Ardent reader, Pt 2:  stories & wisdom across cultures

More good stories: from middle America to Africa and the American South

The Honk and Holler Opening Soon, Billie Letts (1986). A sweet, quick read that lifts my faith in humanity every time I read it. Caney Paxton is a Vietnam vet who runs an Eastern Oklahoma diner from his wheelchair but hasn’t been outside since the place opened twelve years ago. The diner is peopled by a mash-up of locals who rally to help one another at every turn. Crow Indian woman Vena Takes Horse blows in the door one day with an injured dog in a cardboard box, upsetting the order Molly O has established as her way of watching over Caney and managing life with and without her wild and estranged daughter Brenda. Meanwhile Bui, a homeless Vietnamese immigrant finds a home in the local black church and surreptitiously restores it even beyond its former glory, while working as short-order cook and handyman.

In here he knew what to expect. The smell of hot grease and stale beer, the flicker of red and blue neon, the taste of ketchup on fries, the clink of spoons against coffee cups. Days as predictable as…Suddenly, Caney grabbed the wheels of his chair, gave them a powerful jerk and popped the chair over the threshold. Clearing the door frame, feeling the heat of the sun on his face, he squinted against the glare.

 

Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi (2016). When I got to the end of this absorbing novel, I turned right back to the beginning and started over. I can’t say that about any other book. Gyasi’s heroines are half-sisters Effia and Esi, born in different villages in 18th century Ghana. Married off to an Englishman, Effia lives out a European colonial life, one of the many native women the British take as second wives. She does not know that her half-sister Esi is imprisoned in the castle dungeon below her palatial quarters, about to endure the agonizing Middle Passage. In alternating chapters Homegoing then traces the sisters’ parallel stories generation by generation. The unfolding of tribal warfare, control of the slave trade, and colonialization on the one hand. Plantation life in the deep South, the Civil War and Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance on the other. On my second pass, I read Esi’s story straight through, and then Effia’s, and absorbed more details of the finely-rendered characters, times and places.

…two long moans meant the enemy was miles off; three quick shouts meant they were  upon them…Esi did what her father had taught her, grabbing the small knife that her mother used to slice plantains and tucking it into the cloth of her skirt. Maame sat on the edge of her cot. “Come on!” Esi said, but her mother didn’t move…”I can’t do it again,” she whispered.

 

Non-fiction: the power of recognizing yourself in the text

Running on Empty, Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect, Jonice Webb, PhD, with Christine Musello, PsyD (2013).  Webb’s book was life-changing for me.  For this book among many things I am ever grateful to my healer Brenda Blessings. In Webb’s cogent analysis I recognized my own life – the way I experienced the world and behaved in response. If anyone had ever asked me straight out if I was emotionally neglected as a child, I would have responded with a puzzled yet definitive “no.”  But Running on Empty helped me to see the relationship among what to me had been unrelated fragments. Feelings of isolation while real life went on in Technicolor on the other side of a barrier I could not breach. A capacity to speak up, and passionately, on behalf of others, but not for myself. A disconnect between “work” and pay, cause and effect. And other mysteries of my life. Five years later, the these fragments have softened and integrated – still around, yet no longer running my psyches and my life. Such as…

Signs and Signals of Alexithymia

–  you have a tendency to be irritable

–  you are seldom aware of having a feeling

–  you are often mystified by others’ behaviors

–  you are often mystified by your own behavior

–  when you do get angry, it tends to  be excessive or explosive

–  sometimes your behavior can seem rash to yourself or to others

–  you feel you are fundamentally different from other people

–  something is missing inside of you

–  your friendships lack depth and substance

 

Inspiration and guidance from many cultures

Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott (1994). I was a fan of Lamott’s from the time I first read Traveling Mercies (1999) – captured by her plain-spoken struggles with faith in daily life. It was many more years before I began to have any thoughts at all of myself as a writer. Writing was just something I did, and loved, whether I was journaling or writing testimony for a legislative hearing. If you think that none of this could apply to you, take my word for it: good writing and a good life both follow the same instructions, as Lamott’s title indicates. She opens and closes Bird by Bird by calling us to truth.

The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth. We are a species that needs and wants to understand who we are. Sheep lice do not seem to share this longing, but we do…But after a few days at the desk, telling the truth in an interesting way turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.

There are so many things I want to tell my students in our last class…Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of.

