Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening

I’ve been re-reading this each morning since the beginning of the year—what luck! It has supported my flimsy wandering flabby mind during this panic time by providing calm wisdom and basic guideposts to help train the brain to mindfulness. Three months into this reading, the pandemic swept us all into a new reality, making Goldstein’s words echo ever more helpfully: “Anything can happen anytime.”

I wrote out a few reflections on PostIts by my mirror so that every day I am reminded of the essential facts: that I am subject to old age, illness, death, I’ll be parted from every one and everything dear to me, and that I am the owner and heir of my karma. They are reminders of what is true and what will happen to everyone.

His sections on worry also provide relief in this time when we’re all worrying about the future, making ourselves tense and miserable. “To whatever inconvenience there may or may not be, [when we worry] we’re saying, in effect, ‘Let’s add a little suffering to the mix.'”

I found myself getting angry at the many people (read: joggers) who are not wearing masks when outside. Goldstein counsels: “Although different conditions may prompt different emotions to arise, how we relate to those feelings is up to us.” This is also where lovingkindness comes in, so I’m trying to make it a practice to seek out and relate to the good in each person.

May all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness; be free from suffering and the causes of suffering; have joy and the causes of joy; remain free from attachment and aversion.

Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection

When the lockdown hit, it was like musical chairs after the music stopped. Whatever books from the library you already had in your possession, that was it. I feel extremely lucky to have already had this book of poems on hand, loaned from the Stanislaus County Library. They brought necessary warmth and comfort during dark, uncertain times.

An earlier version of me, my younger self, proclaimed a hatred of anthologies, including those of poems, but I have corrected that opinion, seeing the value. The editors say it best in the preface, anthologies are “an efficient means for finding beautiful and moving poems. The wrecks and fender-benders in nearly every individual poet’s books have been pushed off onto the shoulder, leaving only the poems still capable of taking us somewhere… Every anthology, too, is an argument for something, an act of persuasion, and this one is no exception.” My only beef is that it’s arranged alphabetical by author last name; so predictable, so boring, why not attempt something new with zetabetical ordering?

The collection came to my attention when I was searching for more poems by Danusha Laméris after appreciating her “Small Kindnesses”:

Small Kindnesses

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”

Lucinda Williams’s dad, Miller Williams, gives good advice:

Compassion

Have compassion for everyone you meet
even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.

This by Rob Jacques:

Inukshuk

Note: On frozen trails of the far north, Inuit people placed five stones in rough human form as a testament of endurance and as warm encouragement from those who had gone before to those who were coming after.

We were here. We saw sorrow.
Across our hearts, emptiness and cold
pulled hard, as they do in you now,
and we pressed on as you will do.
We did all that possibility will allow
and expect nothing less of you.
We stand guard over accomplishment
and a strong journey through all this.

See in gray desolation how we made
this five-piece thing and left it here,
a stone creation to bring you certainty
in this drear, frozen waste, showing
you and we are keepers of the flame
melting chaos. You and we proclaim.

This by Thomas R. Smith:

Trust

It’s like so many other things in life
to which you must say no or yes.
So you take your car to the new mechanic.
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.

The package left with the disreputable-looking
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers—
all show up at their intended destinations.

The theft that could have happened doesn’t.
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.

And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered, even though you can’t read the address.

This by Sue Ellen Thompson:

Sewing

The night before my older sister’s wedding,
my mother and I sat up late
hand-stitching a little cloud of netting
to the brim of each bridesmaid’s hat.

To be alone with her was so rare
I couldn’t think of what I had to say.
We worked in silence beneath the chandelier
until it was almost daybreak.

Soon I’d have a room of my own
and she would only be cooking for six.
We drifted among the wreaths we had sewn,
nursing quietly on our fingertips.

That she still had me was a comfort,
I think. And I still had her.

