How Pema Chodron’s The Wisdom of No Escape helped me to understand that silence can be golden

I went to the first meeting of a mindfulness book club last night. The book to be discussed was Pema Chodron’s “The Wisdom of No Escape.”  It was an interesting experience for me. I loved reading the book. I was really looking forward to being part of a book club. And I sat there for the entire hour and a half and said nothing. Sweet Mother of Graciousness, I am 70 years old. As my sister says, I’m as old as people who are old (and that thought is indeed weird). How can I still act like a shy introvert? I truly need to get over myself.

The group leader started with a couple of ground rules: After someone speaks, don’t say, ‘Oh but I’ . . . be respectful of other people’s thoughts and feelings. And, keep your comments short so there is enough air space for everyone (there were about 30 people there).

The leader started by saying the book is a collection of talks Pema Chodron gave at a retreat at Gampo Abbey.  The leader shared with us that while she never met Pema Chodron, she had been to Gampo Abbey. A few years ago, she was in Cape Breton and drove by the abbey, but didn’t get out of the car. I sat there with a handful of pictures of Gampo Abbey tucked inside my copy of the book—I too had been to Cape Breton and drove by Gampo Abbey in the fall of 2019. But we did get out of the car and walked around a little. There are some trails that meander along a stream and wind their way to a Stupa of Enlightenment. It is a lovely setting farm like setting with breathtaking views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Then the first question for the group to discuss: what passages in the book spoke to you in particular? Sweet Mother of the Goddess! I read the book focusing on theory and guidelines for practice. I was so not ready for that kind of question. So I sat and listened. Then I thought, well, there is this part where Pema is talking about the lineage of her teachers. By way of showing how even flawed human beings have become venerated teachers she lists off how one was a madman; one was completely conceptual and intellectual and incapable of applying and embodying the teachings for 12 years; one was famous for his intensely bad temper and was also a drunk; and my personal favorite, Milarepa, was a murderer; another one was supremely arrogant, and a final one was just butt ugly. She offers all of that up so that we can take heart that the wise ones were a bunch of neurotics, just like us. I read those lines, I knew that even I could find a place in a community like that. I took comforted in reading it, it opened a space where I felt like maybe there could indeed be a place for me in that tradition. But I said nothing, because. . . because why? It just didn’t seem like what she was asking—until the leader discussed that very same passage.

Then someone talked a bit about the breathing practice Pema Chodron describes—following the out-breath—and how, for her, it felt more meaningful to follow the in-breath. And I wanted to say that when I follow the out-breath, it opens my heart and mind to a kind of letting go and a sense of greater openness. But I said nothing because I didn’t want to be disrespectful of the other woman’s comment.

Then a guy talked about a story Pema tells in the book. It is one of my favorite stories:

A woman running away from tigers, keeps running and running. The tigers are getting closer and closer. She comes to the edge of a cliff, sees some vines there, climbs down and holds onto the vines. She looks down and sees there are tigers below as well. Then she notices a mouse gnawing on the vine to which she is clinging. She also notices a beautiful little bunch of strawberries close by. She looks up, looks down, looks at the mouse, reaches out, takes a strawberry, puts it in her mouth and thoroughly enjoys it.

The guy highlighted the woman eating the strawberry, and the simplicity and joy of being in and enjoying the present moment.

And I thought, yes, be in the present moment and also employ skillful means to ensure that you have done your best. Before she ate the strawberry, she ran, she climbed, she did all she could to ensure her safety and well-being—then she surrendered. But those thoughts felt too much like a ‘yes, but’ to what the guy said, so I said nothing.

            As the conversation continued, I kept thinking I should say something. But whatever came into my head was a beat too late and in my heart of hearts I wondered if the stuff I was thinking wasn’t just a bit of one upping. And all the while, I kept hearing Elsa, from Frozen, singing ‘Let it Go’ even as I kept obsessing about not talking.

            Maybe next month I will just say something!

And, maybe for now, I will focus more on the section of the book where Pema talks about Kintsugi—the Japanese practice of repairing broken pottery with lacquer mixed with gold dust. Yes, I am the same age as old people, and yes I am still broken in ways that surprise me. But a broken heart is an open heart. And so today I will cherish and celebrate my new awareness of my openness.

