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American literature conflict creativity English literature French literature friendship generosity retirement social media wisdom

how not to despair, or dialog with a tech guy

An exchange of letters between a CIO of a large agency and a lit professor, both recently retired, who are wondering what the world is becoming as their two worlds collide with consequences no one can predict.

1/23/2023

Dear Julia,

I am reaching out to see if you might be willing to continue our brief conversation since some of what we discussed touched on a problem I have been trying to work through.

While serving as the information officer for an agency with about 1,500 employees, it was necessary to struggle with the introduction and then overwhelming increase in digital information assets.

I am using some of the time available with retirement to question the general presumption that information technology specialists are the sole authority for solving the mysteries of how best to adjust our information ecology – which was developed during what might be characterized as the age of written memory.

I have looked for clues in the transitions from mimetic communication to spoken language, and also from spoken to written language. Given the critical role of literature in all of them, it strikes me that specialists in literature (is the proper term philology?) need to be included in the conversation.

Would you have any interest in chatting with me about this?

Dan

1/24/2023

Dear Dan,

Your email has stayed with me all night and generated the following thoughts which I am putting into writing so I can get on with my day!  It is a fascinating inquiry and a question for which I have no big answer, only an extremely modest proposal for local action.  Ideally, a local kind of action which would allow people like your former colleagues to interact with people like my former colleagues and students, and children everywhere, eventually!

Meetings—better yet, true communion enacted over time through lasting, deep friendships created during these meetings–between people engrossed in creating new technologies and people involved in sustaining the written word, or the spoken/written/taught universe of literature and language, seems increasingly crucial for the wellbeing of our planet.

The two books that have been swirling around in my mind are Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain and Victor Hugo, Notre-Dame de Paris (aka “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”), especially the chapter entitled “Ceci tuera cela” (This Will Kill That, in other words, the printed word—unleashed by the printing press which was newly invented in the fifteenth century, the world depicted in his novel[1]–would kill the stained glass windows of Catholic cathedrals and their  monopoly on public story-telling and provision of visible narratives that give meaning to human life).

Here are my morning thoughts:

Now that humankind has (or is in the process of) switched from reading paper to interacting with screens, what is lost?  How to retain our humanity in this new environment? Of course, the issue is not identical to the one raised by Hugo in his 1831 book.  Stained glass windows only represented the Christian perspective, one set of stories, and you could only see them in a church. The printing press unleashed all kinds of perspectives and a potentially infinite range of stories.

But the new printed world excluded the illiterate or made their lives worse, by magnifying the divide between written and oral information systems. At the same time, moveable print made possible the deep learning and idea generating that led to the enormous “progress” in technology, medicine, and the democratization of knowledge which describes the past few centuries since the Renaissance.

In one way, digital technologies return us to a preliterate age, via the growing use of images—emojis, symbols, cartoon faces—instead of words, and the appeal of photographs. Yet forgeries are harder to spot. Photos may be prettified or altered from the real sources. Computers can now generate texts that seem to born from a human imagination. Now it is not only one church whose influence is fading; we may be witnessing the rise of a new superpower that humans no longer control: computers. Especially since computer science is dominated (or seems to be) by a certain kind of people: the new priests of the 21st century, who dictate the inner workings of those vast circuits, and seem to ignore what the consequences may be. Well, we are all ignorant of that.

But so far, the signs are worrisome. Shorter attention spans. Increased forgetfulness. Indifference to other peoples’ feelings, or unawareness that they even exist. Atomization, loneliness, despair.   

And at the same time, vast potential. Instant data retrieval, communication in real time with people far, far away. Alas, much of that communication is “spied on” (or could be) by humans with algorithms, so that predators can maximize details of their interest by selling analytics to advertisers, or compiling data banks to exploit for selling or influencing people. Still no one is “in charge.”

And we can all feel the burned-out sensation of too much screen exposure. Is it analogous to similar concerns over too much reading, from earlier times? Think of The Female Quixote[2] or Don Quixote himself: those novels were meant to depict a danger arising from too much of one kind of reading (novels). Too much imagination can lead one to hold unreal views and harbor expectations ungrounded in reality: disappointment, social ridicule, ostracism may ensue. Love remains out of sight, sadness and loneliness may befall the uncritical novel reader.

