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Posts Tagged ‘literary criticism’

March flew past. I meant to savor it, mindfully. Instead, I’ll have to be satisfied that I had some mindful moments and keep practicing. Mindfulness is a way of being aware in the present — hard if you are someone who multitasks, and hard in our culture, that values being busy.

For me being mindful also means being aware of the connections between what I’m thinking, doing, or reading and all that has come before and will come after. It’s probably no surprise to those of you who’ve read my monthly musings here that I equate mindfulness with finding  interconnectedness.

That may not be “real” mindfulness, but it works for me, because one of the my goals in practicing mindfulness is perspective — awareness of what one of my favorite prayers in the Book of Common Prayer calls “the changes and chances of this life.”  Mindfulness for me is about being more fully present with the people and experiences I’m having, not racing ahead in my mind to the next ten things I need to do. At the same time, mindfulness, and other meditation practices, remind me to rest in God’s “eternal changelessness.” (from the same prayer in BCP).

Two books I read this month inspired me to work on mindfulness in my writing and in life. Patricia Donegan’s Haiku Mind: 108 Poems to Cultivate Awareness and Open Your Heart reminded me of all the reasons I love haiku. Really good haiku is not necessarily the 5-7-5 poem you learned about in elementary school (some good haiku use this form, but the majority don’t). An excellent haiku is a little “aha” moment — a glimpse into the poet’s mindfulness, because writing great haiku requires the poet to distill a moment of awareness into a few words.

Donegan adds annotations to each poem in this collection, which includes work by both classic and contemporary poets. Her own background as a poet and scholar, as well as a student of meditation and a colleague of Allen Ginsberg at Naropa Institute, inform her insightful commentary.

This isn’t straight up literary criticism — while Donegan calls attention to each poem’s beauty, her criteria for including poems in this collection had as much to do with content as craft, as the subtitle indicates. In fact, I was interested in reading the book not only because I love haiku, but also because I want to “cultivate awareness and open (my) heart.”

One reason I am on a quest towards mindfulness is that I see it as a crucial part of being a good parent. To that end, I’d been meaning to read Jon and Maya Kabat-Zinn’s book, Everyday Blessings:The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting. Over the years I have read a large number of books on being a parent.

The Computer Scientist likes to tell people that when we brought our older child home from the hospital, he hid the books on top of a tall bookcase so that I would relax and rest with the new baby. Our children howl with laughter when we describe administering our son’s first bath: I read the directions, step by step, from a parenting manual, and the Computer Scientist followed them.

Everyday Blessings is not a prescriptive manual, and you won’t get step by step advice from the authors. But it is an important guide, and one of the most honest parenting books I’ve come across. Rather than setting up perfect parenting examples and talking about the wonderful experiences the authors have had in applying their stellar techniques, the Kabat-Zinns provide hope and encouragement but also tell it like it is: parenting is not easy, kids are not always easy to live with, and you’re going to lose it at some point.

But mindfulness can offer perspective, can help people through challenges, and can foster peace when emotional storms have passed. The Kabat-Zinns open their home to readers and share their own parenting experiences, but they also don’t claim to have all the answers, and frequently let readers know that parenting is a judgement call, and it’s alright to not always know what to do.

As a mother of a preteen and teen, I found that comforting. When I was younger and wanted “how to” information I might not have appreciated it as much. I found myself sharing bits of this book with the Computer Scientist and also with the kids. One thing I shared with them is that the Kabat-Zinns quote T.S. Eliot’s “The Four Quartets” several times in Everyday Blessings. This impressed the Teenager — you’ll find out why later in this essay. I was fascinated to connect Eliot’s poetry with mindfulness.

Everyday Blessings points out that being mindful in relationships is enormously helpful — it may not be the key to determining how to handle every parenting challenge, but it will help you to know whether there really is a challenge. So often there isn’t; one or the other person is simply overwhelmed by emotions — in our house we call it “reacting to stimuli.”  Being aware of what is happening, rather than half paying attention while doing three other tasks, can make a huge difference in accepting, understanding, and responding fully.

A novella I read this month addresses the full horror of humans not taking the time to be aware and accepting of each other: Blonde Roots by Bernadine Evaristo.  It’s a book about slavery and colonialism, but it reverses history, and makes Europeans slaves of African overlords. An interesting concept, realized in a fast paced story.

