RJ’s Morning Musings

Mornings are best for me, sun filling every recess, my thoughts teeming into overflow. I am one with the universe and find peace in the stillness it confers. And so let me share with you my morning musings:


Good writing doesn’t come easily, but not daring it stifles who we are and wish to be, for it’s with words we share ourselves, inspire others, find ourselves, and discover we’re not alone.

Ancestral, marauding voices of nurturing hover like ghosts in the thoroughfares of the present, haunting our happiness. Only when we rebel and cease our clinging can we be free, and discovering freedom, make friends with ourselves.

Good poetry observes Dickinson’s dictum to “tell the truth, but tell it slant,” for artifice sows the sensory and when we show and do not tell, we plough the soul.

Think of good poetry as a bouquet and you’ll not go wrong, a unity of balance, imagery and shape, coalescing into what pleases and is, therefore, beautiful.

Good poetry mines deeply, unafraid to tap crevices in obdurate darkness, cutting away the unessential, with right tools pursuing every line, digging earnestly, buoyed by passion and not a little of intelligence.

I am in love with the stillness of every sunrise, elbowing the darkness and wakening the earth; its gift of new beginning, putting away yesterday’s might-have beens; the grace of another day to forgive and to love and be thankful.

A good poem likes to think, but avoiding prose, sings its truth with beauty dressed in feeling.

—+

Why is it I must pass things by without seeing a thing once? This sky, for instance, pageantry of mercurial mood, of cloud, wind, storm and calm, pink dawns and flaming sunsets, pitch fork lightning and rolling thunder, starry nights and lunar mystery—the majesty of it—our imperial dome, to which we owe the breath of life.



If that lunar beacon we call the moon borrows its silvery brilliance from reflected light, so on earth we’d do well to debit blessings often owed to others.

Poetry has an uncanny way of happening, reviving the sensory, meant for survival, not truth dulled by habit, thriving on vagary. Through metaphor, our exile ends, we find connection, and receive benediction.

In every dawn I am like a newly lit candle, my thoughts spilling everywhere. I rejoice in the cardinal’s song, emissary of a new day redolent with promise, the chance to meet up with blessings I had overlooked yesterday.

I admit to being passionate, sometimes to excess, sensitive to the disenfranchised, the voiceless, whether human or animal, strident in contesting a world that often plays unfairly and mutilates the Earth. I do not repent!

May I cherish each day’s renewed grace and seek virtue only, knowing I cannot own what was never mine to keep, and that what matters lies in the present, for the past I can remember, but not retrieve and tomorrow I may not wake to see.

Nothing wise hasn’t been said before, but the doing is hard, making it necessary to repeat.

Good writers, like all artists, celebrate their audience, and not themselves, recreating the human stream that succeeds when readers exclaim, “I’ve been there!“ All else is but an unlit candle.

Every quest begins with desire, but when desire lusts for possession, it commences our journey into sorrow.

I knew age had caught up with me when, yesterday, my doctor said, “Now if you were my father, I’d advise….”

As humans, we often filter what we perceive, influenced by our wishes and fears, born of past experience and, yes, the weight of culture and even our friends, fostering expectations as false as they are limiting. May I learn not always to believe what I sometimes think.

It’s how I draw the bow and not the target. It’s the journey, not the goal.

We are all story makers, each day our thoughts composing new chapters in life’s journey; but as in reading books, discerning between fantasy and truth, fiction and non-fiction, is essential to getting the story right and space for choosing action over inertia.

Yes, I admit to following a daily regimen that some may call being in a rut; but I much prefer its discipline, the empowerment it confers over my many infirmities, and the peace it affords in keeping chaos at bay and getting things done. I believe the passions must be made obedient to the mind. Or as Epictetus put it, “One person likes tending to his farm, another to his horse; I like to daily monitor my self-improvement.” Virtue doesn’t fall upon us out of the blue. We must toil at it.

I stumble in the darkness, the stars invisible, the earth’s silence my companion, but I do not tremble, for I know all things pass and the sun will surely rise and morning’s birds sing earth’s song.

Letting go yesterday to indulge today and sow tomorrow.

A good poem is its own immensity, tributaries of nuance coalescing into unity. It is neither more nor less. It is itself.

—rj





Sally Rooney: Up to the Hype?

I took up reading Irish literary sensation Sally Rooney to find out what the fuss was all about. After all, she’s only twenty-eight and has written two novels that have rocked the literary world, Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018), dubbing her the gatekeeper of the millennial generation. Saying you’ve read Rooney is the new chic.

Where does such youthful sagacity come from, that sureness of stroke distilled in cerebral awareness of the ambiguity, especially defining relationships, of society’s cultural constructs, social, political, and economic? Adding to the enigma, why attempt sorting out others, when we’re a mystery to ourselves as her characters abundantly demonstrate?

