Compiled by Bruce Rickard
When I read a book I take notes. It is something I have done for a number of years. The notes are made up of words and phrases and sentences that interest me. Sometimes I will transcribe a text because the words are beautifully constructed. On other occasions, the words challenge my thinking and are deserving of further reflection.
My Book Notes are not a summary of the text. I am not attempting to condense what the writer is wanting to communicate nor am I providing an outline.
My Book Notes are not a review of the text. I am not analysing what has been written nor am I making comment.
I’m pleased to share with you My Book Notes and hope you might be motivated to consider reading the books for yourself. All the books listed have contributed to my thinking and enjoyment so come with my tick of approval.
Category: Business, Management
Themes: Brain Power, Disruption, Distraction, Productivity, Focus
Date Read: September 2020
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
‘If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. [If I instead get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time…there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons.’
Neal Stephenson, cyberpunk author
Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.
In an age of network tools, in other words, knowledge workers increasingly replace deep work with the shallow alternative – constantly sending and receiving e-mail messages like human network routers, with frequent breaks for quick hits of distraction. Larger efforts that would be well served by deep thinking, such as forming a new business strategy or writing an important grant application, get fragmented into distracted dashes that produce muted quality.
Two reasons why deep work has value today:
(1) The first has to do with learning. We have an information economy that is dependent on complex systems that change rapidly. To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work. If you don’t cultivate this ability, you are likely to fall behind as technology advances.
(2) The second reason that deep work is valuable is because the impacts of the digital network revolution cut both ways. If you can create something useful, its reachable audience (e.g. employers or customers) is essentially limitless – which greatly magnifies your reward.
The rapid rise of communication and collaboration technologies has transformed many other formerly local markets into a similarly universal bazaar. The small company looking for a computer programmer or public relations consultant now has access to an international marketplace of talent in the same way that the advent of the record store allowed the small-town music fan to bypass local musicians to buy albums from the world’s best bands.
Two Core Abilities for Thriving in the New Economy:
- The ability to quickly master hard things
- The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed
‘To learn requires intense concentration.’
High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) X (Intensity of Focus)
By working on a single hard task for a long time without switching minimizes the negative impact of attention residue from other obligations and maximises performance.
‘Twitter is crack for media addicts. It scares me, not because I am morally superior to it, but because I do not think I could handle it. I am afraid I would end up letting my son go hungry.’
George Packer, New York staff writer
When it comes to distracting behaviours embraced in the workplace, we must give a position of dominance to the now ubiquitous culture of connectivity, where one is expected to read and respond to e-mails (and related communication) quickly.
The Principle of Least Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviours to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviours that are easiest in the moment.
There are two big reasons why this is true:
- The first concerns responsiveness to your needs. If you work in an environment where you can get an answer to a question or a specific piece of information immediately when the need arises, this makes your life easier – at least, in the moment.
- The second reason that a culture of connectivity makes life easier is that it creates an environment where it becomes acceptable to run your day out of your inbox – responding to the latest missive with alacrity while others pile up behind it, all the while feeling satisfyingly productive. If e-mail were to move to the periphery of your workday, you would be required to deploy a more thoughtful approach to figuring out what you should be working on and for how long.
Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.
Ric Furrer is a master craftsman whose work requires him to spend most of his day in a state of depth – even a small slip in concentration can ruin dozens of hours of effort. He is also someone who clearly finds great meaning in his profession. This connection between deep work and a good life is familiar and widely accepted when considering the world of craftsmen. “The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy,“ explains Matthew Crawford. And we believe him.
A workday driven by the shallow, from a neurological perspective, is likely to be a draining and upsetting day, even if most of the shallow things that capture your attention seem harmless or fun.
In work (and especially knowledge work), to increase the time you spend in a state of depth is to leverage the complex machinery of the human brain in a way that for several different neurological reasons maximises the meaning and satisfaction you will associate with your working life.
‘Ironically, jobs are actually easier to enjoy than free time, because like flow activities they have built-in goals, feedback rules, and challenges, all of which encourage one to become involved in one’s work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it. Free time, on the other hand, is unstructured, and requires much greater effort to be shaped into something that can be enjoyed.’
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Hungarian-American psychologist
Human beings, it seems, are at their best when immersed deeply in something challenging.
People fight desires all day long. Desire is the norm, not the exception.
Researchers findings: The five most common desires these subjects fought include, not surprisingly, eating, sleeping, and sex. But the top five list also included desires for ‘taking a break from [hard] work…checking e-mail and social networking sites, surfing the web, listening to music, or watching television.’ The lure of the Internet and television proved especially strong.
The key to developing a deep work habit is to move beyond good intentions and add routines and rituals to your working life designed to minimize the amount of your limited willpower necessary to transition into and maintain a state of unbroken concentration.
There is no one correct deep work ritual – the right fit depends on both the person and the type of project pursued. But there are some general questions that any effective ritual must address:
Where you will work and for how long – specify a location
How you will work once you start to work – rules and processes to keep your efforts structured
How you will support your work – your ritual needs to ensure your brain gets the support it needs to keep operating at a high level of depth (access to coffer, the right food, light exercise etc.)
‘Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets…it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.’
Tim Kreider, writer and artist
In support of a ‘shutdown’ –
Downtime aids insights – the benefits of conscious deliberation
Downtime helps recharge the energy needed to work deeply – the benefits of immersing ourselves in nature
The work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important – maintaining a clear endpoint to the workday
To succeed with this strategy, you must first accept the commitment that once your workday shuts down, you cannot allow even the smallest incursion of professional concerns into your field of attention. This includes, crucially, checking e-mail, as well as browsing work-related websites.
Shutdown rituals – how you end the workday
How to improve your ability to concentrate intensely and overcoming your desire for distraction:
Do not take breaks from distraction. Instead take breaks from focus.
Productive meditation: The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you are occupied physically but not mentally – walking, jogging, driving, showering – and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem. Depending on your profession, this problem might be outlining an article, writing a talk, making progress on a proof, or attempting to sharpen a business strategy. As in mindfulness meditation, you must continue to bring your attention back to the problem at hand when it wanders or stalls.
Two important points about our culture’s current relationship with social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and infotainment sites like Business Insider and BuzzFeed – two categories of online distraction.
- These tools fragment our time and reduce our ability to concentrate
- The impotence with which knowledge workers currently discuss this problem of network tools and attention
Baratunde Thurston, author and digital media consultant
The craftsman approach to tool selection: Identify the core factors that determine success and happiness in your professional and personal life. Adopt a tool only if its positive impacts on these factors substantially outweigh its negative impacts.
If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you will end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing.
The issue of cognitive capacity: Deep work is exhausting because it pushes you toward the limit of your abilities. Performance psychologists have extensively studied how much such efforts can be sustained by an individual…The implication is that once you have hit your deep work limit (max. 4 hours) in any given day, you will experience diminishing rewards if you try to cram in more.
Become hard to reach: No discussion of shallow work is complete without considering e-mail. This quintessential shallow activity is particularly insidious in its grip on most knowledge workers’ attention, as it delivers a steady stream of distractions addressed specifically to you. Ubiquitous e-mail access has become so ingrained in our professional habits that we are beginning to lose the sense that we have any say in its role in our life.
A commitment to deep work is not a moral stance and it is not a philosophical statement – it is instead a pragmatic recognition that the ability to concentrate is a skill that gets valuable things done.
Sue Monk Kidd
Category: Fiction & Literature
Themes: Historical Fiction, Spiritual Quest, Expectations, Destiny, Gift, Love, Rebellion, Belonging, Community, Grief
Date Read: July 2020
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus ben Joseph of Nazareth. I called him Beloved and he, laughing, called me Little Thunder. He said he heard rumblings inside me while I slept, around like thunder from far over the Nahal Zippori valley or even farther beyond the Jordan. I don’t doubt he heard something. All my life, longings lived inside me, rising up like nocturnes to wail and sing through the night. That my husband bent his heart to mine on our thin straw mat and listened was the kindness I most loved in him. What he heard was my life begging to be born.
Unlike my mother, unlike every woman I knew, my aunt, Yaltha, was educated. Her mind was an immense feral country that spilled its borders. She trespassed everywhere.
My aunt’s mouth was a wellspring of thrilling and unpredictable utterances. It was what I most loved about her.
My own audacities lay hidden inside a carved cedar chest in a corner of my room: scrolled papyri, parchments, and scraps of silk, all of which bore my writings.
Not long before my aunt arrived, I’d begun writing down the stories of the matriarchs in the Scriptures – Eve, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, Zilpah, Bilhah, Esther…
To be ignored, to be forgotten, this was the worst sadness of all. I swore an oath to set down their accomplishments and praise their flourishing, no matter how small. I would be a chronicler of lost stories.
“It’s as I thought,” she said, her face candescent. “You’ve been greatly blessed by God.”
Until that moment I’d thought I was merely peculiar – a disturbance of nature. A misfit. A curse. I’d long been able to read and write, and I possessed unusual abilities to compose words into stories, to decipher languages and texts, to grasp hidden meanings, to hold opposing ideas in my head without conflict.
My aspirations embarrassed my parents. Their disparaging remarks found their way into the flesh of my flesh and the bone of my bone.
It had not occurred to me that my abilities had been intended, that God had meant to bestow these blessings on me. On Ana, a girl with turbulent black curls and eyes the colour of rain clouds.
Yaltha’s eyes were settled on me. She said, “A man’s holy of holies contains God’s laws, but inside a woman’s there are only longings.” Then she tapped the flat bone over my heart and spoke the charge that caused something to flame up in my chest: “Write what’s inside here, inside your holy of holies.”
Lifting my hand, I touched the bone my aunt had just struck to life, blinking furiously to hold back a tumult of emotion.
Writing inside the incantation bowl was more arduous that I imagined, but I persevered in adding flourishes that were mine alone – thin upstrokes, thick downstrokes, spirals and chevrons at the ends of my sentences, dots and circles between the words.
“Lord our God, hear my prayer, the prayer of my heart. Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it. Bless my reed pens and my inks. Bless the words I write. May they be beautiful in your sight. May they be visible to eyes not yet born. When I am dust, sing these words over my bones: she was a voice.”
I asked myself why the prospect of losing thirteen scrolls, two vials of ink, two reed pens, three clean sheets of papyrus, and a bowl set off such desperation in me. Only now do I see the immensity I assigned to these objects. They not only represented those fragile stories I wanted to preserve. They also held the full weight of my craving to express myself, to lift out of my small self, out of the enclosure of my life, and find what lay beyond. I wanted for so much.
“It may not be a factual story, but it still true. The story can happen inside us,” Yaltha said. “Think of it – the life you are living can be torn apart like Osiris’s and a new one pieced together. Some part of you might die and a new self will rise up to take its place.”
Could we know the ways of God or not? Did he possess an intention for us, his people, as our religion believed, or was it up to us to invent meaning for ourselves? Perhaps nothing was as I’d thought.
A fever sickness descended on Sephora’s. It came like an unseen smoke, blown down from heaven to afflict the unrighteousness. God had always chastised his people with plagues, fevers, leprosy, paralysis, and boils. So people said.
The war between my parents inhabited the house like a silent, prowling creature.
I heard Yaltha’s voice float up: “Your moment will come, and when it does, you must seize it with all the bravery you can find… Your moment will come because you will make it come.”
He heard the quake that lived at my centre, and he didn’t seek to silence it.
God was the ground beneath him, the sky over him, the air he breathed, the water he drank. It made me uneasy.
No assurance, no platitude, no promise of God’s mercy. Just a stark reminder that death was part of life. She offered me nothing but a way to accept whatever came – Let life be life. There was a quiet relinquishment in the words.
She laid the child on the pillow. She was tiny as a kitten. Her lips lapis blue. Her stillness terrible.
“Life will be life and death will be death,” I whispered, and with those words, grief filled the empty place in me where the baby had lain. I would carry it there like a secret all the days of my life.
“Do you wish to bestow a name on her? Yaltha asked.
I looked at my daughter lying wilted on the pillow. “Susanna,” I said. The name meant lily.
I was grateful for my solitude. It gave me time to mourn. I slept with grief and woke to it. It was always there, a black strap around my heart. I didn’t ask God why my daughter died. I knew he couldn’t help it. Life was life, death was death. It was the fault of no one.
The following day, Yaltha came to my room carrying the broken pieces of a large clay pot in the folds of her robe.
“Child,” Yaltha said, for even though I was a woman, she still sometimes called me by her pet name. “There’s no worse feeling than one’s breasts filled with milk and no one to suckle.”
The words opened a raw, furious place in me. She wanted me to write? My daughter was dead.
My writing was dead, too. One day had never come. I was the shattered pieces on the floor. Life had taken a mallet to me.
We women harbour our intimacies in locked places in our bodies. They are ours to relinquish when we choose.
“Your brother stood right there in the doorway and said I should give up my perverse craving to write and give myself to prayer and grief for my daughter. Does he think my writing is not a prayer? Does he think because I hold a pen I don’t grieve?
I stacked the used pieces of clay into wobbly towers along the walls of the room. Little pillars of grief. They didn’t take away my sorrow, but they gave me a way to make what meaning I could from it. To write again felt like a return to myself.
For a woman to birth something other than children and then to mother it with the same sense of purpose, attention, and care came as an astonishment, even to me.
In the hidden forest in my chest, the trees slowly lost their leaves.
The grief in me could be unbearable at times, and I felt it now… pain so cutting, I wondered if I could go on standing.
If I bore my grief by writing words, Jesus bore his by praying them.
“Oh, Ana, Ana. When I tell you all shall be well, I don’t mean that life won’t bring up tragedy. Life will be life. I only mean you will be well in spite of it. All shall be well, no matter what.”
“We will go to the Therapeutae. Their precinct is sacred among the Jews. The community sits on the shore of Lake Mareotis.”
Skepsis said, “You’ve come to us out of desperation, but that alone is not a reason to take you in. Those who dwell here do so out of love for a quiet, contemplative life. They come to study and to keep the memory of God alive. Can you say you’re here for those reasons as well?
They grew quiet. A thin grey hopelessness crept into the air. I didn’t want them to give up. It was true I no longer believed in the God of rescue, only the God of presence.
“You were the most stubborn, determined, ambitious child I’d ever seen. When I saw what was inside your cedar chest, I knew… I knew you possessed a generosity of abilities that comes only rarely into the world. But what most sets you apart is the spirit in you that rebels and persists. It isn’t the largeness in you that matters most, it’s your passion to bring it forth.”
Each of us must find a way to love the world.
That would be my parting gift to him. I would go with him to the end of his longings.
Hearing me toss about, my friend began to play her lyre, hoping to draw me into sleep. As the music moved through the darkness, grief rose in me. For my beloved, but also for my brother.
Now, with him gone, my home was on a hillside in Egypt. It was Yaltha and Diodora. It was the Therapeutae. Where else could I write with abandon? Where but there could I tend a library and animals both? Where else could I live by the utterances of my own heart?
I breathed in, and it felt like a small homecoming.
For nearly two years, I’d worn my grief for Jesus like a second skin. In all that time, the pain of his absence had not diminished. The familiar burning came to my eyes, followed by that sense I often got of wandering inside my heart, desperately searching for what I could never find – my husband. I feared my grief would turn to despair, that it would become a skin I couldn’t shed.
A great tiredness came over me then. I closed my eyes, wanting the dark empty void.
“Listen to me, Ana. You’ve dared much with your words. So much that a time will come when men will try to silence them. The hillside will keep your work safe.”
And it comes to me that the echoes of my own life will likely die away in that way thunder does. But this life, what a shining thing – it is enough.
Category: Fiction & Literature, Classics
Themes: Romance, Family, Religion, Social Status, Class Struggle, Love & Marriage
Date Read: April 2020
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
Opening sentence: ‘There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.’
A small breakfast-room adjoined the drawing-room. I slipped in there. It contained a bookcase: I soon possessed myself of a volume, taking care that it should be one stored with pictures. I mounted into the window-seat: gathering up my feet, I sat cross-legged, like a Turk; and, having drawn the red modern curtain nearly close, I was shrined in double retirement.
John had not much affection for his mother and sisters, and an antipathy to me. He bullied and punished me; not two or three times in the week, nor once or twice in the day, but continually: every nerve I had feared him, and every morsel of flesh on my bones shrank when he came near. There were moments when I was bewildered by the terror he inspired, because I had no appeal whatever against either his menaces or his inflictions.
I resisted all the way: a new thing for me, and. Circumstance which greatly strengthened the bad opinion Bessie and Miss Abbot were disposed to entertain of me. The fact is, I was a trifle beside myself; or rather out of myself, as the French would say: I was conscious that a moment’s mutiny had already rendered me liable to strange penalties, and, like any other rebel slave, I felt resolved, in my desperation, to go all lengths.
This reproach of my dependence had become a vague singsong in my ear; very painful and crushing, but only half intelligible.
This room (the red room) was chill, because it seldom had a fire; it was silent, because remote from the nursery and kitchen; solemn, because it was known to be so seldom entered.
I had to stem a rapid rush of retrospective thought before I quailed to the dismal present.
What a consternation of soul was mine that dreary afternoon! How all my brain was in tumult, and all my heart in insurrection. Yet in what darkness, what dense ignorance, was the mental battle fought! I could not answer the ceaseless inward question – why I thus suffered.
I grew by degrees cold as a stone, and then my courage sank. My habitual mood of humiliation, self-doubt, forlorn depression, fell damp on the embers of my decaying ire.
I felt an inexpressible relief, a soothing conviction of protection and security, when I knew that there was a stranger in the room, an individual not belonging to Gateshead, and not related to Mrs. Reed.
I felt physically weak and broken down: but my worse ailment was an unutterable wretchedness of mind: a wretchedness which kept drawing from me silent tears.
Bessie asked if I would have a book: the word book acted as a transient stimulus, and I begged her to fetch Gulliver’s Travels from the library.
To this crib I always took my doll; human beings must love something, and in the dearth of worthier objects of affection, I contrived to find pleasure in loving and cherishing a faded graven image, shabby as a miniature scarecrow.
You think I have no feelings, and that I can do without one bit of love or kindness; but I cannot live so.
A child cannot quarrel with its elders, as I had done, cannot give its furious feelings uncontrolled play, as I had given mine, without experiencing afterwards the pang of remorse and the chill of reaction.
Something of vengeance I had tasted for the first time; as aromatic wine it seemed, on swallowing, warm and racy: its after-flavour, metallic and corroding, gave me a sensation as if I had been poisoned.
The action was more frank and fearless than any I was habituated to indulge in: somehow it pleased her.
I stood lonely enough: but to that feeling of isolation I was accustomed; it did not oppress me much.
I found Burns, absorbed, silent, abstracted from all round her by the companionship of a book, which she read by the dim glare of the embers.
My first quarter at Lowood seemed an age; and not the golden age either: it comprised an irksome struggle with difficulties in habituation myself to new rules and unwonted tasks. The fear of failure in these points harassed me worse than the physical hardships of my lot, though these were no trifles.
What my sensations were, no language can describe; but just as they all arose, stifling my breath and constricting my throat, a girl came up and passed me: in passing she lifted her eyes. What a strange light inspired them! What an extraordinary sensation that ray sent through me! How the new feeling bore me up!
The spell by which I had been so far supported began to dissolve; reaction took place, and soon, so overwhelming was the grief that seized me, I sank prostrate with my face to the ground. Now I wept… and my tears watered the boards.
I resolved, in the depth of my heart, that I would be most moderate – most correct; and, having reflected a few minutes in order to arrange coherently what I had to say, I told her all the story of my sad childhood. Exhausted by emotion, my language was more subdued that it generally was when it developed that sad theme. I infused into the narrative far less gall and wormwood than ordinarily.
That forest-dell, where Lowood lay, was the cradle of fog and fog-bred pestilence; which, quickening with the quickening spring, crept into the Orphan Asylum, breathed typhus through its crowded school-room and dormitory, and ere May arrived, transformed the seminary into an hospital.
Semi-starvation and neglected colds had predisposed most of the pupils to receive infection: forty-five out of eighty girls lay ill at one time.
Hitherto I have recorded in detail the events of my insignificant existence: to the first ten years of my life, I have given almost as many chapters. But this is not to be a regular autobiography: I am only bound to invoke memory where I know her responses will possess some degree of interest; where I know her responses will possess some degree of interest.
It is a very strange sensation to inexperienced youth to feel itself quite alone in the world, cut adrift from every connection, uncertain whether the port to which it is bound can be reached, and prevented by many impediments from returning to that it has quitted. The charm of adventure sweetens that sensation, the glow of pride warms it; but the the throb of fear disturbs it; and fear with me became predominant, with half an hour elapsed and still I was alone.
It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.
Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a constraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.
The ground was hard, the air was still, my road was lonely; I walked fast till I got warm, and then I walked slowly to enjoy and analyse the species of pleasure brooding for me in the hour and situation. It was three o’clock; the church bell tolled as I passed under the belfry; the charm of the hour lay in the approaching dimness, in the low-gliding and pale-beaming sun. I was a mile from Thornfield, in a lane noted for wild roses in summer, for nuts and blackberries in autumn, and even now possessing a few coral treasures in hips and haws, but whose best winter delight lay in its utter solitude and leafless repose. If a breath of air stirred, it made no sound here; for there was not a holly, not an evergreen to rustle, and the stripped hawthorn and hazel bushes were as still as the white, worn stones which causewayed the middle of the path. Far and wide, on each side, there were only fields, where no cattle now browsed; and the little brown birds, which stirred occasionally in the hedge, looked like single russet leaves that had forgotten to drop.
When once more alone, I reviewed the information I had got; looked into my heart, examined its thoughts and feelings and endeavoured to bring back with a strict hand such as had been straying through imagination’s boundless and trackless waste, into the safe fold of common sense.
Arraigned at my own bar, Memory having given her evidence of the hopes, wishes, sentiments I had been cherishing since last night – of the General state of mind in which I had indulged for nearly a fortnight past; Reason having come forward and told in her own quiet way, a plain, unvarnished tale, showing how I had rejected the real, and rabidly devoured the ideal; – I pronounced judgment to this effect:-
That a greater fool than Jane Eyre had never breathed the breath of life: that a more fantastic idiot had never surfeited herself on sweet lies, and swallowed poison as if it were nectar.
You have nothing to do with the master of Thornfield, further than to receive the salary he gives you for teaching his protégée, and to be grateful for such respectful and kind treatment as, if you do your duty, you have a right to expect at his hands. Be sure that is the only tie he seriously acknowledges between you and him: so don’t make him the object of your fine feelings, your raptured, agonies, and so forth. He is not of your order: keep to your caste; and be too self-respecting to lavish the love of the whole heart, soul, and strength, where such a gift is not wanted and would be despised.
Presentiments are strange things! And so are sympathies; and so are signs: and the three combined makes one mystery to which humanity has not yet found the key. I never laughed at presentiments in my life; because I have had strange ones of my own. Sympathies, I believe, exist: (for instance, between far-distant, long-absent, wholly estranged relatives; asserting, notwithstanding their alienation, the unity of the source to which each traces his origin) whose workings baffle mortal comprehension. And signs, for aught we know, may be but the sympathies of Nature with man.
The same hostile roof now again rose before me: my prospects were doubtful yet; and I had yet an aching heart. I still felt as a wanderer on the face of the earth; but I experienced firmer trust in myself and my own powers, and less withering dread of oppression. The gaping wound of my wrongs, too, was now quite healed; and the flame of resentment, extinguished.
My tears had risen, just as in childhood: I ordered them back to their source.
True, generous feeling is made small account of by some; but here were two nature’s rendered, the one intolerably acrid, the other despicably savourless for the want of it. Feeling without judgment is a washy drought indeed; but judgment untempered by feeling is too bitter and husky a morsel for human deglutition.
Think no more of all this, let it pass away from your mind. Forgive me for my passionate language: I was a child then; eight, nine years have passed since that day.
Poor, suffering woman! It was too late for her to make now the effort to change her habitual frame of mind: living she had ever hated me – dying, she must hate me still.
How people feel when they are returning home from an absence, long or short, I did not know: I had never experienced the sensation. I had known what it was to come back to Gateshead when a child, after a long walk – to be scolded for looking cold or gloomy; and later, what it was to come back from church to Lowood – to long for a plenteous meal and a good fire, and to be unable to get either. Neither of these returnings was very pleasant or desirable: no magnet drew me to a given point, increasing in its strength of attraction the nearer I came. The return to Thornfield was yet to be tried.
I knew there would be pleasure in meeting my master again; even though broken by the fear that he was soon to cease to be my master, and by the knowledge that I was nothing to him: but there was ever in Mr. Rochester such a wealth of the power of communicating happiness, that to taste but of the crumbs he scattered to stray and stranger birds like me, was to feast genially.
It was now the sweetest hour of the twenty-four: – “Day its fervid fires had wasted,” and dew fell cool on panting plain and scorched summit. Where the sun had gone down in simple state – pure of the pomp of clouds – spread a solemn purple, burning with the light of red jewel and furnace flame at one point, on one hill-peak, and extending high and wide, soft and still softer, over half heaven. The east had its own charm of fine, deep blue, and its own modest gem, a rising and solitary star: soon it would boast the moon; but she was yet beneath the horizon.
The vehemence of emotion, stirred by grief and love within me, was claiming mastery, and struggling for full sway; and asserting a right to predominate: to overcome, to live, rise, and reign at last; yes, – and to speak.
Jane Eyre, who had been an ardent, expectant woman – almost a bride – was a cold, solitary girl again: her life was pale, her prospects were desolate.
My hopes we all dead – struck with a subtle doom, such as, in one night, fell on all the first-born in the land of Egypt.
Friends always forget those whom fortune forsakes.
There is no folly so besotted that the idiotic rivalries of society, the prurience, the rashness, the blindness of youth, will not hurry a man to its commission.
‘This life,’ said I at last, ‘is hell! this is the air – those are the sounds of the bottomless pit! I have a right to deliver myself from it if I can. The sufferings of this mortal state will leave me with the heavy flesh that now cumbersome my soul. Of the fanatic’s burning eternity I have no fear: there is not a future state worse than this present one – let me break away and go home to God!’
‘I said this whilst I knelt down at, and unlocked a trunk which contained a brace of loaded pistols: I meant to shoot myself. I only entertained the intention for a moment; for, not being insane, the crisis of exquisite and unalloyed despair which had originated the wish and design of self-destruction, was past in a second.’
I skirted fields , and hedges, and lanes, till after sunrise. I believe it was a lovely summer morning: I know my shoes, which I had put on when I left the house, were soon wet with dew. But I looked neither to rising sun, nor smiling sky, nor wakening nature. He who is taken out to pass through a fair scene to the scaffold, thinks not of the flowers that smile on his road, but of the block and axe-edge; of the disseverment of bone and vein; of the grave gaping at the end: and I thought of drear flight and homeless wandering – and, oh! with agony I thought of what I had left.
As to my own will or conscience, impassioned grief had trampled one and stifled the other. I was weeping wildly as I walked along my solitary way.
Gentle reader, may you never feel what I then felt! May your eyes never shed stormy, scalding, heart-wrung tears as poured from mine. May you never appeal to Heaven in prayers so hopeless and so agonised as in that hour left my lips: for never may you, like me, dread to be the instrument of evil to what you wholly love.
My rest might have been blissful enough, only a sad heart broke it. It planned of its gaping wounds, its inward bleeding, its riven chords. It trembled for Mr. Rochester and his doom: it bemoaned him with bitter pity; it demanded him with ceaseless longing: and, impotent as a bird with both wings broken, it still quivered its shattered pinions in vain attempts to seek him.
Solitude would be no solitude – rest no rest – while the vulture, hunger, thus sank beak and talons in my side.
The scene was a silent as if all the figures had been shadows, and the fire-lit apartment a picture: so hushed was it, I could hear the cinders fall from the grate, and the clock tick in its obscure corner.
Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart whose soil has never been loosened or fertilised by education: they grow there, firm as weeds among stones.
I saw the fascination of the locality. I felt the consecration of its loneliness: my eye feasted on the outline of swell and sweep – on the wild colouring communicated to ridge and dell, by moss, by heath-bell, by flower-sprinkled turf, by brilliant bracken, and mellow granite crag. These details were just to me what they were to them – so many pure and sweet sources of pleasure.
Reserved people often really need the frank discussion of their sentiments and griefs more than the expansive. The sternest-seeming stoic is human after all; and to ‘burst’ with boldness and good will into ‘the silent sea’ of their souls, is often to confer on them the first of obligations.
I filled the interval in walking softly about my room, and pondering the visitation which had given my plans their present bent. I recalled that inward sensation I had experienced: for I could recall it, with all its unspeakable strangeness. I recalled the voice I had heard; again I questioned whence it came, as vainly as before: it seemed in me – not in the external world. I asked, was it a mere nervous impression – a delusion? I could not conceive or believe: it was more like an inspiration.
Amidst the silence of those solitary roads and desert hills, I heard it approach from a great distance. It was the same vehicle whence, a year ago, I had alighted one summer evening on this very spot – how desolate, and hopeless, and objectless!
The suggestion was sensible; and yet I could not force myself to act on it. I so dreaded a reply that would crush me with despair. To prolong doubt was to prolong hope.
‘Some day since: nay, I can number them – four; it was last Monday night, a singular mood came over me: one in which grief replaced frenzy – sorrow, sullenness. I had long had the impression that since I could nowhere find you, you must be dead. Late that night – perhaps it might be between eleven and twelve o’clock – ere I retired to my dreary rest, I supplicated God, that, if it seemed good to Him, I might soon be taken from this life, and admitted to that world to come, where there was still hope of rejoining Jane.
I was in my own room, and sitting by the window, which was open: it soothed me to feel the balmy night-air; though I could see no stars, and only by a vague, luminous haze, knew the presence of the moon. I longed for thee, Janet! Oh, I longed for thee with both soul and flesh! I asked of God, at once in anguish and humility, if I had not been long enough desolate, afflicted, tormented; and might not soon taste bliss and peace once more. That I merited all I endured, I acknowledged – that I could scarcely endure more, I pleaded; and the alpha and omega of my heart’s wishes broke involuntarily from my lips in the words – Jane! Jane! Jane!’
“I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.”
