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children death loss memory

Trivia Quiz for “The Discomfort of Evening” by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

Trivia Quiz for The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

(winner of the International Booker Prize, 2020)

For West Seattle “Classic Novels (and Movies)” book club, 11/20/22

(answers below)

A. Memoirs of a Child

1. Motivation. Multiple reasons lie behind the choice to write these (fictional) memoirs, yet none are explicitly stated by the narrator (who shares some features of the author’s own life). Which one of the following does not seem likely as a reason to write this book?

a. a great affection for family and desire to share funny and sweet stories

b. a victim’s effort to seek justice—divine or societal—for the suffering she’s endured

c. a novelist’s desire to shock city folk by exploiting brutal and grotesque aspects of rural life

d. a one-time believer’s want to expose harsh views promulgated by the Dutch Reformed Church.

2. Duration. How much time is covered in the narration?

a. Nine years: she is 12 years old at the beginning and 21 at the end.

b. One month: she is 10 at beginning and end, and the time goes only from December to January.

c. One night: it all happens on the terrible night her brother drowned, when she was 10.

d. Two years: she grows from age 10 to age 12.

B. A Strange Worldview

3. Maxims. The Discomfort of Evening includes numerous judgments and lessons on life by the young narrator. Which one of the following does she not say (or think)?

a. “Anger has hinges that need oiling.”

b. “There’s nothing here to smile about.”

c. “For our generation, professional prestige lay most significantly in the moral worth of one’s employer.”

d. “Everything that requires secrecy here is accepted in silence.”

4. Home sweet home? Which one of the following does not describe the narrator’s home?

a. They have only three TV channels: Nederlands 1, 2, and 3.

b. They live on a farm, with various animals including cows, rabbits, and chickens.

c. They consider stewed cow’s udder with mustard to be a special treat.

d. They are hiding Jews in their basement, the narrator thinks, because her mom stores food there.

e. Their home is beloved far and wide for the music, friendship, and joy one finds there.

C. People and Their Problems

5. Strained relations abound. Which one of the following is not in this book?

a. A brother sexually abuses his sister.

b. A boy sexually abuses a neighbor girl.

c. A girl masturbates with a stuffed animal.

d. A mother becomes grief-stricken, then numb, then suicidal, faced with her life’s challenges.

e. A father kills his son, to teach him a lesson.

f. A girl suffers from long-term constipation and her father tries to “cure” her.

g. A boy forces a girl to kill an animal as a sacrifice.

6. A difficult world surrounds them. Which of the following maxims is not cited?

a. “Crows in a farmyard are an omen of death.”

b. “You don’t take rotten mandarins back to the greengrocer’s.”

c. “Mum doesn’t like made-up things, because stories in your imagination often leave out suffering and Mum thinks it should be part of things.”

d. “I promise to make you feel wanted, loved and cherished every single day.”

e. “Sometimes it’s good to frighten them a bit.”

7. Death is the central theme and end of this book. Which of the following is not from The Discomfort of Evening?

a. “You die fast or slowly and both things have their advantages and disadvantages.”

b. “Since death is inevitable, it’s best to forget about it. Carpe diem!”

c. “Death never just happens to you, there is always something that causes it. This time it was you. You can kill too.”

d. “I asked God if He please couldn’t take my brother Matthies instead of my rabbit.”

8. Marieke Lucas Rijneveld is also a poet and some lines are poignant or remarkable. Which of the following is not from The Discomfort of Evening?

a. “I only saw her lips moving and my mother’s pursed shut, like mating slugs.”

b. “What more can a bear want?” [the mother asks]. “Love, I think to myself, like the warmth in the cowshed of all those breathing cattle with a common goal—survival.”

c. A maid screams: “There was no reflection of him in the mirror!”

d. “There’s a drowned butterfly inside me.”

e. “Their hands were always searching for something and if you were no longer able to hold an animal or a person tenderly, it was better to let go and turn your attention to other useful things instead.”