This by Barbara Crooker:

Listen,

I want to tell you something. This morning
is bright after all the steady rain, and every iris,
peony, rose, opens its mouth, rejoicing. I want to say,
wake up, open your eyes, there’s a snow-covered road
ahead, a field of blankness, a sheet of paper, an empty screen.
Even the smallest insects are singing, vibrating their entire bodies,
tiny violins of longing and desire. We were made for song.
I can’t tell you what prayer is, but I can take the breath
of the meadow into my mouth, and I can release it for the leaves’
green need. I want to tell you your life is a blue coal, a slice
of orange in the mouth, cut hay in the nostrils. The cardinals’
red song dances in your blood. Look, every month the moon
blossoms into a peony, then shrinks to a sliver of garlic.
And then it blooms again.

Olive, Again

Excellent followup to Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, we pick up almost exactly where the first Olive leaves off. She marries Jack and feels like he’s her “real” husband (not dead Henry), although at the end of the book when she’s in assisted living, she ends up hiding Jack’s smaller portrait and leaving Henry’s up. That’s actually a sweet ending, where she bounces lonely around the old folks until she meets a new inmate who she gets along with. They exchange keys and check in on each other twice a day, in addition to having meals together, but the simple 8am opening the door, waving, not saying anything, and the same at 8pm is so sweet.  Possibly my favorite section was Exiles, about a couple visiting his brother and their sister-in-law, Helen gets wasted on white wine and falls down the stairs after she gets flustered when the sister-in-law declares that hearing about other people’s grandchildren gets tiresome.

Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress

Fanny Burney’s second novel was published in 1782 in five volumes, coming to a whopping 919 pages. It’s evident that Burney has writing talent but, my god! oh for an editor to show her a trick or two about pacing!

Cecilia has just lost her beloved uncle and is now in the hands of her three London guardians which are very reminiscent of Goldilocks and the Three Bears— one spends way too much money, one is parsimonious beyond belief, and the last is a perfect blend of gentility and tact and manners. She has a large fortune but one of the stipulations in her uncle’s will is that whoever she marries keep her name, which turns away her beloved, Mortimer Delvile, until he suggests that they privately elope. It’s a massive whirlwind, and I refer you to the Wikipedia page if you need all the particulars of the story. My biggest takeaway is that all the chaos was caused by a lack of frank discussion. People would insinuate and demur to say things due to propriety, and that caused endless series of plot lines to pour forth.

I enjoyed early in the story where she’s settling into a horrid living situation with her first guardian, so she goes on a book buying spree: “Her next solicitude was to furnish herself with a well-chosen collection of books; and this employment, which to a lover of literature, young and ardent in its pursuit, is perhaps the mind’s first luxury, proved a source of entertainment so fertile and delightful that it left her nothing to wish. “

Drives My Green Age

Beautifully written book from the perspective of a Kansas girl (Chris) on the cusp of puberty who lives with her aunt and uncle, a new teacher comes to town and boards with them so Chris is able to see how a man creeps into her teacher’s room at night, and one spring night watches them go at it in the backyard, setting in motion the ouster of the teacher from the house, which means her sick uncle won’t have to climb the stairs to a bed anymore. She’s precocious, dreaming up a sermon she wants to give that centers around the Bible verse “O God, shatter their teeth in their mouths.” Her best friend is a year older and getting breasts and a boyfriend and Chris realizes this is the last year of her childhood. The writing will make you swoon: “There was nothing left of summer but the last hot September pocket which opened a stitch at a time into fall.”

Inns of Court

I became slightly obsessed with finding out more about that inner sanctum of London that I’ve read about for decades, those amazing bachelor residences of the Temple wherein great works of literature were penned and that are frequently referenced in classic works of Dickens, Thackeray. My latest literary crush, Samuel Butler, spent the last 38 years of his life living at No. 15 Clifford’s Inn, on the 2nd floor, the north side of the staircase, with a sitting room, bedroom, painting room, pantry, and passage with cupboards. Annual rent was £23 in 1864 and raised to £36 by the end, including taxes.

So down the rabbit hole I went, and I have 2 books about the Inns before me. A very dull one I rejected quickly was by Hyacinthe Ringrose, pub’d 1909, aimed at lawyers in US & Canada to explain the history of six centuries of law school in England. The best, most entertaining and delightful one, was by Cecil Headlam with illustrations by Gordon Home, also pub’d 1909. It’s one of those glorious old books with pages as thick as tree trunks. Headlam doesn’t hold back his opinion, calling out buildings for being ugly, as in this sample: “A plain, unpleasing, stuccoed, Early Victorian building now faces Chancery Lane and drops as a screen of ugliness across the old brick buildings within.”