“I can live alone, if self-respect, and circumstances require me so to do. I need not sell my soul to buy bliss. I have an inward treasure born with me, which can keep me alive if all extraneous delights should be withheld, or offered only at a price I cannot afford to give.”
Category: Health & Wellbeing
Themes: Hope, Love, Despair, Change, Beauty, Religion, Family, Writing
Date Read: February 2020
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
There is so much going on that flattens us, that is huge, scary, or simply appalling.
In general, it doesn’t feel like the light is making a lot of progress. It feels like death by annoyance. At the same time, the truth is that we are beloved, even in our current condition, by someone; we have loved and been loved. We have also known the abyss of love lost to death and rejection, and that it somehow leads to new life. We have been redeemed and saved by love, even as a few times we have been nearly destroyed, and worse, seen our children nearly destroyed. We are who we love, we are one, and we are autonomous.
Love has bridged the high-rises of despair we were about to fall between. Love has been a penlight in the blackest, bleakest nights. Love has been a wild animal, a poultice, a dinghy, a coat. Love is why we have hope.
Love and goodness and the world’s beauty and humanity are the reasons we have hope.
Fear, against all odds, leads to community, to bravery and right action, and these give us hope.
Parents are blown over by the death of a child – how can they not be? – and their roots barely stay in the shifting soil. Little by little, nature pulls us back, back to growing. This is life. We are life.
So little bits of life and grace, time, habits, duties, a phone call, more time, all filter into the seed under the concrete. And that seed pushes up through, no matter what, because this is how life is constructed – to live.
Light not only warms but illuminates both things we want to see and don’t want to see.
All truth is paradox. Everything true in the world has innate contradictions.
Almost every facet of my meagre maturation and spiritual understanding has sprung from hurt, loss, and disaster.
Paradox means you have to be able to keep two wildly different ideas in your head at the same time.
Most parables are paradoxical in that they don’t go the ways you think they will. Jesus is messing with people’s minds, paradoxically out of love, so they dig deeper into truth, where they may find themselves, and love, which is the kingdom.
When we are stuck in our convictions and personas, we enter into the disease of having good ideas and being right.
We are flattened, we come through.
There is a flow everywhere in nature – glaciers are just rivers that are moving really, really slowly.
When we detach or are detached by tragedy or choice from the tendrils of identity, unexpected elements feed us.
We water that which is dry.
Peace of mind is an inside job, unrelated to fame, fortune, or whether your partner loves you.
We can not arrange lasting safety or happiness for our most beloved people. They have to find their own ways, their own answers.
Most emotional wounds are caused by a child’s belief or feedback that he is deficient, defective, or annoying – probably all three.
A child said to me, “I has value,” but the grown-ups mostly keep that thought to themselves, and I keep forgetting that I do.
As we develop love, appreciation, and forgiveness for others over time, we may accidentally develop those things toward ourselves, too.
In the dark, we see the stars. In the aftermath of the devastating fire, the sun rose red.
We are designed for awareness and curiosity. We are hardwired with curiosity inside us, because life knew that this would keep us going even in bad sailing.
Books – the ultimate secret weapon. To fling myself into a book, to be carried away to another world while being at my most grounded, on my butt or in my bed or favourite chair, is literally how I survived being here at all. Someone else is doing the living for me, and all I have to do is let their stories, humour, knowledge, and images – some of which I’ll never forget – flow through me.
Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.
Everything good begins with awareness, whether awakening to the momentousness of the present or to the damage we are causing.
Hate is incapacitating. When we hate, we can’t operate from our real selves, which is our strength.
Awareness means showing up, availing oneself of the world, so there is the chance that empathy will step up to bat, even in this lifetime.
Frederick Buechner ‘The Magnificent Defeat’.
“And then there is the love for the enemy – love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured’s love for the torturer. This is God’s love. It conquers the world.”
No one cares if you continue to write, so you’d better care, because otherwise you are doomed.
If you stick with your writing, you will get better and better, and you can start to learn the important lessons: who you really are, and how all of us can live in the face of death, and how important it is to pay much better attention to life, moment by moment, which is why you are here.
You need to reestablish the purpose of writing. If it’s fame, money, or power, you’re doomed.
If it’s creative release, or you have a story to tell, or if you’ve just always wanted to write a novel, or you just live to write, the way other people like to garden, you’re good.
Write because you have to, because the process brings great satisfaction. Write because you have a story to tell, not because you think publishing will make you the person you always wanted to be. There is approximately zero chance of that happening.
Stories are when something happened that you didn’t expect, that led to some deep internal change in yourself or the main character. Tell it.
Everything that has happened to you belongs to you.
Writing that carries truth uplifts us, teaches empathy, purpose, dignity. This means taking out the lies and boring parts, and especially the grandstanding sections, which are probably the parts you like most.
Three things abideth: voice, a story, a trustworthy narrator; but the greatest of these is story.
The stories we tell ourselves and write can warp us or raise us, save or destroy us, illuminate or dissemble.
The details we choose are what make a story resonate, and when a story resonates, the dust of confusion clears for a few minutes, and things hold together.
We have to cultivate the habits of curiosity and paying attention, which are essential to living rich lives and writing.
Life is made up of these mosaic moments, seemingly meaningless details that tug on your sleeve to get your attention.
A story does not need to be hot. Stories are usually about a modest salvation. Events took us on a journey that was inconvenient or scary, and changed us, in ways that helped us feel more connected to life, made it more spacious and welcoming.
Reading and writing help us take the blinders off so we can look around and say “Wow,” so we can look at life and our lives with care, and curiosity, and attention to detail, which are what will make us happy and less afraid.
If we tread lightly, hold life lightly, we can look around more bravely. Without blinkers on, we are not forced to get life to conform to our convictions, our past pain, or our superior belief system.
Being a writer is a perfect antidote to materialism, which drains our soul and spirit. Writing dilutes our habitual fear and our need for control.
The more time you spend in the presence of death, the less you fear it.
The absence of a loved one due to death will cause lifelong pangs of homesickness, but grief, friends, time, and tears will heal you to some extent. Tears will bathe, baptise, and hydrate you and the seeds beneath the surface of the ground on which you walk. Somehow, as we get older, death becomes as sacred as birth, and while we don’t exactly welcome it, death becomes a friend.
I spend a lot of time with old people who know things but maybe need a hand. More than any other sentence I have ever come across, I love Ram Dass’s line that when all is said and done, we are all just walking each other home.
Maybe you search for understanding, but find only one thing for sure, which is that truth comes in small moments and visions, not galaxies and canyons; not the crash of ocean waves and cymbals.
Gratitude is seeing how someone changed your heart and quality of life, helped you to become the good parts of the person you are.
Life is richer when it is simple. A walk, buttered toast, a child’s soccer game. You’re afforded the opportunity to stop doing and can instead just be here.
When I am sitting next to people who are in the process of transition, I always tell them: Stay as long as you want and fly away whenever you’re ready. Sometimes I read these people poetry or Scripture, but more often I sit with them in silence. Silence is medicine.
When we talk about goodness we are talking about a higher power – a kindness, a patience, a hope, which is everywhere, even in our annoying, self-centred, fraudulent selves.
Like everyone, I have been in dire, searing straits before, when life has pulled the rug out from under me and all my nice Jesusy beliefs have been shaken, when almost everything I am afraid of – loss, failure, crucial deaths – has appeared. These threats and losses could have thrown me into hopelessness, but the rich love of friends and my crazy consignment-store faith eventually pulled me back to my feet. I could let my breath out again. You never get over certain losses, but the anguish part eventually ends, and it all just sucks for a while.
Hope and peace have to include acceptance of a certain impermanence to everything, of the certain obliteration of all we love, beauty and light and huge marred love.
Play is also part of developing trust. Play opens the heart and gives delight and focus, like an abacus did when we were young. Play is learning how to wait, how to applaud someone else’s success, how to let others go first. It’s reciprocity and laughter. It’s very simple and it brings us deeply into the Now, and just for a while, maybe for the rest of the day, you don’t have to judge yourself or kill anyone.
God is often in solitude and quiet, through the still, small voice – in the breeze, not the thunder. But isolation is different from solitude.
Topsy-turvy is often a symptom for the presence of God – the last become first, the hungry are fed, the obnoxious are welcomed.
We have to make ourselves available to one another, or we can’t experience goodness. It’s not so much us seeking a God; it’s agreeing to be found.
These days are among the hardest we will ever live through. The wind is blowing, but because we are together in this, we have hope. Most days. Maybe more than ever before in my lifetime, my friends and I are aware of our brokenness and the deep crazy, the desperation for light, hope, food, and medicine for the poor. What helps is that we are not all crazy and hopeless on the same day. One of us remembers and reminds the rest of us that when it is really dark you can see the stars. We believe grace is stronger than evil and sin. We believe love is stronger than hate, that the divine is bigger than all huge egos simmered together in a bloviation stew, and this makes us laugh. And laughter is hope. We believe and hope that we will get through these terrifying times.
I tried to stay with Kelly as her pain and craziness increased, but she couldn’t bear this. She preferred to be barricaded in the shame and malfunction and booze. I understood that. I asked her to the movies. I asked if I could come over with barbecue. But she could not stand for me to see her at her highest weight in twenty years.
Then she stopped calling me back. She preferred life in the tunnel of her own making, which of course most of us do. You can’t force people to be willing to face their pain and anger, to own the ugliness that is in all of us.
She and a friend killed themselves together. They were quite drunk.
She stayed loyal to her family’s isolation and beliefs, barricaded from the world. She had created a fort, like my grandson’s fort of sheets and pillows, that is soft and in which you can hide. This is alcoholism.
Empathy, a moment’s compassion, seeing that everyone has equal value, even people who have behaved badly, is as magnetic a force as gratitude. It draws people to us, thus giving us the capacity to practice receiving love, the scariest thing of all.
Some days there seems to be little reason for hope, in our families, cities, and world.
In times of rational and primitive fear, hope has to do push-ups out in the parking lot to stay pumped – and it does.
Stories hold us together. Stories teach us what is important about life, why we are here and how it is best to behave, and that inside us we have access to treasure, in memories and observations.
Hope changes as you get older, from the hope that this or that happens, to hope in life, old friends, laughter, art, goodness, helpers. I hope and am amazed, some early mornings, at just finding myself alive.
Hope springs from that which is right in front of us, which surprises us, and seems to work.
Hospice means that death isn’t going to be nearly as bad as you think.
“Why?” is rarely a useful question in the hope business.
What if we focus on what the bad event brings forth, like new lands and life and starting over, rather than on the fact that people do horrible things like shoot kids? If we focus on the shootings, it’s too easy to lose all hope in life and humanity.
Trees in any forest have a presence, the beauty of the canopy and glimmers of blue sky like puzzle pieces, but they also have a mystical acoustic effect, due to their physical properties, a hush. Any hush is a hush, and a hush is usually sacred.
Our minds are hardwired in many ways to do many things, only half of which from my observations are self-destructive.
We have all we need to come through. Against all odds, no matter what we’ve lost, no matter what messes we’ve made over time, no matter how dark the night, we offer and are offered kindness, soul, light, and food, which create breath and spaciousness, which create hope, sufficient unto the day.
Category: Fiction & Literature
Themes: Wilderness, Rivers, Adventure, Natural Beauty, Friendship, Wildfires, Survival
Date Read: January 2020
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
There was a delicate but strong balance of risk versus caution in their team thinking, with the roles often fluid, and it’s what made them such good partners.
What he loved about poetry: it could do in a few seconds what a novel did in days. A painting could be like that, too, and a sculpture. But sometimes you wanted something to take days and days.
And it was books he took solace in. When he wasn’t out on the ranch, or riding the lease, or fishing. He eschewed team sports – he felt like they were a bunch of kids showing off – and he kept most of his reading to himself. Not even his English teachers knew the depths of his growing erudition, but the school librarian did, as did Annie Bosworth down at the Granby Public Library. They knew. They also knew his instinctive modesty and shyness, so they encouraged him with guidance but never made a big deal of his extraordinary voracity, nor of his range. They simply kept him in books.
But every river story they had ever read was just beneath the surface of their imaginations and must have fired them with extra energy and braced them, too., because at least half of those stories did not have happy endings.
“Professor Paulson said alliteration was dangerous if you don’t know how to use it.”
They lay back on the bag in the sun and didn’t say anything. After a minute Jack said, “What’s the dude’s definition of danger anyway? When he said using alliteration can be dangerous?”
“Yeah, right?” Wynn, eyes closed, felt around him until his palm lay on a small bed of warm moss. “It’s like when they say this or that writer took a big risk,” he said. “What are the consequences? He might have to hit delete on his laptop?”
“Ugh,” Jack said. “Some of these dudes need to get out more.
And sometimes the places that happenstance sent you weren’t as vague as a direction, sometimes they were as steel-cast and unforgiving as a set of rails. And sometimes the only way to jump the rails and set a new course was to have a wreck.
And the eagles. They seemed to mark the canoe’s progress from the gray spires of dead spruce, spaced downriver like watchmen on some lost frontier…
“The universe cradled him, it cradled all beings, everything would work out. Beings suffered, that sucked; he himself suffered, it certainly sucked; but step back far enough and take the long view and everything would take care of itself. It sort of awed Jack. Sometimes, usually, it made him crazy.”
They took time and care to douse the embers of their fire with water carried in the pot, though they thought, but did not say, that it was a little like stacking a line of sandbags before a tsunami. Well. With everything seeming to fall apart, good habits were one thing to hold on to.
The implacability and violence of nature always awed him. That it could be entirely heedless and yet so beautiful. That awed him. But also, its intricate intelligence. Its balancings. Its quiet compensations. It was like some unnamed justice permeated everything. He would not go further than that. Still, the workings of nature made the voracious, self-satiating intelligence of humans seem of the lowest order, not the highest.
A few of the taller trees in the green country had burned, but they had burned like torches in mostly solitary glory, and the boys could see that some had burned only partway, on one side, or in just the tops, and that the rest still lived. Wynn wondered if a tree had some analogy to pain. Or what pain would look like for a being without nerves.
Rich people are another species. Sort of lost in their own way. It’s a good thing they have country clubs and shit because it keeps them kinda corralled up in one place.
Wynn looked downstream at the course of sky curving away between walls of living woods. Soon the channel of firmament would pulse with a star, then three, then a hundred, and it would keep filling and deepening until the stars sifted and flowed between the tops of the trees in their own river, whose coves and bends would mirror the one they were on…The river of stars would find its way to its own bay and its own ocean of constellations and Wynn imagined, as he had before, that the water and the stars might sing to each other in a key inaudible, usually, to the human ear.
He heard a loon call, piercing and forlorn, and it poured into his spirit like cool water. It was a sad cry and he realized as he listened how barren the river had felt in the days without it. Why was a wail that seemed so lost and lonely so…what? Essential and lovely.
If one concentrated on one thing and then another—the good things in each moment—the fear wrapped deep in the gut seemed to unswell, like an iced bruise. Still there, but quieter.
There was something satisfying in a cessation of paddling on smooth water. It was like watching a flock of ducks all stop beating at once and sail over a bank of trees on extended wings.
The Library Book
Category: General – History, Drama, Culture, Biography
Themes: Public Libraries, Librarians, Books, Fire, Arson, History
Date Read: January 2020
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
The library might have been the first place I was ever given autonomy. Even when I was maybe four or five years old, I was allowed to head off on my own.
I loved wandering around the bookshelves, scanning the spines until something happened to catch my eye. Those visits were dreamy, frictionless interludes that promised I would leave richer than I arrived. It wasn’t like going to a store with my mom, which guaranteed a tug-of-War between what I wanted and what my mother was willing to buy me; in the library I could have anything I wanted.
It wasn’t that time stopped in the library. It was as if it were captured here, collected here, and in all libraries – and not only my time, my life, but all human time as well. In the library, time is dammed up – not just stopped but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.
Many times, I have stood over a trash can, holding a book with a torn cover and a broken binding, and I have hovered there, dangling the book, and finally, I have let the trash can lid snap shut and I have walked away with the goddamn book – a battered, dog-eared, wounded soldier that has been spared to live another day…The sensation of dropping a living thing into the trash is what makes me queasy. To have that same feeling about a book might seem strange, but this is why I have come to believe that books have souls – why else would I be so reluctant to throw one away? It doesn’t matter that I know I’m throwing away a bound, printed block of paper that is easily reproduced. It doesn’t feel like that. A book feels like a thing alive in this moment, and also alive on a continuum, from the moment the thoughts about it first percolated in the writer’s mind to the moment it sprang off the printing press – a lifeline that continues as someone sits with it and marvels over it, and it continues on, time after time after time. Once words and thoughts are poured into them, books are no longer just paper and ink and glue: They take on a kind of human vitality. The poet Milton called this quality in books ‘the potency of life.’
People pass through the library all the time, unobserved and unremarked upon. Libraries may embody our notion of permanence, but their patrons are always in flux. In truth, a library is as much a portal as it is a place – it is a transit point, a passage.
I had never been in a building as forlorn as this old library, with its bruised beauty, its loneliness. Abandoned buildings have a quaking, aching emptiness deeper than the emptiness of a building that has never been filled up. This building was full of what it was missing.
Writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance. It is a declaration that you believe in the persistence of memory.
Jews believe books are more than just printed documents; they believe books have a kind of humanity and a soul.
Destroying a library is a kind of terrorism. People think of libraries as the safest and most open places in society. Setting them on fire is like announcing that nothing, and nowhere, is safe. The deepest effect of burning books is emotional. When libraries burn, the books are sometimes described as being ‘wounded’ or as ‘casualties,’ just as human beings would be.
Taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory. Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death. It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.
In Senegal, the polite expression for saying someone died is to say his or her library has burned. When I first heard the phrase, I didn’t understand it, but over time I came to realise it was perfect. Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived.
People think that libraries are quiet, but they really aren’t. They rumble with voices and footsteps and a whole orchestral range of book-related noises—the snap of covers clapping shut; the breathy whisk of pages fanning open; the distinctive thunk of one book being stacked on another; the grumble of book carts in the corridors.
Every problem that society has, the library has, too, because the boundary between society and the library is porous; nothing good is kept out of the library, and nothing bad.
Our minds and souls contain volumes inscribed by our experiences and emotions; each individual’s consciousness is a collection of memories we’ve cataloged and stored inside us, a private library of a life lived.
A library is a good place to soften solitude; a place where you feel part of a conversation that has gone on for hundreds and hundreds of years even when you’re all alone. The library is a whispering post. You don’t need to take a book off a shelf to know there is a voice inside that is waiting to speak to you, and behind that was someone who truly believed that if he or she spoke, someone would listen.
I was struck by how full of hope it is to collect these books and manuscripts and preserve them. It declares that all these stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past and to what is still to come.
All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library’s simple unspoken promise: Here I am, please tell me your story; here is my story, please listen.
Category: Fiction & Literature
Themes: Fishing, Nature, Books, Education, Tourettes, Dementia, Cerebral Function, Gardening, Technology
Date Read: July 2019
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
Swimming gives me a sort of joy, a sense of well-being so extreme that it becomes at times a sort of ecstasy. There is a total engagement in the act of swimming, in each stroke, and at the same time the mind can float free, become spellbound, in a state like trance. I have never known anything so powerfully, so healthily euphoria turns – and I am addicted to it, fretful when I cannot swim…
There is an essential rightness about swimming, as about all such flowing and, so to speak, musical activities. And then there is the wonder of buoyancy, of being suspended in this thick, transparent medium that supports and embraces us. One can move in water, play with, in a way that has no analogue in the air. One can explore its dynamics, it’s flow, this way and that; one can move one’s hands like propellers or direct them like little rudders; one can become a little hydroplane or submarine, investigating the physics of flow with one’s own body. (Water Babies)
I had an overwhelming sense of Truth and Beauty when I saw the periodic table, a sense that this was not a mere human construct, arbitrary, but an actual vision of the eternal cosmic order, and that any future discoveries and advances, whatever they might add, would only reinforce, reaffirm, the truth of its order. (Science Museum – South Kensington)
Humphrey Davy: Poet of Chemistry
Davy conducted his research in romantic disorder and in great bursts of speed after an incubation period.
One of Davy’s recreations, perhaps his only one, throughout his adult life, had been fishing. Otherwise distracted, or pompous, or unapproachable, he would regain all his old friendliness, his real self, when fishing. This was the time when his mind became youthful and fresh once again, and he could delight, as he used to, in the pure play of ideas.
“Nature never deceives us; the rocks, the mountains, the streams, always speak the same language.”
Many scientists, no less than poets or artists, have a living relation to the past, not just an abstract sense of history and tradition but a feeling of companions and predecessors, ancestors with whom they enjoy a sort of implicit dialogue… Science grows out of its past but never outgrows it, any more than we outgrow our childhoods.
On the whole, I disliked school, sitting in class, receiving instruction; information seemed to go in one ear and out the other. I could not be passive – I had to active, learn for myself, learn what I wanted, and in the way that suited me best. I was not a good pupil, but I was a good learner, and in the Willesden library (the local public library) – and all the libraries that came later – I roamed the shelves and stacks, had the freedom to select whatever I wanted, to follow the paths that fascinated me, to become myself. At the library I felt free – free to look at the thousands, tens of thousands, of books; free to roam and enjoy the special atmosphere and the quiet companionship of other readers, all, like myself, on quests of their own.
All of us in the library were reading our own books, absorbed in our own worlds, and yet there was a sense of community, even intimacy. The physicality of books – along with their places and their neighbours on the bookshelves – was part of this camaraderie: handling books, sharing them, passing them to one another, even seeing the names of previous readers and the dates they took books out.
I am deeply saddened by the loss of books, even bound periodicals, for there is something irreplaceable about a physical book: it’s look, it’s smell, it’s heft.
Tourette’s can be exacerbated by hunger, and when we arrived in Tucson, having driven straight from Phoenix without a food stop, Lowell was racked by such violent tics that when we entered a restaurant, every eye was drawn to him. We sat at a table, and Lowell said, “I’m going to try something. Don’t disturb me for fifteen minutes.” He closed his eyes and started to breathe deeply and rhythmically, and within thirty seconds his tics were reduced, after a minute they were totally gone. At exactly fifteen minutes, Lowell opened his eyes, looking very relaxed and almost tic free. I could hardly believe it – I would have thought such a change physiologically impossible.
“What happened? What did you do?” I asked Lowell. He said that he had learned Transcendental Meditation as a way of dealing with otherwise uncontrollable ticking in public places. “It’s just autohypnosis,” he explained. “You have a mantra, a little word or phrase repeating slowly in your mind, and you soon get into a sort of trance and become oblivious to everything. It calms me down.” He remained almost tic-free for the rest of the evening.
There is, among Orthodox Jews, a blessing to be said on witnessing the strange: one blesses God for the diversity of his creation, and one gives thanks for the wonder of the strange. This, it seemed to me, was the attitude of the people of La Crete to the Tourette’s in their midst. They accepted it not as something annoying or insignificant, to be reacted to or overlooked, but as a deep strangeness, a wonder, an example of the absolute mysteriousness of Providence.
In September 2002, Spaulding jumped off his sailboat into the harbour, planning to drown himself (he lost his nerve and clung to the boat). A few days later, he was found pacing on the Sag Harbour bridge, eyeing the water, until the police intervened, and Kathie took him home.
Soon after this, Spaulding was admitted to Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic, on the Upper East Side. He spent four months there and was given more than twenty shock treatments and drugs of all kinds. He responded to none of them and, indeed, seemed to be getting worse by the day. When he emerged from Payne Whitney, his friends felt that something terrible and perhaps irreversible had happened. Kathy thought he was “a broken man.”
In July, when Spaulding first came to see Orrin and me, I asked him if there were any other themes besides the sale of his house that he ruminated about. He said yes: he often thought about his mother and the first twenty-six years of his life. It was when he was twenty-six that his mother, who had been intermittently psychotic since he was ten, fell into a self-torturing, remorseful state, focused on the selling of her family house. Unable to endure her torment, she had committed suicide.
In an uncanny way, he said, he felt that he was recapitulating what had happened with his mother. He felt the attraction of suicide and thought of it constantly. He said he regretted not having committed suicide at the UCLA hospital. Why there? I inquired. Because one day, he replied, someone had left a large plastic bag in his room – and it would have been “easy.” But he was pulled back by the thought of his wife and children. Nevertheless, he said, the idea of suicide rose “like a black sun” every day.
Kurt Goldstein, studying brain-damaged soldiers during World War I, was moved from his original, deficit-based point of view to a more holistic, organism as one. There were never, he believed, just deficits or releases; there were always reorganisations, and these he saw as Strategies (albeit unconscious and almost automatic) by which the brain-damaged organism sought to survive, although perhaps in a more rigid and impoverished way.
This theme, the preservation of identity, is well brought out by Donna Cohen and Carl Eisdorfer in their fine book The Loss of Self, which is based on painstaking studies of a number of people with Alzheimer’s…
People with Alzheimer’s disease may remain intensely human, very much themselves, and capable of normal emotion and relationships until quite late in their illness…
The relative preservation of the personal allows a great range of supportive and therapeutic activities that have in common that they address or evoke the personal. Religious services, theatre, music and art, gardening, cooking, or other hobbies can anchor patients despite their disintegration’s and temporarily restore a focus, an island of identity. Familiar melodies, poems, or stories may still be recognised and responded to despite advanced disease – a response that may be richly associative and bring back, for a while, some of the patient’s memories and feelings and their former powers and worlds. This can bring at least a temporary ‘awakening’ and fullness of life to patients who may be otherwise dismissed or ignored, left in states of bewilderment and vacancy, prone at any moment to losing their bearings or to catastrophic reactions (as Goldstein called them) of unimaginable confusion and panic.
Cerebral function is not like cardiac or renal function, which proceeds autonomously, almost mechanically, in a fairly uniform way throughout life. The brain/mind, in contrast, is anything but automatic, for it is always seeking, at every level from the perceptual to the philosophical, to categorise and recategorise the world, to comprehend and give meaning to its own experience. It is the nature of living and real life that experience is not uniform, but ever changing and ever challenging and requiring more and more comprehensive integration. It is not enough for the brain/mind simply to tick over, maintaining uniform function (like the heart); it must adventure and advance throughout life. The very concept of health or wellness requires a special definition in relation to the brain.
During the 1960’s, work opportunities for patients in Psychiatric Centres virtually disappeared, under the guise of protecting their rights. It was considered that having patients work in the kitchen or laundry or garden, or in sheltered workshops, constituted “exploitation.” This outlawing of work – based on legalistic notions of patient’s’ rights and not on their needs – deprived many patients of an important form of therapy, something that could give them incentives and identities of an economic and social sort. Work could “normalise” and create community, could take patients out of their solipsistic inner world’s, and the effects of stopping it were demoralising in the extreme. For many patients who had previously enjoyed work and activity, there was now little left but sitting, zombie-like, in front of the now-never-turned-off TV.
If the brain is to stay healthy, it must remain active, wondering, playing, exploring, and experimenting right to the end.
Erik and Joan Erikson – ‘universal, age-related stages’
Stage nine: Wisdom and integrity – The achievement of this stage involves the integration of vast amounts of information, the synthesis of a long lifetime’s experience, couple with the lengthening and enlargement of the individual’s perspectives and a sort of detachment or calm. Such a process is entirely individual. It cannot be prescribed or taught; nor is it directly dependent on education or intelligence or specific talents. “We cannot be taught wisdom,” as Proust remarks, “we have to discover it for ourselves by a journey which no one can undertake for us, an effort which no one can spare us.”
Michael Greenberg – Hurry Down Sunshine (2008)
Lucid, realistic, compassionate, illuminating, Hurry Down Sunshine may provide a sort of guide for those who have to negotiate the dark regions of the soul – a guide, too, for their families and friends, for all those who want to understand what their loved ones are going through.
Perhaps, too, it will remind us what a narrow ridge of normality we all inhabit, with the abysses of mania and depression yawning to either side.
As a writer, I find gardens essential to the creative process; as a physician, I take my patients to Gardens whenever possible. All of us have had the experience of wandering through a lush garden or a timeless desert, walking by a river or an ocean, or climbing a mountain and finding ourselves simultaneously calmed and reinvigorated, engaged in mind, refreshed in body and spirit. The importance of these physiological states on individual and community health is fundamental and wide-ranging. In forty years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical “therapy” to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.
I cannot say exactly how nature exerts it’s calming and organising effects on our brains, but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens, even for those who are deeply disabled neurologically. In many cases, gardens and nature are more powerful than any medication.
I have a number of patients with very advanced dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, who may very little sense of orientation to their surroundings. They have forgotten, or cannot access, how to tie their shoes or handle cooking implements. But put them in front of a flower bed with some seedlings, and they will know exactly what to do – I have never seen a patient plant something upside down.
Clearly, nature calls to something very deep in us. Biophilia, the love of nature and living things, is an essential part of the human condition. Hortophilia, the desire to interact with, manage, and tend nature, is also deeply instilled in us. The role that nature plays in health and healing becomes even more critical for people working long days in windowless offices, for those living in city neighbourhoods without access to green spaces, for children in city schools, or for those in institutional settings such as nursing homes. The effects of nature’s qualities on health are not only spiritual and emotional but physical and neurological. I have no doubt that they reflect deep changes in the brain’s physiology, and perhaps even its structure.
I have not adjusted as well as my aunt to some aspects of the new – perhaps because the rate of social change associated with technological advances has been so rapid and profound. I cannot get used to seeing myriads of people in the street peering into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces, walking blithely in front of moving traffic, totally out of touch with their surroundings. I am most alarmed by such distraction and inattention when I see young parents staring at their cell phones and ignoring their own babies as they walk or wheel them along. Such children, unable to attract their parents’ attention, must feel neglected, and they will surely show the effects of this in the years to come.
These gadgets, already ominous in 2007, have now immersed us in a virtual reality far denser, more absorbing, and even more dehumanising.
I am confronted every day by the complete disappearance of the old civilities. Social life, street life, and attention to people and things around one have largely disappeared, at least in big cities, where the majority of the population is now glued almost without pause to their phones or other devices – jabbering, texting, playing computer games, turning more and more to virtual reality of every sort.
Everything is public now, potentially; one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases. There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to nonstop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand. Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilisation: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.