What Now? originally a commencement address that Ann Patchett published as a book

This is a short, feel good book, porblably published around 2008.

Ann Patchett is a wonderful author, who has published a number of novels including

  • The Patron Saint of Liars (1992)
  • Taft (1994)
  • The Magician’s Assistant (1997)
  • Bel Canto (2001)
  • Run (2007)
  • State of Wonder (2011).

What Now is a only about 100 pages, and it is mostly Patchett’s reflections on the moments in her life when people have posed that question to her. But the book is so much more than that.

it is the best answer I’ve ever found to the question of why look back, why pause to reflect, why go home or to reunions … “coming back in the thing that enables you to see how all the dots in your life are connected, how one twist of fate, good or bad, brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which, aided by several detours — long hallways and unforseen stairwells — eventually puts you in teh palce you are now.” wonderful.

and then later in the book she encourages/admonishes us to “divest yourself of prejudice whenever possible.” divest yourself! eloquent.

the book is rich with ideas, language, turns of phrase.

go find it and give it a try!

The life of objects: a novel by Susanna Moore.

The novel beings in 1938 in Ballycarra, County Mayo, Ireland. Beatrice Adelaide Palmer is the only child of Elizabeth Givens and Morris Palmer. As is true of many teenagers, she is unhappy with her life in this very small Irish hamlet, where her parents run a haberdashery. She yearns to find her way in the larger world.  Beatrice’s confidant is her teacher and minister, Mr. Knox who inculcates within her a love a reading and of birds. Early on Beatrice’s mother curtails any further education for Beatrice and requires her to work in the family store. Bored there, and forbidden by her mother to read while working, Beatrice teaches herself to crochet, and soon is creating beautiful lace pieces.

Countess Hartenfels, a rare visitor to Ballycarra notices Beatrice’s lace and strikes up a friendship with Beatrice. She invites Beatrice to journey with her to Germany to work for her friends the Metzenburg’s.  Of course Beatrice accepts the invitation, much to the protest of her parents. And that is the beginning of Beatrice’s experience with the larger world – with Germany as Hitler claims power and moves the world into war.

The novel is a coming of age story. But it is more than that. Told in the voice of Beatrice, we experience the personal loss, the personal transformations, the social upheavals of life in the middle of a country at war. 

Be careful if you read this book. You will feel like you are there in Germany during the war. You will feel like you are looking over Beatrice’s shoulder seeing, feeling, breathing what she sees, experiences and smells.

I am always looking for a good book with a strong woman character. I found one in this book!

Susanna Moore. 2012. The life of objects: a novel. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

From Brain Pickings Weekly: Caral Sagan on the magic of books

Mostly I use this space to write about books that I’ve read that I think are particularly wonderful.

But, this Carl Sagan quote that I read in Brain Pickings is just WONDERFUL! …

In Brain Pickings, says: The love of books and the advocacy of reading are running themes around here, as is the love of Carl Sagan. Naturally, this excerpt from the 11th episode of his legendary 1980s Cosmos series, titled “The Persistence of Memory,” is making my heart sing in more ways than the universe can hold.

And here is the totally wonderful quote from Sagan: What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/05/08/carl-sagan-on-books/

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

 Connie Goodwin, the central character in this book is a PhD student at Harvard. When we first meet her, she has just completed the oral examination for PhD candidacy – she is ready to begin to write the proposal for her dissertation. Manning Chilton, the chair of the history department is her main advisor, and he immediately begins to pressure her to find a new original source for her dissertation. At nearly the same moment, Connie’s mother calls her to tell her that she needs her to spend the summer cleaning out her grandmother’s long abandoned home, a home located very near to Salem, Ma.

 While cleaning out the home – an ancient relic without phone or electricity – Connie begins to have some rather unusual experiences. Experiences that feel unusual to Connie, but not so unusual to Grace, Connie’s mother – who practices ‘new age’ healing. Magic, alchemy, witchcraft, mystery and love all weaver their way through the story.