 

The World has Changed, Conversations with Alice Walker, edited with an introduction, Rudolf P. Byrd (2010). This volume was a sale-table find at Red Emma’s, where I was browsing while waiting to meet my friend Lisa for lunch. In these nineteen interviews and conversations with Walker from 1973 – 2009, she is often asked the same questions. What changes and what remains a steady thread in her responses is the instructive nourishment of this compilation. Then there is the sheer power and magic of her speaking.

On writing fiction:…there’s that wonderful, playful quality of knowing you have dreamed up people who are walking around and who have opinions…You’re dreaming people, creating people, they do surprising things, but it’s only because you have given them that freedom in creating them.

On Possessing the Secret of Joy: I learned about genital mutilation twenty years ago in Kenya, and it was just so completely beyond my experience at the time…that I didn’t, I literally didn’t understand what they meant…But by the time I actually started [the book] I was in such a state of grief that the only thing that sustained me was that I could go outside and just lie facedown on the earth. And I really understood…that the body of a woman is the body of the earth, and it was the same kind of scarring, mutilation, control. You know, “If you’re gonna have a crop, it’s gonna be my crop.”…And the same where they cut the woman and they sew her up, and they say, “if you’re gonna have children, it’s gonna be my child.”

 

The Book of Joy, Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams (2016) Two of the wisest men on the planet are in conversation, and their love for one another and their warm and playful friendship, displayed in photos and verbal exchanges, bring delight, though Abrams as narrator sometimes got in my way. My friend Greg loaned me this book, accurately sensing that my spirits were sorely in need of upliftment. Joy, in fact, remains somewhat of a mystery to me. Abrams did redeem himself in my eyes by including this definition from Brother Steindl-Rast: “Joy is the happiness that does not depend on what happens.”

The Dalai Lama: After 9/11 you would have suspected that those who hated America would have been gloating. But there were very, very, very few people gloating, People were deeply, deeply distressed. Had the American President not hit back, we might have had a different world. We will have a different world of course, eventually. But just look at any tragedy…There is compassion that just springs up.

Archbishop Tutu: You show your humanity by how you see yourself not as apart from others but from your connection to others…God created us and said, Go now, my child. You have freedom. And God has had such incredible reverence for that freedom that God would much rather we freely went to hell than compel us to go to heaven…And God weeps until there are those who say I do want to try to do something.


For Part 1 for Ardent readers:  https://alifeofpractice.com/musings/ardent-reader-pt-1-good-stories-perennial-wisdom/

 

 

Love in action on Valentine’s Day: not about romance

heart

Valentine’s Day: reframing the irritating task in front of me as love in action made my day

Attention to ordered and effective detail comes naturally when I am writing poetry. It’s a matter of scale: a limited number of words and lines on a simple white background. Small enough that my eyes can take in the parts and the whole at the same time.

But what was in front of me this morning was something else. The day began as I chaired an online meeting of an all-volunteer committee. A key agenda item was the need for a leave of absence policy. The issues proved more complex than they originally appeared. We agreed and voted on a general direction. One member – a careful listener with a good memory – agreed to take on the word-smithing after we adjourned. We signed off.

Over the next few hours twenty emails flew back and forth on this thread. Twenty. Including a new voice that was not part of the online discussion but is vital to include. Half a dozen additional considerations raised. Lots of parts. Moving parts.

My irritation rose. I was losing sight of the whole. And losing touch with impeccability: in this instance, our collective intention to craft a policy that would bring clarity, closure where necessary, and serve both the individual volunteers and the work of community-building that is our passion.

Pause.

Reframe.

This is Valentine’s Day.

What better day for love in action?

Impeccability is not about writing the perfect leave of absence policy that will fit every circumstance like a glove. It’s about patience with the words, the people, the incremental steps, the revisions. It will take more thought, a few more days. A bunch more emails. And we’ll arrive at a policy that is seated in our values and does the job. We’ll nudge the necessary details  into place.

The gift – for myself and those on the receiving end of my emails: letting go of the urgency, I relaxed and went on with my day, which also included dark chocolate and red roses.

Ardent reader, Pt 1: good stories & perennial wisdom

stack of books

As an ardent reader, I relish both good stories and perennial wisdom. This week I share a few of my favorites with you.

 

Thankfully, Dick and Jane did not quench my love of reading. I lose myself in a well-told story.

I read to find heroines and role models, to understand villains and evil. See the world afresh.  Escape.  Time travel to other places and by unfamiliar means – horseback, sleigh, trans-Atlantic steamer, dragon- back (Anne McCaffrey’s specialty). Drench myself in strange tastes, smells and dialects. And find myself anew, with widened eyes and a wiser heart, some enhanced capacity to be more human. Enchanted by language. Refreshed to return to my own daily “story.”