Much of this, remarkably, was envisaged by E.M. Forster in his 1909 short story “The Machine Stops,” where he imagined a future in which people live underground in isolated cells, never seeing one another and communicating only by audio and visual devices. In this world, original thought and direct observation are discouraged – “Beware of first-hand ideas!” people are told. Humanity has been overtaken by “the Machine,” which provides all comforts and meets all needs – except for human contact.
Though I am supported and stimulated by my friends, by readers around the world, by memories of my life, and by the joy that writing gives me, I have, as many of us must have, deep fears about the well-being and even survival of our world.
My primary concern is the subtle, pervasive draining out of meaning, of intimate contact, from our society and culture.
Themes: Childhood, Education, Family, Religion, Family Disfunction, Survival
Date Read: March 2019
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them,” she says now. “You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.
My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.
The thing about having a mental breakdown is that no matter how obvious it is that you’re having one, it is somehow not obvious to you. I’m fine, you think. So what if I watched TV for twenty-four straight hours yesterday. I’m not falling apart. I’m just lazy. Why it’s better to think yourself lazy than think yourself in distress, I’m not sure. But it was better. More than better: it was vital.
Everything I had worked for, all my years of study had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now. What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.
It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you, I had written in my journal. But Shawn had more power over me than I could possibly have imagined. He had defined me to myself, and there’s no greater power than that.
We are all of us more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell.
The skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand.
But the real drama had already played out in the bathroom. It had played out when, for reasons I don’t understand, I was unable to climb through the mirror and send out my sixteen-year-old self in my place. Until that moment she had always been there. No matter how much I appeared to have changed—how illustrious my education, how altered my appearance—I was still her. At best I was two people, a fractured mind. She was inside, and emerged whenever I crossed the threshold of my father’s house. That night I called on her and she didn’t answer. She left me. She stayed in the mirror. The decisions I made after that moment were not the ones she would have made. They were the choices of a changed person, a new self. You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education. This story is not about Mormonism.
I began to experience the most powerful advantage of money: the ability to think of things besides money.
This is a magical place,” I said. “Everything shines here.” “You must stop yourself from thinking like that,” Dr. Kerry said, his voice raised. “You are not fool’s gold, shining only under a particular light. Whoever you become, whatever you make yourself into, that is who you always were. It was always in you. Not in Cambridge. In you. You are gold. And returning to BYU, or even to that mountain you came from, will not change who you are. It may change how others see you, it may even change how you see yourself—even gold appears dull in some lighting—but that is the illusion. And it always was.
There was a pause, then more words appeared – words I hadn’t known I needed to hear, but once I saw them, I realized I’d been searching my whole life for them. You were my child. I should have protected you. I lived a lifetime in the moment I read those lines, a life that was not the one I had actually lived. I became a different person, who remembered a different childhood. I didn’t understand the magic of those words then, and I don’t understand it now. I know only this: that when my mother told me she had not been the mother to me that she wished she’d been, she became that mother for the first time.
To admit uncertainty is to admit to weakness, to powerlessness, and to believe in yourself despite both. It is a frailty, but in this frailty, there is a strength: the conviction to live in your own mind, and not in someone else’s.
Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It has nothing to do with other people.
Choices, numberless as grains of sand, had layered and compressed, coalescing into sediment, then into rock, until all was set in stone.
I had discerned the ways in which we had been sculpted by a tradition given to us by others, a tradition of which we were either wilfully or accidentally ignorant. I had begun to understand that we had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalize others—because nurturing that discourse was easier, because retaining power always feels like the way forward.
He said positive liberty is self-mastery—the rule of the self, by the self. To have positive liberty, he explained, is to take control of one’s own mind; to be liberated from irrational fears and beliefs, from addictions, superstitions and all other forms of self-coercion.
I am not the child my father raised, but he is the father who raised her.
Curiosity is a luxury reserved for the financially secure: my mind was absorbed with more immediate concerns, such as the exact balance of my bank account, who I owed how much, and whether there was anything in my room I could sell for ten or twenty dollars.
All I had to do was swap my memories for theirs, and I could have my family.
I shed my guilt when I accepted my decision on its own terms, without endlessly prosecuting old grievances, without weighing his sins against mine. Without thinking of my father at all. I learned to accept my decision for my own sake, because of me, not because of him. Because I needed it, not because he deserved it.
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery None but ourselves can free our minds.
There’s a sense of sovereignty that comes from life on a mountain, a perception of privacy and isolation, even of dominion. In that vast space you can sail unaccompanied for hours, afloat on pine and brush and rock. It’s a tranquillity born of sheer immensity; it calms with its very magnitude, which renders the merely human of no consequence. Gene was formed by this alpine hypnosis, this hushing of human drama.
But sometimes I think we choose our illnesses, because they benefit us in some way.
No comma, no period, no adjective or adverb was beneath his interest. He made no distinction between grammar and content, between form and substance. A poorly written sentence was a poorly conceived idea, and in his view the grammatical logic was as much in need of correction. “Tell me,” he would say, “why have you placed this comma here? What relationship between these phrases are you hoping to establish?
I could tolerate any form of cruelty better than kindness. Praise was a poison to me; I choked on it.
That peace did not come easily. I spent two years enumerating my father’s flaws, constantly updating the tally, as if reciting every resentment, every real and imagined act of cruelty, of neglect, would justify my decision to cut him from my life. Once justified, I thought the strangling guilt would release me and I could catch my breath. But vindication has no power over guilt. No amount of anger or rage directed at others can subdue it, because guilt is never about them. Guilt is the fear of one’s own wretchedness. It has nothing to do with other people. I shed my guilt when I accepted my decision on its own terms, without endlessly prosecuting old grievances, without weighing his sins against mine. Without thinking of my father at all. I learned to accept my decision for my own sake, because of me, not because of him. Because I needed it, not because he deserved it.
I had decided to study not history, but historians. I suppose my interest came from the sense of groundlessness I’d felt since learning about the Holocaust and the civil rights movement–since realizing that what a person knows about the past is limited, and will always be limited, to what they are told by others. I knew what it was to have a misconception corrected–a misconception of such magnitude that shifting it shifted the world. Now I needed to understand how the great gatekeepers of history had come to terms with their own ignorance and partiality. I thought if I could accept that what they had written was not absolute but was the result of a biased process of conversation and revision, maybe I could reconcile myself with the fact that the history most people agreed upon was not the history I had been taught.
I begin to reason with myself, to doubt whether I had spoken clearly: what had I whispered and what had I screamed? I decide that if I had asked differently, been more calm, he would have stopped. I write this until I believe it, which doesn’t take long because I want to believe it. It’s comforting to think the defect is mine, because that means it is under my power.
I had to think before I could answer. “I can stand in this wind, because I’m not trying to stand in it,” I said. “The wind is just wind. You could withstand these gusts on the ground, so you can withstand them in the air. There is no difference. Except the difference you make in your head.
Tyler stood to go. “There’s a world out there, Tara,” he said. “And it will look a lot different once Dad is no longer whispering his view of it in your ear.
It happens sometimes in families: one child who doesn’t fit, whose rhythm is off, whose meter is set to the wrong tune.
Not knowing for certain, but refusing to give way to those who claim certainty, was a privilege I had never allowed myself. My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.
The hill is paved with wild wheat. If the conifers and sagebrush are soloists, the wheat field is a corps de ballet, each stem following all the rest in bursts of movement, a million ballerinas bending, one after the other, as great gales dent their golden heads.
I’d always known that my father believed in a different God. As a child, I’d been aware that although my family attended the same church as everyone in our town, our religion was not the same. They believed in modesty; we practiced it. They believed in God’s power to heal; we left our injuries in God’s hands. They believed in preparing for the Second Coming; we were actually prepared. For as long as I could remember, I’d known that the members of my own family were the only true Mormons I had ever known, and yet for some reason, here at this university, in this chapel, for the first time I felt the immensity of the gap. I understood now: I could stand with my family, or with the gentiles, on the one side or the other, but there was no foothold in between.
I tried to imagine what future such a woman might claim for herself. I tried to conjure other scenes in which she and her father were of two minds. When she ignored his counsel and kept her own. But my father had taught me that there are not two reasonable opinions to be had on any subject: there is Truth and there are Lies. I knelt on the carpet, listening to my father but studying this stranger, and felt suspended between them, drawn to each, repelled by both. I understood that no future could hold them; no destiny could tolerate him and her. I would remain a child, in perpetuity, always, or I would lose him.
When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies?
He said I owed him for the car. He really only mentioned it but I became crazed, hysterical. For the first time in my life, I shouted at my father – not about the car but about the Weavers. I was so suffocated by rage, my words didn’t come out as words, but as choking, sputtering sobs. Why are you like this? Why did you terrify us like that? Why did you fight so hard against made-up monsters, but do nothing about the monsters in your own house?
We had lived in a state of alert, a kind of constant terror, our brains flooding with cortisol because we knew that any of those things might happen at any moment.
I couldn’t tell him that the reason I couldn’t return to Cambridge was that being here threw into great relief every violent and degrading moment of my life.
It would be many years before I would understand what had happened that night, and what my role in it had been. How I had opened my mouth when I should have stayed silent, and shut it when I should have spoken out. What was needed was a revolution, a reversal of the ancient, brittle roles we’d been playing out since my childhood.
We had been bruised and gashed and concussed, had our legs set on fire and out heads cut open. We had lived in a state of alert, a kind of constant terror, our brains flooding with cortisol because we knew that any of those things might happen at any moment. Because Dad always put faith before safety.
Not knowing my birthday had never seemed strange. I knew I’d been born near the end of September, and each year I picked a day, one that didn’t fall on a Sunday because it’s no fun spending your birthday in church.
I had been raised in the mountains of Idaho by a father who distrusted many of the institutions that people take for granted – public education, doctors and hospitals, and the government.
I can’t have my family in my life because they are abusive, and I don’t have control over that. There is an abusive culture in my family, and I have to turn away from it.
I felt like we had stories about family loyalty; I didn’t feel like we had stories about what to do when you felt that loyalty to your family was in conflict with loyalty to yourself.
I have books I like very much, but I don’t think there are any books that everyone should read. I prefer a world in which some people read this, and others read that.
I didn’t know if I would ever reconcile with my family, and I needed to believe that I could forgive, regardless.
My parents would say to me, ‘You can teach yourself anything better than someone else can teach it to you.’ That was the whole ethos of my family.
I think if you’re going to abuse someone, you really have to convince them of two things. First, you have to normalise what you’re doing, convince them that it’s not that bad. And the second thing is to convince them that they deserve it in some way.
I have a theory that all abuse, no matter what kind of abuse it is, is foremost an assault on the mind.
When you write, you are alone. It can be a bit of a shock later to discover that people have read what you’ve written!
I was 17 the first time I set foot in a classroom, but 10 years later, I would graduate from Cambridge with a Ph.D. ‘Educated’ is the story of how I came by my education. It is also the story of how I lost my family.
Anyone who grows up reading the Bible for spiritual reasons, you get accustomed to reading things that are too much for you, too profound for you… Having that belief that you should read them anyway gives you a great advantage over people who only read what they think they can understand.
I felt like I needed to come to terms with the decision I’d made to let go of my family. What do you do when you want to be loyal to your family but you feel that loyalty to them is in conflict somehow with loyalty to yourself?
Forgiveness isn’t just the absence of anger. I think it’s also the presence of self-love, when you actually begin to value yourself.
It’s very difficult to continue to believe in yourself and that you’re a good person when the people who know you best don’t.
My loyalty to my father had increased in proportion to the miles between us.
An education is not so much about making a living as making a person.
I had grown up preparing for the Days of Abomination, watching for the sun to darken, for the moon to drip as if with blood.
Category: Non-fiction, Philosophy
Themes: Life-stories, Meditations, Affirmation of Simple Life
Date Read: February 2019
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
“We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors – walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful.” Frederick Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Walking is not a sport.
Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found. To walk you need to start with two legs. The rest is optional.
When you are walking, there is only one sort of performance that counts: the brilliance of the sky, the splendour of the landscape.
The suspensive freedom that comes by walking:
Even a simple short stroll: throwing off the burden of cares, forgetting business for a time.
With a longer excursion of several days, the process of self-liberation is accentuated: you escape the constraints of work, throw off the yoke of routine.
Only walking manages to free us from our illusions about the essential.
A walker considers it a liberation to be disentangled from the web of exchanges, no longer reduced to a junction in the network redistributing information, images and goods; to see that these things have only the reality and importance you give them.
When we respond to the Call of the Wild, we discover the immense vigorous of starry night skies, elemental energies, and our appetites follow: they are enormous, and our bodies are satisfied.
By walking, you escape from the very idea of identity, the temptation to be someone, to have a name and a history. The freedom in walking lies in not being anyone; for the walking body has no history, it is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life.
The freedom of renunciation: When you walk for a long time, there comes a moment when you no longer know how many hours have passed, or how many more will be needed to get there. You can hardly remember where you are going or why or what the time is.
Frederick Nietzsche’s life was made up of these detachments, these breaks, these isolations: from the world, society, travelling companions… These ruptures inflicted their own suffering. But every deepening of his solitude signified a further extension of his freedom: no explanations to give, no compromises to stand in his way, his vision clear and detached.
Walking out of doors was the invariable accompaniment to his writing.
Wagner’s music made him ill. Wagner’s music, he was to write, drowns you, it’s a marasmus, you have to ‘swim’ continuously in it, it submerges you in a throbbing, chaotic wave. You lose your footing when you listen to it.
Flight from the arousal, the demands, the agitations of the world, always paid for in hours of suffering. And walking, walking for hours at a time to disperse, divert, forget the hammering in his temples (migraines)
For Nietzsche, walking was more than a relaxation, or even an accompaniment, walking was truly his element.
“We do not belong to those who have ideas only among books, when stimulated by books. It is our habit to think outdoors – walking, leaping, climbing, dancing, preferably on lonely mountains or near the sea where even the trails become thoughtful. Our first question about the value of a book, of a human being, or a musical composition are: Can they walk? Even more, can they dance?”
Think while walking, walk while thinking, and let writing be but the light pause, as the body on a walk rests in contemplation of wide open spaces.
Nietzsche walked all day long, scribbling down here and there what the walking body – confronting sky, sea, glaciers – breathed into his thought.
In walks that extend over several days, during major expeditions, everything is inverted. ‘Outside’ is no longer a transition, but the element in which stability exists. I live in a landscape, I slowly take possession of it, I make it my site.
Everyone knows how to walk. One foot in front of the other, that’s the proper rhythm, the good distance to go somewhere, anywhere. All you have to do is resume: one foot in front of the other.
Walking is a good slowness, a sort of slowness that isn’t exactly the opposite of speed but of haste.
Days of slow walking are very long: they make you live longer, because you have allowed every hour, every minute, every second to breathe, to deepen, instead of filling them up by straining the joints.
It is one of the secrets of walking: a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them familiar. Like the regular encounters that deepen friendship.
When you are walking: nothing really moves.
‘I’m a pedestrian, nothing more.’ Arthur Rimbaud
Taking to the road always means departing: leaving behind. And when you leave, you always feel this mixture of anxiety and light-heartedness. Anxious because you are abandoning something and lightness of heart as you are carried somewhere else, trembling.
Walking: I find in Rimbaud that sense of walking as flight. That deep joy one always feels when walking, to be leaving behind. There is no question of going back when you are walking. That’s it: you’ve gone, departed. And the immense complementary joys of fatigue, extenuating, forgetfulness of the self and the world. All your former narratives, and those tiring murmurs, drowned by the beat of your tread on the road. Exhaustion that drowns everything. You always know why you are walking: to advance, to leave, to reach, to leave again.
When walking it’s essential to find your own basic rhythm and maintain it. The right basic rhythm is the one that suits you, so well that you don’t tire and can keep it up for ten hours.
Going at your own pace doesn’t mean walking in an absolute uniform, regular manner; the body is not a machine. It allows itself slight relaxations or moments of affirmative joy.
So it’s best to walk alone, except that one is never entirely alone. As Henry David Thoreau wrote: ‘l have a great deal of company in the house, especially in the morning when nobody calls.’ To be buried in Nature is perpetually distracting. Everything talks to you, greets you, demands your attention: trees, flowers, the colour of the roads. The sigh of the wind, the buzzing of insects, the babble of streams, the impact of your feet on the ground: a whole rustling murmur that responds to your presence. Rain, too. A light and gentle rain is a steady accompaniment, a murmur you listen to, with its intonations, outbursts, pauses: the distinct plopping of drops splashing on stone, the long melodious weave of sheets of rain falling steadily.
It’s impossible to be alone when walking, with so many things under our gaze which are given to us through the inalienable grasp of contemplation.
When you walk you are not alone as there is always this dialogue between the body and the soul.
When I am walking I accompany myself, I am two. And that endlessly relaunched conversation can last all day without boredom.
One always walks in silence. Once you have left streets, populated roads, public spaces, silence is retrieved, initially as a transparency. All is calm, expectant and at rest. You are out of the world’s chatter, it’s corridor echoes, it’s muttering.
What is called ‘silence’ in walking is, in the first place, the abolishment of chatter, of that permanent noise that blanks and fogs everything. Chatter deafens: it turns everything into nonsense, intoxicates you, makes you lose your head. It is always there on all sides, overflowing, running everywhere, in all directions.
In the silence of a walk, when you end up losing the use of words because by then you are doing nothing but walk, in that silence you hear better, because you are finally hearing what has no vocation to be translated, recoded, reformatted.
“I never do anything but when walking, the countryside is my study.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Mon Portrait
It was during long walks that the ideas would come, on the road that sentences would spring to his lips, as a light punctuation of the movement; it was paths that stimulated his imagination.
Although he had become an old man, he liked nothing so much as going for long walks, to kill the days. When there is really nothing left to do or believe, except to remember, walking helps retrieve the absolute simplicity of presence, beyond all hope, before any expectation.
Rousseau wasn’t walking to find his own identity, or to rediscover a disguised singularity, or to get a rest from shuffling masks; but walking long distances to find in himself the man from another age, the first man. Walking, but not as one might go to the desert to escape the world and its horrors, purified by solitude, prepared for one’s celestial destiny. But walking to find in himself the man fresh from the hands of Nature, the absolute primitive.
“In the midst of so much philosophy, humanity, and politeness, and so many sublime maxims, we have nothing to show for ourselves, but a deceitful and frivolous exterior, honour without virtue, reason without wisdom, and pleasure without happiness.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Those long hours of walking drained away envies and grudges, in a similar way to bereavement or immense misfortune.
During those long crepuscular walks, forgotten memories, welcome as old friends, rise to the surface of the conscious mind. Memories for which one at least feels indulgence. They no longer wound by reawakening painful episodes, or fatigue the soul with yearning for a lost happiness.
In this way, in these walks, you conceive an affection for yourself. You forgive yourself, instead of making excuses. Nothing left to lose, just keep walking….
For, once you no longer expect anything from the world on these aimless and peaceful walks, that is when the world delivers itself to you, gives itself, yields itself up. When you no longer expect anything. All is the bestowed as a supplement, a gratuitous favour of presence, of being there.
Walking to breathe in the landscape.
When you walk, news becomes unimportant. Soon you have lost all knowledge of the world. Being in the presence of what absolutely endured detaches us from the ephemeral news for which we are usually agog.
Walking is to experience these quietly and humbly insistent realities – the tree growing between rocks, the watchful bird, the streamlet finding its course – without expecting anything. Walking makes the rumours and complaints fall suddenly silent, stops the ceaseless interior chatter through which we comment on others, evaluate ourselves, recompose, interpret.
A day will surely come when we just stop worrying, stop being taken over and imprisoned by our chores. Working: accumulating savings, perpetual anxiety not to miss any career opportunity, coveting this or that job, rushing the work, worrying about competitors. Do this, take a look at that, invite so-and-so: social constraints, cultural fashions, busy, busy, busy… but always to do something, not to ‘be’.
You’re doing nothing when you walk, nothing but walking. But having nothing to do but walk makes it possible to recover the pure sensation of being, to rediscover the simple joy of existing, the joy that permeates the whole of childhood. So that walking, by unburdening us, prising us from the obsession of doing, puts us in touch with that childhood eternity once again. I mean that walking is so to speak child’s play.
When you walk, the world has neither present nor future, nothing but the cycles of morning and evening. Always the same thing to do all day: walk. But the walker who marvels while walking has no past, no plans, no experience. He has within him the eternal child.
Walking causes absorption. The body becomes steeped in the earth it treads.
Thoreau – ‘The new economics’
The principle is a simple one. Instead of asking what return a given activity will produce, the question is what it costs in terms of pure life ‘the cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.’
This is also a way of distinguishing between profit and benefit. What profit is obtained from a long forest walk? None: nothing saleable is produced, no social service is rendered… In this sense walking is thoroughly useless and sterile. What benefit is there to my life? It is immense: a long moment in which I look into myself, without being invaded by volatile, deafening hassles or alienated by the incessant cackle of chatterers. Nature lavishes all its colours on me. On me alone. Walking magnifies receptiveness.
Living is something no one else can do for us. You can be replaced at work, but not for walking.
Frugality is the discovery that simplicity is fulfilling, the discovery of perfect enjoyment with little or nothing.
It is easier to acquire wealth than to get rid of it.
Walking is setting oneself apart, at the edge of civilised worlds.
Writing ought to be this: testimony to a wordless, living experience. Books are not to teach us how to live but to make us want to live, to live differently: to find in ourselves the possibility of life, its principle.
How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.
Write only what has been lived, intensely. Make experience your only solid foundation.
Walking fills the mind with a different sense of purpose. Not connected with ideas or doctrines, not in the sense of a head full of phrases, quotations, theories: but full of the world’s presence.
Hopefulness, basically, is a matter of belief than knowledge. To believe, to hope, to dream, beyond any achievement, any lesson, any past.
A true life is always another life, a different life. Truth we must find within us.
The pilgrim is never at home where he walks. He’s a stranger, a foreigner. Every man is a pilgrim, the church father’s say: his whole life is an exile, for his true dwelling-place can never be reached here below.
The Christian passes through this life like a walker in any country: without lingering, without stopping.
Internal transformation remains the pilgrim’s mystical ideal: he hopes to be absolutely altered on his return.
The term ‘cynic’ is derived from the Greek noun kunos, Meaning dog. It designated a character whose mode of behaviour was very rough, who spent his time haranguing the crowd and denouncing the world’s hypocrisies.
All the commonplace compromises and conventions were booed, mocked, dragged through the mud: marriage respect for hierarchies, cupidity, egotism, the quest for recognition, cowardice, vice, rapacity. Nothing was spared.
I am richer (the cynic said) than any great landowner, for the earth is my domain. My properties are unbounded. My house is bigger than any other, or rather I have as many as I want: hollows among the rocks, caves in the hills. I have in store more food and drink than any man, I gorge on spring water.
In walking, you find these moments of pure pleasure, around encounters. The scent of blackberries or myrtle, the gentle warmth of an early summer sun, the freshness of a stream. Something never known before. In this way walking permits, in bright bursts, that clearance of a path to feeling, in discreet quantities: a handful of encounters along the way.
Joy is the accompaniment to an affirmation. Sadness is passivity. I drive myself, I am constrained, everything resists.
Joy is an activity: executing with ease something difficult that has taken time to master, asserting the faculties of the mind and the body.
What dominates in walking is the simple joy of feeling your body in the most primitively natural activity. The body is made for this movement, the way it finds in each pace the resource for the next.
Even apart from the action of walking, but compatible with it, there is also joy experienced as fullness, the joy of living. After a whole day’s walking, the simple relaxation of taking the weight off your legs, satisfying your hunger simply, having a quiet drink and contemplating the declining daylight, the gentle fall of night.
Happiness: The pleasure that is taken in savouring wild berries from the hedgerow or the caress of a breeze on the cheeks; the joy of walking and feeling the body advancing ‘like a man alone’; the fullness of feeling alive.
Happiness involves finding oneself the recipient of a spectacle, a moment, an atmosphere, and taking, accepting and grasping the blessing of the moment. For that there can be no recipe, no preparation; one has to be there when the moment comes.
Happiness is fragile precisely because it is not repeatable; opportunities for it are rare and random, like gold threads in the world’s fabric. They ought to be seized.
Serenity: The state of serenity – more than detachment, less than wonder; more than resignation, less than affirmation. A steady balance in the soul. Walking leads to it, quietly, gradually, through the very alternation of rest and movement.
Serenity means no longer being trapped in the agitated oscillations of fear and hope, and even placing yourself beyond all certainty.
Serenity comes from simply following the path. And then, while walking, serenity comes because all the hassles and dramas, all the things that gorge empty furrows in our lives and our bodies, becomes as if absolutely suspended, because out of range too remote and incalculable.
You only remember your dreams when walking.
Walking doesn’t erase sadness, it transforms it. Let your sadness sail away in the free air; let yourself go.
Gerard de Nerval: Walking made his illness flower. It completed the madness, because while walking everything becomes logical. Walking is a part of active melancholia.
Did he die of the unbearable bitterness of restored lucidity, or of an extreme eruption of the illness, its consummation? Nerval was found hanged in the pale dawn.
Emmanuel Kant: A daily outing.
At five o’clock it was time for his walk. Rain or shine, it had to be taken. He went alone, for he wanted to breathe through his nose all the way, with his mouth closed, which he believed to be excellent for the body. The company of friends would have obliged him to open his mouth to speak.
He always took the same route, so consistently that his itinerary through the park later came to be called ‘The Philosopher’s Walk’.
That low-key walk, without any big mystical union with Nature, that walk without pleasure, but taken as a hygiene necessity, that one-hour walk, but taken every day, every single day without exception, brings to light three important aspects of walking.
- Walking is monotonous. During that continuous but automatic effort of the body, the mind is placed at one’s disposal. It is then that thoughts can arise, surface or take shape.
- Regularity. The work was not produced in a flash of inspiration suspending time, but built up stone by stone. Discipline is the impossible conquered by the obstinate repetition of the possible.
- Inescapable. Through discipline it can happen that one becomes one’s own destiny.
The inescapable thing about walking is that once started, one is forced to arrive.
Walking produces a relaxing effect on the body. It is a change in rhythm: it unshackles the body’s limbs along with the mind’s faculties.
When you go out for a walk, you say goodbye to your work. You close the books and files, and you go out.
‘Availability’ is a rear synthesis of abandon and activity, deploying all the charm of the mind during the walk. The soul becomes as it were available to the world of appearances. It has nothing to explain to anyone, and no obligation to be coherent.
Just walking, without rush, without any set purpose, makes one’s neighbourhood look a little as it might have looked to one seeing it for the first time. With no focus on anything in particular, everything is offered in abundance: colours, details shapes, aspects.
Walking in town is torture to the lover of long rambles in nature, because it imposes an interrupted, uneven rhythm.
The isolating effect of crowds has often been described. An unending succession of strangers’ faces, a thick blanket of indifference which deepens moral solitude. The stroller seeks this anonymity because he hides in it. Amid the dense, gloomy solitude of the crowd, he carves out that of an observer and poet: no one can see what he is looking at.
The stroller does not consume and is not consumed. He practices urban foraging, or even theft. He captures, snatches in flight implausible encounters, furtive movements, fleeting coincidences.
The urban stroller lays himself open to scattered visual impacts.
There is no way of being more earthbound than by walking: the immeasurable monotony of the soil.
I think those abstracted sedentary individuals who spend their lives in an office rattling their fingers on a keyboard: ‘connected’, as they say, but to what? To information mutating between one second and the next, floods of images and numbers, pictures and graphs. And after work it’s the subway, the train, always speed, the gaze now glued to the telephone screen, more touches and strokes and messages scrolling past, images … and night falls, when they still haven’t seen anything of the day. Television, another screen. What dimension do they live in, without dust raised by movement, without contact, in what featureless space, in what time, where neither rain nor shine count? Those lives, disconnected from roads and routes, make them forget our condition, as if erosion by changing weather over time didn’t exist.
Our feet form a compass that has no useful function, apart from evaluating distance.
Walking reminds us constantly of our finiteness.
Walking is an invitation to die standing up.
All you need to walk is protection against cold and hunger.
All you need when walking is the necessary. Walking means living a life scoured bare, unburdened, divested of social skills, purged of futility and masks.
To walk without even the necessary is to abandon yourself to the elements. When you do that, nothing counts any more, plans, self-assurance, nothing.
Gandhi valued the spiritual and political benefits of walking.
While walking, you hold yourself to account: you correct yourself, challenge yourself, assess yourself.
Walking with Gandhi nurtured the slow energies of endurance. Gandhi loved the constant reminder of our gravity, our weakness. Walking is the condition of the poor.
Humility is not humiliating: it just makes vain pretensions fall away, and thus nudges us towards authenticity.
Walking promoted an ideal of autonomy.
Walking is the right speed to understand, to feel close.
Walking calls for gentle but continuous effort.
Walking calls for determination, tenacity and willpower.
Walking drains anger away. It purifies.
Gandhi never stopped walking all through his life. He attributed his excellent health to the habit. He walked to the very end.
Walking may be monotonous but never boring. There is far too much regularity and rhythmic movement in walking to cause boredom. That is what led monks to suggest walking as a remedy for acedia, that insidious illness that gnaws at the soul.
Walking contains the power of repetition. That power of repetition can be found elsewhere, in a certain form of prayer, the ‘prayer of the heart’.
Gordon Livingston M.D
Category: Health & Wellbeing
Themes: Self Help, Life Skills, Grief, Parenting, Happiness
Date Read: February 2019
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
Less desirable attributes of character – impulsivity, self-centredness, quickness to anger
Happiness is not simply the absence of despair. It is an affirmative state in which our lives have both meaning and pleasure.
We are drowning in words, many of which turn out to be lies we tell ourselves or others.
Past behaviour is the most reliable predictor of future behaviour.
We demonstrate courage in the numberless small ways in which we meet our obligations or reach out to try the new things that might improve our lives. Many of us are afraid of risk and prefer the bland, the predictable, and the repetitive. This explains the overwhelming sense of boredom that is a defining characteristic of our age.
The three components of happiness are something to do, something to love, and something to look forward to. I use the term work to encompass any activity, paid or unpaid, that gives us a feeling of personal significance.
We define who we are and who and what we care about, not by what we promise, but by what we do.
Often people alternate between the extremes of loneliness and self-deception.
