things that stood out to me:

  • O’Kelly describes himself as someone whose "capacity to confront reality" served him well throughout life.  This is an interesting trait, and something I aspire to.  Confronting reality sounds simple.  But much of our strife in life comes from not only not accepting reality, but not acknowledging it in the first place. 
  • He also discusses the importance of distinguishing passion from talent.  I have a pet peeve – when people say they can be anything they want in life as long as they try, believe and have passion.  Call me cynical, but my answer for this is "Maybe."  Believe, be hopeful, work your ass off, but realize that certain things in life require raw talent.  Accept it and be happy.
  • There have been several books and articles this year on the topic of atheism and how crazy all of us are who believe in God.  Perhaps.  There are worse things than being crazy.  And since we don’t yet have a cure for the common cold, I can accept that there are things in life that cannot be proven, scientifically dealt with or tied up with a neat bow of black or white.  I like shades of grey.  In Chasing Daylight, O’Kelly confronts an atheist by saying "But I want to understand how you can’t believe in God.  Isn’t that the same as consciously making the decision not to let love into your life?"

I found this last bit fascinating, and am still thinking about it.  Love is hard to touch, see, prove, and describe.  It’s elusive.  It does not always make sense.  It is rarely logical. 

So this is how I judge a book – am I still thinking about it, did I want it to go on and did it touch me emotionally.  This is a solid yes on all three counts.

Gorging Myself On Media

I am outdoing myself with media consumption, and in doing so, am accomplishing/retaining less than I had hoped.   I need to rationalize what I am reading, watching, etc.  "Do Less To Do More."  This is my new motto.  Along with "Be Here Now."  See, it’s happening again – is one motto enough?  Nope.  Must have two.  Yikes.  A survey of what I having been taking in, of late:

On TV: The Tudors, various movies on the Sundance channel, The Winds Of War, 20/20’s series on faith (the piece on the nuns is pretty interesting), 60 Minutes, 24 (though I am boring of it quickly) and of course Grey’s Anatomy (McSeries!).  And I am intrigued by Traveler.  And I watch cooking shows.  But I am a little tired of quick meal, dinner in a hurry, 15 minutes to being a dream wife shows.  Can someone bring Julia back?  Perhaps a show for those of us interested in really cooking?  But I digress.

Now, books: My Life in France, Julia Child; Life is Meals; Founders At Work; Ghost Wars.  I also started Dracula again.  This is my third start with it.  I like it each time and then get distracted.  Third time a charm?  Am also 150 pages into Nicholas and Alexandra.  And of course, So You Think You’re Not Religious (thanks Dad).

This is not to mention various other things lying around: the NY Times, NY Magazine, the Atlantic Monthly, two issues of Vanity Fair, more cooking magazines than I care to admit, a few interior design mags (check out Blueprint, BTW – a little frantic, but great ideas), and many many others.

And this is not to mention what I read for work (blogs, newspapers, newsletters, research whitepapers, etc etc etc). 

Clearly I have a problem.  Or I have MADD (Media Attention Deficit Disorder).  I am reading so much that I am actually reading nothing.  I am reading while watching TV.  Unlike others, I will admit I am a mere mortal and am unable to do several things at once.  While my bookshelf might suggest I am a fabulously in the know person who is up on all kinds of things, this could not be further from the truth.  Crap.  I am a fraud!  I suspect that this fragmenting of my mind and attention is doing me a major disservice.  I am all talk and no knowledge.  I am comprehending little and retaining even less. 

Do others have secrets on how they manage to get through it all and at cocktail parties spout off facts that show they actually read it?  Where do you find the time!  Or is the answer that you take the Martha Stewart Bill Clinton approach – you are not human, you only need 2 hours of sleep, you are trained to speed read (oh no, it comes NATURALLY to you) and therefore consume a book a day…minimum.

Well, not I.  As much as I would like to be a speed reading, need no sleep, bring home the bacon and run a company all while doing power yoga woman, it’s just not me.  This feels like a failing.  But that would be silly, wouldn’t it?  To allow not being a super human to make you feel like a failure?  Who needs to to 55 things at once anyway?  Perhaps the way to not feel bad about realizing I am not The Bionic Woman is to view the situation through a different lens – the stop and smell the roses lens.  It’s OK to read one thing at once.  It’s OK to just watch a TV show and not try to get through Proust at the same time. 

