Yes, I’m still alive. I apologize for dropping off the earth, but it felt “necessary?” For some reason, over a month ago now, I just could not write another word. And here we are approaching the end of October and I still can’t. But I felt like I owed something to those that have been opening a post from me by choice for so long. So here I am.
I’m alive. I’m well. But I’m not writing. And I’m not sure I will for a while yet. I’m following other interests at the moment and something had to give.
I was going to wax poetic about how wonderfully magical Journal of a Novel was, but the last page summed up the whole book.
“The Reader – Well, by God, Pat, he’s just like me, no stranger at all. He’ll take from my book what he can bring to it. The dull witted will get dullness and the brilliant may find things in my book I didn’t know where there.
And just as he is like me, I hope my book is enough like him so that he may find in it interest and recognition and some beauty as one finds in a friend.”
That’s exactly what happened when I read East of Eden. It’s what happens each time I read any book. That’s what is supposed to happen. A book, especially a novel, isn’t a lesson or a lecture, it’s a version of events. We each bring to the story our own being and when we read it, something magical happens. There’s an interaction, almost a chemical reaction of sorts. Something new is created in us.
And when we share those interpretations with others, combine them with the world we know and the impressions others had while reading those same stories, something even bigger comes of it all. The author’s struggles and efforts to put words together turns out to be more than what he had thought to create.
Life can be lived in much the same way if we allow ourselves to be honest. When we come together to share our stories, we create new ones, if we can keep an open mind and respect the being of those around us.
Hmm… I’m still reading Reflections on a Mountain Lake each morning before my meditation time, and just this morning she was mentioning something similar. Each time I meet a new person, read a new book, or experience some new something, I grow a little bit if I allow myself to be open to the experience and not try to control it, let it be there as it is instead of trying to force it onto a frame of my own construction.
I’m so glad I found this book. It was a beautiful follow-up to East of Eden. As a writer, it gave me so much to relate to. I feel like a part of a community. I’m not alone or completely nuts. I was never a fan of John Steinbeck’s books, but now I feel like we’re friends.
The system finally worked! What system? My notecard system to keep track of why I put a book on my TBR list! I have a pile of notecards nearby and when I find a book I need to read, I write the title/author on one and below it I write where and when I learned about it. Then, when I get the book, I put that card inside of it so I can write about it later.
I needed a short, lighter book to read, so I picked Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney off my overburdened TBR shelf. It was late at night, I couldn’t sleep, so I sat up late reading. Two hours later, I was nearly halfway through the book wondering why I had added it to the list. It didn’t seem like my kind of book.
My card had no other notes than the title (something I have vowed to change), so I went to the original book, How to Live. What to Do by Josh Cohen. I just went back looking for a post about that book and it’s one I didn’t write about. I must have been in a blogging slump when I read it back in June. Thank goodness for his notes in the back of the book. I found where he had mentioned it and read the section again. Ahh… here we are.
It was in Chapter 4 – Adolescence Part 2: First Love. The book is clever because he is a psychoanalyst and uses characters from books as case studies. He brings up Frances in her story Conversations with Friends, mentions the relationships and their communications styles. “Roony’s novels turn on a similar problem: the weird and unsettling proximity of love to cruelty.”
Is that love? Really? We can be very cruel to each other when we are fearful of being vulnerable. The dance between new people is dangerous. If I open up to you, will you hurt me? It’s terrifying and delicious.
“In novels, as in life, we find the inner self is annoyingly uncongenial to the maintenance of a steady state. It is divided, pulled in different directions by different impulses – it wants safety and risk, consistency and change, to say yes and to say no.”
I’m trying to remember that he’s talking of adolescents, but Conversations with Friends characters are all over twenty-one years old, some are over thirty. When does he think we come out of this phase of our lives? I guess it depends on how much work we put into growing up. It’s something I feel we’re not encouraged to do these days. Many of us remain childish our whole lives, never learning our inner selves and knowing what real love is.
This was not what I was getting from reading Conversations with Friends. At halfway through, I was more drawn to the politics of these girls and their so-called “friends.” The way they talk to each other and treat each other doesn’t seem like friends at all. They seem closed off, never opening up to themselves or the people they call friends. They hide their true feelings, always pretending to be something they aren’t.
Also from How to Live. What to Do, “Frances, the complex, spiky narrator of Sally Rooney’s Conversation with Friends (2017), is immersed in this ether of doubt as she wanders the treacherous landscapes of love and sex. Her Dublin is a wired global city of big banks and coffee chains and trust fund kids, a far cry from the shuttered repression of the city of James Joyce’s Dubliners.