Rooney is a graduate of prestigious Trinity College, which becomes the principal foreground of Normal People. Its graduates include luminaries like Bram Stoker, George Berkeley, Edmund Burke, Samuel Beckett, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, William Trevor and Mary Robinson. Rooney received a master’s degree from Trinity in American literature.

She has the smarts. No one doubts that. As for her two novels, if you’re into politics, especially the progressive kind, you’ll rollick to their beat, both novels pounding the political turf with trendy leftisms, fashioned in the aftermath of the market collapse of the Celtic tiger economy in 2008 and Rooney’s own upbringing in a Marxist household. Good novelists are inevitably iconoclasts and Rooney’s two novels, love stories, don’t disappoint in this regard. The question is how well she succeeds.

Conversations with Friends is narrated in first person by Frances, a bisexual communist in love with a married man, Nick, in a dysfunctional marriage. Her political sentiments come early and uncompromisingly when confessing to Nick that she had sex recently with a guy she met on Tinder, an admirer of Yeats, whom she earlier dismisses as fascist: “No one who likes Yeats is capable of human intimacy.”

Wage inequity arises in Conversations and discourages Frances from seeking work, a sentiment shared by many unemployed or under-emplored millennials these days:

I had no plans as to my future financial sustainability: I never wanted to earn money for doing anything. […] I’d felt that my disinterest in wealth was ideologically healthy. I’d checked what the average yearly income would be if the gross world product were evenly divided among everyone, and according to Wikipedia it would be $16,100. I saw no reason, political or financial, ever to make more money than that.

In Normal People, both Connell and Marianne worry about employment, even though they’re academically achieving university students. Marianne is unfailing in dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s in her ripostes of leftist student platitudes.

Marianne comes from a well-situated family; Connell, from a working class, single mother household. Class dialectic underlines a fundamental tension between the two, save there’s no genuine synthesis, despite their mutual love.

Connell’s mother is a housecleaner in Marianne’s parents’ upscale home. Ironically, she’s a disillusioned socialist, who undermines with laughter Connell’s recent enthusiasm for a local communist candidate:

Come on now, comrade, she said. I was the one who raised you with your good socialist values, remember?

Connell texts the disappointing election results of Fine Gael’s victory to Marianne who replies, “The Party of Franco,” alluding to the sending of a brigade of 700 combatants supporting the Nationalists in Spain’s civil war, despite the party’s official neutrality status. Connell has to look up the history. Rooney has a history of never letting her Leftist orthodoxy tolerate perceived apostasy.

Although sex is paramount in both novels, replete with minutiae and underscore’s women’s sexuality and love, it pervasively mutates into pathology, or power constructs, contributing little to promoting where the narratives should be headed—the social interchanges with others that comprise our identities and potential for self-realization. In relationships of disparity, subordinates, like Frances or Marianne, may utilize sex to approximate getting what they want, but cannot have. So much of this comes down to, Am I worthy of love? Replete with self-analysis as provender of self-mastery, it sputters into repetitive ineffectuality.

If anything, sex in these novels mirrors momentary catharsis, not sequels of emancipation from social, or class, determinants. Except for Bonni, in Conversations with Friends, the characters would do well with a bit of professional counseling. Supposedly in love but enmeshed in self-interest, characters in both novels emotionally engage in mutual tug of war.

Psychologically, Conversations with Friends and Normal People exhibit all the trademarks of co-dependency. Nick and wife, Melissa, for all their mutual infidelity, will not abandon their marriage. Nick, not incidentally, suffers from chronic depression and has been an in-patient at a psychiatric hospital. Marianne engages in self-injury behavior, symptomatic of deep-seated anxiety and self-loathing. Similarly, she hooks-up with a BDSM artist while a student in Sweden. In one scene, she wants Connell to throw her out of bed. Connell lacks self-confidence and resembles Nick in his depression. Rooney foreshadows in Conversations the self-inflicted masochism we see in Normal People, Frances ruminating about Nick, “I wanted him to be cruel now, because I deserved it. I wanted him to say the most vicious things he could think of, or shake me until I couldn’t breathe.”

But let’s talk about the writing itself. Both novels are like Twitter exchanges rather than vibrant telling. Language seems almost an intrusion in the short, blunt dialogue that frequently consists of text messaging and emails absent of punctuation and capitalization, not atypical of millennials. Quotation marks never occur in these novels to demarcate speakers, a mannerism serving no purposeful function other than an underlying contrariness that earmarks her essays and interviews. Normal People meanders into cliches, and not very good ones at that.