 As Connie cleans her grandmother’s home she finds an antique key in a seventeenth century Bible. The key has a bit of parchment rolled into it. There is a name written on the parchment: Deliverance Dane. Who is this woman? Connie’s search leads her to a church in Salem where she meets Sam, an historic preservationist. The search to learn about Deliverance leads Connie to a search for the Physick book that once belonged to Deliverance, a book of recipies, a book of spells, a book of witchcraft, of magic. The search leads Connie to discoveries about herself, her mother, her family. It leads to love and intrigue, to betrayal, and to love!  All woven through with bits of engaging history about Salem, witches and the witch trials.

 It’s a good read! I love when the academy and alchemy weave together!

 The author’s bio says that Katherine Howe’s ancestors settled Essex County, Massachusetts in the 1620s, and stayed there through the twentieth century. Family members included Elizabeth Proctor, who survived the Salem witch trials, and Elizabeth Howe, who did not. Katherine Howe is completing a PhD in American and New England Studies at Boston University, which included teaching a research seminar on New England witchcraft. The idea for this novel developed while she was studying for her doctoral qualifying exams, walking her dog through the woods between Marblehead and Salem.

Katherine Howe 2009. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.  VOICE, an imprint of Hyperion.

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahme Smith

This is really not the kind of book I am inclined to read. On the surface, on the shelf, it looks like silly pop trash (ah, yes, I do remember — don’t judge a book by its cover! but we/I do! all the time). And it kind of is at it appears – silly pop low literature — not laugh out loud silly, but tongue in cheek, straight faced, farcical funny. And, I am glad that I gave it a read. You probably would be too – so, get yourself to the library, and check it out!

The books opens in small town America, with a wanna be writer working in a local tourist type general store as a happy enough clerk reflecting on his past dream of being a writer. One thing fairly quickly lead to another, the clerk befriends Henry Sturgis, a new to town rich customer (vampire??).  In a few months, the customer leaves town, and in leaving presents the clerk with a package that contains the long lost journals of Abraham Lincoln. And therein begins the real plot of the book. Our friend the clerk is to render the journals into a novel. And he does. The rest of the book is written as a rendition of those journals.

The journals are not of Abraham Lincoln great American president, but of Abraham Lincoln, sad and struggling young man. When young Lincoln learns that his mother was killed by a vampire, he is propelled into a life long vendetta and becomes one of the nations great vampire hunters.

The history within the book, the biographical facts about Lincoln are accurate enough to create an aura a credibility around the narrative. The importance of slavery to vampires as a accessible source of blood – makes you wanna say: hmmmm.

If you are inclined in any way towards historical fiction, if you have an appreciation for ironic and kind of silly, rye humor, this is an engaging read that will let you put your feet up and relax for a bit. So, enjoy! By the by, I won’t give it away, but the ending is really fun! Not unpredictable, but, great none the less.

Seth GrahameSmith. 2010Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.Grand Central Publishing: New York.

The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood by James Gleick

The Information is a nonfiction book. More often than not, I steer clear of these, because there is enough nonfiction in the world, and I like my reading to be a bit escapist. But, enough people in my life were talking about ‘the information’ and enough of those who were talking about it were saying good things, so I picked it up and gave it a go. And … yep, I’m glad that I did.  At 527 pages it is no light read. But it is engaging, informative, and well … full of information that you may or may not find yourself using.

The book begins with a chapter on ‘drums that talk’ which is rich with information (that word again!) and stories (which of course also contain information) about how information was shared – communicated – across spaces beginning with talking drums in Africa. Chapters examine the evolution of means of examining, analyzing and communicating information across time and space – all illustrated and amplified with stories of the efforts, struggles, abysmal failures and amazing successes of key people and supporting actors engaged in the developments and the break throughs.  For me it was the background stories – not really gossip, but close enough – that I found particularly engaging.