But the Inns! Such fascinating history, dating back to the medieval Knights Templars who guarded pilgrims on the road to Jerusalem starting around the year 1118. Around the year 1180 they acquired a large meadow sloping down to the River Thames, south of Fleet Street, and built a hall and church and had a nearby tilting ground for jousts. Headlam points out that the first mention of the Temple as an abode of lawyers is in Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (c 1387). Various grants and patents changed hands and eventually the Temple became a law school of sorts where aspirants to the bar co-mingled and shared meals and discussion in the Hall. (“The same system of discipline, celibate life, a common Hall, residence in community, and compulsory attendance at Church, which marked the ordinary life of a medieval University was repeated at the Inns of Court.”) In the 17th century, official instruction disappeared and simply eating dinners there was all you needed to be admitted to the Bar. “The loss of the Law was the gain of Letters. A new class of students, educated in literature and politics, and highly born, were bred up to take their place in the direction of affairs and the criticism of writers.”

They sound a bit like men’s clubs, and there was lots of rowdy festivals. Shakespeare first staged Twelfth Night at the Middle Temple Hall in 1601 (captured by a diary entry of John Manningham on February 1601: “At our feast, Wee had a play called ‘Twelve Night, or What you will,’ much like the ‘Commedy of Errores,’ or ‘Menechmi’ in Plautus, but most like and neere to that in Italian called ‘Inganni.'”). Several fires destroyed various incarnations of the buildings but some parts remain intact.

The apartments were in close quarters with each other and noise complaints weren’t unheard of. When Oliver Goldsmith received £500 for his play, he moved into No 2 Brick Court and threw lots of parties, to the discomfort of his downstairs neighbor Blackstone, who was writing below, finding “good cause to grumble at the racket made by his revelling neighbour.”

Charles Lamb lived at No 16 Crown Office Row and told a friend to “bring his glass” (bincoculars) to view Surrey Hills. His bed faced the river and he could see sails glide by as he lay in bed.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s quote about Gray’s Inn (Source: The English Notebooks, p 434-5; Volume 22 of The Centenary Edition of the Works of Nathaniel Hawthorne):

It is very strange to find so much of ancient quietude right in the monster City’s very jaws, which yet the monster shall not eat up—right in its very belly, indeed, which yet, in all these ages, it shall not digest and convert into the same substance as the rest of its bustling streets. Nothing else in London is so like the effect of a spell, as to pass under one of these archways, and find yourself transported from the jumble, rush, tumult, uproar, as of an age of week-days intensified into the present hour, into what seems an eternal Sabbath. Thence we went into (I think it was) Staple Inn, which has a front upon Holborn of four or five ancient gables in a row, and a low arch under the impending story, admitting you into a paved quadrangle, beyond which you have the vista of another. I do not understand that the residences and chambers in these Inns of Court are now exclusively let to lawyers, though such inhabitants certainly seem to preponderate there.

Uncanny Valley: A Memoir

In awe of this book. So great and I’m not even a little bit jealous that I didn’t write it myself. This captured exactly what life in San Francisco has been over the last decade. Beautifully written, scathing, insightful. Life as a non-technical intellectual surrounded by tech, living in the Castro, biking in the fog, trying to square her six-figure salary with the army of homeless sprawled on the streets. The intersection of ravers/Burners who seem to be performing what they thought the 1960s were all about, with the technofuturists. Brilliant, unmissable memoir that restores my faith in first person accounting in the modern age.

How to survive in the North

Luke Healy does a masterful job telling the story of two Arctic expeditions, one in 1912, the other a few years later, interwoven with the story of a professor put on probation for having an affair with a student, so he holes up in the library and researches the expeditions. I loved the colors throughout this, he used different palates to show that you were in a different story line.

Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz

This isn’t the best written biography you’ll ever read, which is why it seems I keep taking it up and discarding it. But I always return because Cynthia Carr’s Wojnarowicz is the most deeply researched by way of interviews with his friends and cohorts.

Of most interest to me in this go-round was the detail surrounding the Rimbaud mask photos. He was visiting JP in Paris in the summer of 1979, a time when French artist Ernest Pignon-Ernest had attached Rimbaud’s photo to a photo of a leather-jacketed young man, lifesize photos plastered on walls, phone booths, billboarrds. “Surely David had seen the cheap newsprint Rimbaud posters plastered everywhere in Paris in 1978-79,” Carr conjectures.

Ernest Pignon-Ernest’s Rimbaud posters in Paris, 1978-79

David had a short-lived minimum wage job in the summer of 1979 for an ad agency that trained him to print photographs and run a photostat machine. This is where he photostated the cover of Illuminations to create the Rimbaud mask, life-sized. From there he put Brian Butterick, John Hall, and JP into the mask and into various NYC-based location shoots. When he got $150 from Soho News to print four of his Rimbaud photos, it was the first payment he got for his art.

Other random factoids: living with Brian Butterick in DUMBO at 59 Hudson Ave., they kept a 3-ring binder that they’d each add an artwork to every day—a poem, drawing, found object, collage.

Who Would Be Free

Marian Spitzer’s 1924 book about a young semi-talented artistic Jewish woman who resolutely rejects marriage in order to live by herself, free, was a joy to inhale this morning. She’s beset by traps on all sides. Her mother schemes to get her to marry an acceptable Jewish man, Chester Adelstein, while Eleanor prefers the more bohemian (and unacceptable Jewish) man, Ted Levine (Jew-on-Jew hatred apparently a thing, German Jews looking down on those from Russia?), who encouraged her to go to art school instead of become a teacher. But she knows she wants to escape her parents, the regimented life, and she fights hard to do so. Although in love with Ted, he goes off to war (WW1) and she knows she’ll never see him again. Sure enough, news of his death comes on Armistice Day. She throws herself back into life again and manages to move out of her parents’ apartment, earn a small living as a graphic designer for the theater, and when she turns 21, comes into money from her Grandmother that allows her to get her own attic studio apartment for $60 a month. Another man enters the fray as soon as she becomes successful, and she nearly becomes trapped by him, too. An ultimatum to marry him right before he sails for Europe that she accepts, then spends a sleepless night worrying about. I cheered as I sat alone in my room of my own, as she comes to the decision to back out of the marriage.

The room became suddenly invested with a new value—the room that summed up, really, all that she had fought and worked for, ever. It was there, alone, that she had come into possession of her soul. And now she was giving it up—leaving it behind—sailing for Europe, marrying. It was funny, now that Steve was gone, Europe didn’t seem quite so alluring. After all, just more places, other cities, with different streets and buildings. That was one of the things about belonging just to yourself. You didn’t have to go anywhere. Or do anything. You had wonderful moments, unspoiled by anything. It occurred to her that whatever moments of absolutely unalloyed beauty and happiness she had ever known, had been in solitude—solitude of body and spirit… The peace that had once been so palpably a part of the room slowly gathered again and eveloped her. She and peace were in that room, and the rest of the world was shut outside.    THE END

Olive Kitteridge

I’m not a fan of reading books after having seen the screen adaptation, but somehow having Frances McDormand’s face loom up from the pages wasn’t all bad, as long as the writing moved along creamily and pulled me under. Plus there are many more stories and layers in the written work than what could be depicted even in an extended miniseries. Sturdy Olive Kitteridge, retired math teacher with a saint for a husband, speaks her mind and has no love lost from the small Maine town’s citizens. Henry has a stroke, hangs on for years in a nursing home. Her son Christopher leaves town with wife #1 for California, only to get divorced and remarry a woman with a few kids of her own before settling in NYC as a podiatrist. Elizabeth Strout has the gift of weaving a tale out of nothing, making you invested in the characters in this small community, eager for more.