9. Striking symbols. Which of the following is not a symbolic presence in this book?

a. a pet hamster is drowned in a glass of water, while three children watch

b. a child is forced to break open her piggy bank (in the form of a cow), with a hammer

c. an IUD (or “coil” birth control device) is found in a baby book

d. a painting becomes uglier and uglier, while the person in the painting becomes mean and cruel

e. a sign says: “LOOK OUT! TOADS CROSSING,” beside a road littered with crushed bodies

10. The message? Which of the following is not a quote from this book, on family and religion?

a. “It must have been most irksome to find himself bound by a hard-wrung pledge to stand in the stead of a parent to a strange child he could not love. “

b. “I’m beginning to have more and more doubts about whether I find God nice enough to want to go and talk to Him.”

c.  “It might sound crazy, but I miss my parents even though I see them every day.”

d. “One day I’d like to go to myself.”

Open question: Some might ask whether such a brutal, depressing story should be considered as “art,” let alone win the prestigious International Booker prize. As Alice Walker wrote: “If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for?”

ANSWERS

1. a.

2. d.

3. c. (That quote is from The Remains of the Day.)

4. e

5. e.

6. d. (That quote is from a website of loving quotations [https://www.ftd.com/blog/celebrate/love-words], certainly not from this book.)

7. b. (That quote is a platitude of my own invention.)

8. c. (That quote is from Dracula.)

9. d. (That plot is from The Picture of Dorian Gray.)

10. a. (That quote is from Jane Eyre.)

P.S. The open question remains open; we questioned what it means to be “better,” among other things…

**********

Join us next month, on Sunday December 11 at 3pm, when we will discuss two classic stories that have been adapted into movies. You are invited to view the films and compare them to the stories (if time permits).

The books to read are:

1. Arthur Schnitzler, Dream Story. Also known as Rhapsody: A Dream Novel, it is a 1926 novella by the Austrian writer Schnitzler (128 pages). It was adapted into a film by Stanley Kubrick called Eyes Wide Shut (1999), starring Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise.

2. James Joyce, “The Dead.” First published in 1924, this story is the last one in the Irish writer Joyce’s collection of short stories, Dubliners. It is about 50 pages.  A film version of The Dead exists as well: it is the 1987 drama directed by John Huston, written by his son Tony Huston, and starring his daughter Anjelica Huston. 

Happy reading and viewing; hope to see you in December!

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can one be sad “better”?

Hi, Feeling a bit sad this morning, about the inevitability of decline. Three reasons why : 1)First there are the enormous vet bills that have been pouring in for our beloved Honey Girl who, at 13, is a less mobile, less aware dog whose ahem, unhygienic habits are starting to make my life exhausting as well as breaking the bank. 2) Then there’s husband about to turn 70. 3) Finally, there is all that mail I suddenly started receiving about Medicare. Wow, we must all three of us be getting old!

So this morning I turned to audiobooks for help, and I’m now listening to Helen Russell, How to Be Sad. It’s pretty good. (Despite the annoying subtitle: Everything I’ve Learned About Getting Happier by Being Sad, Better. Why can’t they just let the sadness be?)

I’m still sad.

Sad is ok, just kind of quiet…

Hope you are ok too.

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American literature happiness loss memory

Trivia quiz on Edith Wharton, “The Age of Innocence”

Trivia Quiz for The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920; winner 1921 Pulitzer Prize)

(with answers below)

For West Seattle “Classic Novels (and Movies)” book club, 4/24/22

1. Husband, Wife, Stranger?  May Archer (née Welland) and her husband Newland Archer seem to understand and love each other in their own way. But they also find fault and misunderstand each other. What one trait does May not have, according to her husband?

a. she takes care of herself     

b. she lets her imagination run wild  

c. she is loyal and gallant       

d. she prefers to ignore unpleasantness         

e. she is a true New Yorker and knows how to act

2-5. Social Portraits. Familial, societal, and marital obligations loom large over the characters in The Age of Innocence; those characters who are unmarried or estranged from their families are seen as lonely outcasts. Yet even the most privileged seem pitiable. Match quote to the character. Characters include:  a. M. Rivière; b. Newland Archer; c. Countess Ellen Olenska; d. May Welland

Quotes                                                                                                         

2. “’Sameness—sameness!’ he muttered, the word running through his head like a persecuting tune…”

3. “I want to cast off all my old life, to become just like everybody else here. …  If you knew how I hate to be different!”