Too much screen time, esp. with violent video games, may do a similar trick on the mind but with a difference: instead of seeking and not finding love, one may seek to annihilate people perceived as “enemies” to the self. Even without such violent exposure, one attuned to screens may reduce people to targets or transactions, so that the self continues to feel strong and powerful, as it does on screen.

Spatial relations fade when the experience of walking, doing sports, or navigating a new place with a map are no longer common. Our world becomes an image on a screen with a dot for “you are here” which may be magnetized 1,000% or minimized into insignificance, instantly, with a flick of the thumb.

Communion through idea sharing, mutual experiences, sharing reactions to powerful writing, music, or art—therein lies our humanity, our greatness and our joy. What is the point of thinking, if all your thoughts are private property to be shared inside your head alone? Or posted online and forgotten seconds later by you and never read by anybody during your life?

Writing is still the most profound way to communicate and focused reading remains the best mode of activating thought.

Events that are local, in real time, with small groups of highly literate people (or children/teens/adults who are open to becoming such): that is the kind of event that I have discovered as a college teacher and which I now seek to propagate around me in West Seattle. That kind of event works, is remembered, and is cherished by humans. It is in a way a medieval model, except with no Church to coerce us or for us to serve. It is not “scalable” except in multiplying the model in locales worldwide.

Then what?

Therein lies the mystery.

Does it matter?

But I will seek ways to help create communion as long as I am here. Give hope, encourage, commiserate.

Thanks for asking!

Julia

p.s. Below I’ve pasted a flyer for one of my latest efforts. Pass the word to any kids you know!

“Write YOUR Story” now enrolling for Spring 2023!

Free Writing Workshop for people ages 8-12

Meets on Thursdays, February 2 – May 4, 2023*

4:30pm to 5:30pm,

High Point Community Center: 6920 34th Ave SW, Seattle, WA 98126

Taught by two West Seattle writer/professors                               

TO ENROLL:  Contact the High Point Comm. Center (206) 684-7422

Website:  http://jdouthwa.wixsite.com/writeyourstory1                

*(no class on 4/13 and 4/20)


[1] In Germany, around 1440, goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg invented the movable-type printing press, which started the Printing Revolution.  Wikipedia.

[2] The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella is a novel written by Charlotte Lennox, pub. 1752, imitating and parodying the ideas of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605-1615).

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Categories
art design quilts Zen philosophy

always learning … and here’s Kimono silk quilt no. 1, “Rainbow”!

Kimono silk rainbow design top Jan 10 2020.jpg

Epictetus wrote: “Know first who you are and what you’re capable of. Just as nothing great is created instantly, the same goes for the perfecting of our talents and aptitudes. We are always learning, always growing. It is right to accept challenges. This is how we progress to the next level of intellectual, physical, or moral development. Still, don’t kid yourself: If you try to be something or someone you are not, you belittle your true self and end up not developing in those areas that you would have excelled at quite naturally.  …. we each have our own special calling. Listen to yours and follow it faithfully.”

–The Art of Living: The Classic Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness, ed. Sharon Lebell, p. 65.

Over the past 16 days, I have challenged myself to do something with a bunch of tiny rectangles of silk from a catalog of Japanese kimono silks, which I received in an old cookie tin from a thrift shop. As mentioned earlier, I first found them frustrating to handle–they slip so quickly out of grip!  But the more I worked with them, the more fascinated and delighted I became. Unlike cheaper fabrics, these tiny scraps are sturdy and cooperative; they feel so soft yet they are strong. They take a fold easily with a cool iron, though one must handle them extremely carefully when sewing or they will stretch out of shape.

The photos here give a glimpse of how it came about, bit by bit.  It was a perfect project for an accomplished perfectionist. What I now marvel on, looking at the finished project, is how the scraps seem to have fallen naturally into color categories–blue, purple, orange, yellow, and green. I had no plan in mind upon beginning; I was just following the instructions on making a Log Cabin quilt from Quilts from the Quiltmaker’s Gift. The crucial difference was that instead of imposing a color scheme, I let the color scheme emerge from the materials–and it became a rainbow!  Then I framed it in white and grey, to enhance the yin/yang message.  And it became Kimono quilt no. 1, “Rainbow”: a perfect emblem for this rainy and flowery place. I’ll have it done right in time for Cherry Blossom celebrations of the early spring!