Racism is racism, no matter who perpetrates it. Slavery was barbaric. None of this is new, but Evaristo’s twisted history forces readers to consider man’s inhumanity to man in a fresh way. It was an interesting read, with a page turning plot.

As I mentioned in last month’s post, reading a novel set in South Africa inspired me to pick up Power Lines: Two Years on South Africa’s Borders, by Jason Carter, about his time in the Peace Corps. He lived there during the end of Nelson Mandela’s presidency. As President Carter’s grandson, he got to meet Mandela, and he writes about what a phenomenal experience that was. During the rest of his tour, he worked in a small town near the Swaziland border.

Power Lines is not just a book about Carter’s time volunteering, although he does explain the frustrations and challenges of Peace Corps work. Because he lived in South Africa at such a seminal moment, as the country began to recover from apartheid and enter a new democratic era, he also tells readers about the history of the area where he worked, the changes taking place, and the racial attitudes he encountered.

As a person who spent five years as an outsider in a small southern town, I felt that much of what he wrote about was eerily familiar. Because I grew up fairly insulated from the civil rights era struggles, I was surprised by the ongoing misunderstanding and mistrust between blacks and whites in the small town where we lived. I had the ignorant impression, before we lived in the south, that race issues were a thing of the past in America.

One thing that I was unaware of, naive as it may sound, is that racial mistrust goes both ways — and even within races. Carter really describes vividly the ways that people judging each other, rather than seeking to know each other as individuals, hurts communication and understanding. Of course, this goes on wherever humans, of any race or culture, are together.

In Power Lines, Carter touches on the very thing my family and I learned: economic discrimination and stereotyping is a major factor in racism.  Lack of educational resources and jobs meant that some of the South Africans he met had less hope about the future than others, and that in turn often influenced their attitudes about race. Some of the whites he met were able to make friends with other city dwelling, professional people of either race, but routinely he met whites who were afraid of poorer blacks, and cautioned him against riding in black taxis or hitchhiking.

He also found it frustrating that many of the educators he worked with routinely told him that they couldn’t do something because they were black, or asked his advice in areas that were well beyond his expertise, simply because as a white man, they believed he knew better than they did. Around the time Barack Obama declared his presidential candidacy, a fellow librarian in the southern town where we were living told me that several African American women on the library staff believed that Obama must be a foreigner because of the way he spoke. I suspect that racial stereotypes will be around for a very long time in South Africa, as they are here.

Carter’s book was also intriguing because he openly doubts his own idealistic views and the value of his work, which I think is realistic.  Anyone who spends significant time volunteering is likely to have his or her idealism crushed by the system at one point or another. The only other Peace Corps memoir I’ve read, Dear Exile, by Hilary Liftin and Kate Montgomery, also addressed disillusionment.

I’ve experienced it myself, when I found that many of my fellow volunteers at an ecumenical food pantry mistrusted the clients and were more concerned with The Rules than with ending hunger. And when I realized the obvious: that food handouts probably have little to do with solving the problem of hunger. Hard to swallow, because I wanted to be Making a Difference. Turns out I was having a Thoreauvian epiphany, I just didn’t know it yet. Hang on, we’ll get to that.

Straight talk about doubts and fears makes Power Lines an interesting read, one that could foster discussions about the of the pros and cons of volunteer programs. Carter also shares the few negative experiences he had, and the societal problems he saw, such as alcoholism and organized crime. At the same time it’s clear he loved the people he came to know, he loved what he was doing, and he did make a difference. I’m glad he didn’t leave out the challenges and struggles.

Carter’s  honest appraisal made the book vivid and informative, and timely as our government talks about ramping up American volunteerism.  The book reinforced my belief that the experience of living in another culture, making friends, and trying to understand the world and one’s place in it, is life changing not only for the people volunteers meet and work with, but also for the volunteers themselves. Person to person understanding is valuable regardless of how well the actual work of a volunteering mission goes.

Last night I sat down to read a bit of Walden — more on why in a moment — and in the way it so often does, what I read connected to my prior reading. Just as I had been reflecting that Jason Carter’s examination of the motive, purpose, and impact of the work he is in South Africa to do are the most thought provoking passages in Power Lines, I discovered that Thoreau covers this same territory in Walden.