4. “You musn’t think that a girl knows as little as her parents imagine.”       

5. “Ah, good conversation—there’s nothing like it, is there? The air of ideas is the only air worth breathing.”

6.  New York, circa 1870: A Uniquely Historic Urban Setting. There are many famous and familiar places named in The Age of Innocence, where the action mostly stays in New York city. Which one of the following places is not named?

a. Grace Church                     

b. Washington Square            

c. Metropolitan Museum of Art

d. a home on West 23rd Street            

e. the Academy of Music       

f. Central Park

g. the Empire State Building             

h. Wall Street 

7. Intimacy and nostalgia. Some of the most poignant passages endeavor to describe times past, longing, and how people who are otherwise intimate perceive life so differently. Which one of the following is not in the novel?

a. “You never did ask each other anything, did you? And you never told each other anything. You just sat and watched each other, and guessed at what was going on underneath.”

b. “Odd, he thought, how the thought of childhood keeps coming back to me—the result of seeing Clarissa, perhaps; for women live much more in the past than we do, he thought.”

c. “She was frank, poor darling, because she had nothing to conceal, assured because she knew of nothing to be on her guard against.”

d. “My good father abhorred hurry. But now we live in a constant rush.”

8. Style and technique. With her mixture of omniscience and interior monologue, Wharton’s narrative provides readers with a feeling of listening to the characters’ most secret and changeable thoughts. Which one of the following thoughts occurs to the hero, Newland Archer?

a. “Don’t let us be like all the others!”                      

b. “Women ought to be as free as we are—”

c. “We can’t behave like people in novels, though, can we?”          

d. “It’s worth everything isn’t it, to keep one’s intellectual liberty; not to enslave one’s powers of appreciation, one’s critical independence?”

9. Keywords and thoughts recur in Wharton’s description of upper-class New York society. Which one of the following quotes is not drawn from Wharton’s book?

a. “keep out the ‘new people’”          

b. “rather bad form”               

c. “morbidly sensitive”

d. “low-toned comments”      

e. “a naïve, generous country”           

f. “it’s confoundedly dull”

g. “ritual was precise and inflexible”            

h. “the occasion was a solemn one”

10-11. Maxims or life lessons. Similar to many of her contemporaries, Wharton peppers her novel with pithy bits of wisdom. Which two of the following are from The Age of Innocence?

a. “Living’s too much trouble unless one can get something big out of it.”

b. “The worst of doing one’s duty was that it apparently unfitted one for doing anything else.”

c. “It seems stupid to have discovered America only to make it into a copy of another country.”

d. “The children you don’t especially need, you have always with you, like the poor. But the bright ones get away from you.”

12. High tech and futurist scenarios. Which one of the following modern ideas and inventions is not in the Age of Innocence?

a. long-distance telephoning              

b. 5-day Atlantic ship crossings, from the US to Europe

c. women’s suffrage                                      

d. electric lighting      

e. Debussy’s music

13. Age = wisdom? At the beginning, Newland Archer seems to be in his early twenties. How old is he at the end of the book? 

a. 57 years old            

b. 42               

c. 78               

d. 85   

ANSWERS

1. b.

2. b.

3. c.

4. d.

5. a.                

6. g.

7. b.  (That quote is from Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway.)

8. b.

9. e. (That quote is from Willa Cather, My Ántonia.)

10.-11.  b. and c.

12. c.

13. a.

A special thanks to Carl and Daniel for the violets from their garden, featured in the nosegay seen above: a symbol of Wharton’s lost world and the nostalgia we all feel for long-lost times, places, and loves…