Today I’m heading back over to Hosekibako, the Japanese resale shop on Weller Street where my husband bought that tin, in the hopes of finding more Kimono silk scraps. I love the way they tell stories, if you’re quiet and look carefully…

and I can’t wait to make Kimono silk quilt no. 2!

Patchwork man

 

Categories
art children creativity design French literature friendship wisdom

taming our fears — and back to school

Shooting Stars Tranquility Pillows Aug 9.jpgI just reread The Little Prince slowly, over the course of the last three days here and there. What a great vacation read! Along with bemusement over the clever wording and adorable illustrations, I was left with a sense of awe at the way the author weaves moral philosophy into a classic travel tale to make a story that has much to say to readers of all ages. Few “children’s books” can do that so well.

The concept of taming–spoken by the lonely fox whose ears are too big– knocked me over again, just like it always does.

On ne connaît que les choses que l’on apprivoise, dit le renard. Les hommes n’ont plus le temps de rien connaître. Ils achètent des choses toutes faites chez les marchands. Mais comme il n’existe point de marchand d’amis, les hommes n’ont plus d’amis. Si tu veux un ami, apprivoise-moi !*

“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things already made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where you can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me!”

To tame is to “make less dangerous or frightening,” according to the dictionary. But for Saint-Exupéry, taming is the basis of friendship: we allow each other to depend on each other, and the world becomes less dangerous and frightening. Pictured here are the pillows I’ve been making during this same time period, which feature hand-made shooting stars designed to resemble  Saint-Exupéry’s. I make them to help people tame their fears. And maybe the making helped me tame my fears of being suddenly in this new place with a new name, no job, and starting over again…

Taming fear is what Tranquility Pillows allow us to do.  By expressing an emotion–by snapping on one of three stars–you can put that feeling at arm’s length, or make it into an external object. If you snap on the scary black star, your fears wield less power over your mind, because you can see that they are just a little black star.  They exist out there in the air, like the Little Prince on his planet, and you may or may not ever encounter them in person during this life. And maybe a friend or parent will see you’re worried and lend a helping hand…

So this year as you head back to school, why not get a Tranquility Pillow?  Let the pillow  help your mind rest now and then, while you are working so hard…

Back to school with Tranquility Pillow Aug 9

 

*Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince / The Little Prince, 1st ed. 1946 ; (Paris : Gallimard, 2000) 69.

Categories
cats death loss wisdom

On bad surprises and apologies (and good-byes to Iris)

iris.jpg

Iris, circa 2001

Much has happened since I last wrote. This week brought some bad surprises and a lesson which I will share with you.

  1. Real estate surprise: bad

On Monday, some potential buyers made their second visit to our home. We were naturally excited as second visits are considered precursors to offers. However, it is now Friday and they have neither made an offer nor provided any feedback. (btw: Please, readers, if you are shopping for a new home, remember to pass along feedback. An hour and a half in someone’s house may not seem like a lot to you, but the owners had to clean, stop what they were doing, and go out while you were there.  They —like us—are likely anxiously awaiting your reply.)

Well, we are not really waiting any longer because we suspect we know why those people will not buy our house. To make a long and awful story short, here is the email I sent to our agent after the people left, on Monday night:

“Important update: Today’s people found what looked like the mummified remains of a raccoon in the attic crawl space. I just went in and brought it out and alas, it is Iris. Our long-lost black cat. She disappeared years ago and was clearly not feeling well. I think she went in there to hide and die in peace. We looked and looked, but I guess we never looked at the right spot.

There is not much sign of a struggle. Poor Iris.  I’ll take a picture to prove it was a cat, if you want, but we will bury the corpse. Please pass along that message so that they do not think we have rodents in our attic.”

Awful, right?!

Later that evening when I was up here in my little attic study meticulously grading sophomore essays and blog posts (argh), I suddenly realized that the place where Iris died was directly behind where I sit at my desk–about ten feet and two walls behind me. Isn’t that interesting?