If we wish to be treated with kindness and forbearance, we need to cultivate those qualities in ourselves.
Well-functioning families are good at letting their children go. Poor functioning families tend to hold on to them.
The stories of our lives, far from being fixed narratives, are under constant revision. The slender threads of causality are rewoven and reinterpreted as we attempt to explain to ourselves and others how we become the people we are.
Change is the essence of life.
Therapy properly done, is a combination of confessional, re-parenting and mentoring experiences.
Compensating people who feel helpless validates this emotion and insures that it persists, while creating a powerful incentive to surrender one’s autonomy and sense of competence.
While medication can provide crucial, sometimes life-saving relief, people also have an obligation to alter their behaviour in ways that allow them to exert greater control over their lives.
The problem with perfectionists and their pre-occupation with control is that the qualities that make them effective in their work can render them insufferable in their personal lives.
People with compulsive character structures are vulnerable to depression, as is anyone who seeks perfection in an imperfect world.
The intensity of our connections to those we love is a function of our knowledge that everything and everyone is evanescent.
Many older people report the feeling of invisibility experienced by other minorities.
Depressed people tend naturally to focus on their symptoms: sadness, loss of energy, sleep disturbance, appetite changes, diminished capacity for happiness.
It is the job of the psychotherapist to re-instil hope. I frequently ask patients, “What are you looking forward to? People who are overwhelmed by anxiety or depression often have no answer. The truly hopeless, of course, think about ending their lives.
When confronted with a suicidal person I seldom try to talk them out of it. Instead I ask them to examine what it is that has so far dissuaded them for killing themselves. Usually this involves finding out what the connections are that tether that person to life in the face of nearly unbearable psychic pain. There is simply no denying the anger embedded in any decision to kill oneself. Suicide is a kind of curse forever on those who love us. It is, to be sure, the ultimate statement of hopelessness, but it is also a declaration to those closest to us that their caring for us and our caring for them was insufficient to the task of living through another day. People in despair are, naturally, intensely self-absorbed. Suicide is the ultimate expression of this preoccupation with self. Instead of just expressing the sympathy and fear that suicidal people evoke in those around them, therapists included, I think it is reasonable to confront them with the selfishness and anger implied in any act of self-destruction.
The most familiar behaviours that are resistant to change are those that involve addictions of some sort: chemical dependency, overeating, gambling, sex.
When we think about the things that alter our lives in a moment, nearly all of them are bad: phone calls in the night, accidents, loss of jobs or loved ones, conversations with doctors bearing awful news.
One of the things that make us human is the ability to contemplate the future.
If we believe it is better to build than destroy, better to live and let live, better to be than to be seen, then we might have a chance slowly, to find a satisfying way through life, this flicker of consciousness between two great silences.
Encouraging people to change is an exercise in shared hope.
Lying to ourselves disables us entirely from making needed changes.
Grief has taught me many things about the fragility of life and the finality of death. To lose that which means the most to us is a lesson in helplessness and humility and survival.
Like all who mourn I learned an abiding hatred for the word “closure,” with its comforting implication that grief is a time-limited process from which we all recover. The idea that I could reach a point when I could no longer miss my children was obscene to me and I dismissed it. I had to accept the reality that I would never be the same person, that some part of my heart, perhaps the best part, had been cut out and buried with my sons.
What I learned about grief is that there is no was around it, you just have to go through it. In that journey I experienced hopelessness, contemplated suicide, and learned that I was not alone. Certain that there could be no comfort in words, I came to realise that words, my own and those of others, were all I had to frame my experience, first my despair and finally a fragile belief that my life still had meaning.
I have forsaken any belief in an orderly universe and a just God. But I have not relinquished my love for my sons nor my longing that, against all reason, I will see them again.
This is what passes for hope: those we have lost evoked in us feelings of love that we didn’t know we were capable of. These permanent changes are their legacies, their gifts to us. It is our task to transfer that love to those who still need us. In this way we remain faithful to their memories.
“The love between parents and children depends heavily on forgiveness. It is our imperfections that mark us as human and our willingness to tolerate them in our families and ourselves redeems the suffering to which all love makes us vulnerable.” Mark Helprin
Our desire for control and a belief that we know how things should be overcomes our common sense about how people react to orders.
Passive resistance is the last refuge of the powerless.
The primary goal of parenting, beyond keeping our children safe and loved, is to convey to them a sense that it is possible to be happy in an uncertain world, to give them hope… If we can demonstrate in our own lives qualities of commitment, determination, and optimism, then we have done our job.
We live in a fear-promoting society.
Life is full of uncertainty and random catastrophe. It is easy, therefore, to justify almost any anxiety.
Fear can be an adaptive emotion if it results in actions that protect us from harm. For this to happen, however, threats must be identified realistically.
The sum of our fears is the knowledge of our vulnerability to random misfortune and the certainty of our eventual mortality.
Anxiety is contagious.
Our primary task as parents beyond attending to the day-to-day physical and emotional welfare of our children, is to convey to them a sense of the world as an imperfect place in which it is possible, nevertheless, to be happy.
Memory can distort our attempts to come to terms with the present. When people speak wistfully of the way things used to be, it is almost always in contrast to what is happening now and reflects a kind of gloom about the future.
To know someone fully and love them in spite of, even because of, their imperfections is an act that requires us to recognise and forgive, two very important indicators of emotional maturity.
It is our fallibility and uncertainty that make us human.
Memory is not, as many of us think, an accurate transcription of past experience. Rather it is a story we tell ourselves about the past, full of distortions, wishful thinking, and unfulfilled dreams.
What we remember and how we remember it are affected by the meaning of events to us and by the effort we all make to construct a coherent narrative from our lives that reflects what we think of ourselves and how we become the people we are – or wish we were.
To be able to experience fully the sadness and absurdity that life so often presents and still find reasons to go on is an act of courage abetted by our ability to both love and laugh.
Humour is a form of sharing, an interpersonal exercise.
When we are depressed our loss of energy, inability to concentrate, and sad mood customarily cause us to withdraw from the people and activities that previously gave us pleasure.
Mental health is a function of choice. The more choices we are able to exercise, the happier we are likely to be.
Life can be seen as a series of relinquishment.
Forgiveness is a gift to ourselves. It exists at the intersection of love and justice.
Some form of forgiveness is the end point of grieving.
We are all burdened by memories of injury or rejection or unfairness. Sometimes we hold on to these grievances with a bitter determination that causes us to become preoccupied with the persons or institutions we hold responsible for our unhappiness.
Forgiveness is simultaneously an act of will and of surrender.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth
Category: Historical Fiction (Based on a true story)
Themes: Holocaust, Auschwitz, Survival, Love, Courage, Suffering
Date Read: January 2019
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
Her eyes dance before him. Looking into them his heart seems simultaneously to stop and begin beating for the first time, pounding, almost threatening to burst out of his chest.
When the men try to engage him in conversation, he responds with words of encouragement, trying to turn their fear into hope. We stand in shit but let us not drown in it.
He wears a suit and tie, but that’s the only visible difference between him and the next man. We’re all in the same filthy boat.
The train stops again. It is pitch-black; clouds block out the moon and stars completely. Does the dark portend their future? Things are as they are. What I can see, feel, hear and smell right now.
Lale studies the men in uniform. Black and threatening. The twin lightning bolts on the collar of their jackets tell Lale who he is dealing with. The SS.
ARBEIT MACHT FREI Work will make you free.
Lale looks at the number: 32407
The tattooing has taken only seconds, but Lale’s shock makes time stand still. He grasps his arm, staring at the number. How can someone do this to another human being? He wonders if for the rest of his life, be it short or long, he will be defined by this moment, this irregular number: 32407
‘These mattresses have got hay in them,’ someone else says. ‘Maybe we should continue to act like cattle and eat that.’
As the SS officers disappear into the darkness, Lale makes a vow to himself. I will live to leave this place. I will walk out a free man. If there is a hell, I will see these murderers burn in it.
He must trust no one, reveal little about himself, be cautious…
Lale has witnessed an unimaginable act. He staggers to his feet, standing on the threshold of hell, an inferno of feelings raging inside him.
Pepan stands, goes to walk away. Lale grabs at his shirtsleeve.
‘Pepan, why have you chosen me?’
‘I saw a half-starved young man risk his life to save you. I figure you must be someone worth saving.’
‘To save one is to save the world.’
Food is currency. With it, you stay alive. You have the strength to do what is asked of you. You get to live another day. Without it, you weaken to the point you don’t care anymore.
She stares at Lale, shaking her head. ‘I’m just a number. You should know that. You gave it to me.’
‘Yes, but that’s just in here. Who are you outside of here?’
‘Outside doesn’t exist anymore. There’s only here.’
He can’t ignore his fears about the future. Dark thoughts he has kept at bay, about his family and their safety, consume him. If he can’t help them, then he will do what he can for this woman in front of him.
Lale finally works out what it is about her voice that saddens him. It is emotionless.
‘What does your name mean? He asks.
‘Hope. It means hope.’ Nadia stands. ‘Goodnight,’ she says.
She is gone before Lale can reply.
Images of Gita and his mother come to him, the two women he loves most, floating just out of reach. Grief comes in waves, threatening to drown him.
His mother and also his sister subliminally taught Lale what it was a woman wanted from a man, and so far he had spent his life trying to live up to these lessons. ‘Be attentive, Lale; remember the small things, and the big things will work themselves out.’
His mother he can see perfectly. But how do you say goodbye to your mother? The person who gave you breath, who taught you how to live.
Around her she can feel the recognition of those witnessing her moment of grief. They look on in silence, each going into their own dark place of despair, not knowing what has become of their own families.
Lale doesn’t know how or with what words the Romani honour their dead, but feels a reflex to respond to these deaths in a way he has always known. ‘Yisgadal veyiskadash shmei rabbah – May his name be magnified and made holy…’
Several of the men join him in silence, a silence that is no longer quiet. A wall of grief surrounds them.
Lale thinks back to the vow he made at the beginning. To survive and see those responsible pay.
The twinkling of stars overhead is no longer a comfort. They merely remind him of the chasm between what life can be and what it is now.
Lale still cannot understand. Nations threaten other nations. They have the power, they have the military. How can a race spread out across multiple countries be considered a threat?
Numbers, numbers. Survival is always about your number. Being ticked off your kapo’s list tells you that you are still alive.
‘If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day.’
Lale looks up searching for the sun to shine down on him. But it is concealed by ash and smoke.
Gita doesn’t know how to break the spell of Lale’s grief. They have both withstood, for more than two and a half years, the worst of humanity. But this is the first time she’s seen Lale sink to this depth of depression.
You will honour them by staying alive, surviving this place and telling the world what happened here.
‘You see your world reflected in a mirror, but I have another mirror,’ Lale says.
Lale looks at these young women and realises that there is nothing left to say. They were brought to this camp as girls, and now – not one of them yet having reached the age of twenty-one they are broken, damaged young women. He knows they will never grow to be the women they were meant to be. Their futures have been derailed and there will be no getting back on the same track. The visions they once had for themselves, as daughters, sisters, wives and mothers, workers, travellers, and lovers, will forever be tainted by what they’ve witnessed and endured.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a story of two ordinary people, living in an extraordinary time, deprived not only of their freedom but their dignity, their names, and their identities, and it is Lale’s account of what they needed to do to survive. Lale lived his life by the motto: ‘If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day.’
Themes: Language, Sentence Structure, Reading, Life
Date Read: January 2019
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
Sentences are my core output. It helps to think of it like this, as just cranking out a daily quota of sentences, instead of being a writer, which feels like a claim that will need to be stamped and approved. (Three and a half thousand sentences a year)
Sentences are our writing commons, the shared ground where every writer walks.
By learning to make sentences, we learn not just about writing but about everything. The sentence is where we make the briefest of senses out of this mad, beautiful, befuddling mess: life.
A good sentence gives order to our thoughts and takes us out of our solitudes. It is a cure, however fleeting, for human loneliness and for the chronic gulf of incomprehension that divides writer and reader, just as it divides any two of us.
Students come to the library shop floor to clock on for their shifts. They sit at the assembly line of computers making an accumulated sound, as they two-finger type, like soft spring rain pattering on the roof.
To write well you need to read and audit your own words, and that is a much stranger and more unnatural act than any of us know.
To be able to write a sentence that someone else might read voluntarily and with pleasure is the work of a lifetime.
What the Japanese call shokunin katagi, the artisan spirit, is about much more than skill. It bears the social obligation to make something for the joy of making it, quietly and beautifully. It invests the simplest daily acts with artistry, whether it be making tea, raking Shirakawa gravel in the garden or curating that work of art and lunch that is a bento box. The point of life is to infuse the quotidian with the pleasure of creation and the pursuit of perfection.
The art of sentence craft seems ideally suited to this artisanal spirit. In a sentence, precision and grace go together. What matters is getting the little things right, for only through mastering these menial tasks do we find order and beauty.
Find a sentence you like and look at it for a distressingly long time, until you see past its sense into its shape.
‘A sentence is both the opportunity and the limit of thought – what we have to think with, and what we have to think in.’ Wendell Berry
A sentence sits somewhere between the natural and the human. A writer must live within its limits.
There is no virtue in volume, no benefit in bulk. The world has plenty of sentences already so pause before you add to the pile. Most of us, when we write, march too quickly on to the next sentence. Fix your sights on making one sane, sound, serviceable sentence.
Writing, just like farming, demands both patient work and stoic acceptance when that work comes to naught. The harvest is bountiful or it isn’t; the sentences come or they don’t – but eventually always, they will.
In a fast world in pursuit of instant answers, slowness has become a dissident act. Perhaps a sentence slowly written, and slowly relished, could work in the same way.
‘It’s necessary to write as if your sentences will be orphaned, because they will be. When called to stand in the court of meaning, your sentences will get no coaching from you.’ Berlin Klinkenborg
Once our sentences are written and sent out into the world to be read, they are on their own.
The word sentence comes from the Latin sentire, ‘to feel’.
Stick to time, manner and place and your sentence will never seem cluttered. For you will be relaying an unbroken action in the world of linear time and three-dimensional space within which all of us are stuck.
A sentence must say something, but it can be a half-said thing and the better for it.
Making even one good sentence may be hard, but it is worth it – just to edit our thoughts into fluent intelligence, to build a ladder of words up to our better selves.
In writing, meaning is derived from just four things: syntax, word choice, punctuation and typography. These four things, in that order of importance, must stand in for the unique print of the human voice.
A good sentence on a bleak theme can be oddly cheering. To clothe despair in elegance is to show that it can be endured.
A well written sentence acts as an antidote to self-pity and banality. It may say something obvious – the person died, as we all will – without sliding into cliché or cant. Or it may say something unobvious that, once said, seems true for ever.
Consider the sentence as a crafted object.
A sentence wields more power with a strong stress at the end, where it stays in the mind and sends a backwash over the words that went before.
A sentence, like an epigram, says the most it can with the scarcest resources.
Writing exists not to be wasted on the air like speech, but to be committed to permanence.
To write a sentence you will need the following. First, some words. Second, a feel for how those words might fit together. Third, a writing tool and surface, some implement and conveyance for turning your words into a visible form that allows them to be tipped into someone else’s brain. Last, the thing that people forget they need: a memory.
A short-term memory retains stuff in your head for about half a minute. Without it, language is impossible, because to understand a sentence a listener or reader has to remember the start until the end.
To write a sentence, you need a working memory, to keep the parts in play until they fall into place.
A sentence must stick in the mind. It has to be literally memorable, never so intricate that it cannot be absorbed at once.
If you think the sentence before you write it, it will be sufficiently uncontested to slip into the reader’s brain at first time of asking.
The limit of a written sentence is the memory capacity of our brains. The full stop at the end of the sentence sets the limit.
When you write it down you can see it and tinker with it in ways that can’t be done in the head.
Typefaces can shift the whole tone of a piece of writing.
Words make little sense outside of sentences. Without sentences, words are rudderless rafts, stranded in an ocean of unmeaning with no land in sight.
Writing should be an act of generosity, a gift from writer to reader. As with all gifts, giver and receiver must cut each other some slack. A sentence before it can be made sense of, must be unravelled like a gift being unwrapped. The unravelling should never feel like more trouble than it is worth.
‘It is the talent which is not in use that is lost or atrophies, and to bestow one of our creations is the surest way to invoke the next.’ Lewis Hyde ‘The Gift’
Thomas Merton grew to love rain, especially on the fire watch, the nightly patrols the monks made to guard against fire, when a downpour would break the silence like an aviary full of prattling birds.
Merton felt that by chasing after scarce goods that could not be shared by all, like money, rank and status, we ignored the free gift around us. Rain, a gift from the skies, asked only that we stop and listen to it.
‘What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night,’ he wrote, ‘cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the water courses everywhere in the hollows.’
‘The right Names, well used, can act as portals. Good names open on to mystery, grow knowledge and summon wonder.’ Robert Macfarlane
When we don’t know the names of living things, we care about them less, and retreat a little from the real. Nouns should bring us closer to the world.
The things that only live in our heads are often the things we hold most dear. Abstractions matter, and a writer’s job is to write about them, however hard it might be.
When words are too general, they paint inadequate pictures. But writing that describes only the feelable things in front of our faces is also dull, because it does not say why those things matter to someone else.
Metaphor describes the indescribable by relating it to the bare facts of our lives.
‘Metaphor does not so much compare something to something else as alter what both those things mean.’ Max Black (philosopher)
A metaphor’s potency comes from its being so hard to refute. It lodges in the reader’s mind without the writer having to explain or defend it. A metaphor is meaning in shorthand.
Writing is not just a way of communicating; it is a way of thinking.
When nouns rule over sentences, all the air has been punched out of them.
‘A writer should be true to human conflictedness, open to all our absurdities and incongruities.’ Thomas Merton
Loneliness was pointless and depleting; solitude re-acquainted you more lastingly with life. (Merton)
The writer’s task was not to cut some hard diamond of unanswerable truth, but to allow communication to occur. Sentences need some give in them. They must be open to dispute by a truth the writer does not own and the reader might see differently. They must bring us back to the human realm of fine distinction and honest doubts. Reality is not to be hunted and speared with sentences. In good writing, problems are lived, not solved – are held and weighed with words, not beaten with a stick until they are tamed. (Merton)
A sentence should be a labour to write, not to read.
People who love sentences love verbs. Verbs enact this universal law: everything moves.
Life is movement. Each day we take 23,000 breaths and our hearts beat 100,000 times. These breathing lungs and beating hearts allow us to move around and make our way in the world. Life needs energy to sustain it and energy burns itself out. And so our lives burn themselves out in the end and we return to the topsoil from which all life comes. Life begins again.
Life is a noun but it can only be lived as a verb.
Reality is an author less poem being written without our help. (Is this statement true?)
Check all the times you use is and was in your writing and see if they are just linking things weakly or actually saying something worth saying.
Sometimes it helps to think of the world as slightly blurred.
Young people need to see that they have choices, that life is not elsewhere (as in social media) but is theirs to live, and that the future may be hard and confusing but is theirs to make.
A sentence brings together a noun, which names a thing; with a verb, which says something about that thing. That is all a sentence needs: everything else is optional.
‘Writing is an instrument for conveying ideas from one mind to another.’ Ernest Gowers
‘The windowpane theory of prose’ George Orwell
Writing should be unseen, a transparent vessel empty of all but the author’s thoughts, which can then be poured lightly into the reader’s lap. One should notice the words no more than someone looking through glass notices the glass.
Write in a way that engenders sense out of nothing.
One of the many forgotten miracles of silent reading is that it preserves the traces of reading aloud… However fast they read, they subvocalise, hearing the words in their heads.
Reading the words aloud obliges you to revisit what you have said.
Sentences should be as much like speech as you can make them – so long as you remember that they are nothing like speech. Writing needs to retain the loose shapes of talk, it’s rhythmic curves and breathing pauses, but overlay them with the tighter shapes of writing.
Using mostly short words in a sentence has a happy side effect: a richer pattern of sounds.
A sentence split into two-second phrases gives off sound, the sound of someone speaking.
‘If it’s possible to cut a word, always cut it out.’ Orwell
Cutting words is a silent, invisible gift to that reader – and a thankless task, inevitably, since no one but you knows you have done it.
We make meaning not just be adding words but by taking them away. Cutting words seems to liberate a meaning that the writer was not aware of but was waiting there to be found. Distilling prose, like boiling down a sauce, releases its real flavour and its true essence.
Adjectives, like weeds, cannot be eradicated, only tamed.
An adjective should make a noun more specific, or vivid, or both.
The right word is only the right word in the right place.
Every sentence must die so the next one can begin. A full stop should offer a good death: natural, painless, clarifying, renewing.
Writing is not conversation, nor a speech-balloon text waiting for a response. The point of writing is to store and spread information in a form that does not require anyone else’s bodily presence while it is being written.
A sentence gives words a finished form that awaits no clarification.
We write alone, as an act of faith in the power of words to speak to others who are unknown and elsewhere.
When you write a sentence nothing happens at all. Adding to the vast pile of existing sentences is like adding another stone to a hilltop cairn. You have agreed to join in one of humanity’s joint endeavours – cairn building or sentence-writing – when no one else is watching.
You must be willing to keep writing in the absence of any evidence that anyone is reading. And no use complaining, either, since no one asked you to do it in the first place. The rewards of writing sentences are real, but they are long-deferred and mostly unconfirmed.
Writing should have a air of address, a sense of being aimed at someone, albeit not like an arrow.
With a full stop, a sentence becomes self-supporting. It can go out into the world without the author leaning over the reader to clarify its meaning.
Writing a sentence well involves caring, taking pains for the benefit of others. But it is a special kind of caring, a caring that does not seek thanks or feedback, but offers itself up for all to enjoy or ignore, as they wish.
We need spaces that feel solid and anchoring and that care for us in unspoken, undemanding ways. We need sentences like this too.
A plain English sentence moves smoothly and easily towards its final point. The best way to ensure this happens is to put the important stuff at the end.
A sentence brought properly to rest, with a full stop in the right place, says that its maker cared how its words fell on the reader’s ear.
You have to search for the truth in your sentences, not outside of them. You have to give up all your pet ideas and idle prejudices and let the sentence tell you what you did not mean to say and may not wish to hear.
A writer is talking to a reader who can’t talk back. A bemused reader reproves the writer only with his invisible apathy. The reader has no voice, or not one that can be heard. All he can do is stop reading.
Writing is not about telling all, sweeping up the contents of the world and emptying them into the refuse bin of a sentence, but also withholding and releasing what we have to say bit by bit, because sentences can only be read bit by bit.
Algorithms help. By routinising the mundane tasks, they free up the mind to focus on those elusive parts of writing that cannot be done algorithmically.
A sentence needs a glint of human intelligence behind it to give the elusive thing, sentience, that makes it a sentence.
Economy in writing is a virtue but it can be over-prised. Sentences need some elbow room to move around in.
A good sentence arrays it’s elements into an order that should seem fresh and surprising and yet shaped and controlled.
Ending your sentence with a list of three lands it well. With three things, you can set up a pattern, then break it. Tension is created, built and resolved. A quest story has three narrative phrases: departure, adventure, return. A list of three sounds like a plausible sample without being unruly.
‘All I could find in the fridge was half a cucumber, some festering Camembert and an unopened bag of wilted rocket leaves.’
Every writer is a poet by default and every sentence a little poem.
A long sentence should be a beautiful, indelible gift. It should give pleasure without provisos, not buttonhole and bedazzle the reader with virtuosity. It can put the reader on edge a little, so long as this does not feel like its main point, so long as it feels as if the sentence has no ulterior motive other than the giving of its own life-delighting self.
A sentence is a social animal; it feeds of its fellows to form higher units of sense. A sentence needs a full stop not just to be a sentence, but so the next one can begin.
Sentences need some space and silence between them, so the reader can see the full stop and hear its click.
A sentence needs to say something compelling on its own, but leave enough unsaid in it to suggest the next one.
The sentence may be a lonely place, but a group of sentences can make fresh meanings out of the convergence of their collective solitude.
If your single sentences have enough life and interest in them they will hold the reader and then suggest ways that they can proceed.
The aim is to make each sentence count.
Write the sentence that emerges or transpires out of the last one, instead of linking back to it via some scaffold of logic you have built separately from the sentences themselves.
Writing is a gift from writer to reader, the gift of telling someone what you know or have seen.
Signposts work best when they are half-invisible, leading the reader on without advertising themselves.
True flow in writing is like this: a gradual unveiling, like pointing a boat at a star and seeing where it leads.
I want my sentences to flow as if the reader were walking through a townscape with no need of a street map.
A sentence is an organic community and changing one word can shift its delicate balance so that the whole thing feels disarranged, knocked out of kilter.
A bad sentence can never be saved by swapping words; better through it out and start again.
Cohesion is how a sentence interlaces with the next one, by ending in a way that allows the next one to begin. Coherence is how the reader gets an overall sense of what a group of sentences is about.
When you vary the length of your sentences, two things happen. First, as you fit your thoughts into shorter and longer forms, you come up with better wordings. Second, your writing will, as if by magic, fill with life and voice.
Voice is the invisible force field, the holding energy that glues writing together.
Writing is rewriting. And the rewriting begins with the paragraphs: conflating them, moving them round, testing the eye appeal of different lengths on a page.
Write in sentences, edit in paragraphs.
The reader’s pleasure in flowing writing comes partly from knowing that the seeming spontaneity is rehearsed. Someone you don’t know has cared enough about you to turn their lonely labour into something that falls well on the ears and fizzes with life for your benefit.
The invention of the sentence helped us shepherd that inner voice into sense and offer up its contents to others.
Writing is not a sermon, and at some point, sooner than we think, we should stop.
A classic symptom of depression is dull vocal tone.
When your writing has a voice the argument arises out of the act of noticing something about the world from one tiny spot on it – the one occupied by the writer – and sharing it with the reader.
‘Everything that needs to be said has already been said,’ wrote Andre Gide. ‘But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.’
Writing is also life, a perfectly natural way of being.
Sentences give us a shared space to find meaning in the world together. They are where strangers talk to strangers in the silence of the page.
Weaving words into this sense-making mesh is one way to fend off confusion and loneliness and give meaning to our lives.
The most reliable antidepressant is rekindled curiosity, and only the curious try to draw bits of the world together into words. The word curious derives from the Latin cura, which also gives us both cure and care. Curiosity is a cure for self-absorption, the cure being to care about the world and lay down roots in it again. Reading and writing sentences is a means of laying down these roots, of achieving absorbedness. And to be truly absorbed in anything is to be blessed.
You only learn to write sentences by reading enough of them, and then writing enough of them, although the moment of enough never quite arrives.
No Friend But the Mountains
Translated by Omid Tofighian
Category: Biography/True Stories
Themes: Boat People, Refugees, Detention, Incarceration, Trauma, Fear
Date Read: December 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
The sovereignty of the waves has collapsed the moral framework.
As we move further and further away from the shore and into the expanse of the ocean, the waves became more belligerent.
We are tired and burned out but I think we feel a sense of solidarity, a common cause. We must find the will to stay awake and struggle. Sleep means death.
In striving to escape death, a belief in miracles arises. Faith intervenes. It would be a miracle to hear the roar of that water pump.
In the depth of the darkness
On the verge of losing all hope
Deep down inside
A tiny light
About the size of a speck
Like a distant star
Is spotted on the horizon this dark night
A common will takes form in solidarity and struggle.
Mortality is our fate and I have no choice but to accept and embrace it.
The path of death and the flow of life are both made manifest in our bodies; the empty vessel is subject to destruction.
When he spoke of his parents, tears welled in his eyes. You can see the painful imprint of their deaths.
This is the nature of death; even a brush with mortality gives life a marvellous sense of meaning.
Our hunger had been a barrier to optimism. Starvation is such a powerful force. It pervades everything.
The weak always consider themselves powerful when they see others suffering. But the collapse of others appeals to the oppressor in all of us. The collapse of others becomes a cause to celebrate our own state.
Sometimes ignorance of the truth brings tranquility.
Waiting is a mechanism of torture used in the dungeon of time.
As I look at the devastated faces, the virtue that comes to mind more than anything else is courage… They have conquered the waves and completed an arduous journey. They have endured a whole week of crushing hardship. They have suffered perils to match the most formidable terrors. They have withstood the kinds of torment that are akin to death.
I realise later that the stormy night when the angel of death perched on my shoulders was the night of my nativity; both my birthday and the moment of my rebirth.
The image of that little blond girl playing in the water is still fresh in my memory. She is laughing, she has drifted into the kindness of the inviting waves. In the world view of that child there is no place for affliction. In her world, there is no space for the hardship that comes from injustice.
They have separated the Rohingya Boy with the dark face from his friends. His silence injects one with a heavy despair, the kind of despair associated with diaspora, a despair associated with exile.
Sometimes experiencing suffering and hardship up close is easier than being terrorised with impending torment.
Silence and gloom are always enigmatic, they draw one towards them.
The atmosphere in the prison is made up of scenes of famished people, provocative and deafeningly boisterous. No-one knows anyone else. It is like a city in which a plague has sent everyone into a frenzy.
At sunset, when the weather cools and the coconut palms begin to dance, the prison compound becomes a good place for meandering.
Depending on a group or a collective identity masks loneliness.
A kind of internal migration takes place in our tiny prison. Slowly, gradually, the significance of the shared boat experience gives way to the importance of a shared language.
The collective trauma from the journey is in our veins – each of those boat odysseys founded a new imagined nation.
Those imprisoned on Manus are themselves sacrificial subjects of violence.
We are a bunch of ordinary humans locked up simply for seeking refuge.
Every prisoner creates a smaller emotional gaol with themselves – something that occurs at the apex of hopelessness and disenfranchisement.
For me, isolation and silence are the greatest gifts I could ask for… I long to create, to isolate myself and create that which is poetic and visionary.
I am alone
Surrounded by human traffic passing in all directions
Arriving… departing… and over again
A cycle of absurdity and bewilderment
I have reached a good understanding of this situation: the only people who can overcome and survive all the suffering inflicted by the prison are those who exercise creativity. That is, those who can trace the outlines of hope using the melodic humming and visions beyond the prison fences and the beehives we live in.