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American literature art creativity dogs loss quilts social media T'ai chi wisdom

daily message, if not daily joy .. today we need Roethke

closeup sign of the times coronavirus WE ARE OK

Hi out there,

Here in Seattle (Ground Zero USA), it feels like months have already gone by since we’ve gone into health-scare hibernation. It is a strange time. We’re in here, poring over the awful statistics and fascinatingly grim reportage from the New York Times, (Yikes! latest headline is: “New Yorkers Told to Stay Indoors and Shutter Most Businesses”), our stomachs flip in anxious sympathy, our backs stiffen and shoulders tighten as we wonder and worry. Meanwhile just outside our windows, we’ve had-all week!–glorious spring weather, fragrant breezes through the pink and white flowering trees, and a gazillion birds chirping, zooming by, and squabbling in the trees around our yard. (Advice: Get and install a hummingbird feeder! Super fun.)

hummingbird March 2020

Apart from my husband and son, I have not been in close contact with any human since Monday. (Today’s Friday.) Ooof!  It feels much longer than five days. Luckily, I have three things that guarantee well-being and you can have too: 1) a passion for some manual art or activity, 2) a nearby dog to love (it doesn’t have to be your own dog), and 3) lots of books and stuff to read. With those three things, you can do OK in times high and low.

My manual art passion is sewing (see HGBG website; quilts are it!). My dog is Honey Girl, who helps in every way she can to make me happy, which is apparently what dogs love and live to do (if the adorable books of W. Bruce Cameron can be believed).  See Honey Girl here, in a quiet moment with her squeaky pig.

HG and squeaky pig March 20 2020

The books are for my head: that annoying voice of critique and complaint that talks too much unless given something else to do. You know what I mean. I work on my head, regularly, as if it were a pony, a plant, or a high-powered engine that harms itself if left to its own devices.  (I now practice Qigong and T’ai chi at home too; they care of the body-mind.) Many, many writers are close at hand, to remind me how to live and why it’s worth the bother. (I read a paragraph or two from the Stoic philosophers, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, on a daily basis and I enjoy others such as Jane Austen, W. Bruce Cameron, and Lori Gottlieb, just for fun and relaxation.)

My conclusion? It is time to act, to share the wealth.  People are reading more on-line these days. Maybe my bookish discoveries could be distilled into small bits on this blog, where people like you will read them, and maybe you’ll pass on the good thoughts through the internet, and we as a species will benefit.  Maybe we’ll remember why it is worth the bother to go on living. We might even learn something important. Is it beyond hope that we might evolve for the better? Must gun sales soar? (One friend writes that people are buying guns to protect their toilet paper stash, haha; virus humor.) Maybe we’ll become more thoughtful, introspective, and grateful for the present-day and careful with each other and our living planet. However, we’ll be poorer in pocket, though… and there’s a whole lot of misery going around.

I can’t do much, apart from offering quilts and good thoughts. But at least I can do that. So from now on, I vow to post a good thought from one of my books every day for the duration of this virus crisis, here on this blog. If you like it, pass it on.

Today, I think we need Roethke, “I wake to sleep”:

 

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.

I learn by going where I have to go.

 

We think by feeling. What is there to know?

I hear my being dance from ear to ear.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

 

Of those so close beside me, which are you?

God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,

And learn by going where I have to go.

 

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?

The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

 

Great Nature has another thing to do

To you and me, so take the lively air,

And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

 

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.

What falls away is always. And is near.

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

I learn by going where I have to go.

 

Theodore Roethke (American, 1908-1963). I never had the honor of meeting him, but he looks like such a nice person.  Love this photo. Looks like your favorite teacher, doesn’t he?

LoTheodore Roethke

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friendship loss wisdom work

Warm up your self, and forget the failures for now

flowers in snow Feb 4 2019.jpg

In these dark, cold days of February, it may be hard to stay focused on what is good in life. The snow is pretty but it is killing the spring flowers. The winter cold is natural, but it makes life precarious for the homeless and elderly. A loving relationship is great, but a partner can be so annoying to live with day in, day out.  Today’s New York Times features an article by experts extolling the virtues of failing for long-term success (and that we should even keep track of rejections as they pile up). Yuck!  To hell with that idea, at least in February. Maybe in April, when life seems easier…

Receiving rejection letters (or the silent treatment, worse yet), is a drag. I know, because I have been piling up quite a pile of rejections lately, in my new role as CEO of a small business. And since I’ve moved thousands of miles from my old friends, and left behind the community with whom I used to commiserate and complain, the rejections feel colder, more final somehow. I might as well just give up, right? No, no, no! Never.  Or at least not yet.