Sweet little six-toed Iris. She was the cat who came with us to France and had that amazing accident in Angers–she fell more than six stories from our apartment balcony to the parking level below–and suffered nothing more than a disjointed jaw. The veterinarian said they see such things all the time. A dog or a person would certainly not survive. But cats go into l’effet parachute after the third or fourth floor (it has to be high enough), and it slows their fall almost magically.

Poor Iris. May she now rest in peace.

  1. Teaching surprise: bad

This week I found myself issuing a veiled threat to some sophomores about what I thought was their disrespectful attitude toward my deadlines. On Tuesday, I said something like, “If your performance report is more than 10 days late—I don’t care if it is 11 days late or 111 days late—your final grade for that performance will be reduced by an entire grade. I know who you are! Turn in those reports!”

On Wednesday, one of the students came to see me and told me that he could not find any trace of such a deadline on the syllabus. He apologized profusely for bringing the discrepancy to my attention. And I felt HORRIBLE.  He was right; I had discarded that policy months ago when realizing that it did nothing to improve learning and only increased the students’ already heavy burdens.  (btw: Notre Dame is a very anxious world. To see the students walking around, earbuds plugged in and cell phones in hand, you’d think they had the weight of the world on their 19-year-old backs, and were dealing with international crises on a regular basis. That their anxiety is largely self-induced does not make it any less real.)

  1. Ending the week on a good note: the lesson

After realizing my blunder, my stomach churned, my head ached, and I sat down immediately to apologize to the class via email. I apologized again the next day in class. The students got a reminder of the fallibility of authority figures, and I implored them to never hesitate asking questions because faculty members—like authority figures of all kinds—often make mistakes. I think we’re all ok. I know I felt better.

Before bed last night, I was reading Subhadramati’s Not Being Good: A Practical Guide to Buddhist Ethics, and came across the following quotes which sum up this week’s lessons.

“Apologizing is a spiritual act because it is a deliberate letting go of self” (110).

“This painful regret, in turn, becomes an incentive to act more skillfully in the future” (106).

***

Hope springs—or rather crawls out cautiously—anew.

 

 

Categories
creativity health humor meditation T'ai chi wisdom Zen philosophy

small business, big business

zen-sand-stone-garden-dirk-ercken_67019

–Thanks to Dirk Ercken for sharing the Zen sand stone garden above.

Business is on my mind these days. It is a very new and odd sensation for a French teacher. In fact, it appears that I am moving through a fascinating phase of life: doing three things simultaneously that would seem impossible to coexist.

  1. finishing up my academic career with a full-time load of teaching (bright and highly motivated) students and all that ensues (grading papers, office hours, helping people revise their writing, etc.)
  2. launching a small business—the Honey Girl Books and Gifts “Valentine’s Special” starts Jan. 31.  Enter code 03 for 50% off a special pillow today!

and most importantly,

3. studying Zen philosophy and practicing T’ai chi daily to deepen my health, serenity, and well-being.

The soft and comforting gifts I sew are, for me, a source of marvel and joy.

 

“Marvel and joy?” you might wonder. “It’s just a home décor item.”

“Maybe to you,” I’d say.

[And I would think: the process is fraught with wonder, when you work with a 90-year-old sewing machine inherited from your grandma.

Great-grandma's sewing machine

There’s that spiritual thing, first, as if you’re surrounded by a small but ever-present group of benevolent ghosts, helping you on. And second there’s a physical reason for the sense of joy (and relief!) I get from finishing projects, because my machine is broken in back. So I have to hold the motor pulley against the hand wheel with my right hand and steer the fabric through the machine with my left hand. I know it’s insane. But I love the new creativity I’ve been feeling for the past year and wonder if it’s not due in part to activating some other sector of the brain, as I’ve become more ambidextrous. One day I’ll get it fixed. But for now, sewing on that White Rotary is sometimes like a contact sport, navigating the fat pillows under the cast iron machine to sew the hems is my battle.