The amazement and horror felt during the nights on Manus has the power to thrust everyone back into their long distant pasts. These nights uncover many years of tears deep in our hearts and open old wounds; they plough into every dimension of our existence; they draw out the bitter truth, they force the prisoners to self-prosecute. Prisoners are driven to crying tears of bitter sorrow.
These forced conditions of loneliness make everyone endure scenes of an internal odyssey that would ruin any man. The odyssey summons dark angels and secrets relegated to the unconscious, like a magical curse it positions before every prisoner’s eyes the most long-standing issues and bad blood tied up in the soul.
The prisoner is captive to his own life history and all these isolated occurrences take shape in the unconscious during periods of solitude and silence. However, they also destroy his sense of self.
Fear persuades people to hide beneath commotion and noise. They themselves know how fake it really is. It is prison and coming to terms with its paradoxes requires solitude. There is no solace in yelling, screaming or distraction. What we yearn for are the joys of childhood, for mystical movement, for freestyle rhythms, for liberation through dance.
Fear is an extraordinary force for motivating people; it pushes people to hurry up and determines their direction.
In the prison, hatred makes prisoners more insular.
The cubicles are places for screaming out. Or they are marked as chambers of devastation, the devastation of youth who have lost their innocence, a devastation constituted by absolute hopelessness.
People are like that, whether they are prisoners or whether they occupy any other position. Their behaviour is always linked to their environment and to the people around them; they calibrate their behaviour accordingly.
As suffering becomes normalised, people experience this particular feeling of joy. A twisted satisfaction in chaos and destruction.
The prison is a region of repetition and uniformity in which the tiniest diversion from routine becomes the talk of the compound.
We are like puppets on a string, put in motion with the flick of a finger.
Every mind is caught up in a process, a process that has become normalised. A domesticating process.
When an individual is in a situation in which it is difficult to believe that so many things are a certain way… That situation becomes the cause of suffering.
The sound of the crickets and the sound of silence: a contradiction. The chanting of the crickets is the harmony to the melody of silence. Silence refines its identity by virtue of the sounds of the crickets, and vice versa.
Maybe there is also a form of interaction taking shape, a connection between something internal and profound in my unconscious and the totality of the landscape.
Where have I come from? From the land of rivers, the land of waterfalls, the land of ancient chants, the land of mountains.
Better to say I’ve come down from the summits. I’ve breathed in the ether up there. I’ve laughed up there. I’ve unleashed my hair to the wind up there. Out of a small village that stood in the middle of a forest of old chestnut oaks.
The flee and flight days
Days of terror
Days of darkness
Days of affliction
I was born in a time of war. A war that plummeted down from above. And even the one-day-old child’s psychological scheme and mental state were traumatised… like shrapnel within critical parts of the body… imprinted… forever.
Life always means much more than war, much more than destitution, much more than deprivation.
Life for me always emerges from within desolation.
I must confess that I don’t know who I am and what I will become. I have interpreted my whole past over and over again. Parts of my past have been unlocked as a result of the death of my loved ones. And, in addition, other parts are frozen; they have become fixed in my mind.
Prison imposes a form of ruthlessness and violence. A feeling comes over a person, one that pertains to violence, one that is essential to prison, and the prisoner has no choice up to hide his head inside his shell like a turtle and prepare himself for attack or pressure.
The prisoner constructs his identity against the concept of freedom. His imagination is always preoccupied with the world beyond the fences and in his mind he forms a picture of a world where people are free. At every moment his life is shaped by the notion of freedom. It’s a basic equation: a cage or freedom.
The sound of planes causes waves of hopelessness, waves of apprehension drifting through the prison.
Self harm has become established for some in the prison as a kind of cultural practice. When someone cuts themselves, it elicits a form of respect among the prisoners. However, the criterion for status pertains to the depth of the slit, the severity of the wound. The more terror inflicted, the greater the credibility. It is unwritten and cryptic – but it is real.
Behrouz is convinced that the general public have yet to grasp the horrors of systemic torture integral to the detention centre. The primary aim of the book is to expose and communicate this very fact.
His writing is poetic and surreal, often presenting a theatre where both secular and sacred narratives and rituals are adapted and performed.
In 2013, Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani was illegally detained on Manus Island. He has been there ever since.
Themes: Family Life, Loss, Science, Changing World Order
Date Read: November 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
Willa was the one who raised her anxiety shield against every family medical checkup or late-night ring of the phone, expecting the worse so life couldn’t blindside them.
There is a time for propping things up, and then there is past time.
The remainder of her productive life revoked overnight felt like an amputation… Now she understood an office had made her official. Her whole career was thrown into doubt retroactively. Did a professional wake up one day with no profession?
The shock settled on Willa as a personal failure. As if she’d invited the disaster by failing to see it coming.
First thing in the morning, last thing at night, whenever a fight with Tig (daughter) left her in pieces, it had been her mother who put Willa back together. When someone mattered like that, you didn’t lose her at death. You lost her as you kept living.
She was the crisis handler, he was the evader. Marriages tend to harden like arteries, and she and Iano were more than thirty years into this one.
“Mom, it’s me.”
“Oh Jesus, Zeke, you’re okay. Is the baby okay?
Zeke was sobbing. Choked. A level of desperation she couldn’t associate with her levelheaded son. She waited without realising she was holding her breath.
“The baby’s fine,” he said finally. “It’s Helene.”
“Oh no. Some problem from the C-section? It happens, honey. Did she have to go back to the hospital?
Iano was looking at her with mournful eyes, shaking his head. His face behind the dark, trimmed beard looked scarily pale, and his foreknowledge was disorientating. She turned her back on him and listened to her son’s silence, the gathering of his will.
“Mom, Helene’s dead. She died.”
The best of his silence lasted long enough for Willa to wonder if she’d been rude to ask. Her mind battered itself like a trapped bird.
“She took pills,” he finally said. “She killed herself.”
Aldus is lying beside me asleep… How can he not ever know his mother? What does that do to a person?
She listened to Zeke’s breathing as it caught in a sob, tried and caught again, like a halting engine. “We didn’t talk about that, Mom,” he managed. When the subject of death came up, it was me telling her not to do it.”
This reasonable, desperately sad man on the phone was the bare wood of her son beneath the bark.
She should never have gone off the antidepressants, I shouldn’t have let her. Nobody should have asked her to do that.”
“Don’t blame yourself. The drugs were not your call. There must have been risks to the baby.”
“Maybe I expected too much from her. I do that, Mom, I feel like when things seem easy to me, they should be easy for other people. Maybe she felt guilty.”
Her dutiful, promising son would be taking care of a child now, every day, marooned in the loneliness of single parenthood. Anger at the dead Helene rose like acid in her throat. So useless.
She felt the awfulness of the situation but felt it at a distance, walled off by exhaustion.
Maybe it was sleep deprived paranoia, but she felt disapproval in the stares.
Producing this perfect child had been Helene’s final accomplishment and he was entitled to be there, as the only blood relative in the house. Other than Helene’s parents…
She knew she would have to guard against stereotyping, and try not to read Helene’s whole life backward as a reel of emotional injuries spooling toward suicide. Brain chemistry, Zeke kept saying, and Willa understood.
Helene wrote in her suicide note her belief that her best gift to her partner and son was the removal of her poisonous self from their lives.
She felt at a loss to console him as he waded through his swamp of grief, hour by hour, as she watched from the outside.
In an apartment suffused with mourning, Willa found this non-nursery the most unbearable place, but only because she knew about normal motherhood.
The workings of love might be damaged, in a beginning overshadowed by despair. Zeke might end up blaming the child for his loss. The pregnancy had killed Helene; this was a fact.
Willa recognised the same anger she’d been harbouring for days, toward Helene. They would have to take turns keeping a lid on that. The child would need to love his mother, and it was all on them, forever. “She wasn’t thinking right. We know that now.”
She wouldn’t have plotted something like this. I mean yes, her death I guess, but not the fallout. She didn’t do it to wreck your life.
The sun through the window washed his face in an unmerciful light that rendered him old. Or worn, like old clothes. Not young enough to be her son.
A new parent should be joyful. Not widowed, deserted, bankrupt, bereft of every comfort he’d carefully built for himself. For months to come, waking up would feel as violent for Zeke as for a newborn. Maybe for years.
Willa remembered in her gut how it felt to be the parent of a newborn: the excruciating love and terror of breakage.
After six months of marriage he was still in thrall of his wife’s physical properties, and wondered whether this made him a lucky man or a doomed one.
He tilted his head for a clearer look through one of the little panes, wondering what architect had dreamed up these hateful windows: multiple interlaced lenses of leaded glass as intricate as the hide of a fish.
Finally the change in her weather was here. Rose’s calms were sweetly obdurate, but when they gave way to the storm, it was cruel.
He had managed to rise a little and Rose to fall, arriving accidentally on a plane that accommodated their marriage. But the weight of their separate histories held the plane in uneasy balance.
Suicide is murder. A life had been brutally stolen from their family. A mother, a beloved.
His confidence was enviable and maddening. Most of the time she didn’t want him to solve or contradict her worries, she just needed him to listen and agree with her on the awfulness at hand. This was a principle of marriage she’d explained many times.
A mother can be only as happy as her unhappiest child. Willa believed in the power of worry to keep another human from flying out of orbit.
Grief takes energy. I still feel like I’m hiking uphill after losing Mama.
Crisis is opportunity. Zukerman embodied the contradiction of his generation: jaded about the fare of the world, idealistic about personal prospects.
At his last checkup the paediatrician had observed the howling red face and trembling limbs, and said that infants process grief as trauma.
Thatcher physically resisted the urge to walk over and read the books’ titles, a magnetism that had controlled him since the day in late childhood when he’d first set eyes on a book.
Curiosity can be dangerous but never ridiculous.
These books bring a comfort I can hardly explain. It’s the solace of hearing a truth one has suspected a very long time.
No creature is easily coerced to live without its shelter.
Without shelter, we stand in daylight.
Without shelter, we feel ourselves likely to die.
Nick classed allergies along with mental illness as symptoms of weak resolve.
So much of life with infirmity came down to dignity and will.
It took a lot to pull Iano off the happy train. His unexpected sobriety made Willa feel less alone, but also maybe terrified. What if Iano’s joy was the tent pole of her sanity?
We are often persuaded that what is convenient is also right.
Truth is not ours to find within, but to search out. We study the known world in order to recognise the remarkable.
A common mistake in thinking about the past is to assume people were more childlike than we are now.
They watched a pair of white swans gliding very close by on the dark, still water. The creatures looked strange in their wild setting, not ornaments in a city park but real animals with algae stains on their scarlet beaks and an unmistakable “back off” vibe. Abruptly they curled their long necks in a coordinated motion like synchronised swimmers, dropping their heads to horizontal just above the water, staring up darkly at the pair of human intruders…
It must have been a bird ritual, the drumming up of a collective will to take the blind leap of faith, forsaking all safety to fly across an ocean to the southern hemisphere. How could they trust something so unknown, and for how many years had they done it? A thousand? Ten thousand? While humans altered everything on the face of their world, these birds kept believing in a map that never changed.
It never came naturally to Thatcher to see any life as enemy to his own.
The wounds of this ruptured nation lie open and ugly.
He reads next to nothing. It might interfere with his knowledge of the universe.
Science directs us to study our maker’s creation, but his thoughts on its purpose are only his to reveal.
Presumptions of a lifetime are perilous things to overturn.
No breach in this world seems to heal. We try to reason with one another, but only manage to tear ourselves apart.
Your charge is to lead them outdoors. Teach them to see evidence for themselves, and not to fear it.
When men fear the loss of what they know, they will follow any tyrant who promises to restore the old order.
These old houses with their ornate trim and bay windows were holding the confidences of centuries.
Complexity gives way to the simple.
The melange of personal artefacts there no longer oppressed but now consoled her, proof of many eccentric individuality’s surviving against the long odds of being erased by time.
Willa felt like a soldier ant in the complex colony of her family and village.
I wish we had a life that didn’t have to leave behind a trail of broken pieces.
Maybe wanting less than everything translates to quality over quantity.
A delicate business, telling the truth.
Notes On A Nervous Planet
Category: Health & Wellbeing; Self Help
Themes: Anxiety, Stress, Social Media, Personal Trauma, Connectedness, Mental Health
Date Read: November 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
The thing with mental turmoil is that so many things that make you feel better in the short term make you feel worse in the long term. You distract yourself, when what you really need is to know yourself.
Being scared is what anxiety is all about.
I had always, since I was first suicidally ill in my twenties, understood that getting better involved a kind of life edit. A take away.
The problem – a life overload – including technology
The path to recovery – abstaining from stimulants – not just alcohol and caffeine, but these other things.
Aspects of modern life are dangerous for our bodies.
In this age people often live in fear, or feel inadequate, or even suicidal, when they have – materially – more than ever.
The growth of mindfulness, meditation and minimal living is a visible response to an overloaded culture.
I remembered that it is precisely not talking about problems that is itself a problem.
I want to know if one of the reasons I sometimes feel like I am on the brink of a breakdown is partly because the world sometimes seems on the brink of a breakdown.
“Anxiety maybe the dizziness of freedom.” Soren Kierkegaard
We need to edit the choice in front of us… Everything we need is here, if we give up thinking we need everything.
We need to disconnect in order to re-connect.
Pain is one hell of a teacher.
Suicide: Although I was suicidal when I was younger, and very nearly threw myself off a cliff, in more recent times my obsession with suicide became more a fear of doing it, rather than a will to do it.
If you find the news severely exacerbates your state of mind, the thing to do is switch it off. Don’t let the terror into your mind.
There is no shame in disconnecting.
Change may be constant, but the rate of change is not.
Change is frequently related to fear.
Change is technological.
Progress breeds progress.
Our lives are becoming even more technological. Our technology is changing at ever increasing speeds.
“We expect more from technology and less from each other.” American sociologist Sherry Turkle
The socialisation of media has rapidly taken over our lives – leading to serious psychological concerns. (Packaging ourselves like potatoes pretending to be crisps.)
When progress happens fast it can make the present feel like the continual future.
Consumerism – wanting the next thing rather than the present thing we already have – perfect recipe for unhappiness.
We are not encouraged to live in the present.
To see the act of learning as something not for its own sake but because of what it will get you reduces the wonder of humanity.
Maybe the point of life is to give up certainty and to embrace life’s beautiful uncertainty.
The pursuit of looking young accentuates the fear of growing old.
The way to get rid of age anxiety might be the way you get rid of all anxiety. By acceptance, not denial.
When the ability to check something turns into the compulsion to do so…. Check, check, check, and once more, just to see.
The problem isn’t that we have a shortage of time. It’s more that we have an overload of everything else.
There is, in the current world, an excess of everything.
To enjoy life, we might have to focus on the few things we can do, rather than the millions of things we can’t.
Panic is a kind of overload – an excess of thought and fear. An overloaded mind reaches a breaking point and the panic floods in.
Panic attacks often happen in over-stimulating environments.
The challenge is our lives are so cluttered.
The internet has enabled us to join together and make change happen. For better or for worse.
The trouble is that if we are plugged in to a vast nervous system, our happiness – and misery – is more collective than ever. The group’s emotions become our own.
The word ‘viral’ is perfect at describing the contagious effect caused by the combination of human nature and technology. And, of course, it isn’t just videos and products and tweets that can be contagious. Emotions can be, too.
An ode to social media:
When anger trawls the internet
Looking for a hook;
It’s time to disconnect
And go and read a book
You see it every day on social media: people arguing with each other, entrenching each other’s opposing view, yet also mirroring each other’s emotional state.
People are more than a social media post.
Don’t compare yourself to other people.
Mental illness taught me that progress is a matter of acceptance. Only by accepting a situation can you change it.
Sleep is essential for our wellbeing.
The biggest paradox about the modern world: We are all connected to each other but we often feel shut out. The increasing overload and complexity of modern life can be isolating.
Human beings are social creatures. We have never been more connected and yet we have never been more alone.
Loneliness is a feeling, as much as anything.
Technology can affect our mental health.
Nature is good for our minds.
Distraction is an attempt to escape that rarely works.
Illness, like injury, often has a context.
Panic is a product of overload.
Mental health is intricately related to the whole body. You can’t draw a line between a body and a mind any more than you can draw a line between oceans.
Mental Illness is not a crime. It is inappropriate to ‘confess’ to depression and anxiety and eating disorders and addictions.
We don’t really know how to talk about suicide. When we talk about it we tend to use that verb – commit – which carries connotations of taboo and criminality, an echo of the days when it was criminal. Many people struggle with the idea of taking you own life, as it seems a kind of insult to us all, if you see suicide as a choice, because someone has chosen to give up on living, this sacred precious thing, as fragile as a bird’s egg. But personally I know that suicide isn’t such a clear-cut choice. It can be something you dread and fear but feel compelled towards because of the new pain of living. So, it is uncomfortable talking about it. But talk we must, because an atmosphere of shame and silence prevents people getting the right help and can make them feel more freakishly lonely. It can, in short, be fatal.
Reading is the most profound kind of socialising there is. A deep connection to the imagination of another human being.
Reading is important because it gives you room to exist beyond the reality you’re given. It is how humans merge. How minds connect.
To be comfortable with yourself, to know yourself, requires creating some inner space where you can find yourself, away from a world that often encourages you to lose yourself.
Kindness spring cleans the soul.
Why We Write About Ourselves
Meredith Maran (Editor)
Category: Language Arts, Memoir
Themes: Composition, Craft, Ethical Considerations
Date Read: November 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
Ishmael Beah ‘A Long Way Gone’, 2007
When you write about people, you always write your version of the truth about them. You write how you see them, not how they view themselves.
Kate Christensen ‘Blue Plate Special’, 2013
I wanted to connect with readers in the course of figuring out, in writing, how my own life was both singular and universal.
Pearl Cleage ‘Things I Should Have Told My Daughter’, 2014
“One life, deeply examined, ripples out to touch all other lives.” Anais Nin
For me, writing is an effort to examine that place where the personal and the political become one, where you understand something because it’s personal to you but you also then begin to understand the politics that connect your struggle to the struggles of other people. You recognise yourself as part of a whole.
If you’re going to write a memoir, you have to tell the truth as you know and remember it.
Having a big, full, meaningful life doesn’t end when you hit your sixties.
Pat Conroy ‘The Death of Santini’, 2013
I’ve come to realise that I still carry the bruised freight of that childhood every day…
It weighs me down and fills me with dread. I’ve got to try to make sense of it one last time, a final circling of the block, a reckoning.
Some of us are designated ‘rememberers.’
A memoir is not a newspaper article. It’s not expected to be word-for-word true. If you have to write it perfectly, the story won’t be told, and the most important thing is that you tell your story.
Memoirs hurt people. Secrets hurt people. The question to ask yourself is, if you tell your story, will it do enough good to make it worth hurting people?
Kelly Corrigan ‘Glitter and Glue’, 2014
“People are struggling, make yourself useful.”
Write like this is the last thing you’re ever going to get to say.
I am a person first, writer second. I will not violate my relationships.
I really struggle with the solitary confinement writing requires.
Write every day. Even if all you do is tweak a few lines, change the fonts, move the margins – anything to put you in the chair, in the headspace, in the zone. There’s tremendous value in keeping the story and the themes in your subconscious mind.
Keep writing until you figure out the significance of your most vivid memories.
Edwidge Danticat ‘Claire of the Sea Light’, 2013
I am writing this book because they can’t.
I write memoir to honour their lives and share their stories.
“Memoirs are the backstairs of history.” George Meredith
I write memoir for the next generation of my family and others yet unborn.
I write memoir to connect with others, to feel less alone.
I think it’s inevitable to feel exposed.
I worry about the way each of us remembers things differently.
I aspire to create a work of art that can stand the test of time.
I aspire to write something that tells a much bigger story than mine but uses my individual story as a vessel for a larger understanding of whatever I am writing about.
I aspire to write something that people can read and feel deeply about.
If you write the most honest first draft you can, I think that opens some pathways to better writing.
It is hard unearthing painful things in order to write your memoir.
Memoir requires its own kind of morality.
Don’t just put things in because ‘they happened.’
Meghan Daum ‘The Unspeakable,’ 2014
I’m conscious of which stories are mine to tell and which stories belong to other people.
To me, writing personal narrative nonfiction should be an act of generosity toward the reader.
But go mindfully into the night. Every step of the way, ask yourself, Does this need to be in here?
Become an expert at something other than yourself.
Nick Flynn ‘The Reenactments’, 2015
When Nick was twenty-two, his mother committed suicide. Two years later he got a job at a homeless shelter in Boston. ‘I was young and lost and grieving,’ he says. ‘I’m not sure why working at a homeless shelter made sense to me, except that part of me knew that I needed to immerse myself in something larger than myself, if only to get out of the cage of my mind.’
I try to have compassion for everyone who ends up in my books, even myself.
Memoirs that are worth reading engage with some of the deepest and most difficult questions of what it is to be alive at this moment.
“It’s not my job as an artist to tell you what to feel.” Mary Gaitskill
There has to be a good reason to tell it.
A. M. Homes ‘The Mistress’ Daughter’, 2007
Commenting on the 9/11 attack which she watched from her living room windows:
“It made me think a lot about our responsibilities to and for each other,” she said, “and to reconsider how one can live optimistically in a time that is inherently not optimistic.”
Writing my memoir (about the adoption process) was unpleasant, like being a doctor examining myself: Does it hurt here?
It was interesting to realise how fragile your identity is – having a piece of information revealed, an addition or subtraction to your known narrative.
Being given up at birth is a pretty profound thing. And I was adopted into a family whose child had died at age nine. There was a lot of grief in the air.
There’s a huge decision to make between writing a story and publishing it. Don’t write with the assumption you will publish it; that’s not why we write memoir. Your writing it to document your life and your story. If anything else comes of it, make decisions accordingly.
Sue Monk Kidd ‘The Invention of Wings’, 2014
At the bottom of memoir writing is the question, ‘Who Am I?’
When I write about myself, I find release and freedom in the end because I’ve managed to distill the experience into some sort of meaning that I can integrate into my life, and then move on without all the preoccupation and unconscious pull of it.
At its best, writing draws from the inner life, from a place deep within… the life of the soul. This place is filled with so much genius – an ordinary genius that’s common to us all. It’s the room where our dreams and imagination live. It’s where our wisdom lies, where memories are metabolised, images are born, and creative connections made.
I spent ten years trying to discover my voice, my truth, as well as apprenticing myself to the craft of writing. For me, creativity and spirituality are inherently linked.
Finding courage may be the hardest thing about writing- the courage to write authentically – to express my own truth and my own voice.
There’s often a tension between commercial success and being true to oneself as a writer. It’s a useful tension.
Being a successful writer brought challenges. I love my solitude, the quietness of my study. And I happen to be a contemplative by nature.
When I write memoir I’m writing out of my private heart. The scariest thing is the terrifying vulnerability of it – the exposure, the nakedness of it all.
‘The job of a writer is to serve her work.’
Writing can make a difference in the world around us.
A memoir deserves the wisdom of discretion.
Allow yourself to write badly at first; learn to be a consummate rewriter.
Anne Lamott ‘Help, Thanks, Wow’, 2012
I like to write about the process of healing, of developing, of growing up, of becoming who we were born to be instead of who we always agreed to be.
Anybody you’d ever want to be friends with has had a tremendous amount of wounding in the past.
I’d never betray anyone’s trust in a memoir.
That’s one of the possibilities of memoir: to give a gift to somebody.
You can’t write based on how your book will be received, or you’re just doomed.
All writing is collaborative, including memoir.
Sandra Tsing Loh ‘The Madwoman in the Volvo’, 2014
It’s the most complex thing about writing memoir: you can’t avoid writing about real people with real feelings, and most of them aren’t you.
Whatever you want to reveal about yourself, is up to the writer.
My aspiration as a memoirist is to make the largest possible segment of humanity feel that I’ve addressed part of their story.
James McBride ‘The Colour of Water’, 1996
Memoirs should matter.
You have to narrow the focus of the story so it has the push of a creek in a narrow spot.
You have to have a little bit of innocence to be a good writer.
Spend a lot of time figuring out what your story wants to say.
Dani Shapiro ‘Still Writing’, 2013
Writing memoir embeds your story deep inside you. It mediates the relationship between the present and the past by freezing a moment in time.
The idea of truth in memoir is absurd. Memory is utterly mutable, changeable, and constantly in motion. You can’t fact-check memory.
Memoirists have to cull and pick and choose and be very discerning about what we put in and what we leave out of our stories. ‘Everything doesn’t belong.’
You’re putting pieces together to see what kind of music they make.
We have no control over what happens to us, but we do have control over what we do with it, how it deepens us or doesn’t deepen us.
‘Pain engraves a deep memory.’ Anne Sexton
David Sheff ‘Clean’, 2013; ‘Beautiful Boy’, 2008
When we suffer trauma, we need to know that we aren’t alone.
Writing memoir – the story of my son Nic who was addicted to drugs – was about trying to make sense of what was chaos in my brain and in our lives.
Divorcing parents rationalise the trauma we inflict on our kids.
And then Nic relapsed. It happened a couple of times. He said the only thing that kept him from going over the edge and killing himself was this idea he was writing a book – he had something to say. Maybe he had value.
The best thing to come out of the memoir was the connection to people who read it and felt an enormous relief to know they weren’t alone.
Humans are fraught and frail. Life is hard. It doesn’t end on the last page of a memoir.
Whatever you write in a memoir, whatever effect it has, you’ve got to live with it forever. Don’t hurt people.
Writing a memoir can dredge up every awful feeling all over again. Make sure you have the support you need to make it through.
Darin Strauss ‘Half a Life’, 2010
A memoir can be a sort of literary support group, led by an experienced expert who shares his own trauma for the benefit of all concerned.
A story puts pressure on the brain, the book is what comes out.
A memoir is not a history book. It’s a record of your life as you remember it.
What makes a memoir isn’t just what you remember, it’s your insights about what you remember.
Cheryl Strayed ‘Wild’, 2012
I’m fueled by the desire to give beauty and truth to the world via the sentences I construct.
Writing comes from a place beneath intellectual consciousness. The only way to get to that place is by writing.
Good writing is built on craft and heart. You must do your work and it must cost you everything to do it.
Ayelet Waldman ‘Bad Mother’, 2009
The blog gave me a way to write very specifically about things I cared about. It gave me a forum to expose injustice in the legal system, the penal system, and every other wrong I was incensed about. I published the blog for only six weeks.
Writing memoir requires the construction of story and character in the same way that writing anything does. Every writer of memoir must choose what to say and how to say it, what parts of ourselves and others to reveal and what to hide.
You owe your reader only what you want to reveal.
Writing is a discipline.
Jesmyn Ward ‘Men We Reaped’, 2013
I knew that I had a story to tell, but I lacked emotional distance on those deaths… I had to deal with my own guilt and a sense of worthlessness that no amount of scholarships and awards could cancel out.
I knew it would be painful to write a memoir. I didn’t feel equipped. I knew you needed to open yourself and be vulnerable.
I hadn’t really thought about what telling my story could do.
I hoped that if I told truth as I understood it about those systemic pressures, and how they affect individual actions and reactions, that would counteract any racist or narrow ideas people had about African American people acting badly.
Sometimes the connection point has less to do with race than grief and loss.
Unlike with fiction, it’s easiest to write a memoir from an outline.
You get the most powerful material when you write towards whatever hurts. Don’t avoid it.
Edmund White ‘Inside a Pearl’, 2014
For White, identity is sexual identity.
Fiction should be representative, and memoir should be extremely honest and personal.
With fiction you cannot have opinions about things.
No detail is too strange for memoir.
When you write memoir, the voice is very important. It needs to be very companionable for the reader.
People do feel cheated when you lie in a memoir because you’ve broken your contract with your readers.
Category: Medicine, Neurology
Themes: Neurological Disorders, Mental Processes, Mysteries of Consciousness, Strange Narratives, Reintegration
Date Read: October 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
Our mental processes, which constitute our being and life, are not just abstract and mechanical, but personal, as well – and, as such, involve not just classifying and categorising, but continual judging and feeling also. If this is missing, we become computer-like.
What was life without connection?
‘A man does not consist of memory alone. He has feeling, will, sensibilities, moral being – matters of which neuropsychology cannot speak. And it is here, beyond the realm of an impersonal psychology, that you may find ways to touch him, and change him.’ (Letter from A. R. Luria)
I watched Jimmie in chapel. I was moved, profoundly moved and impressed, because I saw here an intensity and steadiness of attention and concentration that I had never seen before in him or conceived him capable of. I watched him kneel and take the Sacrament on his tongue and could not doubt the fullness and totality of Communion, the perfect alignment of his spirit with the spirit of the Mass. Fully, intensely, quietly, in the quietude of absolute concentration and attention, he entered and partook of the Holy Communion. There was no forgetting, nor did it seem possible or imaginable that there should be; for he was no longer at the mercy of a faulty and fallible mechanism – that of meaningless sequences and memory traces – but was absorbed in an act, an act of his whole being, which carried feeling and meaning in an organic continuity and unity, a continuity and unity so seamless it could not permit any break.
Seeing Jimmie in the chapel opened my eyes to other realms where the soul is called on, and held, and stilled, in attention and communion. The same depth of absorption and attention was to be seen in relation to music and art: he had no difficulty, I noticed, ‘following’ music or simple dramas, for every moment in music and art refers to, contains, other moments. He liked gardening, and had taken over some of the work in our garden.
If Jimmie was briefly ‘held’ by a task or puzzle or game or calculation, held in the purely mental challenge of these, he would fall apart as soon as they were done, into the abyss of nothingness, his amnesia. But if he were held in emotional and spiritual attention – in the contemplation of nature or art, in listening to music, in taking part in the Mass in chapel – the attention, it’s ‘mood’, it’s quietude, would persist for a while, and there would be in him a pensiveness and peace we rarely, if ever, saw during the rest of his life at the Home.
However great the organic damage and Humean dissolution, there remains the undiminished possibility of reintegration by art, by communion, by touching the human spirit: and this can be preserved in what seems at first a hopeless state of neurological devastation.