But much as we shouldn’t understate the place of historical change in determining the ways we love, perhaps we should be equally ware of overstating it. If Conversations shows us how our post-liberation age has transformed the conduct of love, it also reminds us how much stays the same. Confusion, anxiety and volatility are as present for Frances as they were for Werther.”
THAT book is sitting on my TBR shelf as well, and it’s on my reading list for The Classics Club, so guess what I’ll be reading next?
This morning I read more and my feelings about them are starting to change. The author is revealing them to me, and I like it. I seem to remember the same feeling when I read Normal People.
One thing I’m not liking is the lack of quotation marks in the dialog. I’m having a terrible time following who said what or just thought it. I know this is a new thing. Call me old, but I’m not a fan. I’ll post more about the book when I finish reading it.
It’s easy to pick twenty books from my list that I haven’t read yet since I just started. I’ve only read ONE so far! But which books to choose? I started by eliminating any book I already have on my shelf. Yeah…I’m giving myself an excuse to buy a new book! Then I eliminated books I’ve read in the distant past. And then I eliminated doubles, only one play and one book of poetry.
I’m excited to read any of these books next, so here we go!
Flatland by Edwin Abbott
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? By Edward Albee
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
The Plague by Albert Camus
Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
I received an unexpected book in the mail last month. When I opened my mailbox, there it was. I wondered…did I order a book and forget? Hmm… I checked my Amazon orders just in case but found nothing. And then I remembered! I have a friend that loves to send random books from time to time, ones he thinks I haven’t heard of, but I might enjoy. Yeah, I’m lucky enough to have a friend like that!
This book is heavy, and I don’t mean deep and wonderous. It’s literally heavy and it’s not even that thick of a book, only around 400 pages. It’s printed on thick semi-gloss paper, which makes it heavy AND hard to see under my book light because of glare. I wonder at publisher’s choice.
About a week after the book came to me, I happened to see a podcast interview with the author on People I (Mostly) Admire, a podcast I regularly listen to, so I added it to my playlist. The interview was wonderful, and it made me look forward to reading the book even more.
My notes from that podcast are pretty sketchy. I was taking notes as I drove home from a few days in Arizona. I didn’t even do a Podcast Roundup about that drive. It had been a long, emotional week for me and I just didn’t have the energy to do much of anything. I did get the vague idea that he was no Pollyanna, he could see clearly the human race does have some big problems, but still felt hopeful because he said some things I’ve been thinking myself.
This world is all about suffering and there isn’t some big overarching meaning or direction to existence. That shouldn’t depress you because to your family and friends you are everything, and that’s where you have the most influence in this world. And that’s where you should be focusing your energy.
The best way to live is to be amazed by the most ordinary things.
Take time off. You don’t need to be ON all the time, even though through technology we CAN.
There was so much more on this podcast, and he said it so well. I highly recommend listening to it. He talked about why he wrote this book and how it came into existence. It was a wonderful conversation, and that’s why the book was such a disappointment. After only page 75, I’m putting it down and marking it DNF.
Why? Several reasons but the biggest is that it has this underlying hatred of humanity and it colors everything in the text with negativity. It’s depressing. Yes, humans have an amazing capacity for destruction (so do most animals from the prey’s perspective), but you know what else we have: the capacity to notice, change, and create. I’m fairly certain that if you follow any other animal through time, you’d find that they overpowered other species, changed the environment, and made space for themselves, until another species did it to them or learned to live alongside them. Humans were not dropped here on earth from another planet. We are not an invasive species. We are part of the ecosystem like any other animal. We will evolve or die out, as any other animal has.
The sad part is that I want the information. I’m curious about the science of this world: how long the planet has been making creatures, how some groups may have evolved and spread, how the weather and geology was created and changed. There’s so much to learn that it overwhelms me. Sometimes I think maybe I should take a class or at least start watching some lectures about these things, but there’s just so much I don’t understand. And so many different perspectives and theories, all of which believe they are the RIGHT one. You know, in a past life I considered a geology major. Crazy right?
But the style of writing in Sapiens just made me sad, far too sad, and it read like a textbook. I knew I’d be in this book for weeks, and I just couldn’t take it. I’ll keep it on my shelf for reference. It’s an easy book to look up a topic and get an overview from. But I just can’t read it cover to cover. I’m moving on.
I almost didn’t write today. I let the world get in and started to sink again. Again, I’ve realized something important, something we all probably see and advise ourselves about over and over again. Do the hard thing first. I need to write first, then go about the rest of my day.
It’s 10:50am. This morning started with great intentions. I read, felt like I had a lot to say but wanted to get my exercise out of the way. That done, I did my morning meditation, journaled, and then thought…I’m too hungry to write now.