Hefting a book in my hands, I treasure the tactile – the feel of the binding and texture of the paper. I’ve kept notebooks of quotes, even extended passages. I’ve underlined and scribbled in margins, highlighted and tabbed with post-its.

I love being pulled forward page to page…and if the story is a good one, I ration the pages to slow myself down and savor the experience.

 

Winter comfort reading…fiction to be savored with afghan and tea

Winter’s Tale, Mark Helprin (1983). The language and imaginative scope of this novel still absorbs me on my – 10th? 15th? rereading. Peopled by outrageous underworld characters, a master mechanic, a consumptive heiress, an epic competition between high-minded and low-minded daily newspapers, an elusive bridge-thrower, a howling White Wall, and a powerful white horse, all in the roiling streets of Manhattan during some time that never was but we dream of. Especially now that Helprin has engraved such a city in our minds.

All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is.

 

The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett (2007). Trailing her yapping corgis around a corner of Buckingham Palace, the Queen of England stumbles upon a traveling library. I revisit the life-changing pleasures of reading as she discovers her own. Full of Britishisms and good humor.

’The Queen has a slight cold’ was what the nation was told, but what it was not told and what the Queen herself did not know was that this was only the first of a series of accommodations, some of them far-reaching, that her reading was going to involve.

 

The Bean Trees, Barbara Kingsolver (1988). Taylor escapes Kentucky “in a ’55 VW Bug with no windows to speak of, and no back seat and no starter.”  Headed west, she stops for a scant meal and leaves the bar with her “head rights” to the Cherokee nation: an abandoned, abused toddler. Taylor and Turtle end up in Tucson at Jesus is Lord Used Tires, which houses an auto repair shop and a sanctuary for Central American asylum-seekers. Full-bodied and warm-hearted characters, each down on their own hard luck, take care of one another, creating their own miracles along the way.

We looked where (Turtle) was pointing. Some of the wisteria flowers had gone to seed, and all these wonderful long green pods hung down from the branches. They looked as much like beans as anything you’d care to eat…It was another miracle. The flower trees were turning into bean trees.

 

Perennial wisdom … dip in, savor, open at random and contemplate

I take on a different reading persona with these works of perennial wisdom.  These are not cover-to-cover reads. I do start with forwards and prefaces and introductions for context. I often read the acknowledgments at the end: I enjoy getting a sense of the lineages to which such books belong and the village that may have surrounded an author’s or translator’s work. Then I read I-Ching style: open at random, read a few passages or pages, close the book and reflect on what light the words shed on any given current personal or world predicament.

 

Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, translation and foreward by Stephen Mitchell (1984). First published in 1929 by Franz Xaver Kappus, recipient of these 10 letters from the Bohemian-Austrian poet. Kappus was a 19-year-old military cadet and aspiring poet. While addressing a life in poetry and art, Rilke’s words remain rich guidance for a vibrant inner life in the 21st century.

…it is clear we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition.

 

Paths to God: Living the Bhagavad Gita, Ram Dass (2005).  This volume is built around talks I first listened to on cassette tapes as I was running a gingerbread-baking business out of my kitchen. He spoke about the “mellow drama” of his own journey. And he mixed his personal stories with commentary on the themes of this ancient scripture, “themes…that touch on the various yogas, or paths for coming to union with God.”  The 700 verses of the Bhagavad Gita originally appear among some 200,000 verses of the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata. This “song” takes the form of a conversation between the warrior Arjuna and Lord Krishna, his charioteer, as Arjuna is about to go into full battle with his own family members.

Again and again the Gita turns our perspective upside down…It shifts our sense of what our lives are about. So as we begin to adopt the Gita’s perspective as our own, we’ll notice that our focus starts to change. Instead of always preoccupying ourselves with trying to get what we think we want or need, we’ll start to quiet, we’’ll start to listen. We’ll wait for that inner prompting. We’ll try to hear, rather than decide, what it is we should do next…we’ll discover that we’ve lost our lives – and found them.

 

The Instruction Manual for Receiving God, Jason Shulman (2006). This slim volume offers more than one-hundred “seed passages”  for contemplation, along with commentary and suggested practices. He lays out an open-hearted path to accepting the wisdom and limitations in our human imperfections, and to encountering God at every turn. I have been studying this nondual work with Jason for over twenty years. He is the real deal.