Until it’s won!  And it is won, night after night, despite all the mistakes and revising and redoing. And they are beautiful little creatures that almost seem alive to me; thus naming them makes sense. Last night I made “Happy” in Spring Yellow Plaid and “Love is sweet” in Hearts and snowflakes.   (images coming soon on the HGBG website)]

“OK, ok,” you might reply, if I dared to say all that out loud, “I get that. Sort of. But isn’t it just a set formula for those pillows? Don’t you get sick of making them?”

I would answer “no.”  And probably look away, because that’s personal too, you see.

So I would think to myself:  [Absolutely not! It’s a refreshing change for a long-time workaholic academic. After so many years reading other people’s words and regurgitating them into new patterns, sitting on a chair, it feels so good to move around!  And my mind feels very alive working with the inventory of fabrics I’ve built up. I made the Tranquility Pillow ordered by Catherine into an asymmetrical, Chinese-looking design that emphasizes the emptiness and mystery of the forest. This winter model has a tiny creek (“le petit ruisseau”) running quietly along the sides of the wood, instead of a broad river or waterfall, such as I’ve put on other Tranquility Pillows.”

But that makes me sound kind of crazy. Just saw Phantom ThreadPerfectionists unite! (as if that were possible).]

So that is why sewing pillows feels like a marvel and a joy.

Sewing is difficult and highly detailed. I frequently hurt my hands with pins and needles and sometime the sewing machine needle goes right through a finger, as it did last night. I am a passionate artisan more than an expert and love the sense of being a beginner and constantly refining my art.

Beginning. Maybe that’s why the things I make sometimes have the quality of an accident. As Alan Watts describes in The Way of Zen:

“this is not a masterful mimicry of the accidental, an assumed spontaneity in which the careful planning does not show. It lies at a much deeper and more genuine level, for what the culture of Taoism and Zen proposes is that one might become the kind of person, who, without intending it, is the source of marvelous accidents.” (28)

***

Back to small business and big business coming together.

The fact of starting a small business pushes all kinds of very practical and time-sensitive issues to the forefront of one’s consciousness. Mind is bombarded with urgent demands and can easily become overwhelmed, with thoughts such as, “There are so many details to manage!”  “This business costs lots of money. Will it be worth it?” “Will I get paid ok, or will my clients rip me off?” Such thoughts cause the shoulders to tighten, the jaw to clench, and a panicky feeling to rise from the belly.

On the other hand, the fact of studying Zen and practicing T’ai chi and meditation on a daily basis pushes the Body-Mind—located in the Tan tien two inches below the navel–into a more powerful focus. By keeping our thoughts there while meditating or doing the Form, the body naturally starts to hold the back straighter and makes the torso feel tight and strong like a spring. Yet shoulders are loose and comfortable. Vision shifts as well, so that interesting things appear everywhere, every single day, all the time.

Will my new-found and hard-wrought serenity withstand the ravages of greed and competition?

I think so.

A business is sometimes small. It simply is.

The big business is life!

And the art of living well.

Good day to you, reader!

Categories
creativity dogs happiness humor meditation T'ai chi Zen philosophy

streaming ideas

Canadian geese Jan 2018

On Saturday morning, I was standing and looking out the window when suddenly a flock of Canadian geese went flying by, honking loudly to each other. You could hear their wings flap and practically see their effort to stay afloat and in line. Unthinking conformism or wise family harmony?

Homage to Alvin

The snowy garden looked kind of sad. Yet if you look closely, there is something interesting. Look at the path Honey Girl made in the snow. She has clearly been making rounds around the yard, which is normal. But her rounds include a special trip to the statue of a cat, our long-lost ginger cat Alvin (ca. 1982–1998), as if she were paying him homage or saying hello to a creature she never met. What instincts or memories kept her walking that way?

Remembering things you don’t really know is what Twyla Tharp calls “ancient memory.” She describes it as the sort of things that make you say to yourself: “’It feels right.’” As she explains, “And part of the reason it feels right is that the move has been reinforced in us over centuries of practice. Every dance I make is a dive into this well of ancient memory.”*

When I am precisely focused, about 10-12 minutes into the routine of Master Peng, the T’ai chi form begins to elicit a similar sensation of “ancient moving” and well-being in me. I start getting warm, and I feel as if I’ve enjoyed reaching, standing or stretching like that before. It seems I forgot that good feeling existed and I’m rediscovering it again, every day! Like you’re a little kid again and just loving spinning around and holding still, deliberately stunning yourself and regaining equilibrium, and landing in control.