OK, so what to do?

Reach for help. In the absence of a flesh-and-blood friend, I reached out to a friendly guidebook last night, and it helped. Here’s the advice from Right Here with You, chapter on “Making Friends with Ourselves” by Moh Hardin:

“It is like this. If we have had a bad day and are feeling flustered, angry, and upset, and if in that state of mind, a mother asked us to hold her newborn baby, we would naturally hold it gently. Why? Because that newborn life is so obviously precious and fragile. Likewise, no matter how difficult our problems may seem, no matter the obstacles we face, our lives are actually precious and fragile…

Like picking up a newborn baby, we can make a gesture of friendship to ourselves. … Making friends with ourselves is an ongoing journey. It is not a one-time thing or a one-week project or even a five-year project.  It provides the continuity of the human journey itself. It is like the ground that we walk on.”  (Right Here with You, pp. 35-40).

The author suggests making a gesture of friendship to ourselves (“You go first; I’ll follow”) and practicing sitting meditation for ten minutes, to get back in touch with our breath and our feeling of life. Those tools are simple and free, and I bet they will raise your spirits faster than a making list of all your failures!

As another guide points out in the New York Times today (“How to be creative,” by Matt Richtel), “Boldness is a virtue.  … there is a moment in each of these creative flights where I become convinced that, ‘Yes, yes, I have something profound and wonderful to give to the world, and it’s going to be great; it not just deserves, but needs to be heard and seen.’ This is audacious, at least, and possibly delusional, and it is 100 percent O.K. In fact, it is the price of admission. You are allowed and encouraged to give in to this feeling of ecstasy. In fact, if not you, who?

So go ahead! Be delusional, take a chance on yourself, and keep on going. I’ll be out here doing the same…

 

 

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art children creativity death dogs loss storms

After the rain, blue skies

 

Hi readers,

Life has been like a day in Seattle lately: scattered showers, rain heavy at times, followed by blue skies and bright sun. Changeable. Our moods, our relations are constant shifts between yin and yang, shifting, swirling, and moving along through the hours. We all know that change is the only thing constant under the sun, but it takes events like death to make it tangible. And my family has been dealt a lot of death lately: a dear uncle and my awesome mother-in-law both died in the last month, and sickness has afflicted two other loved ones.

Life continues to bring beauty and joy, as well. Honey Girl’s goofy grin, the pinky-orange leaves seen on our daily walks, the sparkling skyline at sunset–those are all things that make me smile.

An invite, then, to something cheerful!

Curious Kidstuff toy store is hosting a display of products by yours truly, “Honey Girl Books and Gifts,” on Sunday afternoon, November 4! Come and enjoy some cozy pillows, and read an advance copy of the new illustrated book, The Frankenstein of the Apple Crate: A Possibly True Story of the Monster’s Origins, (ages 8 and up, available very soon on Amazon in paperback and e-book).

Learn how a discovery in the archives of revolutionary France became a children’s book!

I will be there from 2:00 – 4:00 pm, 11/04/18

I’m also excited to talk to parents and kids about the free writing workshop that I teach, “Write YOUR Story.” The workshop (for ages 8-12) will kick off at Curious Kidstuff toy store in January 2019; information will be on hand for parents to sign up their kids.

Curious Kidstuff is located at 4740 California Ave SW, Seattle WA 98116.

Thanks for reading! I hope you too can warm up to sunny skies today, despite the weather that’s swirling through your head.

Julia

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art children conflict creativity dogs happiness health loss meditation T'ai chi

5 months later.  Sequel to April 13 post, “On health (and pharmaceuticals), calm, and joy’s return (no matter what he says)”

 

 

Reading the post of April 13 now, it is painful to witness how conflicted I was. The blog post speaks of a person who was trying so hard to find happiness. In vain. The grumbling negativity she heard daily only compounded the sadness she felt over her employer, the woebegone infrastructure of the town she called home, and the despair she felt from the constant news of local youth dying violent deaths, week after week. No wonder the daily grind was such a grind.