Christina has no words, no direct words, to describe this bereftness, this sensory darkness (or silence) skin to blindness or deafness. When she painfully, clumsily, mounts a bus, she receives nothing but uncomprehending and angry snarls.: ‘What’s wrong with you, lady? Are you blind – or blind-drunk?’ What can she answer – ‘I have no proprioception? The lack of social support and sympathy is an additional trial – disabled, but with the nature of her disability not clear; she is not, after all, manifestly blind or paralysed, manifestly anything – she tends to be treated as a phoney or a fool.
In Madeleine’s case, although the phenomenon was identical – ‘uselessness’, ‘lifelessness’, ‘alienation’ – it was lifelong. She did not need just to recover her hands, but to discover them – to acquire them, to achieve them – for the first time:
Madeleine had no repertoire of memory for she had never used her hands – or arms either.
P.66 Her first perception, her first recognition, was of a bagel. (Helen Keller – water)
A ‘phantom’, in the sense that neurologists use, is a persistent image or memory of part of the body, usually a limb, for months or years after its loss.
We have five senses in which we glory and which we recognise and celebrate, senses that constitute the sensible world for us. But there are other senses – secret senses, sixth senses, if you will – equally vital, but unrecognised, and unlauded. These senses, unconscious, automatic, had to be discovered.
Speech – natural speech – does not consist of words alone, nor ‘propositions’ alone. It consists of utterance – an uttering-forth of one’s whole meaning with one’s whole being – the understanding of which involves infinitely more than mere word-recognition.
Enhancement not only allows the possibilities of a healthy fullness and exuberance, but a rather ominous extravagance, aberration, monstrosity – a sort of ‘too-muchness’.
This danger is built into the very nature of growth and life. Growth can become over-growth, life ‘hyper-life’.
This is the simultaneous gift and affliction, the delight, the anguish, conferred by excess.
‘Dangerous wellness’, ‘morbid brilliance’, a deceptive euphoria with abysses beneath- this is the trap promised and threaded by excess, whether it be set by Nature, in the form of some intoxicating disorder, or by ourselves, in the form of some exciting addiction.
If we wish to know about a man, we ask, ‘what is his story – his real, inmost story?’ – for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us – through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives – we are each of us unique.
To be ourselves we must have ourselves – possess, if need be re-possess, our life-stories. We must ‘recollect’ ourselves, recollect the inner drama, the narrative, of ourselves. A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self.
William’s great gift – for confabulation – which has been called out to leap continually over the ever-opening abyss of amnesia – William’s great gift is also his damnation. If only he could be quiet, one feels, for an instant; if only he could stop the ceaseless chatter and jabber; if only he could relinquish the deceiving surface of illusions – then (ah then!) reality might seep in; something genuine, something deep, something true, something felt, could enter his soul.
For it is not memory which is the final, ‘existential’ casualty here (although his memory is wholly devastated) ; it is not memory only which has been so altered in him, but some ultimate capacity for feeling which is gone; and this is the sense in which he is ‘de-souled’.
Our efforts to ‘re-connect’ William all fail – even increase his confabulatory pressure. But when we abdicate our efforts, and let him be, he sometimes wanders out into the quiet and undemanding garden which surrounds the Home, and there, in his quietness, he recovers his own quiet. The presence of others, other people, excites and rattles him, forces him into and endless, frenzied, social chatter, a veritable delirium if identity-making and -seeking; the presence of plants, a quiet garden, the non-human order, making no social or human demands upon him, allows this identity-delirium to relax, to subside; and by its quiet, non-human self-sufficiency of his own, by offering (beneath, or beyond, all merely human identities and relations) a deep wordless communion with Nature itself, and with this the restored sense of being in the world, being real.
Lacking the normal, protective barriers of inhibition, the normal, organically determined boundaries of self, the Touretter’s ego is subject to a lifelong bombardment. He is beguiled, assailed, by impulses from within and without, impulses which are organic and convulsive, but also personal (or rather pseudo-personal) and seductive.
Esther Salaman (A Collection of Moments, 1970) – speaks of the necessity to preserve, or recapture, ‘the sacred and precious memories of childhood’, and how impoverished, ungrounded, life is without these. She speaks of the deep joy, the sense of reality, which recapturing such memories may give.
What is this quality of mind, this disposition, which characterises the simple, and gives them their poignant innocence, transparency, completeness, and dignity – a quality so distinctive we must speak of the ‘world’ of the simple.
If we are to use a single word here, it would have to be ‘concreteness’ – their world is vivid, intense, detailed, yet simple, precisely because it is concrete: neither complicated, diluted, nor unified, by abstraction.
The power of music, narrative, and drama is of the greatest practical and theoretical importance.
What we see is the power of music to organise.
The capacity to perform, to play, to be, seems to be a ‘given’ in human life, in a way which has nothing to do with intellectual differences.
What was central to Martin, as it had been central to his father, and what had been intimately shared between them, was always the spirit of music, especially religious music, and of the voice as the divine instrument made and ordained to sing, to raise itself in jubilation and praise.
The twins, I believe, have a most singular imagination – and not the least of its singularities is that it can imagine only numbers. They are serene contemplators of number – and approach numbers with a sense of reverence and awe. Numbers for them are holy, fraught with significance.
But numbers are not just awesome for them, they are friends too. I believe the twins, seemingly so isolated, live in a world full of friends, that they have millions, billions, of numbers to which they say ‘Hi!’ and which, I am sure, say ‘Hi!’ back.
Prime numbers provide a peculiar sense of pleasure and significance – their number-meditation or play being a sort of existential meditation.
These drawings were perhaps his only link with the outside world, and especially the world of animals and plants, of nature, which he had so loved as a child, especially when he went out sketching with his father. This, and this only, he was permitted to retain, his one remaining link with reality.
The abstract, the categorical, has no interest for the autistic person – the concrete, the particular, the singular, is all. Whether this is a question of capacity or disposition, it is strikingly the case. Lacking, or indisposed to, the general, the autistic seem to compose their world picture entirely of particulars. Thus they live, not in a universe, but in what William James called a ‘multiverse’, of innumerable, exact, and passionately intense particulars. It is a mode of mind at the opposite extreme from the generalising, the scientific, but still ‘real’, equally real, in quite a different way.
‘No man is an island, entire of itself,’ wrote Donne. But this is precisely what autism is – an island, cut off from the main. Is being an island, being cut off, necessarily a death? Is there any ‘place’ in the world for a man who is like an island, who cannot be acculturated, made part of the main?
Category: Health & Wellbeing
Themes: Depression, Anxiety, Self Help, Mental Health, Medication, Living Well
Date Read: October 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
One of the key symptoms of depression is to see no hope. No future. Far from the tunnel having light at the end of it, it seems that it is blocked at both ends, and you are inside it.
So the fact that this book exists is proof that depression lies. Depression makes you think things are wrong.
But depression itself isn’t a lie. It is the most real thing I’ve ever experienced.
As depression is largely unseen and mysterious it is easy for stigma to survive. Stigma is particularly cruel for depressives, because stigma affects thoughts and depression is a disease of thoughts.
When you are depressed you feel alone, and that no one is going through quite what you are going through. You are so scared of appearing in any way mad you internalise everything, and you are so scared that people will alienate you further you clam up and don’t speak about it, which is a shame, as speaking about it helps. Words – spoken or written – are what connects us to the world, and so speaking about to people, and writing about this stuff, helps connect us to each other, and to our true selves.
Time heals. The tunnel does have light at the end of it, even if we aren’t able to see it.
Minds are unique. They go wrong in unique ways.
Depression looks different to everyone. Pain is felt in different ways, to different degrees, and provokes different responses.
There is no right or wrong way to have depression, or to have a panic attack, or to feel suicidal. These things just are…. But I have found over the years that by reading about other people who have suffered, survived and overcome despair I have felt comforted. It has given me hope.
“But in the end one needs more courage to live than to kill himself.” Albert Camus A Happy Death
The weirdest thing about a mind is that you can have the most intense things going on in there but no one else can see them. The world shrugs. Your pupils might dilate. You may sound incoherent. Your skin might shine with sweat. And there was no way anyone seeing me in that villa could have known what I was feeling, no way they could have appreciated the strange hell I was living through, or why death seemed such a phenomenally good idea.
There was no way I could express fully this experience in words, because it was beyond words. Words seemed trivial next to this pain.
In my naivety I did not really think that what I was experiencing was something that other people had ever felt.
‘Andrea, I’m scared.’
‘It’s okay. It’s going to be okay. It’s going to be okay.’
‘What’s happening to me?’
‘I don’t know. But it’s going to be okay.’
‘I don’t understand how this can be happening.’
On the third day, I left the room and I left the villa, and I went outside to kill myself.
Depression is invisible. At its worst you find yourself wishing, desperately, for any other affliction, any physical pain, because the mind is infinite, and it’s torments – when they happen – can be equally infinite.
You can be a depressive and be happy, just as you can be a sober alcoholic.
It can affect people who seem, from the outside, to have no reason to be miserable.
The only plan I had was to take twenty-one steps in the direction of the cliff edge.
‘I want to die.’
There was a lizard near my feet. A real lizard. I felt a kind of judgement. The thing with lizards is that they don’t kill themselves. Lizards are survivors. You take off their tail and another grows back. They aren’t movers. They don’t get depressed. They just get on with it, however harsh and inhospitable the landscape. I wanted, more than anything, to be that lizard.
A sparkling Mediterranean, looking like a turquoise tablecloth scattered with tiny diamonds, fringed by a dramatic coastline of limestone cliffs and small, near-white forbidden beaches. It fit almost everyone’s definition of beautiful. And yet, the most beautiful view in the world could not stop me wanting to kill myself.
I was ill. It didn’t matter if it was society or science’s fault. I simply did not – could not – feel like this a second longer. I had to end myself.
I made it to the edge of the cliff. I could stop feeling this way simply by taking another step. It was so preposterously easy – a single step – versus the pain of being alive.
A depressive couldn’t care less about the luxury of happiness. They just want to feel an absence of pain. To be normal. Or, as normal is impossible, to be empty.
The weird thing about depression is that, even though you might have more suicidal thoughts, the fear of death remains the same. The only difference is that the pain of life has rapidly increased.
I stood there for a while. Summoning the courage to die, and then summoning the courage to live. To be. Not to be. Right there, Death was so close. An ounce more terror, and the scales would have tipped.
I had a mother and a father and a sister and a girlfriend. That was four people right there who loved me. I wished, like mad, in that moment, that I had no one at all. Love was trapping me here.
I was also scared. What if I didn’t die? What if I was just paralysed, and I was trapped, motionless, in that state, for ever?
I think life always provides reasons not to die, if we listen hard enough. Those reasons can stem from the past – the people who raised us, maybe, or friends or lovers – or from the future – the possibilities we would be switching off.
Life is never perfect. I still get depressed from time to time. But I’m at a better place. The pain is never as bad. I’ve found out who I am. I’m happy. Right now, I am happy. The storm ends. Believe me.
Suicide is now a leading cause of death. According to figures from the World Health Organisation, it kills more people than stomach cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, colon cancer, breast cancer, and Alzheimer’s. As people who kill themselves are, more often than not, depressives, depression is one of the deadliest diseases on the planet.
Even more staggeringly, depression is a disease so bad that people are killing themselves because of it in a way they do not kill themselves with any other illness. Yet people still don’t think depression really is that bad.
Medication didn’t work for me. The feeling and level of disconnection I felt on diazepam is something others claim to feel on it too – ‘disorientating diazepam panic attacks.’
The only drugs I ever took that seemed to make me feel a bit better were sleeping pills. They forced my brain to slow down a bit, but I knew nothing had really changed.
I largely mended myself without the aid of medication, and feel that having to experience the pain minus any ‘anaesthetic’ meant I got to know my pain very well, and became alert to the subtle upward or downward shifts in my mind…I became very in tune with myself. This helped me know what exactly made me feel better (exercise, sunshine, sleep, intense conversation, etc) and this alertness eventually helped me build myself back up from scratch.
Depression is a kind of quantum physics of thought and emotion. It reveals what is normally hidden. It unravels you, and everything you have known.
Depression felt like I was trapped in a cyclone. The experience going on in my mind was always relentlessly and oppressively fast.
Adding anxiety to depression is a bit like adding cocaine to alcohol. It presses fast-forward on the whole experience. If you depression on its own your mind sinks into a swamp and loses momentum, but with anxiety in the cocktail, the swamp is still a swamp but the swamp now has whirlpools in it.
When you are trapped inside something that feels so unreal, you look for anything that can give you a sense of your bearings. I craved knowledge. I craved facts. I searched for them like lifebuoys in the sea. But statistics are tricky things.
Suicide is the leading cause of death among men under the age of thirty-five.
Suicide rates vary widely depending on where you are in the world. For instance, if you live in Greenland you are twenty-seven times more likely to kill yourself than if you live in a Greece.
A million people a year kill themselves. Between ten and twenty million people a year try to. Worldwide, men are over three times more likely to kill themselves than women.
One in five people get depression at some point in their lives.
Anti-depressants are on the rise almost everywhere. Iceland has the highest consumption, followed by Australia, Canada…
Twice as many women as men will suffer a serious bout of depression in their lives.
Women are more likely to seek and receive treatment for mental health problems than men.
The risk of developing depression is about 40 per cent if a biological parent has been diagnosed with the illness.
When you are at your lowest ebb, you imagine – wrongly – that no one else in the world has felt so bad.
I could not cope with the relentless self-torment or the sheer exhaustion of never being able to find mental comfort.
Does mental illness just happen, or is it there all along? According to the World Health Organisation nearly half of all mental disorders are present in some form before the age of fourteen.
When I became ill at twenty-four it felt like something terribly new and sudden. I had a pretty normal, ordinary childhood. But I never really felt very normal. I usually felt anxious. I didn’t totally fit in.
You are no less or more of a man or a woman or a human for having depression than you would be for having cancer or cardiovascular disease or a car accident.
So what should we do? Talk. Listen. Keep adding to the conversation. Depression is not you. It is simply something that happens to you. It took me more than a decade to be able to talk openly, properly, to everyone, about my experience. I soon discovered that act of talking is in itself a therapy. Where talk exists, so does hope.
‘anhedonia’ – the complete inability to feel pleasure, a chief symptom of depression.
When we are trying to get better, the only truth that matters is what works for us. For now, I do what I know keeps me just about level. Exercise definitely helps me, as does yoga and absorbing myself in something or someone I love, so I keep doing these things. I suppose, in the absence of universal certainties, we are our own best laboratory.
The whole idea of ‘mental health’ as something separate to physical health can be misleading, in some ways.
My life was pretty comfortable and ordinary, but sometimes a sense of loneliness would creep over me. I felt lonely. Not depression. Just a version of that willowy, teenage, no-one-understands-me feeling. Of course, I didn’t understand me either.
The only thing I wished for, beyond feeling better, was for time to move quicker…I was obsessed with time as some people are about money. It was the only weapon I had. I would build up hours and minutes like pounds and pence. In my head, amid all the raging waters of anxiety, this knowledge buoyed like hope. It is October 3rd, twenty-two days since it happened.
Depression is an illness. Yet it doesn’t come with a rash or a cough. It is hard to see, as it is generally invisible.
Some of the most frequently cited signs that someone is depressed.
• Low self-esteem
• Psychomotor retardation – in certain cases of depression, slow movements and slow speech may happen.
• Loss of appetite
• Frequent crying episodes
• Anhedonia – the inability to experience pleasure in anything
• Sudden introversion
Anxiety and depression, that most common mental health cocktail, fuse together in weird ways. I would often close my eyes and see strange things.
Life is hard. It may be beautiful and wonderful but it is also hard. The way people seem to cope is by not thinking about it too much. But some people are not going to be able to do that.
When I was severely depressed I had a vast collection of related mental illnesses – agoraphobia, separation anxiety
A measure of progress I had was how far I could walk on my own. Rather than avoid these situations, I forced myself into them.
The weirdness. That feeling of being outside alone, it was as unnatural as being a roof without walls.
Shops were the places I would panic in most. Shops caused me intense anxiety. I was never really sure what it was.
Being relieved about surviving a trip to the corner shop was another confirmation of sickness, not wellness.
“Your mind is a galaxy. More dark than light. But the light makes it worthwhile. Which is to say, don’t kill yourself. Even when the darkness is total. Always know that life is not still. Time is space. You are moving through that galaxy. Wait for the stars.” The Humans
Life is waiting for you. You might be stuck here for a while, but the world isn’t going anywhere. Hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.
Pain, of any kind, is a very isolating experience.
Depression magnifies everything. At its most extreme, things that an everyday normal person hardly notice have overwhelming effects. The sun sinks behind a cloud, and you feel that slight change in weather as if a friend has died.
Light was everything. Sunshine, windows with blinds open.
But so, increasingly, were books. We find ourselves through the process of escaping. If there is a way out, a way that isn’t death itself, then the exit route is through words. Words help us leave a mind, and give us the building blocks to build another one, similar but better, nearby to the old one but with firmer foundations, and very often a better view.
In my deepest state of depression, I had felt stuck. I felt trapped in quicksand. Books were about movement. They were about quests and journeys. Beginnings and middles and ends, even if not in that order. They were about new chapters. And leaving old ones behind.
The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene is a dark, intense book. But when you are feeling dark and intense these are the only kind of books that can speak to you. Yet there was an optimism too. The possibility of redemption. It is a book about the healing power of love.
The best way to beat a monster is to find a scarier one.
I was starting to find that, sometimes, simply doing something that I had dreaded – and surviving – was the best kind of therapy. If you start to dread being outside, go outside. If you fear confined spaces, spend some time in a lift. If you have separation anxiety, force yourself to be alone a while.
Travel – By forcing yourself into a new physical space, preferably in a different country, you end up inevitably focusing a bit more on the world outside your head.
Movement is the antidote to fixedness.
To put myself in situations I wouldn’t have put myself in. You need to be uncomfortable. You need to hurt. As the Persian poet Rumi wrote in the twelfth century, ‘The wound is the place where the light enters you.’
Running is a commonly cited alleviator of depression and anxiety. When I started running I was still getting very bad panic attacks. The thing I liked about it was that many of the physical symptoms of panic – the racing heart, the problematic breathing, the sweating – are matched by running. So while I was running I wouldn’t be worried about my racing heart because it had a reason to be racing.
It also gets you fit. And getting fit is pretty much good for everything.
I found running to be a way of clearing the fog.
Other helpful activities- writing, reading, talking, travelling, yoga, meditation and running .
With depression, and with anxiety in particular, a lot of the problems may be generated by the mind, and aggravate the mind, but have physical effects.
Depression makes you feel alone. Sometimes just looking at names of people who have suffered depression – or are still suffering depression – but who clearly have (or had) other things that are great going on in their lives, gives a kind of comfort. Some examples: Buzz Aldrin, Hale Berry, Winston Churchill, Isaac Newton, Teddy Roosevelt.
Fame and money do not immunise you from mental health problems. It can actually happen to anyone.
Depression can be exacerbated by things being all right externally, because the gulf between what you are feeling and what you are expected to feel becomes larger.
Depression is smaller than you, even when it feels vast. It operates within you, you do not operate within it. It may be a dark cloud passing across the sky, but – if that is the metaphor – you are the sky.
‘And thus the heart will break, yet brokenly live on’ – Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage
The world is increasingly designed to depress us.
The trouble with warning signs, though, is that we only have the past to go on, not the future, and if something hasn’t actually happened it is hard to know that it will.
The advantage of having had depression is that you know what to look for.
To panic without a reason, that’s madness. To panic with a reason, that’s sanity.
Anxiety, even more than depression, can be exacerbated by the way we live in the twenty-first century. By the things that surround us.
If you suffer from anxiety on its own, or the fast-speed kind of depression that comes when it is fused with anxiety, there are things you can do.
Namely: slowing down. Anxiety runs your mind at fast-forward rather than normal ‘play’ speed, so addressing that issue of mental ‘pace’ might not be easy. But it works.
Here are some examples – Yoga, Slow your breathing, Meditate, Accept, Live in the present, Love.
People place so much value on thought, but feeling is as essential.
Goals are the source of misery. An unattainable goal causes pain, but actually achieving it brings only a brief satisfaction. (Arthur Schopenhauer, philosopher)
Life is beautiful in its ambiguity. But I like the idea of being alert to ourselves, of connecting to the universal rather than living life on a see-saw of hope and fear.
Happiness isn’t about abandoning the world of stuff, but in appreciating it for what it is.
Kindness makes us happier selfishness. Kindness is a shredding of the self that releases us from the suffering that is our desires and wants. Kindness is an active way in which we can see and feel the bigger picture.
By feeling part of humanity, rather than an isolated unit, we feel better. Life is a shared experience.
How to stop time: kiss.
How to travel in time: read.
How to escape time: music.
How to feel time: write.
How to release time: breathe.
Pain lengthens time. But that is only because pain forces us to be aware of it.
The key to calmness is in accepting your thoughts, all of them, even the bad ones. Accept thoughts, but don’t become them.
Having a sad thought, even having a continual succession of sad thoughts, is not the same as being a sad person. You can walk through a storm and feel the wind but you know you are not the wind.
Nothing makes you feel smaller, more trivial, than such a vast transformation inside your own mind while the world carries on, oblivious. Yet nothing is more freeing. To accept your smallness in the world.
Advice for living:
• Wherever you are, at any moment, try to find something beautiful. A face, a line out of a poem, the clouds out of a window, some graffiti, a wind farm. Beauty cleans the mind.
• Understand that thoughts are thoughts. If they are unreasonable, reason with them, even if you have no reason left. You are the observer of your mind, not it’s victim.
• If someone loves you, let them. Believe in that love. Live for them, even when you feel there is no point.
• Be transparent to yourself. Make a greenhouse for your mind. Observe.
• Remember that that the key thing about life on earth is change. Cars rust. Paper yellows. Technology dates. Caterpillars become butterflies. Nights morph into days. Depression lifts.
Themes: Terminal Illness, Cancer, Fear, Gratitude, Vocation, Age, End of Life
Date Read: October 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
Eighty! I can hardly believe it. I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realise it is almost over.
I feel I should be trying to complete my life, whatever ‘completing a life’ means.
I have no belief in (or desire for) any post-mortem existence, other than in the memories of friends and the hope that some of my books may still ‘speak’ to people after my death.
At eighty, the marks of decay are all too visible. One’s reactions are a little slower, names more frequently elude one, and one’s energies must be husbanded, but even so, one may feel full of energy and life and not at all ‘old.’ Perhaps, with luck, I will make it, more or less intact, for another few years and be granted the liberty to continue to love and work, the two most important things, Freud insisted, in life.
At eighty, one is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. One can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age.
I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the fictitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.
Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life. On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.
This will involve audacity, clarity, and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).
I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work, and my friends…I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.
This is not indifference but detachment…
I have been increasingly conscious, for the last ten years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate…of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky ‘powdered with stars.’ It was this celestial splendour that suddenly made me realise how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience – and death.
Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.
And now, at this juncture, when death is no longer an abstract concept, but a presence – an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence – I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity.
I chanted my bar mitzvah portion in 1946 to a relatively full synagogue, including several dozen of my relatives, but this, for me, was the end of formal Jewish practice…I gradually became more indifferent to the beliefs and habits of my parents, though there was no particular point of rupture until I was eighteen. It was then that my father, enquiring into my sexual feelings, compelled me to admit that I liked boys.
After I qualified as a doctor in 1960, I removed myself abruptly from England and what family and community I had there, and went to the New World, where I knew nobody. When I moved to Los Angeles, I found a sort of community among the weight lifters on Muscle Beach, and with my fellow neurology residents at U.L.C.A., but I craved some deeper connection – ‘meaning’ – in my life, and it was the absence of this, I think, that drew me into near-suicidal addiction to amphetamines in the 1960s.
Recovery started, slowly, as I found meaningful work in New York, in a chronic care hospital in the Bronx – Awakenings. I was fascinated by my patients there, cared for them deeply, and felt something of a mission to tell their stories – stories of situations virtually unknown, almost unimaginable, to the general public and, indeed, to many of my colleagues. I had discovered my vocation…Almost unconsciously, I became a storyteller at a time when medical narrative was almost extinct.
I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.
Themes: Guilt, Grief, Abuse, Trauma, Love, Courage, Books, Australian Landscape, Holocaust, Auschwitz
Date Read: September 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
He had never wept in his life but these days his cheeks were tear-streaked all the time. When he noticed, he would shrug: what did it matter?
He’d always been awkward with people. He had to remind himself to smile. But in his heart he yearned for people all around him. Only let them not ask him to talk and smile too much.
Trudy had told him once, smiling, that he was ‘unbalanced’: the way that he’d stick with some problem about the farm for hours, for days, studying the habits of the codling moth until he’d all but indexed the physical and mental processes of the insect.
‘Dear God!’ he said under his breath. So much was ruined. When his father died it was like this. So much ruined. A healthy man who strode about like a king killed in a week by a sickness that didn’t even have a proper name. Tom looked up at the hills and said again, ‘Dear God!’
Tom had expected that he would feel relief when his wife finally decided to leave him a second time. Instead, a burden of sadness settled on his heart.
The hammer blow that is expected, braced for, does no less harm than the one that comes from nowhere.
The flow of the spring came up to the world, looked around, then dived back into the earth. Ferns that couldn’t be found anywhere else on the property thrived along its bed.
What often surprised him was how little it mattered that he wasn’t Peter’s true dad. He thought would I love him more? He couldn’t see how that would be possible.
What most impressed itself on him was the loneliness of his house down there on the flat.
The hills were rounded and they graduated in size, like the knuckles on your fist.
The house pitied him. It had lived through the era of Uncle Frank the bachelor, through the disaster of Trudy, the short heyday of Peter, and now again it was the shelter of unmarried Tom.
He thought of Peter, of the way the boy could turn a curious gaze on anything, everything, ask questions you could savour before answering.
Tom drove home nursing his melancholy. Tomorrow, fairly early, the pears, the nectarines. And Beau at the base of the ladder, scratching himself.
Both sides of the highway were lined with shops and each shop had its sign, and the shops and the signs and the striving lowered his spirits. The years on the farm had changed him. Up a ladder a month back pruning the apple trees, the nectarines, the pears, he could feel his heart seeking, even when he was unhappy, even when thinking of Peter brought tears to his eyes. What could you seek here?
Because Hannah was smiling, Tom smiled. For a few seconds they were smiling at each other, for each other. With that liberty we sometimes enjoy before intimacy exists.
He felt like a great block of stone talking to her, but she was interested in him, that’s what it felt like. He had never before in his life been made to feel interesting.
Destinations have a way of announcing themselves.
Thrust together in this way, after the first day watching others relieve themselves in buckets, listening to each other weep from exhaustion, still no intimacy beyond a shared sense of injustice. Hannah felt the reluctance of her heart to embrace the whole complement of the wagon as a failure. She wished she were more a Jew who rejoiced in the bond of faith.
She had a great need to see where she was.
For every book, someone loves it.
A dog that had gone bad had to be shot. That was all there was to it.
It was possible to think of nothing. For hours at a stretch, nothing. In a dormitory of a thousand women she might lie on a wooden bunk with a stranger on each side, her mind a stone.
Her grief for Leon came in one huge gulp. She was not ready to grieve for Michael.
If you were sick of life, sick of Auschwitz, there was an easy way out. At the selections in the mornings – a couple of thousand women in rags in groups of five, the standard cohort – you could cough, keep on coughing, and the SS soldiers would be directed by an officer to take you to the gas chamber. Thirty minutes after your coughing fit you would be burning, an hour if there was a backlog.
She would have wept if that were possible, but it wasn’t; nobody wept in Auschwitz after the first month.
‘It’s the war, Tom,’ she said. ‘We hid in the dark places days and days. Now I have to see outside all the time.’
Tom waited. He knew he had to be still. Hannah was a woman whose moods required very careful judgment. If he put his arms around her now she would push him away.
Happiness ran in her arteries and veins and reached every part of her body and being.
Do you see how things turn out? Do you see that the world is big enough to make certain things possible? That thirty-six years ago the German Student Union could hold a rally in Opernplatz, Berlin, and burn twenty-five thousand books, many written by Jews, the students rejoicing in their festival of loathing, and now this, in Hometown. Hannah’s bookshop of the broken hearted, a thing of beauty.
Her father had listened to the news on the radio at the apartment in Pest near the Chain Bridge, Hannah and her sister Mitzi, a year older, beside him on the sofa. ‘They are burning book. Why this madness? The students are burning books.’ He’d wrung his hands and pushed his thumb against his wedding ring as he did at times of distress. Hannah had closed her own hands over his and calmed him. Silver showed in the stubble on his cheeks and chin and the round lenses of his spectacles had misted over. His lips moved silently. A prayer of forgiveness, as Hannah guessed; her father went through life dispensing forgiveness even when it was especially uncalled for.
He was by profession an accountant who employed a staff of ten, but his vital life was entirely devoted to literature. His apartment was filled with shelves in almost every room; they fitted around doorways, around windows – an exasperation to Hannah’s mother, Dafna, who spent half her life up a stepladder with a feather duster.
Each book, to George Babel, held its place in a worldwide narrative, a single story told by thousands of voices. He had favourites – Moses Mendelssohn, Tolstoy, Aristotle – but he never spoke of them as giants among the less accomplished; rather as leaders. In the same way as Hannah, he didn’t approve of colonies on the shelves and forced all authors to live together in a literary kibbutz.
Hannah closed her hands over her father’s and spoke words of comfort to him, but comfort didn’t save him. He died in a camp up north when his heart gave out. Hannah’s mother and two of her sisters, Mitzi and Pasqual, were hanged for theft in the same holding camp; Deate was beaten too badly to survive; Moshe was sent to a labour unit and was said to have died of hunger. None of them reached Auschwitz.
It was 1948 before Hannah learned the fate of each member of her family. Her father’s library was gone when she returned to the apartment in 1945. She might have thought: So what? Did books save my father? Did books save anyone? Or instead: He loved the books, I loved the books, one day there will be a shop and I will stand behind the counter and sell.
She came to Australia with the bookshop still in her imagination and thought: How much further can I go? This is where I stop. A very long way west of Budapest; of Auschwitz.
Captivity, rather than making them timid, had emboldened them. They had seen their fellow prisoners selected for the gas chambers in Auschwitz, they’d seen women that had lived with as intimately as family fall to their knees on the road, seen them shot by the SS. Now they marched down the road to Turon. Ready to accept whatever the absurd world sent their way, and yet hoping above all to live, to prevail, to walk the streets of Budapest.