The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want

Recommended by the Yale class on The Science of Well-Being, Lyubomirsky helps us hack our way into adjusting the factors we control that influence 40% of what determines happiness (circumstances = 10%, genetic set point = 50%). She starts with a  epigraph from William James: “To change one’s life, start immediately, do it flamboyantly, no exceptions.” (Sadly I can’t find a definitive citation, so I think it’s only rumored to be James.)

After leading you through some diagnostic tests to figure out which activity best fits your personality, she explores 12 happiness activities:

  • Express gratitude
  • Cultivate optimism
  • Avoid overthinking & social comparison
  • Practice acts of kindness
  • Nurture social relationships
  • Develop coping strategies
  • Learn to forgive
  • Increase flow experiences
  • Savor life’s joys
  • Commit to your goals
  • Practice religion/spirituality
  • Take care of your body through meditation/exercise/acting happy

For cultivating optimism, she suggests writing about your best possible self; think about your best possible self now and during the next few weeks—imagine yourself in the future after everything has gone as well as it possibly could. You’ve worked hard and accomplished all your goals. This is the realization of your life dreams and your best potentials. Write for 20 minutes daily about what this is like, or think about this for 20 minutes then write your conclusions about what you imagine. Why does writing work? “Because writing is highly structured, systematic, and rule-bound, it prompts you to organize, integrate, and analyze your thoughts in a way that would be difficult, if not impossible, to do if you were just fantasizing.”

New Grub Street

George Gissing’s classic work exposing the brutal reality of difficulty making a living as a writer in 1880s London, laying out all the facts, the pittance offered for a work that cost the author a year of his life or more. One writer, Reardon, ends up sick and dies nearly penniless, despite his wife having come into an inheritance. Another writer, Biffen, kills himself, although for flimsier reasons—not caring particularly that his book wasn’t a success but more because he can’t marry someone? (This after he rescues his manuscript for his book from a fire in his building, clinging to a chimney on the roof and having a neighbor rescue him with a ladder). Then there’s Jasper, the frivolous man who understands how to write the blather that the public wants, and not to burden himself with a wife unless she’s rich. The story of the two cousins, Amy and Marian Yule, comes into this, Jasper first promising to marry Marian but when her inheritance disappears he pulls away, eventually marrying Amy after Reardon dies.

Marian helps her father write his articles, and she sits in the Reading Room musing one foggy day: “A few days ago her startled eye had caught an advertisement in the newspaper, headed ‘Literary Machine’; had it then been invented at last, some automaton to supply the place of such poor creatures as herself, to turn out books and articles? Alas! the machine was only one for holding volumes conveniently, that the work of literary manufacture might be physically lightened. But surely before long some Edison would make the true automaton; the problem must be comparatively such a simple one. Only to throw in a given number of old books, and have them reduced, blended, modernised into a single one for today’s consumption.”

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening

This is not the type of book you breeze through in an afternoon. Recommended by a meditation class I took a few years ago, I finally got around to reading it in tiny bites each morning, a great way to start the day. Now that I’m through with one pass of the book, I’m going to keep it on my table and start again, a morning burst of wisdom to set the tone for the day.

While I suppose structure is a necessary component of explaining the Buddha’s teachings, I admit that it makes my head spin to try and keep track of all the things: the 7 factors of awakening, the eightfold path, the 5 techniques for getting rid of distracting thoughts, 5 themes of reflection, and on and on. Will I be quizzed on this? Instead, I tried to focus on the underlying concepts and let the numbers float away.

The personal stories inside are the ones that have the most staying power to stick in your brain, like his tales from meditation retreats or other monks’ experiences.

In a Lonely Place

Terrific Los Angeles noir from Dorothy Hughes, a mystery writer my sister recommended. Dix is a grifter, an ex-pilot unleashed from WW2 onto the Santa Monica streets where he inhales the fog while looking around for women to strangle. He calls up an old military buddy who happens to be an LA cop, and ratchets up his own pleasure in committing the crimes that his friend is investigating. The writing is beyond great, “He put out his hand to the mossy fog as if he would capture it, but his hand went through the gauze and he smiled.” Ms. Hughes is now on my must read list whenever I get a hankering for fiction.