Ah, and I loved the chapter on meme’s. I am intrigued with the idea of meme’s. And of course ‘meme’ is a newish word, so I love it all the more. The chapter begins with an epigram from Douglas Hofstadter (1983): “When I must about memes, I often find myself picturing an ephemeral flickering pattern of sparks leaping from brain to brain, screaming, ’me, me!’” And that’s as good an illustration of meme as I’ve read. Meme’s speak to the spreading power of ideas. Richard Dawkins connected genes and memes in his book the “Selfish Gene.” Gleick quotes Dawkins as saying, “wherever there is life, there must be replicators. . . .  I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.” Gleick reminds us that that soup is human culture; the vector of transmission is language; and the spawning ground is the brain. And Dawkins called this replicator the ‘meme.’ Memes propagate, they spread by leaping from brain to brain by a process that we might call imitation – think Ken Keyes 100 monkey story; think Malcolm Galdwell’s Tipping Point; think things going viral on U-Tube and the web.

So, ‘The Information’ traces the history of information as an idea, as it is ever more efficiently communicated; it describes a theory of information; it follows the flood of information that is engulfing humanity. It is an interesting, engaging read. Give it a try … how has your engagement with ‘information’ changed over the last few years? Have you noticed the emergence of new or different cultural memes?

James Gleick 2011. The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. Pantheon Books: New York.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Yep, Gilead as in Balm in Gilead and as in all kinds of biblical references. So, why am I reading a book that oozes Christian scriptures from its pores? Because one of my dear friends who is revitalizing her Jewish roots recommended it to me – during our phone call when we were chuckling about my Chanukah wishes to her (in April when all of her other friends were wishing her good Passover!). So, after we talked about what I was doing for Christmas – (after all what is the point of friends if not to 1) accept you as you are; 2) join in with your absurdity and celebrate it as if it were the best thing since hot butter on popcorn!) So … anyway, after all that she said she was reading Gilead, and thought it was great.  And, I totally agree with her.

Gilead is fiction that read like autobiography, sort of. The book is written as a series of letters by Reverend John Ames to his very young son. The Reverend has just been diagnosed with angina, and does not expect to live much longer. His son is about seven and the Reverend is afraid he will have no memories of his father. So, the letters are the Reverends effort to share his life and to create a reservoir of memories for his son. 

The first half of the book complies the Reverend’s recollections of his own early life – adventures with his father and grandfather; slavery and abolition; war and pacificism; and his first love – their marriage, the birth of his first child, the death of his first wife and child. Then the letters shift to memories of meeting his Lila, the Reverend’s current wife and the mother of his son. There are wonderful sweet observations of the son by the father. The tenderness and love are a joy to read. And, there is the Reverend’s struggle with forgiveness as the son of his best friend returns to town after years of absence.

And, there are quotable lines. The book is rich with quotes you will want to remember and paraphrase … I am confident that I will find a great blessing [lesson] in this. … The full soul loathes a honey comb, but the starving soul relishes even the bitter things. … Material things are so vulnerable to the humiliations of decay. The book is rich with phrases and sentences like this.

The author, Marilynne Summers Robinson (1943) is an American novelist and essayist.

So, give Gilead a read. I did find it a balm as I move ever closer to retirement and find myself thinking about my own mortality. I would love to hear about your favorite quotes from the book if you give it a look?

Marilynne Robinson. 2004. Gilead. Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York

Another Mother Tongue by Judy Grahn

I must have read Another Mother Tongue shortly after it was published in 1984. If I am writing about it now in 2012, some 28 years later, you KNOW it is an important and powerful book in my life. 

Another Mother Tongue is categorized as history and gay & lesbian studies. It is that, but it reads like a poetic novel. It certainly relates the history of lesbians and gay men across history, as much as that history – so doggedly and diligently erased and denied – can be pieced together from shards, fragments, fables and myths. The book is also Grahn’s coming out story, her life, her loves, her struggles and triumphs. For a young lesbian in the 80’s – before Ellen Degeneres, before K.D. Lang, before the Indigo Girls and Melissa Etheridge, before the L Word, roll models were few and far between.  There were Gertrude stein and Billy Jean King (well, maybe there was Billy Jean) and Martina Navratalova. This was the era when asking someone if they liked Holly Near music was code for asking if that person was a lesbian – but you had to know someone to tell you the password! Judy did that for us in this book. That and so much more! Grahn found our history and our culture and she celebrated it with joy and angst and passion and flair. She invites us to sashay down the lavender trail as we come out of the closet. She celebrates fairies, fags, butches, dykes and amazons. This may not be a book for everyone, but if you are feeling sad and alone, pick it up, give it a read. You will be neither as sad nor as lonely by the time you put it down.