Five months later, I am surprised, actually, to announce that it’s all gone!  No more sadness over the employer, nor sorrow over the town that was left behind. As for the “daily grind”: what daily grind?!  My partner no longer grumbles angrily or blows off my efforts at cheer: he too feels good! It feels like 1979 again, when we first met and fell in love right in this town. Wow!

The insights screaming from this development are clear: as Alan Jasanoff writes in today’s New York Times Book Review: “Nature does not see the brain as a prime mover … the environment always plays a role.”* Instead of reaching for an anti-depressant, perhaps we should consider what’s wrong outside our heads instead.

My case is striking. Five months after eliminating the medications I was taking, there are no adverse effects. It was sometimes a bumpy ride, but nothing good happens without incurring some pain, does it? You just have to hang in there.  Did I sometimes wonder if I should get back on the anti-depressant? You betcha. But I didn’t.  I stuck with my decision, and guess what? The sadness went away when the environment changed.

Our country is so gorgeous out here!  Check out the pics from last weekend’s trip to Grayland near “the other South Bend” on the Pacific Coast. Who knew that rainbows could arise right out of the surf? Or that water on the sand could make such pretty patterns? Or that driftwood could be infinitely fascinating? (Honey Girl loved it too, though she got a bad case of sandy mouth from biting the waves!)

 

 

I do not regret a thing. Neither changing my name, leaving my career, nor opting for a much smaller house located thousands of miles away. Some friends remain; others will fade from memory. Time will tell. The inner turmoil has calmed.  The practice of T’ai chi and meditation continue to provide strength and solace for life’s ups and downs. Instead of toiling over a job I no longer loved, I feel the warmth of a little flame and a growing sense of contentment. It feels like I’ve discovered what the Buddhists call “right livelihood”: a pastime one can pursue forever, with no regrets.

Remembering Epictetus’s advice in The Art of Living, we must put aside questions of popularity and acclaim, and remember that pursuing one’s own vocations—no matter how quirky or unpopular they may appear—is what makes life worth living.  As he wrote in the chapter “Create Your Own Merit”: “Never depend on the admiration of others. There is no strength in it. Personal merit cannot be derived from an external source. … You have been given your own work to do. Get to it right now, do your best at it, and don’t be concerned with who is watching you.”**

Living here has helped me become stronger and more committed to that stoic philosophy. My new vocations may be unprofitable, they may remain unknown, obscure, and be forgotten to the world. But they fill me with joy, they lighten my step, and they make me happy.  (FYI: The five new kids who’ve joined “Write YOUR Story” are hilarious! We are already having a great time together and the future looks bright.)

What more could one ask of life?

And yet, academe has not entirely let go of me. Not quite. In a couple weeks, I’ll be speaking (via Skype) to a conference of graduate students at Michigan State. I was originally invited as an expert on the French Enlightenment. I expected the organizers to dis-invite me when they learned that I am no longer wedded to that identity: I quit that job in July!  Much to my surprise, one of the organizers has since become a client of Honey Girl Books and Gifts, and both organizers embraced the idea of speaking on a very different issue. Without dissuading people from a life of study, I will aim to share some of the wisdom I’ve gained this year.

My title?  “The Wisdom of the Side Gig: On finding happiness in and out of academe.”

 

 

The Frankenstein Patchwork Pillow no. 2, “Scary Thoughts”:  on sale now for only $25 via HGBG’s Etsy shop until 9/30/18.

*Alan Jasanoff, “Sick in the Head.” Review of Eric R. Kandel, The Disordered Mind: What Unusual Brains Tell Us About Ourselves. In The New York Times Book Review, 9/23/18, p. 21.

**Epictetus, The Art of Living: The Classic Manual on Virtue, Happiness, and Effectiveness, p. 12.

 

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dogs happiness health humor loss Uncategorized

Sorry folks, still no complaints here

Having your dream come true can be a sobering experience. The now-completed move from the Heartland to the Pacific Northwest, and from work to non-work, has made me less prone to write for you. I stayed away partly out of modesty, partly out of embarrassment: how dare I express the slightest complaint while living here, where I can hear seals barking and see ferries passing by from our windows? Who would read or believe it? Yet how could I admit that life really is better out here?  I know my readers: the stats for this blog show that people prefer postings about depression or ambivalence, unhappiness or dark feelings, over the simple joys I aim to extol.