But it’s not a life, filling your stomach with food three times a day, wandering a foreign city in the clothes of your enemies. It’s not a life, but something vacant going on in perpetual dusk.
So they were together, properly together, except when they weren’t. And Tom knew, as if he were altering inside his skin, that certain things he’d once said to Hannah could never be said again… He saw that silence must be allowed its dominion.
When Hannah talked of her family members she quarantined them from the Holocaust. She told Tom just the one time, that all of her family had perished: all of her in-laws, everyone, thirty-two of them.
In life itself, you didn’t get the chance to choose an ending.
He stared out across the flow of water, his body slack with the weariness that comes over children with a powerful fixed purpose, unheeding of the need to rest before the point of complete exhaustion.
He worked alone and with a profound contentment. He heard the leaves of the cider gums that the northerly picked up from the ground falling with a tapping sound on the iron roof of the tractor shed. And he heard the breeze itself, every so often a stronger gust like a raised voice in an argument.
The only conceivable consolation for a past that had been destroyed was a future of safety, forever.
No one postponed reading books until retirement.
It was only in the dark that he could endure tenderness.
Stefan was attracted to sites of dereliction, any place that breathed squalor, hopelessness. It made him happy in some way only he understood to have his feet in a puddle of mud with scraps of windswept rubbish forming heaps against broken walls.
‘Life, I don’t care. Books, so much better.’
The new bookshop, the German barn, would stock on the upper floor the second hand books that Hannah had fetched from far and wide. The new books from the Hometown bookshop would be stocked on the ground floor.
Hannah gave lyrical talks at all the schools of the shire on the benefit to the soul of reading.
On punishment days, he had to put himself into a trance: stop believing that anything was real, even pain.
Peter didn’t respond to any question put to him. Remaining silent was the one pleasure in his life.
She was used to gazing at beauty with her soul streaming towards the source, empty of every fear in her being. Here, baffled, daunted.
The boys were older than her son had been before Auschwitz, but in one child here and another there, she noticed mannerisms that brought him back with uncanny force and detail. On those days, a bleakness like the coldest day of a cold winter marched into her heart and her blood flowed like a torpid ooze.
She advertised for students. Piano’ flute. Parents at the time had been roused by an unseen force to invest hope in their children’s talents.
He had heard the story of Hannah’s boy vanishing. All around her, the huts and fences of a place made for murder. That grief in her heart, she was shorn of her hair. Every glance on that day seeking the boy, and the next day, for two weeks. Until a Polish wraith, a Jew in authority, three years in Auschwitz, told Hannah Babel that the boy, this Michael, had gone up the chimney. Nothing of him remained. Not a tooth, not a toenail.
The boy kissed Tom all over his face, like a dog in a transport of affection.
Tired of it – that was Tom’s mood…The strenuous enterprise of being alive and drawing breath.
He was worn out by the circulation of his memories.
The heart’s bias is always the other one. The other one was no longer Hannah, but Peter. Tom sighed and stared down at the grass between his spread knees. The boy had suffered. Look out for him. Love him.
Children don’t weep for happiness, so it wasn’t pure joy he was experiencing.
To dwell on murder was to foul your nest.
As we are usually not, he was at the place in the world he most wished to inhabit.
What was most active in Peter’s love was admiration.
The sky was vastly extended in its autumn stillness; the oaks along the driveway turning gold, but gradually.
God lets us love. This is all we can ask. If it becomes a catastrophe, that’s a horrible thing. But God lets us love.
The finest remaining German Lutheran barn in Australia, now Australia’s most beautiful bookshop.
The past exerts itself to influence what follows it – a bid for immortality. In that room of books, of glowing timber polished with beeswax, Auschwitz loomed, the dead child, a dead husband, the shorn, the doomed, shoes piled outside the door of an underground chamber.
But with equal insistence, miraculously, happiness: patches of it, some quite expansive creases in a white dress smoothed out with a flat iron, slipped over the head, the smell of the starch, the warmth of the fabric. In the cheval mirror, turning this way and that, a promise of what might follow.
The grief of Poland coiled itself in corners, banished for the moment by books and beeswax. And by the homecoming. A woman in rags who watched the camp diminish in the distance as she walked away, a woman who lived long enough to love, to marry, recall the warmth of an ironed dress, had enjoyed a type of victory we might say. Not to waste it, surely.
In the midst of the madness, he became calm… It was like a pool of clear water, within. He could go to the pool, drop to his knees and drink.
The green of the packed foliage gave way in a thousand places to the bone-white of dead trunks, the standing corpses of trees burnt in the Black Friday fires of 1939. Enough time had passed since the eruption of the mountain into flame for an intricate pattern of living colour and dead colour to have emerged. It was as if the thriving foliage of the living trees had undertaken a vast campaign of support for the dead trunks, hemming them in, holding them erect in places.
Category: Nonfiction Philosophy
Themes: Faith, Uncertainty, Global Issues, Shared Humanity, Morality
Date Read: August 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
To approach life with the question ‘What can I get?’ Rather than ‘What can I give?’ is to mistake happiness for purpose. This is a chronic mistake that results in many unhappy individuals. Happiness is not the goal, but rather a by-product of a deeper sense of purpose.
Spirituality is about a relationship and connection to something bigger – something transcendent. It inevitably involves faith. For me, without a spiritual connection to God I struggle to find a deeper connection to whom I am, to my neighbour, to the stranger, and to the world around me.
Motto for church life: ‘committed at the core and open at the edges.’
The phrase I heard from so many survivors (Rwanda) whose loved ones had died in shocking circumstances was ‘I had to forgive first’ so the offender could know they could confess and have a chance to be reintegrated.
Brokenness has moved to wholeness.
Repentance is a call for transparency.
The beauty I see in a finite object of art is not wholly contained in the object itself but exists because I have an intuition of a transcendent sense of beauty.
‘Survivor guilt’ – When I come back from disasters or witnessing people in dire poverty, I feel guilty that I can board a plane and leave while they are trapped.
Andrew came to the Christian faith through my influence. He had been doing some serious drugs, self-medicating his depression and living chaotically, but his conversion turned his life around. He was now clean, stable after stints in hospital for depression, and a terrific gift as Anne courage of others. He was also an amazing guitarist with a beautiful singing voice…
After a year of Andrew’s questions about God and the Bible – all answered with my usual self-assurance – I noticed he seemed a little less satisfied with our sessions and had withdrawn, so I made a time to catch up. But before that date he took a gun out to his garage and shot himself. I was utterly shattered. My faith had failed him. I obsessively I turned down the retraced the answers I had given to his questions. They now seemed formulaic and hollow. I felt that I had failed him in my smugness and complacency.
I now know a lot more about mental illness, but at the time I framed it as a defect in my theology and faith. Andrew’s suicide changed me. After a period of unsettledness I turned down the partnership in the legal firm I worked at, packed my bags and together my wife and I headed off to Switzerland to study theology in an international student community with African, Asia, American and European students. I desperately needed deeper answers.
The market model is now so ingrained in our society that it is used to determine policies for the common good. Productivity and efficiency are useful market concepts but cannot replace a sense of the sacred connection of all human life.
Consumerism has failed to make us happy, only restless and envious of others.
Whether we believe in God or something else, we need transcendence beyond ourselves. Expecting and attempting great things only for ourselves is a recipe for despair and soul sickness.
But wisdom teaches us that we learn much more in the process than in even well-graded outcomes. We learn much more from our failures (if we respond to the lesson) than we do from our successes.
Many believe technology is changing attention spans and reducing our capacity to engage in serious contemplation. And all this change is happening in a context where we are more sedentary, which is fatal for changes to the brain.
There is no doubt that new communities and friendships are being formed online; it is not all downside. But how are our brains retiring? Does a life increasingly lived online increase soul sickness and threaten the pursuit of deeper meaning? Does it neutralise emotional solidarity and our capacity to read the emotional nuances of others?
Spirituality has a profound impact upon mental and physical health.
Spiritual or religious views affect ethical issues such as euthanasia, suicide, abortion, contraception and blood transfusion.
Religious commitment is protective for both depression and suicide, and also for physical illness. Belief improves longevity and mortality rates.
Spiritual meaning is how people find solace in times of tragedy.
Themes: Rural Mississippi, Contemporary Poverty, Prison Farms, Racial Injustices, Grief
Date Read: August 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
But it was impossible not to hear the animals, because I looked at them and understood, instantly, and it was like looking at a sentence and understanding the words, all of it coming to me at once.
I think Stag felt dead inside, and that’s why he couldn’t sit still and listen, why he had to climb the highest cliff when we went swimming at the river and jump off headfirst into the water. That’s why Stag went to the juke joint damn near every weekend when he got eighteen, nineteen, drinking, why he walked with a knife in each shoe and one up each sleeve, why he cut and came home cut so often – he needed that to feel more alive.
It’s not until she says it that I realise Leonie got her thirteen-year-old son a baby shower cake. I laugh but don’t feel nothing warm, no joy in me when I do it. A laugh that ain’t a laugh…
Pop grimaces, and for the length of it I see the age in his face. The lines of it leading him inexorably down, like Mama. To infirmity, to bed, to the ground and the grave. This is coming down.
Growing up out here in the country taught me things. Taught me that after the first fat flush of life, time eats away at things: it rusts machinery, it matures animals to become hairless and featherless, and it withers plants… But since Mama got sick, I learned pain can do that, too. Can eat a person until there’s nothing but bone and skin and a thin layer of blood left. How it can eat your insides and swell you in wrong ways.
A year after Given died, Mama planted a tree for him. One every anniversary, she said, pain cracking her voice. If I live long enough, going to be a forest here, she said, a whispering forest. Talking about the wind and pollen and beetle rot.
Once, my grandmama told me a story about her great-grandmama. She’d come across the ocean, been kidnaped and sold. Said her great-grandmama told her that in her village, they ate fear. Said it turned the food to sand in they mouth. Said everyone knew about the death march to the coast, that word had come down about the ships, about how they packed men and women into them. Some heard it was even worse for those who sailed off, sunk into the far. Because that’s what it looked like when the ship crossed the horizon: like the ship sailed off and sunk, bit by bit, into the water.
Sometimes the world don’t give you what you need, no matter how hard you look. Sometimes it withholds.
She thought that if she taught me as much herbal healing as she could, if she gave me a map to the world as she knew it, a world plotted orderly by divine order, spirit in everything, I could navigate it.
“All the birds go bye,” Kayla says, and then she leans forward and rubs my face with both hands, and for a second I think she’s going to tell me something amazing, some secret, something come from God Himself.
I turned and ran as fast as I could. My feet running to darkness.
I am subject to that pulse, helpless as a fisherman in a boat with no engine, no oars, while the tide bears him onward.
Michael wanted us to put in a garden, wherever we ended up at. Even if it was a cluster of pots on a concrete slab. Can’t nothing bother me when I got my hands in the dirt, he said. Like I’m talking to God with my fingers.
I remember it in flashes, mostly when I’m high, that feeling of it just being me and Michael, together: the way I swam up and surfaced out of my grief when I was with him.
Time is a vast ocean and everything is happening at once.
Memories rose like bubbles of decay to the surface of the swamp.
The ocean changes colours like a little lizard. Sometimes stormy blue. Sometimes cool grey. In the early mornings, silver. You could look at that and know there’s a God.
I feel better except for the dream. It stays with me, a bruise in the memory that hurts when I touch it.
Pop has slid down the wall, all the upright parts of him crumbling as he looks at Mama, makes himself look at Mama, for once. He’s been orbiting her like a moon, sleeping on the sofa with his back to the door, searching the yard and woods for pens and bins and machines to fix so he can repair in the face of what he cannot.
Sorrow is food swallowed too quickly, caught in the throat, making it nearly impossible to breathe.
There’s too much blank sky where a tree once stood.
I’m a book and he can read every word.
We hold hands and pretend at forgetting.
“There’s so many,” Richie says. His voice is molasses slow. “So many of us,” he says. “Hitting the wrong keys. Wandering against. The song.”… “So many crying loose. Lost.”
Category: Fiction Romance
Themes: Land Care, Lifestyle, Relationships, Sorrow, Grief
Date Read: August 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
But solitude is only a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot; every choice is a world made new for the chosen. All secrets are witnessed.
Arguments could fill a marriage like water, running through everything, always, with no taste or colour but lots of noise.
When human conversation stopped, the world was anything but quiet.
A bird never doubts its place at the centre of the universe.
Self-consciousness, like a pitiful stray dog tagging you down the road – so hard to shake off.
She deferred to the extinct as she would to the spirits of the deceased relatives, paying her quiet respects in the places where they might once have been.
A mystery caught in the hand could lose its grace.
‘I lost a child,’ she said, meeting Lusa’s eyes directly. ‘I thought I wouldn’t live through it. But you do. You learn to love the place somebody leaves behind you.’
‘Shhh’ She put her hand gently across Lusa’s mouth and then started to stroke her hair. ‘You need to sleep. You have to give in sometime. You get to a point to where you just start wishing you wasn’t living, and that’s worse than being scared.’
The wrong words are impossible when there are no words.
What he’d reached out to tell her that morning, as she sat near the window, were that words were not the whole truth. What she’d loved was here, and still might be, if she could find her way to it.
The potted ferns were turning brown, as brittle and desolate as her internal grief.
Suddenly she felt so exhausted by grief that she had to sink into a chair and put her head down on the table.
I grew up in a family where suffering was quiet.
His body was no longer to be looked upon. If the thought caused him sadness – that he would never again know the comfort of human touch – he sensed it was merely a tributary to the lake of grief through which an old man must swim at the end of his days.
The moth settled onto the curtain and sat still. It was an astonishing creature, with black and white wings patterned in geometric shapes, scarlet underwings, and a fat white body with black spots running down it like a snowman’s coat buttons. No human eye had looked at this moth before, no one would see its friends. So much detail goes unnoticed in the world.
Every species has its extremes, little pockets of genetic resistance that give it an edge on survival.
How pointless life could be, what a foolish business of inventing things to love, just so you could dread losing them.
Everything alive is connected to every other by fine, invisible threads. Things you don’t see can help you plenty, and things you try to control will often rear back and bite you, and that’s the moral of the story.
She felt an enormous sadness inside her waking up. Sometimes it slept, and she could pretend at life, but then it would rise and crowd out anything else she might try to be, hounding her with the hundred simple ways she could have saved him.
The moon was high now, and smaller, and she felt her grief shrinking with it. Or not shrinking, never really changing, but ceding some of its dominance over the landscape, exactly like the moon.
What worse grief can there be than to be old without young ones to treasure, coming up after you?
After her husband’s death Lusa discovered lawnmower therapy. The engine’s vibrations roaring through her body and its thunderous noise in her ears seemed to bully all human language from her head, chasing away the complexities of regret and recrimination.
The world grows quickly impatient with grief.
She was beginning to understand how her marriage would someday be fully apparent to her memory’s eye and yet untouchable. Like a butterfly under glass.
Who would care about his project when he was gone? Nobody. That was the answer, not one living soul. He had kept this truth at a distance for so long, it nearly made him weep with relief to embrace the simple, honest, grief of it.
Lusa lived for this, to crack her up. It had become her pet secret challenge, to try for these moments when you could see all the lights come on, ever so briefly, in this child’s dark house.
Specialisation makes life more risky. If their food dies, they die.
The forest had seemed large enough for her grief.
Garrett had a strange, sad thought about his own special way of seeing trees inside his mind, and how it would go dark, like a television set going off, at the moment of his death.
Dignity is the last responsibility of the aged.
Country people seemed to have many unwritten codes about death, more of them than city people, and one was that after a given amount of time you could speak freely of the dead again.
Solitude is a human presumption. Every quiet step is thunder to beetle life underfoot, a tug of impalpable thread on the web pulling mate to mate and predator to prey, a beginning or an end. Every choice is a world made new for the chosen.
Category: Fiction Historical
Themes: Civil War, Violence, Displacement, Refugee Camp, Resilience, Survival
Date Read: August 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
Thiko tells me I have to keep believing I will see my brother again. I must never let go of that hope, she says, and her voice is always kind… But I find it hard to hold onto hope at times, it feels so slippery.
At harvest time, Grandpa and Mama give the first of the produce as an offering to the Lord in church.
With clean clothes I sit by the window and watch what’s happening outside, where everything is enveloped in a grey haze. The grass at the edge of the yard is dancing wildly, bats are swaying from branches, leaves are falling. Clouds curdle like bad milk in the heavens and the wind whistles and hisses in the palm trees.
Hope will keep you strong, even when everything else deserts you.
I’m amazed by the transformation. Where this morning Pacong was silent, as if nothing would ever be the same again, now people are working in their gardens, talking and going about their business. Birds are singing, the flies are out and biting. The sky is vivid blue, dotted with puffy clouds like sheep in a heavenly pasture. It all looks so peaceful that for a moment it’s hard to believe what happened. (School bombed – 30 students dead, many more injured. Government planes – North Sudan)
I remind myself of my promise to Grandpa. I will rest and tomorrow I will keep walking. If I grow too weak to run or walk I will crawl. Even if vultures hover overhead, waiting for me to drop, I will not give up. I will not surrender myself to death. It will take me in time, but I will not give up easily. Death and I are head to head right now. But I cannot let it win. If I do, then Grandpa and Momo and Nathan will have died for nothing.
You did what you could. You survived. Now what you have to do is keep your hope alive. Because without it, we’re as weak and fragile as grass in a summer fire.
It’s hard to stop thinking. I wonder why the most beautiful memories are the worst, cutting my insides like knives.
Yomjima was happy about sharing our tent but I knew she never stopped thinking about her family and everyone she’d lost… I never suspected that beneath her hopeful manner she had already lost hope herself. And I couldn’t stop wondering if there was something we could have done to save her. Everything felt so dark.
Is one life worth more than another? You save many lives by saving one.
A man who neither lies nor boasts has the wisdom to take pride in his achievements without pointing them out to those around him.
My guilt is like a gigantic brick someone has placed on top of me.
Simone De Beauvoir
Themes: Death, Suffering, Compassion, Memory, Loss, Grief
Date Read: August 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
She believed in heaven, but in spite of her age, her feebleness, and her poor health, she clung ferociously to this world, and she had an animal dread of death.
Her death, like her birth, had its place in some legendary time. When I said to myself ‘She is of an age to die’ the words were devoid of meaning, as so many words are. For the first time I saw her as a dead body under suspended sentence.
I realised that my mother’s accident was affecting me far more than I had thought it would. I could not really see why. It had wrenched her out of the framework, the role, the set of images in which I had imprisoned her.
I liked the nurses; they were linked to their patient by the extreme closeness of those necessary tasks that were humiliating for her and revolting for them.
She was discovering the pleasures of being waited on, looked after, petted.
It is notorious that the parents are the last to admit that their son is mad; the children that their mother has cancer.
Her nose was pinched and her face had shrunk even more: it had the saddest air of submission.
This time my despair escaped from my control: someone other than myself was weeping in me.
Maman started life corseted in the most rigid of principles: provincial propriety and the morals of a convent girl.
Her memories, her desires, her anxieties were floating somewhere outside time, turned into unreal and poignant dreams by her childlike voice and the imminence of her death.
I asked myself how one manages to go on living when someone you love has called out to you, ‘Have pity on me’ in vain.
Her illness had quite broken the shell of her prejudices and her pretensions: perhaps because she no longer needed these defences. No question of renunciation or sacrifice any more: her first duty was to get better and so to look after herself.
At the time the truth was crushing her and when she needed to escape from it by talking, we were condemning her to silence.
Hope was her most urgent need.
In this race between pain and death we most earnestly hoped that death would come first. Yet when Maman was asleep with her face lifeless, we would anxiously gaze at the white bed-jacket to catch the faint movement of the black ribbon that held her watch: dread of the last spasm gripped us by the throat.
I had grown very fond of this dying woman. As we talked in the half-darkness I assuaged an old unhappiness; I was renewing the dialogue that had been broken off during my adolescence and that our differences and likenesses had never allowed us to take up again. And the early tenderness that I had thought dead for ever came to life again, since it had become possible for it to slip into simple words and actions.
By her eyes she clung to the world.
The sumptuous arrogance of a world in which death had no place: but it was there, lurking behind this façade, in the grey secrecy of nursing homes, hospitals, sick-rooms.
A hard task, dying, when one loves life so much.
Every day had an irreplaceable value for her. And she was going to die. She did not know it, but I did.
‘It’s all over.’ We went up the stairs. It was so expected and so unimaginable, that dead body lying on the bed in Maman’s place. Her hand was cold; so was her forehead. It was still Maman, and it was her absence for ever.
Maman loved life as I love it and in the face of death she had the same feeling of rebellion that I have.
Whether you think of it as heavenly or as earthly, if you love life, immortality is no consolation for death.
And is one to be sorry that the doctors brought her back to life and operated, or not? She, who did not want to lose a single day, ‘won’ thirty: they brought her joys; but they also brought her anxiety and suffering. Since she did escape from the martyrdom that I sometimes thought was hanging over her, I cannot decide for her. For my sister, losing a Maman the very day she saw her again would have been a shock from which she would scarcely have recovered. And as for me? Those four weeks have left me pictures, nightmares, sadnesses that I should never have known if Maman had died that Wednesday morning. But I cannot measure the disturbance that I should have felt since my sorrow broke out in a way that I had not foreseen. We did derive an undoubted good from this respite: it saved us, or almost saved us, from remorse. When someone you love dies you pay for the sin of outliving her with a thousand piercing regrets. Her death brings to light he unique quality; she grows as vast as the world that her absence annihilates for her and whose whole existence was caused by her being there; you feel that she should have had more room in your life – all the room, if need be. You snatch yourself away from this wildness: she was only one among many. But since you never do all you might for anyone – not even within the arguable limits that you have set yourself – you have plenty of room left for self-reproach. With regard to Maman we were above all guilty, these last years, of carelessness, omission and abstention. We felt that we atoned for this by the days that we gave up for her, by the peace that our being there gave her, and by the victories gained over fear and pain. Without our obstinate watchfulness she would have suffered far more.
At ten in the morning we went back to the clinic: as in hotels, the room had to be vacated before noon. Once again we climbed the stairs, opened the two doors: the bed was empty. The walls, the window, the lamps, the furniture, everything was in its place; and on the whiteness of the sheet there was nothing. For seeing is not knowing: the shock was as violent as though we had not expected it at all.
Everyone knows the power of things: life is solidified in them, more immediately present than in any one of its instants. They lay there on my table, orphaned, useless, waiting to turn into rubbish or to find another identity.
It is useless to try to integrate life and death and to behave rationally in the presence of something that is not rational: each must manage as well as he can in the tumult of his feelings.
We were taking part in the dress rehearsal for our own burial. The misfortune is that although everyone must come to this, each experiences the adventure in solitude.
Time vanishes behind those who leave this world, and the older I get the more my past years draw together.
You do not die from being born, nor from having lived, nor from old age. You die from something. The knowledge that because of her age my mother’s life must soon come to an end did not lessen the horrible surprise: she had sarcoma (a cancerous tumour)
Themes: Rural Mississippi, Young Black Men, Poverty, Racism, Violence, Drugs, Death, Loss, Grief
Date Read: July 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
My hope is that learning something about our lives and the people in my community will mean that when I get to the heart, when my marches forward through the past and backward from the present meet in the middle with my brother’s death, I’ll understand a bit better why this epidemic happened, about how the history of racism and economic inequality and lapsed public and personal responsibility festered and turned sour and spread here. Hopefully, I’ll understand why my brother died while I live, and why I’ve been saddled with this rotten f…ing story.
When Hurricane Camille hit it flattened everything, wiped away the landscape with an indomitable hand.
My brother was newly dead. I expected him to be alive every day when I woke.
I knew that I lived in a place where Hope and a sense of possibility were as ephemeral as morning fog, but I did not see the despair at the heart of our drug use.
Then Rog, the boy with the beautiful smile and the long face, lay back in his bed, feeling high and low, feeling everything and nothing, all at once.
After Rog’s funeral, I tapped Rhea’s shoulder. I opened my arms, hugged her… I wondered what I would have wanted someone, anyone, to say to me when my brother died, anything beyond ‘Are you all right?’ and ‘Are you okay?’ I knew the answer to those questions. I whispered in her ear: ‘He will always be your brother, and you will always be his sister.’
What I meant to say was this: ‘You will always love him. He will always love you. Even though he is not here, he was here, and no one can change that. No one can take that away from you.’
That year, the world outside our house taught me and my brother different lessons about violence. Our play taught us that violence could be sudden, unpredictable, and severe, soon.
It was 2003. We’d gone crazy. We’d lost three friends by then, and we were so green we couldn’t reconcile our youth with the fact that we were dying, so we drank and smoked and did other things, because these things allowed us the illusion that our youth might save us, that there was someone somewhere who would have mercy on us.
Even though Desmond’s parents had remained married and both had good jobs, his family wasn’t so different from my family, his reality the same, death stalking us all.
My love for books sprang from my need to escape the world I was born into, to slide into another where words were straightforward and honest, where there was clearly delineated good and evil, where I found girls who were strong and smart and creative and foolish enough to fight dragons, to run away from home, to live in museums, to become child spies, to make new friends and build secret gardens.
I was shocked by the rejection of my father’s leaving, which felt like a rejection not of his wife or his domestic life but of me. Children often blame themselves when a parent leaves, and I was no exception.
Maybe he looked at those who still lived and those who’d died, and didn’t see much difference between the two; pinioned beneath poverty and history, we were all dying inside.
But I do not tell Charing these stories, I would not add to her burden of loss, especially when she already carries blame… The burden of regret weighs heavily. It is relentless.
We drove my tank dry into the morning as she rolled blunts, and I wondered if we were courting death. If we weren’t, why did he keep following us, insistently, persistently, pulling us to him one by one?
One day our graves will swallow up our playground. Where we live becomes where we sleep. Could anything we do make that accretion of graves a little slower? Our waking moments a little longer? The grief we bear, along with all the other burdens of our lives, all our other losses, sinks us, until we find ourselves in a red, sandy grave. In the end, our lives are our deaths.
Along with the responsibilities I’d assumed when my father left again, his departure renewed my sense of abandonment, worthlessness.
I never imagined that he carried something darker in him, never saw him when his mood was cloudy and he turned furious or depressed. I was too immature to imagine at the time that the darkness that I carried from my prepubescent years, that conviction of worthlessness and self-loathing, could have touched others in our community.
My entire community suffered from a lack of trust: we didn’t trust society to provide the basics of a good education, safety, access to good jobs, fairness in the justice system. And we distrusted each other.
The hard facts of being a young Black man in the South, the endemic joblessness and poverty, and the ease of self-medicating with drugs disorientated him.
I don’t know all Ronald’s demons… I don’t know what that debilitating darkness, that Nothing that pursued him, looked like, what shape his depression took. I know that when he looked down at his copper hands and in the mirror, that he thought it would be better if he were dead, because then all of it, every bit of it, would stop.
Racism, poverty, and violence are the primary factors that encourage depression in Black men.
Black men are more vulnerable to incarceration, homelessness, substance abuse, homicide, and suicide.
It took me years of suffering grief, battling my own depression, reading, writing to understand.
In the end, I understand his desire, the self’s desire to silence the self, and thus the world.
I wanted to escape the narrative I encountered in my family, my community, and my school, that I was worthless, a sense that was as ever present as the wet, cloying heat.
My misery and grief and loneliness were so close. It slept with me. It walked with me down the crowded streets.
I found the adage about time healing all wounds to be false: grief doesn’t fade. Grief scabs over like my scars and pulls into new, painful configurations as it knits. It hurts in new ways. We are never free from grief. We are never free from the feeling that we have failed. We are never free from self-loathing. We are never free from the feeling that something is wrong with us, not with the world that made this mess.
I carry the weight of grief even as I struggle to live. I understand what it feels like to be under siege.
As the years pass, I find my memory shrinking and adhering to photos.
I write these words to find Joshua, to assert that what happened happened, in a vain attempt to find meaning. And in the end, I know little, some small facts: I love Joshua.
Themes: Death, Illness, Marriage, Children, Memory, Grief, Sanity, Survival
Date Read: July 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
Life changes in an instant.
The way I write is who I am.
Grief, when it comes, is nothing we expect it to be.
The death of a parent, despite our preparation, indeed, despite our age, dislodges things deep in us, sets off reactions that surprise us and that may cut free memories and feelings that we had though gone to ground long ago. We might, in that indeterminate period they call mourning, be in a submarine, silent on the ocean’s bed, aware of the depth charges, now near and now far, buffeting us with recollections. Former Maryknoll Priest
Grief is different. Grief has no distance. Grief comes in waves, paroxysms, sudden apprehensions that weaken the knees and blind the eyes and obliterate the dailiness of life.
I had entered at the moment it happened (the sudden death of my husband) a kind of shock in which the only thought I allowed myself was that there must be certain things I needed to do.
The act of grieving involves grave departures from the normal attitude to life. Freud Mourning and Melancholia 1917.
Bringing him back had been through those (early) months my hidden focus, a magic trick.
People who have recently lost someone have a certain look, recognisable maybe only to those who have seen that look on their own faces. The look is one of extreme vulnerability, nakedness, openness.
Information is control.
This had been my basic promise to Quintana (adopted daughter).I would not leave. I would take care of her. She would be all right. It also accursed to me that this was a promise I could not keep. I could not always take care of her. I could not never leave her. She was no longer my child. She was an adult. Things happened in life that mothers could not prevent or fix.
There are some events in life that are beyond our ability to manage or control.
The way you got sideswiped was by going back.
‘the vortex effect’ – could be controlled only by avoiding any venue I might associate with either Quintana or John.
Until now I had been able only to grieve, not mourn. Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention. Until now there had been every urgent reason to obliterate any attention that might otherwise had been paid, banish the thought, bring fresh adrenaline to bear on the crisis of the day.
Survivors look back and see omens, messages they missed. They remember the tree that died, the gull that splattered onto the hood of the car.
It was only by dreaming or writing that I could find out what I thought.
I realised that for the time being I could not trust myself to present a coherent face to the world.
Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterating, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.