 The author, Judy Rae Grahn was born in 1940, in Chicago, Illinois. She is a pioneering lesbian feminist poet, writer, and social theorist. Her bio (http://www.judygrahn.org/) notes that she currently serves as Associate Core Faculty for the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in Palo Alto, California, in their Women’s Spirituality Master’s Program.  She is former director of Women’s Spirituality MA and Creative Inquiry MFA programs at New College of California, from which she resigned in July of 2007. She holds an earned Ph.D. in Integral Studies with an Emphasis in Women’s Spirituality from California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.

So, give Grahn a read, check out Another Mother Tongue for sure, and check out her poetry as well. “The Psychoanalysis of Edward the Dyke” in Edward the Dyke and Other Poems, will break your heart even as you laugh till you cry – it is an evocative rejection of the detritus of ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ even demands respect for the dignity of the most basic human right to love.

I think it was June Jordan who once said that Judy Grahn’s poetry and writing saved lives. I surely agree! What about you?

Judy Grahn 1984  Another Mother Tongue. Beacon Press: Boston, MA

Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Sarah’s Key solidly qualifies as one of those books that will haunt you. I finished reading it a day or so ago, and I find that I keep wondering, keep thinking about Sarah, her choices, her decisions, her acts, what was done to her, what she survived, and what she did not survive.

At the beginning of the book Sarah Starzynski is 10 years old. Her parents migrated from Poland to France before Sarah was born. She and her brother Michel were born in Paris. The Starzynski family is Jewish in 1942, all of this is a very dangerous combination.

In July 1942 all of the Jewish people in Paris and in much of France were arrested by the French police in the Vel’ d’Hiv rounded up. The Jewish families in Paris knew that something was coming, but didn’t know what. They believed that the men were going to be taken to work camps, so the many of the men were in hiding. When the police came to the Starzynski’s door, that night Sara believed that it was just some trouble that would soon be over. The police told them to pack a bag and prepare to go, her brother who was 4 years old and still deeply asleep, refused to go.  The police had not yet seen him – he was still in bed. Sarah hid him in their secret hiding place – a hidden closet in their bedroom – and locked him in. She and her mother were then taken away by the police. In the court yard, at the sound of the mother’s screams, the father came out from hiding and joined his wife and daughter. Sarah quietly told her father about Michel’s hiding place, but they could not get back to the apartment. And Sarah and her parents are taken away first to holding areas and then to the camps, even while Michel remained locked in his hiding place.

In 2002 as the 60th anniversary of the Vel’ d’Hiv round up approaches Julia Jarmond, an American expat journalist living in Paris with her French husband and their daughter, is assigned the writing of a story on the Vel’ d’Hiv, an assignment that draws her into the life of Sarah and the discovery that her husband’s family moved into Sarah’s family’s apartment just after the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup. Julia eventually uncovers the great secret of her in-law’s family. Young Sarah did escape from the one of the holding camps and with the help of a farm family who hid and adopted her, made her way back to Paris and the apartment. By that time the Tezacs family has already moved into the apartment. Young Eduard, Julia’s father-in-law to be, opened the door to Sarah after her escape from the camp as she tried to return to Michel. He witnessed her efforts to open the hiding place and the aftermath. The story follows Julia as she searches to discover and understand the truths of Sarah’s life.

None of this convey’s the richness, the engaging telling of the stories of the lives of Sarah and Julia. It is an engaging book. It will make you think. It will make you feel. You should read it!

If you have read it, what parts of the book stayed with you the most?

If you have not yet read it, what seems the most intriguing to you?

Tatiana de Rosnay 2007 Sarah’s Key. St. Martin’s Press: New York.