During breakfast, I ignored the teaching in my meditation and instead of doing one thing (eat my breakfast) I decided to mulitask and answer a few texts. I got another cup of coffee and thought…I’ll read some of that other book and then write. Sapiens…ugg… I’m giving up on it. Life is too short to be depressed by a human hating history that reads like a textbook of doom. Another DNF on the list and I’ll write more about that later.
NOW I’ll write. I get my laptop from my desk and sit down to tap out words. What was I going to write about? Oh yeah, that other glorious book I started over the weekend. What a beautiful weekend that was! Rain and thunder, the windows all open, nothing to do but read and work on a quilt. But I’ll do that right after I check my email. Nothing there. I’ll check Facebook. There was a quote I wanted to share.
Then a “friend” messaged me. That didn’t go well. I guess I’m not acting like the person he would prefer me to be. I’m good at losing so-called “friends.”
Watch a funny video, click on an ad for stickers, find a cool one with an Oscar Wilde quote.
‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars’ and then find an article about the quote. I’ll read that later.
Maybe I’ll just give up today and head to the grocery store.
And then…hold on. This is ridiculous. What would Steinbeck do?
That’s actually what I thought. I started reading Journal of a Novel by John Steinbeck over the weekend and it’s filled with some wonderful insight from the man, about his life, his time, and about East of Eden. I’m already halfway through it this morning. And THAT’S what I wanted to write to you about.
I mentioned it when I started reading East of Eden and thought I’d read it while I was reading the novel, as he wrote it. But I couldn’t. I was already trying to finish The Portable Atheist and Reflections on a Mountain Lake. A person can only have so much input at once. I saved it and was soon as I finished the novel, I jumped on that journal like a cat on a laser beam spot.
I’m not regretting it. Reading a highly regarded author’s private thoughts is enlightening in so many ways. And even though I don’t consider myself an author, I do write, and I consider myself a “creative” of sorts. His words are soothing to my soul.
“Perhaps that knowledge is saved for maturity and very few people ever mature. It is enough if they flower and reseed. That is all that nature requires of them. But sometimes in a man or a woman awareness takes place – not very often and always inexplainable. There are no words for it because there is no one ever to tell. This is a secret not kept a secret, but locked in wordlessness. The craft or art of writing is the clumsy attempt to find symbols for the wordlessness. In utter loneliness a writer tries to explain the inexplicable. And sometimes if he is very fortunate and the time is right, a very little of what he is trying to do trickles through – not ever much.”
I should not be so hard on myself. This is no easy task and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. What is it that I am trying to express? I may simply be trying to express who I am from my own point of view, from inside. Each day I read and think. I journal thoughts. I find the courage and discipline to open the laptop and fill a blank screen. Some days I find the courage to share it. But where is it going?
Nowhere in particular, just like Mr. Toad. And he’s certainly happy, as long as he doesn’t forget his friends.
Tomorrow I’ll be pulling a few more quotes to share with you. If you’re a writer, you might really like Journal of a Novel. He wasn’t writing to share his process or teach anything. They are just letters he wrote to his agent each morning before he got to working on the novel. A sort of “warm-up” exercise. He didn’t write them to publish, but he knew at least a few people would read them. It’s a raw glimpse into the author.
I write a lot about my meditation practice, and I probably talk a lot about it too, but I’m learning so much. I can’t help but share.
My beef with meditation in the past was I felt it wasn’t working. I’d sit and focus on my breath for ten minutes every morning. So what? I’m calm for those ten minutes, and then go into the rest of my day only to lose that calm almost immediately.
Ten minutes of exercise, while a good start and better than nothing, isn’t going to make anyone strong.
I increased my time to twenty minutes, made a point of doing it daily without exception, and made some progress. My mornings started with more calm, but by the afternoon…ugg…
I started an afternoon practice. Thirty minutes before my husband stops working, I sit in meditation and then journal. It helped smooth my evenings.
But what the heck? The only way to remain calm is to be in retreat from the world and spend more and more time in silent meditation? That doesn’t seem like living. I can’t wall myself off from the world.
I kept meditating and reading, studying, trying to learn more. There has to be more. And then I find this:
“…there are two streams of meditation practice within Buddhism. Their Sanskrit names are shamatha and vipashyana. Shamatha means “to calm the mind” whereas vipashyana means “to look into the mind.” Shamatha is usually translated into English as “calm abiding” and vipashyana as “insight.” It means seeing clearly.
There is a traditional example used to illustrate the differences between these two approaches to meditation. Imagine a lake surrounded by hills and snow-capped mountains. It is a clear mountain lake which reflects the surrounding mountains so accurately that it can be difficult to tell which image is the mountains and which just the reflection of the mountains on the lake’s surface. But when this lake becomes agitated by the elements, various things happen.