Speaking of focus, did you know you can use your moving body (via yoga or T’ai chi) to conquer bad habits such as procrastination? As Peter Ralston says, “There is a state of being that shows itself as power, has free and uninhibited life force, with no thought or refuge being taken in the intellect, which honestly and simply abandons itself to the task at hand.”**

 

Yet after those soaring metaphysical queries, last night I was captivated by more mundane matters in the physical world. The whole world seemed silent and muted, draped in a massive fog formation. Here on Riverside Drive, it looked like clouds were floating right outside the house.

After a long walk in a cold, clammy forest with Honey Girl, I asked Rich over dinner, “Which do you like better, ‘fog’ or ‘brouillard’?” “Fog,” he said, explaining “its origin in og always appealed to me. It brings to mind ogle, optical, optometrist, and other ideas linked to vision…”*** to which I unhelpfully added, “And ogre.”

“But just think of the great word débrouillard,” I continued, “which sounds like you are moving aside the fog….”

“What about defog?” he grunted.

“Yes but that is just for car windshields, it doesn’t have the metaphorical wealth of débrouillard,” I trilled, warming to the subject. “What a great language French is, where there’s a verb like se débrouiller (know how to cope or figure things out), or an adjective like débrouillard (clever or shrewd), all linked to the notion of fog.”

“Ahem, se débrouiller is not linked to brouillard,” he spoke professorially,  preparing for a long lecture on the topic, being that he is often as learned about the French language as I am with my PhD, etc. etc. etc.

But at this point I didn’t even hear what he was saying anymore. Not because we’ve been married 31 years (well, maybe a little) but also because my own mind had realized the error of my ways. My own mind was scolding me, “And débrouillard is furthermore merely based on the suffix –ard, as in franchouillard, babillard, to signify popular or endearing, etc. etc.” until I bored myself into a pensive silence.

Bottom line: I still think brouillard is a better word-concept-sound than fog, but I cannot explain exactly why. It just is that way, for me.

***

*Tharp, Creative Habit, 70.  **Ralston, Principles, 79. *** This etymology is inaccurate, I later learned. Oh, how wily he is, to try to keep fooling me with his authoritative-sounding and off-the-cuff fictions, after all these years!  HA!

 

Categories
creativity dogs happiness health humor meditation nature storms T'ai chi trees Zen philosophy

a few of my favorite things

 

 

Today I declared a personal snow day and canceled all three of my appointments. They were friendly visits anyway, and we’ll all see each other soon. Instead of driving around and dealing with the traffic and weather, I stayed home. Rich made bread, which means that the house was warm and smelled soooo good for several hours this morning.

Honey girl in morning.jpg

Favorite thing: Honey Girl and her warm fuzzy greetings every morning.

Favorite things: exercise and meditation. I got to catch up with my Morning Routine which felt restorative.

Favorite thing: I organized all the fabric in my studio (aka the guest bedroom) and took stock of the inventory. Wrote stuff down. That felt good.

Favorite thing: I moved forward on the three pillows I’m finishing this week, plus the quilt. Starting to feel like a real artisan.

 

 

Favorite things: There are many things in these pictures to love:

  1. an adorable French postcard now messed up by living in the kitchen but that makes it even more precious13 postcard.jpg
  2. a pepper mill by the French brand Pylones (a “must” whenever you’re in Paris, n’est-ce pas? soo cute!)
  3. a beautiful round loaf of Rich’s crusty French bread,
  4. the “fabricard” I created to accompany the Limited Edition Literary Pillow. This one accompanies No. 1, The Ladies’ Paradise, by Zola. The citations will zero in on key moments in the book to give readers a satisfying sense of what the book is about.
  5. Pillows that I am working on, with my sturdy 1928 White Rotary sewing machine!  The full repertoire of Honey Girl Books and Gifts is due Friday December 15, for the SPARK class graduation at Saint Mary’s College. I’m almost ready. Snow days are helpful. And being on winter break from teaching too.