‘as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end,’ which I interpreted as a literal description of the constant changing of the earth, the unending erosion of the shores and mountains, the inexorable shifting of the geological structures that could throw up mountains and islands and could just as reliably take them away. I found earthquakes, even when I was in them, deeply satisfying, abruptly revealed evidence of the scheme in action. That the scheme could destroy the works of man might be a personal regret but remained, in the larger picture I had come to recognise, a matter of abiding indifference. No eye was on the sparrow. No one was watching me.
Later, after I married and had a child, I learned to find equal meaning in the repeated rituals of domestic life. Setting the table. Lighting the candles. Building the fire. Cooking. …These fragments mattered to me. I believed in them. That I could find meaning in the intensely personal nature of my life as a wife and mother did not seem inconsistent with finding meaning in the vast indifference of geology. The two systems existed for me on parallel tracks that occasionally converged, notably during earthquakes. In my unexamined mind there was always a point, John’s and my death, at which the tracks would converge for a final time.
People in grief think a great deal about self-pity. We worry it, dread it, scourge our thinking for signs of it. We fear that our actions will reveal the condition tellingly described as ‘dwelling on it.’
Self-pity remains both the most common and the most universally reviled of our character defects
Only the survivors of a death are truly left alone. The connections that made up their life – both the deep connections and the apparently ( until they are broken) insignificant connections – have all vanished.
What ended was the possibility of response.
We are repeatedly left with no further focus than ourselves, a source from which self-pity naturally flows. Each time it happens I am struck again by the impermanent impassibility of the divide – the final silence.
We were equally incapable of imagining the reality of life without the other.
Marriage is memory, marriage is time.
We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we no longer are. As we will one day not be at all.
“Time is the school in which we learn,
Time is the fire in which we burn.”
Nothing he or I had done or not done had either caused or could have prevented his death. He had inherited a bad heart. It would eventually kill him.
I notice that I have lost the skills of ordinary social encounters, however undeveloped those skills may have been, that I had a year ago.
I did not want to finish the year because I know that as the days pass, as January becomes a February and February becomes summer, certain things will happen. My image of a John at the instant of his death will become less immediate, less raw. It will become something that happened in another year.
I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive to keep them with us.
I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.
Category: Historical Fiction
Themes: Medieval Manuscripts, Illumination, Creativity, Connection, Grief, Loss
Date Read: July 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
Anticipation is a strange creature.
Nothing fine is made without it be broken down first.
He wanted to cry, his chest ached with need, but that was allowed only to the innocent. Grief was forbidden him.
Nothing is heavy if you have wings.
What is colour if not light in all its forms.
Don’t doubt what’s given.
Living with the shadow.
Everything we form, be it a cathedral, a book, or a life, carries hidden traces of its beginning.
Singing, he discovered, kept the memories away.
Words must have the order that words demand.
Life is arranged for mourning, Mathilda thinks, but not for grief. There are no rituals for these moments in the night when everyone else sleeps and the deeper darkness opens up.
Grief: she had known it before, but not like this. She sat by Gavin’s (son) bedside watching his sweet face, the slight rise and fall of his chest, gathering it in; she knew this was all she would have of him. When his breath stopped, she wailed her despair, too exhausted and bereft to care when Robert (husband) hushed her. The pain is lodged still in her chest, a constant ache, a presence she would miss if it left her.
But Robert’s death is so different. It’s two months since he died and she’s surprised at this grief that is more a shadow, or a haunting, than loss. She gropes for the pain in her heart, hopes for tears and sobbing, but they’re not there. Perhaps it was the running and fear, listening to every new noise, planning everyone’s safety, and not just her own. So much to think about that there was no room for crying.
It is objects she realises, things that she can hold and feel, that have marked her way through these past weeks (since her husband’s death)
Her chest hurts; now it’s too late (to admire the new bridle her husband had bought). Why does love, if that’s what it is, come only in his absence?
Seems we always look for what we don’t have.
As he walked he studied the long lines of shadow thrown by the rising sun, the soft yellow colour of the air on a clear day, the diffuse greyness when it was cloudy.
Always it is a conversation, words and pictures together helping the readers to pray.
…but the simplicity of love in this painting shows humility and grace.
But living through this season of grieving with the book, with its prayers and decorated pages, has changed all that her pain once was.
It is God himself, and not the status of your patron, who demands that your work be the very finest you can manage.
She understood: death is so hard and final that it always asks if we could have, should have, done more.
Category: Travel Memoir
Themes: Hiking, Pacific Crest Trail, Mountains, Divorce, Grief, Survival
Date Read: June 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
Prologue: My father left my life when I was six. My mother died when I was twenty two. In the wake of her death, my stepfather morphed from the person I considered my dad into a man I only occasionally recognised. My two siblings scattered in their grief, in spite of my efforts to hold us together, until I gave up and scattered as well.
We went to the women’s restroom. Each of us locked in separate stalls, weeping. We didn’t exchange a word. Not because we felt so alone in our grief, but because we were so together in it, as if we were one body instead of two.
There was a skylight window in the ceiling that ran the length of the platform bed I shared with Karen, its transparent pane only a few feet from our faces. Each night the black sky and the bright stars were my stunning companions, occasionally I’d see their beauty and solemnity so plainly I’d realise in a piercing way that my mother was right. That someday I would be grateful and that in fact I was grateful now, that I felt something growing in me that was strong and real.
It was the thing that had grown in me that I’d remember years later when my life became unmoored by sorrow. The thing that would make me believe that hiking the Pacific Crest Trail was my way back to the person I used to be.
It hadn’t occurred to me that my mother would die until she was dying, the thought had never entered my mind. She was monolithic and insurmountable, the keeper of my life.
It took me years to take my place…to be the woman my mother raised. I would suffer. I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods.
Since she died, everything had changed. It was so sad it felt as if someone were choking me, and yet it seemed my whole life depended on my getting those words out. She would always be my mother, I told her, but I had to go. She wasn’t there for me in that flowerbed anymore anyway, I explained. I’d put her somewhere else. The only place I could reach her. In me.
My mum was dead. Everything I ever imagined about myself had disappeared into the crack of her last breath.
My grief obliterated my ability to hold back. So much had been denied me, I reasoned. Why should I deny myself.
As I saw myself then in front of that tarnished mirror what came was the woman with the hole in her heart. That was me.
Of all the things that convinced me that I should not be afraid while on this journey, the death of my mother was the thing that made me believe the most deeply in my safety: nothing bad could happen to me, I thought. The worst thing already had.
I realised I didn’t understand what a mountain was: layered and complex, inexplicable and analogous to nothing.
In moments among my various agonies, I noticed the beauty that surrounded me, the wonder of things both small and large: the colour of the desert flower that brushed against me on the trail or the grand sweep of the sky as the sun faded over the mountains.
The thing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, the thing that was so profound to me that summer was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the things I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial.
I had diverged, digressed, wandered and become wild. I didn’t embrace the word as my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances or life, but because even in my darkest days – those very days in which I was naming myself – I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed and I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I know things I couldn’t have known before.
Books were the world I could lose myself in when the one I was actually in became too lonely or harsh or difficult to bear.
I thought hiking the Pacific Crest Trail would help me find my centre.
Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was. The radical aloneness of the Pacific Crest Trail had altered that sense. Alone wasn’t a room anymore, but the whole wide world, and now I was alone in that world, occupying it in a way I never had before.
Living at large like this, without even a roof over my head, made the world feel both bigger and smaller to me. Until now, I hadn’t truly understood the world’s vastness – hadn’t even understood how vast a mile could be – until each mile was beheld at walking pace.
I thought about the fox. I remembered the moment after he’d disappeared into the woods and I’d called out for my mother. It had been so silent in the wake of that commotion, a kind of potent silence that seemed to contain everything.
Conversation with a woman who gave her a lift. ‘After my son died, I died too, inside. I look the same, but I’m not the same in here. I mean, life goes on and all that crap, but Luke dying took it out of me. I try not to act like it, but it did.
In the tumult of the past year it seemed as if writing had left me forever, but as I hiked, I could feel that novel coming back to me, inserting its voice among the song fragments and advertising jingles in my mind.
Foot speed was a profoundly different way of moving through the world than my normal modes of travel. Miles weren’t things that blazed dully past. They were long, intimate straggles of weeds and clumps of dirt, blades of grass and flowers that bent in the wind, trees that lumbered and screeched. They were the sound of my breath and my feet hitting the trail one step at a time and the click of my ski pole. The Pacific Crest Trail had taught me what a mile was. I was humble before each and every one.
The thing that compelled me and every other long-distance hiker onward on the most miserable days was the feeling of being in the wild, to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.
The loss of my family and home were my own private clear-cut. What remained was only ugly evidence of a thing that was no more.
Grief doesn’t have a face.
I didn’t know my own father’s life. He was there, but invisible, a shadow beast in the woods; a fire so far away it’s nothing but smoke.
Themes: Writers, Motivation, Inspiration, Reading, Audience
Date Read: June 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
Because none of my relatives were people I could actually see, my own grandmothers were no more and no less mythological than Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, and perhaps this had something to do with my eventual writing life – the inability to distinguish between the real and the imagined, or rather the attitude that what we consider real is also imagined: every life lived is also an inner life, a life created.
What is the relationship between the two entities we lump under one name, that of ‘the writer?’ The particular writer. By two, I mean the person who exists when no writing is going forward – the one who walks the dog, eats bran for regularity, takes the car in to be washed, and so forth – and that other, more shadowy and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the same body, and who, when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing.
There’s an epigram tacked to my office bulletin board, pinched from a magazine – ‘wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pate.’ The famous inevitably disappoint.
The printed text of a book is like a musical score which is not itself music, but becomes music when played by musicians, or ‘interpreted’ by them, as we say. The act of reading a text is like playing music and listening to it at the same time, and the reader becomes his own interpreter.
A gift is not weighed or measured, nor can it bought. It can’t be expected or demanded; rather it is granted, or else not. In theological terms it’s a grace, proceeding from the fullness of being.
The composition of a novel may be one part inspiration and nine parts perspiration, but that one part inspiration is essential if the work is to live as art.
Suffering is a result of the writing, rather than its cause.
Publishing a book is often very much like being put on trial, for some offence which is quite other than the one you know in your heart you’ve committed.
Language is not morally neutral because the human brain is not neutral in its desires.
The writer communicates with the page. The reader also communicates with the page. The writer and the reader communicate only through the page.
Once the words have been set down they form part of a material object, and as such must take their chances.
For every letter and every book, there is an intended reader, a true reader.
Reading and writing are both activities that presuppose a certain amount of solitude, even a certain amount of secrecy.
With publication, the text replicates itself, and the reader is no longer an intimate, a one to your one. Instead the reader too multiplies, just like the copies of the book, and all those nobodies add up to the reading public.
Turning from a nobody into a somebody is not without its traumas.
Books must travel from reader to reader in order to stay alive.
The nature of writing is defined by its apparent permanence, and the fact that it survives its own performance.
Writing is writing down, and what is written down is a score for voice, and what the voice most often does is tell, if not a story, at least a mini story. Something unfurls, something reveals itself.
Narration – storytelling – is the relation of events unfolding through time.
Dead people persist in the minds of the living.
‘In Flanders Fields’ by John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The poem reminds us that the dead make demands and you can’t just dismiss either the dead or the demands; you’d be wise to take both of them seriously.
But life of a sort can be bestowed by writing.
A book is another country. You enter it, but then you must leave: you can’t live there.
Where is the story? The story is in the dark. That is why inspiration is thought of as coming in flashes. Going into a narrative – into the narrative process – is a dark road. You can’t see your way ahead. The well of inspiration is a hole that leads downwards.
All writer’s learn from the dead. As long as you continue to write, you continue to explore the work of writer’s who have preceded you, you also feel judged and held accountable by them. But you don’t learn only from writer’s – you can learn from ancestors in all their forms.
Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
Themes: World War II, Channel Islands, Guernsey, German Occupation, Book Club, Resistance
Date Read: May 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
I don’t want to be married just to be married. I can’t think of anything lonelier than spending the rest of my life with someone I can’t talk to, or worse, someone I can’t be silent with.
Perhaps there is some sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers.
That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you to another book, and another bit there will lead you to a third book.
An old adage: ‘Humour is the best way to make the unbearable bearable.’
Men are more interesting in books that they are in real life.
Reading good books ruins you for enjoying bad books.
‘The bright day is done, and we are for the dark.’ William Shakespeare
We clung to our books and to our friends; they reminded us that we had another part to us.
The war is now the story of our lives, and there’s no denying it.
I didn’t want to spend my time reading about people who never were, doing things they never did.
The war goes on and on. When my son Ian died at El Alamein visitors meaning to comfort me said, ‘Life goes on.’ What nonsense I thought, of course it doesn’t. It’s death that goes on. Ian is dead now and will be denied tomorrow and the next year and forever. There’s no end to that. But perhaps there will be an end to the sorrow of it. Sorrow has rushed over the world like the waters of the Deluge, and it will take time to recede. But already, there are small islands of – Hope? Happiness?
‘The mind will make friends of any thing.’ Charles Lamb
People who live near running water are much nicer than people who don’t.
My worries travel round my head on their well-worn path, and it is a relief to put them on paper.
That’s what I told myself – Well, you’re still alive. But the truth is, I wasn’t. What I was – it wasn’t dead, but it wasn’t alive either.
When I got up this morning the sea was full of sun pennies – and now it seems to be covered in lemon scrim. Writers ought to live far inland or next to the city dump if they are ever to get any work done. Or perhaps they need to be more stronger-minded than I am.
I have been reading an article by a woman called Gisèlle Pelletier, a political prisoner held at Ravensbruck for five years. She writes about how difficult it is for you to get on with your life as a camp survivor. No one in France – neither friends nor family – wants to know anything about your life in the camps, and they think that the sooner you put it out of your mind – and out of their hearing – the happier you’ll be.
According to Miss Pelletier, it is not that you want to belabour anyone with details, but it did happen to you and you can’t pretend it didn’t. The only thing that helps is to talk to your fellow survivors. They know what life in the camps was. You speak, and they can speak back. They talk, they rail, they cry, they tell one story after another – some tragic, some absurd. Sometimes they can even laugh together. The relief is enormous.
Themes: Friendship, Isolation, Survival, Trust, Betrayal, Australian Outback
Date Read: May 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
Everything’s changed. I’m not what I was. All I am now is a fresh idea.
For the first time in my life I know what I want and I have what it takes to get me there. If you’ve never experienced that I feel sorry for you. But it wasn’t always like this. I’ve been through fire to get here.
All a person wants is feeling safe. Peace, that’s all I’m after.
You tell yourself you’re not the praying type, not the kind who talks to himself, or cries for his mum or gets himself torn up over some chick… And not even in your weirdest dreams do you think you’re an instrument of God. You dunno what that even means.
Thing is, I’m not alone in the world. That’s the only thing keeps me going.
Honestly, sometimes you’d rather be a dog. A mutt doesn’t torture itself with thinking.
There’s a sad feeling in a place people have just walked out of and left behind.
I wised up before I wasted away to nothing.
When we get older we mostly just layed round in the sun there. Talking I spose. Or not talking at all, which was just as good.
Love isn’t always convenient.
Our stories… We’re precious about them. Not because we treasure them at all, but because it’s safer to hold them close.
But this is refuge as much as exile.
Even a man with no future gets himself into conniptions of anticipation.
Everything that ever happened here is still present now. In the crust, underneath, in the vapours. These days I look out there and it says to me: Here I am, son, still here. I was here before the likes of you and yours were born. Before you even drew breath, I am.
He thought about it day and night. How to believe, what to believe.
When you do right, Jaxie, when you make good – we’ll, then you are an instrument of God. Then you are joined to the divine… to life itself.
Category: Travel Memoir
Themes: Australian Outback, Desert, Adventure, Camels, Indigenous Australians
Date Read: May 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
There are some moments in life that are like pivots around which your existence turns – small intuitive flashes, when you know you have done something correct for a change, when you think you are on the right track. I watched a pale dawn stream the cliffs with Day-glo and realised this was one of them. It was a moment of pure, uncomplicated confidence – and lasted about ten seconds.
I experienced that sinking feeling you get when you know you have conned yourself into doing something difficult and there’s no going back.
Alice Springs is a frontier town, characterised by an aggressive masculine ethic and severe racial tensions.
I had made the choice instinctively, and only later had given it meaning.
It was one of those brittle bright days such as only a desert in bountiful season can produce. Crystal water sped down the broad bed of the Charles River, a foot or two deep in some places where it swirled around a giant trunk of a dappled river gum; black-shouldered kites hovered above their hunting ground in the back garden, catching the light on their shimmering wings, and in their blood-red predatory eyes; black cockatoos with flamboyant orange tail-feathers screeched their music through the high trees; sunlight exploded, flooding everything with its harsh pounding energy; crickets grated intermittently from the flowering pomegranates and made, together with the drone of the blow-flies in the kitchen, an anthem for hot Australian afternoons.
I had always supposed that loneliness was my enemy. I had seemed not to exist without people around me. But now I understood that I had always been a loner, and that this condition was a gift rather than something to be feared.
I believe the sub-conscious always knows what is best. It is our conditioned, vastly overrated rational mind which screws everything up.
I had gone to bed hours before but I couldn’t go to sleep. I was again overcome by a sense of failure. Not just of the trip but a kind of personal failure – the absolute impossibility of ever winning against brute force and domination. I was worrying it over and over, trying to seek a solution, impossible in that state of mind because of its nature. And then I thought: of course, the perfect way out – Suicide. Now, this was not the ordinary chest beating, why-are-we-born-to-suffer-and-die syndrome, this was something new. It was cold, rational, unemotional. And I wonder now if that’s how people usually come to it. Coldly. It was so simple really. I would walk way out bush, sit myself down somewhere, and calmly put a bullet in my brain. Yes, that would do nicely. No mess, no fuss. Just nice clean simple exit. Because no life was better than half-life. I was planning it out, the best place, the best time, when suddenly Gladdy sat bolt upright in the bed opposite me and said, ‘Rob, are you all right? Do you want a cup of coffee?’ It was the equivalent of a bucket of iced water thrown over someone in hysteria, waking me to the horror of what I was thinking, the enormity of it. I had never been to that point before, and don’t think I shall ever have to again.
In different places, survival requires different things, based on the environment. Capacity for survival may be the ability to be changed by environment.
The self in a desert becomes more and more like the desert. It has to, to survive. It becomes limitless, with its roots more in the subconscious than the conscious – it gets stripped of non-meaningful habits and becomes more concerned with realities related to survival. But as is its nature, it desperately wants to assimilate and make sense of the information it receives, which in a desert is almost always going to be translated into the language of mysticism.
Most of us have forgotten how to play. We’ve made up games instead. And competition is the force which holds these games together. The desire to win, to beat someone else, has supplanted play – the doing of something just for itself.
And words just can’t tell you what it’s like. Words are the memory twitching after the reality of the dance.
What I had learnt:
I had learnt what love was. That love wanted the best possible for those you cared for even if that excluded yourself.
I had understood freedom and security. The need to rattle the foundations of habit.
To be free to learn, to test yourself constantly, to gamble. It is not safe.
I had learnt to use my fears as stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks.
That night I received the most profound and cruel lesson of all. That death is sudden and final and comes from nowhere. It had waited for my moment of supreme complacency and then it had struck. Late that night, ‘Diggity’ took a poison bait.
She was on her side convulsing. I blew her brains out.
Some of us just don’t want to be famous – anonymity cannot be bought for any price, once you have lost it.
The two important things that I did learn were that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavour is taking the first step, making the first decision.
Category: Historical Fiction
Themes: 19th Century Ireland, Rural Communities, Folklore, Superstition, Grief, Pagan Traditions
Date Read: May 2018
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
Both men were dark-eyed with grief and when Nora opened her mouth to scream and found that she had choked on it, they bowed their heads as though they heard her anyway.
She cried like a pining dog, with a strained, strong whimper of abandonment.
Much was made of Martin’s collapse at the crossroads where they buried suicides.
For all the death in the world, each woman’s grief is her own. It takes a different shape with all of us. But the sad truth is that people will not want your grief a year after you bury your husband.
She moaned and the sound of her grief scared her.
‘Tis the borrowed grief, thought Nance.
If there is one thing that will sink sickness deeper into the body ‘tis loneliness.
Nora held her tongue still and let her grief sit in her like a stone.
The house was awe full in its silence.
During the wake, the women had told her that the grief would subside. Nora hated them for it.
How hidden the heart, Nance thought. How frightened we are of being known, and yet how desperately we long for it.
The child exhausted her in a different way. He tortured her with constant, shrill needfulness.
How slippery time had become. When she was younger the days had seemed unceasing. The world had felt infinitely full of wonder.
Nance remembered walking, only to be winded by the grace of the world.
Her aunt Maggie carried a presence, a stillness like that which precedes a storm, when the ants pour over the ground and the birds find shelter and stop singing to wait for the rain.
Some folk are forced to the edges by their difference. But ‘tis at the edges that they find their power.
Category: History, Memoir
Themes: Holocaust, Auschwitz, Survival, Hope, Empowerment
Date Read: November 2017
Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
My Book Notes:
I had my secret, and my secret had me.
When we force our truths and stories into hiding, secrets can become their own trauma, their own prison.
Suffering is universal. Victimhood is optional.
There is a difference between victimisation and victimhood.
We are all likely to be victimised in some way in the course of our lives. At some point we will suffer some kind of affliction, or calamity or abuse, caused by circumstances or people or institutions over which we have little or no control. Victimisation comes from outside.
Victimhood comes from inside. No one can make you a victim but you. We develop a victim’s mind – a way of thinking and being that is rigid, blaming, pessimistic, stuck in the past, unforgiving, punitive, and without healthy limits or boundaries.
There is no hierarchy of suffering. There’s nothing that makes my pain worse or better than yours.
Being a survivor, being a “thriver,” requires absolute acceptance of what was and what is. If we discount our pain, or punish ourselves for feeling lost or isolated or seared about the challenges in our lives, however insignificant these challenges may seem to someone else, then we’re still choosing to be victims.
Often, the little upsets in our lives are emblematic of the larger losses, the seemingly insignificant worries are representative of greater pain.
For survivors, the only relevant question is, “What now?”
‘escaping the concentration camp of your own mind’
Becoming the person you want to be.
Freedom – from the past; from failures and fears; from anger and mistakes; from regret and unresolved grief.
We cannot choose to have a life free of hurt.
With reference to a photo depicting her mother, sister, and herself: Regaining the life that precedes this moment, the life that proceeds loss.
Memory is sacred ground. But it is haunted too. It’s the place where my rage and guilt and grief go circling like hungry birds scavenging the same old bones. It’s the place where I go searching for the answer to the unanswerable question: why did I survive?
Misinterpreting the facts of our lives: inventing a story to tell ourselves.
Maybe every childhood is the terrain on which we try to pinpoint how much we matter and how much we don’t, a map where we study the dimensions and the borders of our worth.
To survive is to transcend your own needs and commit yourself to someone or something outside yourself.
To survive, we conjure an inner world, a haven, even when our eyes are open.
The words I heard inside my head made a tremendous difference in my ability to maintain hope. We were able to discover an inner strength we could draw on – a way to talk to ourselves that helped us feel free inside, that kept us grounded in our own morality, that gave us foundation and assurance even when the external forces sought to control and obliterate us. “I’m good! I’m innocent! Somehow, something good will come of this.”
I worked to develop an inner voice that offered an alternative story. “This is temporary. If I survive today, tomorrow I will be free.”
It is terrible to lose, to have lost all the known things – mother, father, sister, boyfriend, country, home. Why do I have to lose the things I don’t know too? Why do I have to lose my future? My potential? The children I’ll never mother? The wedding dress my father will never make? I’m going to die a virgin.
It isn’t God who is killing us in gas chambers, in ditches, on cliff sides, on 186 white stairs. God doesn’t run the death camps. People do. If I am to be close to God now, I want to keep alive the part of me that feels wonder, that wonders, until the very end.
Mostly we are private in our dread or regret or resignation or relief.
The irony of freedom is that it is harder to find hope and purpose.
I can’t ignore the grief, but I can’t seem to expel it either.
I wasn’t suicidal at Auschwitz, when things were hopeless. Every day I was surrounded by people who said, “The only way you’ll get out of here is as a corpse.” But the dire prophecies give me something to fight against. Now that I’m recuperating, now that I am facing the irrevocable fact that my parents are never coming back, that Eric (her boyfriend) is never coming back, the only demons are within. I think of taking my own life. I want a way out of pain. Why not choose not to be?
‘the unfinished business of grief’
Denial is a (our) shield.
We don’t yet know the damage we perpetuate by cutting ourselves off from the past, by maintaining our conspiracy of silence. We are convinced that the more securely we lock the past away, the safer and happier we will be.
My sister’s pain has less to do with loneliness and more to do with the belief that she is undeserving of love.
Survival is a matter of interdependence, that survival isn’t possible alone.
The continuity, from me to her, will grow out of our shared roots, making a new branch, a limb that climbs toward hope and joy.
Post traumatic stress is not a disorder. It’s a common and natural reaction to trauma. I was suffering the fallout of an interrupted life.
My inner world was no longer sustaining, it became the source of my pain: unstoppable memories, loss, fear.
In running from the past – from my fear – I didn’t find freedom. I made a cell of my dread and sealed the lock with silence.
I can choose my own silence, and I can choose the kinship or camouflage of others’ silences, I can’t choose what other people say or do when I’m not there.
There are always two worlds. The one that I choose and the one I deny, which inserts itself without my permission.
To remember is to concede to the horror again and again. But in the past is the love that I felt and sang in my mind all those months that I starved.
We can’t choose to vanish the dark, but we can choose to kindle the light.
No one heals in a straight line.
The more choices you have, the less you’ll feel like a victim.
I begin to practice the work of not pushing my feelings away, no matter how painful.
Suffering is inevitable and universal. But how we respond to suffering differs.
Needs -approval, affection, attention
‘calamity theory of growth’ Richard Farson
“Very often it is the crisis situation… that actually improves us as human beings. Paradoxically, while these incidents can sometimes ruin people, they are usually growth experiences. As a result of such calamities the person often makes a major reassessment of his life situation and changes it in ways that reflect a deeper understanding of his own capabilities, values, and goals.”
You can live to avenge the past, or you can live to enrich the present. You can live in the prison of the past, or you can let the past be a springboard that helps you reach the life you want now.
Feelings no matter how powerful are not fatal.
I began to formulate a new relationship with my own trauma. It wasn’t something to silence, suppress avoid, negate. It was a well I could draw on, a deep source of understanding and intuition about my patients, their pain, and the path to healing.
When you have something to prove, you aren’t free.
When you grieve, it’s not just over what happened: we grieve for what didn’t happen.
You can’t heal what you can’t feel.
A good definition of a victim is when you keep the focus outside yourself, when you look outside yourself for someone to blame for your present circumstances, or to determine your purpose, fate, or worth.
My panic isn’t the result of purely external triggers. It is an expression of the memories and fears that live inside.
We are always in the process of becoming.
Overcome? I haven’t overcome anything. Every beating, bombing, and selection line, every death, every column of smoke pushing skyward, every moment of terror when I thought it was the end – these live on in me, in my memories, in my nightmares. The past isn’t gone. It isn’t transcended or excised. It lives on in me. But so does the perspective it has afforded me: that I lived to see liberation because I kept hope alive in my heart. That I lived to see freedom because I learned to forgive.
It is too easy to make a prison out of pain, out of the past. At best, revenge is useless. It can’t alter what was done to us, it can’t erase the wrongs we’ve suffered, it can’t bring back the dead. At worst, revenge perpetuates the cycle of hate. It keeps the hate circling on and on. When we seek revenge, even non-violent revenge, we are revolving not evolving.
To forgive is to grieve – for what happened, for what didn’t happen – and to give up the need for a distant past. To accept life as it was and as it is.
I can see that the past doesn’t taint the present, the present doesn’t diminish the past.
“Stress is the body’s response to any demand for change.” Dr Hans Selye
To heal, we embrace the dark. We walk through the shadow of the valley on our way to the light.
To find his way out of victimhood he needed to come to terms with his impotence and his power, the ways he had been injured, and the ways he had hurt, his pride and his shame. The only antidote to brokenness is the whole self.
Maybe to heal isn’t to erase the scar, or even to make the scar. To heal is to cherish the wound.
How easily a life can become a litany of guilt and regret, a song that keeps echoing with the same chorus, with the inability to forgive ourselves.
How easily the life we didn’t live becomes the only life we prize. How easily we are seduced by the fantasy that we are in control, that we were ever in control, that the things we could or should have done and said have the power, if only we had done or said them, to cure pain, to erase suffering, to vanish loss. How easily we can cling to the choices we think we could or should have made.
In Jewish tradition, we place small stones on graves as a sign of respect for the dead, to offer mitzvah, or blessing. The stone signifies the dead live on, in our hearts and memories.
I was victimised bit I’m not a victim, that I was hurt but not broken, that the soul never dies, that meaning and purpose can come from deep in the heart of what hurts us the most.
Work has set me free. I survived so that I could do my work. Not the work the Nazis meant – the hard labour of sacrifice and hunger, of exhaustion and enslavement. And when I do this work, then I am no longer the hostage or the prisoner of anything. I am free.
Our painful experiences aren’t a liability – they’re a gift. They give us perspective and meaning, an opportunity to find our unique purpose and our strength.
Mantra for managing emotions: notice, accept, check, stay.
Although it feels like the palette of human feelings is limitless, in fact every emotional shade, like every colour, is derived from just a few primary emotions: sad, mad, glad, scared.
We remain a victim as long as we hold another person responsible for our own well-being.
If you give up the authority of your own choices, then you are agreeing to be a victim- and a prisoner.
It’s our responsibility to act in service of our authentic selves. Sometimes this means giving up the need to please others, giving up our need for others’ approval.
When we abdicate taking responsibility for ourselves, we are giving up our ability to create and discover meaning. In other words, we give up on life.
Doing what is right is rarely the same as doing what is safe.
Time doesn’t heal. It’s what you do with the time.
Living a full life is the best way to honour him.
The biggest prison is in your mind.
To run away from the past or to fight against our present pain is to imprison ourselves.
Freedom is in accepting what is and forgiving ourselves, in opening our hearts to discover that exist now.