So I vow to slow down.  Do one thing at a time, and do it well.  Not spread myself too thin.  Focus.  Do something to completion.  Slow down.  Breathe.

Twilight

I just finished a book called Twilight.  See cover at left.  I will make the bold statement and say – this is a must read.  I loved this book. 

Now, as you click on it and head to Amazon.com (no, I am not getting paid for this), you will note that this book is for young adults.  As a 34 year old, I consider myself a young adult, so I read it.

What?  You say young adults are defined as "12 and Up"?  How sad that we push our dear 12 year olds to be Young Adults. 

So ignore all that.  This is a page turner for any age.

Book list!

I read a fair amount…here is a sample list of books I have read, noting the year in which I read it…

Liar’s Club 1997 (loved it),

One Hundred Years of Solitude 1997 (a bit mystical for me),

Malcolm X 1998 (great insight into another point of view),

From Beirut to Jerusalem 1998, by Thomas Friedman, read this while in Chileover XMAS break.  What an amazing book – balanced account of the middle east.  A fabulous intro to the region and why things are the way they are.

The Stranger 1999 (well-written and interesting – though not liveable – philosophy),

Death of Ivan Ilyich 1999 (loved it – perspective),

Prince of Tides 1999 (great beach read),

The Great Gatsby 1999 ok – I was supposed to read this in HS, but since I didn’t really become a reader until college (despite being in advanced high school English (thank you public high school), I read it after bschool.  I loved it.  Fitzgerald has a grace with words and a simplicity that unveils truths about life and humanity not often acknowledged.

Exodus 1999 Leon Uris, got tired of the main character, but overall gripping and an easy way to read via historical fiction, the building of Israel by the Jews,

Bluebeard 2000 should read more vonnegurt,

White Teeth 2001 (pretty good – cross culture character development story), 

A heartbeaking work of staggering genius 2001 (good – some slow parts, stream of consciousness, tender),

The Hours 2001 (loved this – extremely well written and pulled together at the end),

Wives of Henry VIII 2001 (beginning fascinating – catherine and anne; divorced, beheaded, died…divorced, beheaded, survived),

Like Water for Chocolate (2001) wonderful love story,

Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood 2001 (great beach read – cheesy at times, good thoughts on mother/daughter stuff),

Naked 2001 (hilarious and tragic and thoughtful and bare),

Motherless Brookyln 2001 (tourettes part was fascinating, storyline ok)

Tender at the Bone 2001 (loved it, Ruth Reichl has a great voice and is accessible and inspiring)

The Corrections (2001 Xmas) really liked it – cried at the end as it reminded me of my grandmother losing it, my mother being overly persnickety yet how relieved she will be when she is free of caring for granny, of how much I relate to Gary’s feelings of working hard and deserving recognition and the need to control…just a lot of it hit home pretty hard

America‘s Queen – Jackie Kennedy bio (Feb 2002) excellent. she was odd, intriguing, petty at times, charming, smart

Jack (2002) story of GE’s Jack Welch, pretty good, mickey mouse management

Roots (2002) absolutely loved it, amazing story of a family saga and the heinous crimes against them

The Handmaid’s Tale (2002) very disturbing and well written, trends from today taken to their worst extreme

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (July 2002) an amazing start to Maya Angelou’s bio. who knew there was rape, intellectual encouragement, Mexican highjinks, a month in a junkyard, the first black san fran street car operator and a pregnancy at sixteen???

The Haj (September 2002), I liked it as it told a lot about the middle east, but I did find it somewhat racist against Arabs.

Passage to India (2002) really enjoyed this – excellent character development – very complex and symbolic of the larger issues

Papillon (2002) GREAT adventure story.  Tests of endurance, will of the spirit, and a testament to life’s simple pleasures (esp. at the end)

Pillars of the Earth (2002) fantastic story about building a cathedral in the 12th century. Glad I did not live in those brutal times!

The Bell Jar (2002) I thought this was very well-written. I related to a number of Esther’s sentiments and experiences.  That’s a little scary. Interested in seeing the movie.

Comfort Me With Apples (2003) another ruth reichl.  Not so highbrow, but I do love how she ties food into her life as a form of comfort, intellectual stimuli, etc.  good recipes tied into here too.