Speaking of which, the website for my new business, Honey Girl Books and Gifts, is now available!   https://www.honeygirlbooks.com/

It’s not quite “official start” ready yet, because the purchase function and A.V. stuff aren’t plugged in yet, but you can email me at juliawsea@gmail.com if you want to get a jump on the crowds!  I’ll accept pre-orders from readers of this blog.

***

View from Sunroom Dec 12 2017

Now back to the contemplation of favorite things.

As I was moving around in silence this morning, enjoying the light snow outside and the cozy sounds of this old house, and Rich and Honey Girl moving around downstairs, I suddenly felt a Zen sense of detached observation.

Watching the quick industrious ways my mind and hands were working together, I thought of an article read in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review. It is one of the most startling and useful metaphors for how the mind works (along with William James, to whom we will return one day), that I have ever seen. And, as a professor of literature for 30+ years, I’ve seen a lot! It made me feel serene, and affirmed more than ever the new path I’m on. Change, physical vitality, and hope: that’s what is making me feel so young these days.

Citing the work of Sigmund Freud to explain the antecedents of Oliver Sacks’s discoveries, the reviewer Nicole Krauss writes, “Freud wrote that he had come to explain psychoneuroses ‘by supposing that this translation has not taken place in the case of some of the material.’ In other words, that our psychological health depends on our ability to constantly revise and refashion memory to allow for growth and change, and the absence of this process–the stagnation of a memory, the brain’s treatment of it as something fixed–leads to pathology.”

“This is an extraordinary insight,” continues Krauss, one that helped to establish our understanding of the self as flexible instead of static, and our sense of the past as an imaginative reconstruction, ever evolving, both of which make therapy possible.”

The reviewer notes rightly that Oliver Sacks, as a neurologist and brilliant writer, “deepened our understanding of the dynamic, creative abilities of the brain by uncovering, again and again, the unusual ways the impaired brain may deal with its handicaps, compensating in ingenious ways, or by creating plausible explanations for the nonsensical, thus preserving a form of coherence, however subjective. ” [Sounds like some of Sartre’s characters.]

As Krauss explains, Sacks’s work is particularly powerful for young writers, who suddenly are able to see how “for the brain, the coherence that narrative forges is paramount to an accurate account of reality.”

I agree with Krauss that narrative is a primary human activity, without which we waste away.  That is what my narrative quilts are all about!

***

See Jane E. Brody’s piece on loneliness in today’s New York Times. After reading that, I reflected on 1) how lonely I used to feel last year, and 2) what has made me feel better.  Here are the things I am grateful for:  1) reading Byron Katie and learning to do “the work” on the thoughts that come into my head; 2) learning to practice T’ai Chi and meditation daily; 3) sewing; and 4) being able to channel my creativity into things I love, instead of trying to please external censors. As a businesswoman, I will see if there are any buyers out there. As they say, Some Will, Some Won’t, So What. Surely there is some lonely soul out there, or a grandma or a lover, who would like to give one of my soft and lustrous goods to a beloved?

At any rate, I don’t have to worry about some jerk at Stanford any more.

I wrote to Jane Brody, actually, with a compliment on how her article made me realize things, and an offer. I proposed a complimentary quilt from my new business, to see if she might agree that it has therapeutic effects.  We’ll see if she replies!

In the meantime, it appears that we weavers of meaning, artists of cloth, paper and pen, are all entirely “normal.” Whatever that is.

Whiteout Dec 12 2017

 

 

Categories
creativity Zen philosophy

Ichiro or the yellow cat: who would you rather be?

This semester we played some games in my classes to raise students’ awareness of their environment and how they react to it. This is one.

Teacher pulls out of a bag a bobblehead and a yellow Japanese cat figure, puts them on a table, and asks: “Who would you rather be, the best hitter of the era, Ichiro Suzuki, who led the Seattle Mariners in 2001? Or this yellow cat piggy bank?”

Students laugh. “Ichiro of course.”