First of all, the surface of the lake breaks up so that it no longer reflects the mountains accurately. The image is still there, but it is distorted. In addition, because there are many waves and the surface is choppy, it is difficult for us to see into the lake to any depth. Not only is the surface of the water choppy, but the mud at the bottom of the lake is also stirred up. This pollutes the water, making it muddy and opaque.
This state is very much like our ordinary everyday mind, which is continually being agitated by the winds of the six senses.”
The point of meditation is to calm the surface of the lake so that we can reflect the world with fewer distortions and see beneath more clearly to reach beneath and examine what we find.
This past six months, since I have increased my meditation time and made a concerted effort to keep up the practice daily, has changed things. My husband has commented on it, and so has my son. I don’t seem to react as quickly, I’m more reflective and less agitated by the little things.
I’ve found myself stopping to think when I feel something, sorting it out before I respond. I get less angry. I’m less depressed. I love myself more and I can easily extend that love to others, even those that seem to be determined to drive me crazy.
Don’t get me wrong. People still irk me with their behavior and choices, but I’m more likely to see them as beings in need of love and patience instead of enemies. Maybe not instantly, but in a reasonable amount of time before I react to them and make everything worse. This is part of the practice.
I’ve struggled with anger, depression, and stress my whole life. I’ve sought help from doctors that directed me to drugs, and therapists that seemed only to make the situation worse. I’ve lost money, time, and done damage to my body. And nothing has helped like one hour a day in mediation, reading, and journaling.
Reflecting on the gift of choice as I close the final pages …sigh…
I finished East of Eden. Ten days, 778 pages in 18.58 hours. Nearly two hours a day I spent in that book, and that’s a lot because I’m currently reading two other books. I loved it so much. The story covers three generations, and I never thought the story dragged. I never ached to know what was happening next. I never thought, “Why in the world is this chapter here?” I just watched it unfold, and every chapter was beautiful.
When I got to the end of the book, I paused before I turned to the last page. Please, please, please don’t destroy my dreams with your words, Mr. Steinbeck! It was gorgeous.
So, what’s the book about? Choice. Every single one of us has a choice in life. Do we do good for ourselves and those around us? Or do we do them wrong? We are all good and evil combined. It’s what we do with our lives that counts.
Chapter 24. around halfway through the book, was my “Ah-ha!” moment.
Lee explains to Adam his study of the story of Cain and Abel from Genesis. Word translations come into play, something I’ve spent time questioning myself. When we translate something from one language to another, it isn’t an easy task. One small tweak of a word and the whole thing changes tone. We also put our own background and culture on top of the words we’re translating, not to mention all the time that has passed between the original manuscript and our current work.
I don’t think the following quote will spoil anything, but if you want a pure reading, maybe save it for later and skip to the bottom.
“Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel – ‘Thou mayest’ – that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For it ‘Thou mayest’ – it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’”
“Any writing which has influenced the thinking and the lives of innumerable people is important. Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.”
“It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there.”
We all have choices to make every single day.
It reminds me of last year when I cut my finger chopping onions for a sauce. I learned a lesson that day: always cook first, or at least finish using sharp tools, and then get a nice adult beverage. Never the reverse!
It’s rare that I hurt myself badly enough to need a visit to Urgent Care, but after holding it for thirty minutes the blood just came gushing back the minute I let go. I needed stitches. My husband drove me down to town and was thrilled to find out that, due to Covid restrictions, he didn’t have to go inside with me. He hates that kind of thing. Poor guy. I wouldn’t have made him anyway.
Once inside, the nurse took me in, numbed the pain, and then sewed up my finger. The process was fascinating to me, and I took the sharp pain of the needle without complaint. Once it was numb and she started sewing, I loved watching. I’ve never had stitches before. It was exciting.
I told the nurse what a great job she was doing, and I was so thankful that she was around to help me through my stupid moment. Everyone makes mistakes, right? Good thing there people around to help you through the pain of fixing them.
She was so grateful. She said most people come in angry when they are hurt. They snap at her as she tries to clean a wound and give them the means of healing it. “Why would they do that? We aren’t animals.” I commiserated. Everyone’s on edge lately.
Animals don’t have a choice to behave better. They only react to the present moment. They can’t see the bigger picture. We can if we take the time to calm ourselves and see it. We can respond instead of reacting. A large dog bred to fight, doesn’t think, “It’s in my blood and training to fight strong and win, but what if I don’t want to?” But a human has something animals don’t, that choice within them. It may be hidden away under years of experience and trauma, but it’s there. Which leads me to another track: my mediation this morning. But that’s another post.
I’m glad I found East of Eden at that used bookstore. I didn’t know I wanted to read it, only knew the title because I was sure it was an old movie, and Steinbeck. He’s famous, right? It was my first read from my Classics Club five-year reading challenge post. Not a bad start!