Thoreau writes that rather than doing good, people should focus on being good, and that instead of throwing money at the poor, philanthropists would be better off solving the societal problems that cause poverty: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”

In other words, handing out food at the food pantry isn’t going to end hunger. Working to help people be self reliant so that they can feed themselves, might. Living your own life so that your actions aren’t making someone else hungry (even if that’s not what you intend), is probably the best option.

As my family and I have learned about social justice and been involved with nonprofits (the Computer Scientist worked for a large international NGO while we lived in the South), we’ve spent time debating this very idea, of how best to make a difference. We tend to support the work of nonprofits like Heifer International and Habitat for Humanity, which help people change their own lives. My 95 year old grandmother has always told me she thinks handouts are no good because they take away a person’s dignity — a legacy of living through the Great Depression. Habitat’s motto is “a hand up, not a hand out.”

The private development world has moved in this direction, towards sustainable aid, local control of projects, microlending, and partnership. But recent discussions of development, and particuarly government aid, on public radio programs Speaking of Faith and Word of Mouth would sound familiar to Thoreau, and many developing world economists and writers are saying much the same thing that he did: attack the root, not the branches, and above all, don’t throw money at the tree.

I started reading Walden last year, when the kids and I were learning about the famous 19th century residents of Concord, Massachusetts.  I picked it up again, along with The Flowering of New England: 1815-1865 by Van Wyck Brooks, because a couple of weekends ago we finally visited Concord, so I’ve set aside some other “to read” books and am revisiting Concord’s literary heritage.

We walked around Walden Pond to the site of Thoreau’s cabin. We also saw the homes where the Alcotts, Hawthornes, and Emersons lived. At the Concord Museum, which is well worth a visit if you are interested in the town’s famous residents, the Computer Scientist and I each found some really cool books for planning future outings: R. Todd Felton’s A Journey Into Transcendentalist New England and Susan Wilson’s The Literary Trail of Greater Boston. So far I’ve only dipped into each of these, but they are both beautiful and fascinating.

Museum bookshops are one of my favorite places to browse, and a few weeks ago we visited an entire museum exhibit devoted to the work of a man whose books are often found in museum shops: David Macaulay. The exhibit features the drawings and paintings he’s done as he’s illustrated books as well as models he built for Mosque, journals from some of the research trips he’s done, and the books themselves.

The Computer Scientist thought Underground was really cool, and I chose Angelo for our nieces and nephew, who are visiting at Easter. The Teenager and his younger sister liked seeing the art from The New The Way Things Work, and we were inspired to check out several Macaulay titles from the library after the museum visit, including a couple of really innovative picture books, Shortcut and Black and White.

Another book that multiple family members enjoyed recently is How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization by Franklin Foer. Both the Computer Scientist and the Teenager think this is an intriguing book. Foer delves into the sociopolitical lessons of soccer, which he says is  “further along in the globalization game than any other economy on the planet.”

Our book discussion group with the Teenager is chugging along. So far we’ve read, discussed, and journaled about The Old Man and the Sea, The Great Gatsby, and Of Mice and Men. Our focus is 20th century American authors.  Not the most uplifting bunch of stories, so far, but the Teenager seems to find validation for his own angsty outlook. For example, he commented that Steinbeck doesn’t appear to believe that it’s worth having a dream, based on the fact that the characters who dream of better lives are all thwarted in Of Mice and Men.

If you look at the current events he’s known so far, you might understand why he just shrugged and said, “but that’s life.” I tried being mindful, and told him I thought we actually have it pretty good, really. He’s not really as pessimistic as he’d like people to think, and acknowledged that I’m right, just before asking cheerfully what’s for dinner. It’s good to be young. So far it’s not that bad being middle aged, either. And it’s interesting having a teenager’s perspective on books, and life.

I put up a poster for National Poetry Month last week and the Teenager did a double take. “Who wrote that?” he asked. “That’s really powerful.” I immediately tracked down two copies of The Collected Poems of T.S. Eliot. Granted, he’s usually grouped with 20th century English writers, but he was born American, so that’s what we’ll read next for our book group. I felt like Eliot was calling to me — first in Everyday Blessings, where I enjoyed the references to “The Four Quartets,” then in my son’s immediate, forceful reaction to the poster.