No Need For Speed (2003) good inspirational running book.  Actually, good life lesson part towards the end about being your own judge of success.

Mrs. Dalloway (2003) must re-read and do it all in one fell swoop on a Saturday afternoon.

Rage to Live (2002 – 2003) ok so it took a while to get through – it’s long – but it was really great.  Need to read more exploration books.  It is so easy to forget that not long ago much of the world was uncharted territory.

Love in the Time of Cholera (2003) I am not a fatalist, and I have my doubts that two people are meant to be together forever…HOWEVER, this book was a marvelous picture of love and relationships.   Such truth and humanity.  Worthy of a re-read once every few years.

The Miracle of Mindfulness (2003)  by Tick Nhat Han, sent to me by my sister.  This was a really good intro to meditation and various forms of meditating.

Chesapeake (2003) by Michener.  What a big book.  I got tired of the characters BUT there was fascinating detail on the history and the ecology of the territory.

Stargirl (2003) by Spinelli.  This is a book aimed at teens and recommended by Donna.  I am in love with this book.  It is all about nonconformity, in the context of a high school.  The interesting thing is that those issues persist beyond high school and just take different forms (different marriage choices, different career and financial choices, etc.) and still can be divisive, though not necessarily quite as viciously as in high school.  She is such an amazing character – and the descriptions and writing and life lessons…phrases like “OH no, you are a dolphin stuck in a tuna net” or the conversation about the dormant mud frogs.  The scene where they are listening to the world was striking as well.  This will be sent out to many and re-read often.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2003) by Michael Chabon.  This book was incredibly well written and wonderfully imaginative.  The middle got a little tough – reminded me of Catch 22 in style for some reason.  Would recommend.

Wacky Chicks (2004) by Simon Doonan.  This book was disappointing.  It became more about how they looked than about what they had accomplished, or about fun things they did.  It was more an expose of how they dressed and maybe a few antics.  Nothing special.

The Art of Happiness (2004) This is the Dali Lama.  I had read bits and pieces of this before, but never straight through.  It was not earth shattering, nor did it change my life, but it did offer several really great strategies for dealing with life, anxiety, fear.  It had wonderful thoughts on developing compassion and emphasized patience and tolerance.  Definitely would recommend and want to summarize its wisdom to review later on.

When Things Fall Apart (2004) More Buddhism – and I really like it.  It’s realistic and makes a lot of sense.  However, would not recommend this particular book to a depressed person – that would be a disaster! 

Play Like a Man, Win Like a Woman (2004)  Career empowerment stuff.  Not bad.  A few good reminders of things to think about to keep you out of trouble with habits you may or may not even be conscious of (terrible grammar on my part).

The Power of Now (2004).  Ok this was a REAL winner.  Much of the same learnings as When Things Fall Apart, but a bit more digestible (or maybe it’s all just starting to make sense to me.  The lessons are powerful and worthy of summary which will do in the journal.  This is a book that will be re-read again and again.

Tuesdays with Morrie (2004 – second time).  So this is the second time around for this book and I was inspired to pick it up again post reading #44.  Good choice.  Similar lessons and what an inspiration Morrie was (and is).  We should all aspire to be more like him even in our best moments.

Interpreter of Maladies (2004).  This book was excellent.  A series of short stories that were heart-felt and real.  Well illustrating the issues dealt with when assimilating into a new culture.

Awareness (2004).  This is life-changing.  An annual must-read.

Peace in Every Step (2004).  Well I liked the Miracle of Mindfulness better.  I am all for meditation and awareness, but this was a little too hokey for me.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2004)  I remember being amazed at how this book came together – and yes, the sense of spirit and life is not to be missed from this.

Ahab’s Wife (2004)  Well I really liked the beginning but man, she goes over the top with her PC references.  Mercy.

Shadow of the Wind (2005) This one was pretty good, not fabulous.  Decent beach read.

Back from Betrayal (2005) this was written by a woman I met at a wedding.  It talks about how she dealt with her husband’s infidelity.  Definitely worth reading. 

Million Little Pieces (2005) This book is really extraordinary.  Close to the bone on many levels given that dad was in a treatment center, as was Alex’s mother.  Stream of consciousness.  Really powerful to understand those moments of progress and improvement.  (now very unhappy with this book and the fact that it was a big pile of embellished rubbish).

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