Joy is had nonetheless, and Honey Girl–pictured here on a recent trip to Vashon Island–incarnates the attitude I seek every day: silent acceptance and easy pleasure over whatever comes her way.  (Including joy of discovering disgusting-looking crap by the side of the road.)

Salty Honey Girl

Today’s New York Times loosened up my self-censure with a cheerful article about other people who are unlikely to complain:  “Retiring at 43? You’re on FIRE” by Steven Kurutz. Although the happy people featured in this article are all male and younger than me by a decade or two, I too feel like I’ve escaped from the rat race ahead of my time, by retiring from my tenured position at age 60 instead of 72 (or never!). Academia may seem privileged and it is a comparatively “easy” way to make a living, if you don’t mind spending your life writing stuff no one wants to read and sitting at a desk for 30+ years, but ….  I just got sick of it. And especially sick of living in the “college town” where I was stuck for 27 years.

Even if we are now the poor folks in the Seattle neighborhood we call home, it’s worth it to live in a place where people look and act like they are happy to be here. There really is a difference–it feels like we’re in a different country, maybe Bhutan or Denmark. A place where people can attend open-air concerts without fearing a shoot-out, and leave their windows open without worrying about sirens destroying their sleep.

So I’m off (on foot, naturally) to the local library now to check out a new kind of reading material: how to be happy with less, how to embrace frugality despite the status-seekers around us, and how to find meaning in life without the “official” identity of a job. Sounds like the life of a well-loved but unremarkable dog…  like our mixed-breed pal Honey Girl. Although she doubtless misses Chloe and her other pals from Indiana, she has made many, many new friends already! And she is certainly untroubled by the existential navel-gazing that’s been consuming me….

So this post is, like most of them, primarily for me. If I had to give myself some advice, I’d say: “Get over yourself! Be happy while you can! Stop feeling guilty over a dream come true. Kick the gloom habit.”

As Carl Hiaasen writes in Assume the Worst: “Here’s all I know about happiness: It’s slippery. It’s unpredictable. It’s a different sensation for everyone.  But one thing happiness is not is overrated. When you luck into some, enjoy every minute.”

Got to go now. I hear the seals barking … and a ferry boat horn too.

brian seal from West Seattle blog 2010Samish_helo.jpg

Categories
American literature humor loss nature trees

strange smoky weather brings back childhood memories

 

 

We rejoiced over our arrival here in Seattle in early July, when we discovered our amazing view of downtown across Elliott Bay. But look at it now.

The weather report is weird:  “77 degrees, Smoke.”

Honey Girl and I went for our walk as usual this evening and my eyes have been burning ever since. It is a very strange sensation to live in smoke. The neighbors I talked to on my walk all seemed kind of rattled by this too. “Where there’s smoke there’s fire,” we think anxiously, but it does not make any sense. We’re surrounded by water on three sides!

Seattle_Map_-_West_Seattle

(map of West Seattle)

One of my favorite children’s books has a harrowing forest fire scene that I’ve never forgotten. It’s not Bambi, it’s Smokey the Bear. 

Title page Smokey with funny childlike signature.jpg

I so love this book. As you see, when the fire engulfs the little bear cub, separating him from his mother, Smokey follows his mom’s advice: “When danger threatens, climb a tree.”

Smokey and the forest fire.jpg

But still, it is a traumatic experience!  The text reads: “So up a pine tree Bear Cub went. Around him the forest fire roared and crackled. Flames licked at Bear Cub’s shaggy fur and singed his tender paws. But he closed his eyes and just hung on. When he opened his eyes again after a while, he could scarcely believe what he saw. Instead of the cool, green, shady woods, all around him stood hundreds of ugly blackened sticks with trails of smoke still curling from them.”

Smokey gets better with the little girl

The scene where the forest ranger’s daughter gets to play with Smokey was always my favorite. What a dream come true to play with a living Teddy bear!