Eliot came up at an event I attended last weekend — a one day conference on the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, put on by the Poetry Society of New Hampshire. One of the speakers, Diana Durham, has written a book on the grail myth, and her presentation at the conference, “The Poet As Shaman,” included a discussion of the way Eliot conjures up the spiritual desolation of 1920’s London in “The Wasteland,” but then heals the wounds, twenty years later, in the completed “Four Quartets.” Her talk was very interesting, and reinforced my Theory of the Interconnectedness of Reading.

Another author whose work fit nicely into everything else I read this month is Mary Oliver. I was at Ohrstrom library checking out books by Dorianne Laux, who I’ve heard is coming to the campus. On their new book shelves, I saw The Truro Bear and Other Adventures: Poems and Essays.

Oliver is a master of mindful awareness of her surroundings, and her poems are haiku-like not in their form, but in their immediacy, their descriptive power, and the way they capture the extraordinary in everyday experience. I also find her poems transformative — you can so clearly see what she sees that it’s easy to feel what she feels, too. This collection is mostly made up of previously published poems, all relating to animals, and in many cases, our connection to the natural world.

A final note on connections. The Pre-teen is reading a book I picked up on a book store sale table a few years ago, We Just Want To Live Here: A Palestinian Teenager, An Israeli Teenager — an Unlikely Friendship. It’s the true story of Odelia and Amal, girls who meet on a trip designed to bring Israeli and Palenstinian teens together to learn about each other’s lives. They become friends and stay in touch. Through their letters, readers get an idea of the huge gulf in understanding the girls try to overcome.

I enjoyed this book when I bought it, and the Pre-teen likes reading about girls in other countries. I attended a very moving talk given by two members of Combatants for Peace last month, and shared what I heard about person to person peace efforts in the Middle East, so maybe that is what led her to choose this now. When she browsed our shelves and came across We Just Want To Live Here, I knew that even if it means having to stack books on the floor someday, I’ll resist weeding — you never know when a book will be right for someone, and I love sharing reading connections with my family.

In my “to read” pile if I finish Walden and The Flowering of New England in April? I watched a re-run of Masterpiece Theater’s David Copperfield and decided I’d like to read the book (which was waiting on my shelves), and I’ve pulled out an old Powell’s Books  find called Beyond the Sky and the Earth: Journey Into Bhutan, because I am volunteering with refugee resettlement, and the family I’m helping welcome are Bhutanese. They’ve lived in a camp in Nepal for 18 years — so what I read about Bhutan will be clouded by what I know of their experience. But I’m curious nonetheless.

I also bought a copy of Krista Tippett‘s Speaking of Faith, which she signed, when I went to hear her interviewed by NHPR’s Virginia Prescott last week. I’ve read it before, but Ive left it out to dip back into. I’ve been slowly reading The Making of a Sonnet, a Norton anthology, and I’m up to the 19th century (perfect as I read about the same time period in New England’s literary scene). And of course, I’ll be reading T. S. Eliot with the Computer Scientist and the Teenager.

I also plan to read poems by three amazing poets who are coming together for a reading next week. Mike Pride, retired editor of the Concord Monitor and a poetry fan, sent me a note this afternoon because he saw my bookconscious post on last year’s fantastic Poets’ Three reading.

Mike says, “Dogs’ Night Out: Three Great Poets, will be held next Friday (April 17, 2009) at the Concord City Auditorium. The poets are Wesley McNair, Sharon Olds and 2008 Pulitzer prize winner Philip Schultz. They’re all terrific, accessible poets, and it should be a fun night. In tomorrow’s Monitor (April 9) and in the online Monitor, there will be profile-interviews of the three poets, along with a sample of their work.”

Tickets for Dogs’ Night Out are $10, and any proceeds above costs will go to local homeless charities. The time is 7 p.m., and tickets are available at the Monitor, at concordmonitor.com, at Gibson’s and at the box office. Thanks, Mike.  The Computer Scientist and I have our tickets, and we’ll see you there!

So I’ve got quite a pile “to read” (my kids are relieved that I no longer stack books on my nightstand — when they were younger and when we lived in tornado country, they used to fret that the stack would fall on me in the night). But no matter how many books I browse, I will read one thing at a time.  Mindfully.

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