There is a Japanese saying: The elbow does not bend outward. It is a smart saying. The freedom of the elbow, the wonderfulness of the elbow, is precisely because of its limitations. This is our awakened attitude. We are free to be completely human. We are not free to be aliens or cartoon creatures. We are free to be ourselves, with all of our imperfections and bruises.

 

An invitation: pay it forward and add one of your titles and why it makes your own list of favorite books!

 

Watch for Part II: fiction and non-fiction for writers and cross-cultural explorers.

 

In good hands with Healing Presence

Recent weeks have been a strange and compelling time for me. I have been called on to think deeply about behaviors that contribute to Healing Presence. At the same time to ever more deeply explore early childhood experiences of emotional absence. This dual preoccupation has freshly illuminated the gift in the wound that is my calling in life.

 

Putting myself in good hands

I can see now that I have devoted myself professionally to being “the good hands” in which I want to place myself whenever I seek health care or disease (medical) care. Being those “good hands” comes down to a felt quality of relationship that engenders trust and a sense of being met, seen, and cared for.

 

This is how I define Healing Presence, a particular application of living life as an imperfect and vulnerable human being. 

Healing Presence looms large in my professional foreground. Peer into my personal background and I find a profound absence of being  met, seen, and emotionally cared for early in  life.  The gift in the wound. The lotus rising from the mud. A calling. Or, as the Jewish sages have taught, God has created the cure even before the disease.

Countless times I have sat with a client holding for her the foreground and background of her life work that she cannot yet see, as she heartfully yearns to be able to grasp what is just inside and right in front of her.

Just as I could not see that while I was trying to salve, and solve, my early life difficulties with emotional absence, I was in the same moments perpetuating it. There are large swaths of my life where I have been in absentia. In vain my daughters have asked me about certain family events of life-altering significance to them: I have no memory to illumine their own search for meaning or understanding.

 

Healing Presence in the face of absence from life

Until very recently, I could not answer my own question: Where was I at those moments? Now I understand that my attention was focused not on what was in front of me – and them. I was, unawares, scanning entire universes for danger, mustering and deploying armies of defenders, all skills I began to apprentice before I had even the earliest language skills. Developmentally, a supremely young part of me was in charge.

The ongoing psycho-spiritual work of allowing these patterns to appear, of feeling utter loneliness, and unwinding embedded physiological patterns brings me back to Healing Presence. Because I do not entrust myself and this work lightly to anyone. And I have been fortunate to have been in the best of hands with friends, role models, teachers, and practitioners who have helped me to heal and awaken.

 

Here are some of the qualities and behaviors of Healing Presence I look for in the company I keep – in life and in the treatment room

We click. I have been met, seen, cared for unconditionally enough, if imperfectly. I feel a quality of relationship that engenders my trust. I sense that we can develop a partnership that serves my needs and desires and honors her expertise and viewpoint. So if a conflict develops around a course of action or treatment, it can be a productive one.

Each of my professional helpers…

  • listens to me deeply, non-judgmentally, with curiosity and nuance.
  • trusts that I am an expert on my own life.
  • trusts my body-mind-spirit’s innate wisdom, uniqueness, and capacity to heal.
  • accepts and responds to my story, language, and emotions (or lack thereof) as the foundation for our work. She is then free to validate, encourage, reframe, educate, or challenge me. To articulate, clarify, question, counsel, and illuminate. To partner, lead, or follow willingly as appropriate.
  • is comfortable with silence, tears, guffaws.
  • presents herself as a professional, grounded in ethics and respect for the limits of her scope of practice.
  • offers a fertile mix of critical thinking and humility, which discourages her from coming to premature conclusions, and encourages her to make good use of her knowledge and to embrace what cannot be known.

I take these qualities and behaviors as the fruits of  my practitioner’s own life of practice. Most often her practice is not going to be precisely my practice, and that does not matter. I may or may not learn deeply about or embrace the language or practices of her path or discipline over the time we work together towards my healing and awakening.

That we can walk together is essential, each of us knowledgable, wise and limited in our own ways: gifted by our own wounds, answering our respective callings. This is when I know I am in good hands.

These are the good hands I aspire to be.

 


AN INVITATION:

If you are looking to place yourself in good hands, in a partnership dedicated to your healing and awakening…

OR if you are a practitioner who wants to explore and deepen your own Healing Presence with your clients or patients…

LET’S TALK…. be in touch.

We can schedule a half-hour conversation (no charge)


IF you are interested in a peer-reviewed article on Healing Presence, this is a good place to start.


Banner photo: original painting by Sheri Hoeger, A Touch of Hands