However, the shrewd critic might point out a few flaws in this tragi-comedy. Where is Smokey’s mother, for example? And what about Bambi and Dumbo? Why do writers of children’s literature dispense with mothers so often?

Maybe because the kids secretly wish for that…

Then there’s the little problem of watching Smokey grow into a grown-up man-cub. Like the female creature dreamed up, then destroyed, in Shelley’s Frankenstein, the grown-up Smokey of reality might not be quite so nice…

grizzly-bear-upclose-igbc.jpg

Wish it would rain.

 

Categories
Chinese literature conflict creativity death French literature humor loss meditation memory T'ai chi wisdom Zen philosophy

Ripping off the Bandaid, or must moving become existential turmoil? Remember the worry-wort centipede!

b96028bcbc4bdb7ad68f18c15fb5d620 centipede

Now that it is only four weeks til D-day, I have felt touches of that sickness known as nostalgia. It starts with a slight taste of nausea that spreads to the temples with dread and then cloaks the whole body in heavy, dank sadness. I know it well, having lost my mom just three years ago and my dad in 2008.

I hate nostalgia! I hate thinking about the past, wallowing in sorrow for babies grown, marriages sealed, friendships ended. I hate thinking all the time. The Mind, it was revealed to me during the past 18 months since I discovered meditation and T’ai chi, is not necessarily a friend. It does not naturally have any compassion for you. It can attack you, remind you of weakness, and torture you all day long if you let it. Moving your household is an activity that gives Mind free rein, because when you must spend several hours a day poring through cupboards, drawers, and shelves, choosing and tossing vestiges of the past, Mind creeps in easily and emotional turmoil may ensue, believe me.

The conflicting emotions whipped up by the storm yesterday have subsided to mental nagging today. As Peter Ralston points out, “We have a tendency to get caught up in things that don’t serve being ‘in’ or being responsive to the present moment and condition—we become enmeshed in figuring out, being anxious, upset, angry, fearful, reactive and so on.”

His solution is a brilliant series of mind experiments and exercises designed to unify the physical core and the Mind. It does work if you remain calm. Being calm for me requires preparation: doing T’ai chi daily, concentrating on even breathing, and holding a correct spinal alignment at all times. As Ralston writes, “Instead of trying to make those things disappear, we can simply let them be, not feed them energy and attention, and let them float in the base we now call being calm” (Principles of Essential Power, 6). But when you suddenly rediscover a handknit baby blanket, a cute old photo of your kid (whose present self isn’t quite so cute or unproblematic), or even a yellowed bank statement, emotions are prone to fill the idle Mind.

Better to channel that emotional richness into creativity, as Bob Klein, Twyla Tharp and so many other sages have advised. Therein lies our life’s purpose. Creativity for me is writing (a little) and especially sewing. Sewing is a bond to the past and a disciplined way to beautify the present and make people happier, if only for a few minutes now and then. My intentions are kindly, the results are heart-warming, and that is enough for me.

But our world does not promote such simplicity, and it never has, as long as humans live in community and compare our fate to that of others. Faced with our own mortality and limitations, we humans can easily become off-balanced and fall into existential turmoil. French literature testifies to this fact all the time: just think of Victor Hugo’s poem, “The Slope of Reverie,” Jean-Paul Sartre’s works Being and Nothingness or Nausea, and Beckett’s entire absurdly depressing oeuvre.

Why is that? Because most people in the West are dominated by a tyrant named Mind or conscious logical socially-conditioned thought patterns. Mind tries (and often succeeds) to convince us that only Mind can keep us together.  Only worrying holds us upright, gets us out of bed and off to work. Only other people’s opinions of us count. If we stop worrying and trying to measure up to external standards, we will fall apart and turn into mush. That is a powerful lie. But each must realize it in his own time.

Remember the tragic fate of the worry-wort centipede!

The centipede was happy, quite,

Until a toad in fun

Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?”

This worked his mind to such a pitch,

He lay distracted in a ditch,

Considering how to run.

 

–reproduced in Watts, The Way of Zen, p. 27

 

image reproduced courtesy of Kaneki and a Centipede Plush ||| Tokyo Ghoul Fan Art by verticalforklift on Tumblr