The teacher: “Are you sure? Watch his head. Being an unaware human, he is a victim of the Mind. Thus when something bad comes along [Give the head a hard tap], he’s out of control.  [The head continues to bounce randomly, for a good three minutes or so.]. It is the cat we should emulate. The cat, with a low center of gravity, cannot be tipped over.”

This relates to all manner of actions. As Peter Ralston writes,

When our feeling-attention is put in the center region, the intellect does not dominate our actions and perceptions.  … Centering calms the mind, making it clear and powerful, unquestioning and unknowing, thus allowing access to a domain of spontaneous appropriate actions.

Begin by getting in touch with the center region on a physical level. Concentrate on the feet, when you stand in line or do a standing meditation. Notice how the feet constantly relate and readjust in relationship to the earth. It is the transference of weight from one foot to another that allows most of our actions and power. Adjust the waist and legs to accomodate a force. Keep you tailbone tucked under. Support your back and head from below. Remember that gravity is not just a mere “fact of the planet.” It is a profound force and possibility.

Consider this deeply.*

***

*Peter Ralstson, Cheng Hsin: The Principles of Effortless Power, 10-15.

I will consider it deeply as I head out now for a walk with Honey Girl!

Categories
Chinese literature creativity humor

“reading”: a funny poem for students of all ages

Yang Wan-li Heaven My Blanket Earth My Pillow

Reading

 

When I read, I work hard at it,

but that makes me tired and dizzy;

so I put my book down and meditate–

then the book and I both forget about words.

 

When I feel like it, I flip the book open–

suddenly I’ve come to the Source of the Sages:

if I say this is enlightenment–

basically there is no enlightenment;

if I say this is the Mystery–

there has never been a Mystery.

It’s just a moment of happiness

when I find a passage in harmony with my mind.

But who creates this happiness?

It isn’t me, and it isn’t Nature…

 

What a laugh! All my theories are wrong!

I throw the book down beside my pillow.

 

by Yang Wan-li (Chinese poet, 1127-1206), Heaven My Blanket, Earth My Pillow

Categories
creativity health humor nature social media T'ai chi wisdom Zen philosophy

A confession, an inspiration, and a way to feel better

pecan pie Nov 24 2017.jpg

  1. A confession: I ate one-fourth of this pecan pie yesterday, all by myself! And that was after eating a very large and wonderful dinner!  Pecan pie, made from the family’s secret recipe, is one of my all-time favorite foods. So I enjoyed it and had three lovely big pieces.  And do you know what?  It was good, very very good. 

Since I went right back to my normal morning routine today, I feel great. I have no regrets. How do you feel? Perhaps a little groggy or overwhelmed by all the food, the drink, the sales, the crowds, and the looming craziness of the “holiday season”?  Although we cannot change the noisy chaos and emotional manipulation coming at us from all angles at this time of year, we can liberate ourselves from its grip.

  1. An inspiring thought:

When the mind is quiet

With chattering thoughts at rest,

When the heart is gentle

With selfish thoughts given up,

The spirit will rise and soar.

–from Venerable Shi Wuling, Path to Peace, “November 24”

  1. A pact to feel better. One of the most powerful facets of practicing T’ai chi and studying Zen philosophy is that they lead to greater appreciation of the self and the present moment. Try this exercise and make a pact with yourself today.*

Don’t put yourself down and don’t be angry with yourself, for a full month. See what changes that puts you through. Anger is an emanation of the mind. It is not a direct emanation from creativity (the Body-Mind) but one coming from the fashioned creature (the Mind). When you make a mistake, don’t clench your teeth, frown your face, and tell yourself how stupid you are.

Just laugh a little!  We’re all beginners at this game. And we humans really are quite funny to behold.

***

*I’ve been making and renewing this pact monthly since August 13, 2017. Although I admit to kicking myself on one or two Tuesdays evenings after teaching a particularly challenging graduate seminar this semester, I have caught myself and made myself stop. When it happens, I stop, breathe quietly with eyes shut for a few moments, and shake my head at the sneaky way the Mind works, trying to keep me in its miserable power.

And do you know what? The pact works. Those bad old feelings of struggle, self-hatred, and doubt are gradually ebbing away. Life simply is, and it is good.

For more on this exercise and the philosophy behind it, see Bob Klein, Movements of Power, p. 48.