Absent of artifice, devoid of symbol or pattern, these novels read more more like sociology texts, laconic and, worse, so continuous, they provide no real climax or meaningful denouement leading to resolution. Despite the politics, there’s no genuine revolt and we end in stasis, or where we began. At Normal People’s end, Connell still waxes control, with Marianne’s validation dependent on his acceptance in what seems a rushed ending. You’ve got oppression without liberation. Sadly, both Frances and Marianne are non-assertive women in symbiotic relationships. There are no breakthroughs.

Whether these two novels merit their accolades, they do mirror the lifestyle of many millennials today, less sure of their futures than their parents were, rebellious against traditional mores, steeped in social media, while religiously and politically cynical. Both novels are trendy, but is this enough?

Out of curiosity, I wandered over to Goodreads to view reader reactions. While Rooney has her coterie of enthusiasts, a fair number complained of a dullness in plot and characters fundamentally unhinged who you’d not like rubbing shoulders with in everyday life.

Having read both novels, I’ve gone on to reading Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac, a Booker Prize winning novel. No contest with lines such as “That sun, that light had faded, and she had faded with them. Now she was as grey as the season itself.” For me, Brookner wins hands down for insight, delivery, and relevance in depicting women’s efforts at finding emancipation in a patriarchal culture. Or as one critic put it long ago, “She makes some writers look a bit unsheveled and a little vulgar” (Rosemary Dinnage).

I think, too, of Edna O’Brien, Ireland’s preeminent feminist novelist hailing, like Rooney, from west Ireland and still writing at nearly ninety on similar themes of women’s internal lives, meriting a comparison to gain Rooney’s full measure, despite the generational divide. Like Rooney, she captured the essence of a new generation of women. In her formulae for writing, O’Brien comments, “Everything is very important – the landscape, the story, the character – but the rhythm and musicality and the spell of language, that’s what it is. Otherwise you’d put it on a postcard” (Irish Times, Nov. 7, 2015). I wish Rooney had taken note.

I like to think we really need something like fifty years to objectively validate a novel and, say, judge it a classic. Will posterity still read Hotel du Lac come fifty years? I’d wager yes. Not so for Conversations With Friends or Normal People.

We’d do better to heed critic Harold Rosenberg’s observation about generational thinking: “Except as a primitive means of telling time, generations are not a serious category. The opinions of a generation never amount to more than fashion. In any case, belonging to a generation is one of the lowest forms of solidarity.”

–rj

Review: Paul Collier, Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World

Not long ago, Hillary Clinton controversially summed up Britain’s Brexit morass as essentially about immigration: “Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame.” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/22/hillary-clinton-europe-must-curb-immigration-stop-populists-trump-brexit

A way of saying that only then can Europe tame the groundswell of white, nativist resentment that has given rise to Donald Trump and Britain’s now confirmed exit from the European Union, January 31, 2020.

Surprisingly, you would think the port city of Dover, robust shipping hub just twenty miles across the Channel from France, would smell a threat to what’s generated its prosperity but, no, it wanted Brexit, voting 62% in favor in 2016’s national referendum.

Except for Britain’s urban centers with their strong diaspora presence, Northern and rural Britain voted decisively in December’s parliamentary election for Boris Johnson’s Tories.

Before the referendum, Britain had seen its Eastern European born population increase four fold between 2004 and 2016. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the number of migrants born in Eastern Europe employed in Britain rose by 49,000 between July and September, 2016, to 1,077,000.

Immigration continues as well from former Commonwealth nations in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. East Asian immigrants alone constituted nearly 4 million in the 2011 census. That same census showed a Black population of 1.9 million.

Some younger movie-goers of Dunkirk ludicrously complained of the film’s lack of diversity, having grown-up in today’s Britain. Britain has vastly changed in its demographics. Like its American cousin, it’s now multicultural.

Obviously, this isn’t without its consequences, the immigration surge sparking widespread indigenous resentment as newcomers, not all of them legal, compete for jobs, housing, and social services. Along with the Netherlands, Britain is already the most densely populated nation in Europe.

Against this backdrop comes Sir Paul Collier’s Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World (2013). Collier is a well-seasoned, highly regarded Oxford development economist, who has written a number of influential books, including his recent The Future of Capitalism (2018), which Bill Gates included among his five recommended summer reads (2019). Collier, a former World Bank economist, frequently advises government leaders.

This past year, Collier’s book was one of several I pursued on immigration, which Collier argues is analogous to climate change in its centrality and effects, demanding scrupulous and immediate reappraisal.

What’s refreshing is his painstaking, fair-minded, low-key analysis, employing a wide-ranging empirical modality that includes graphs and salient research sources applied to a complex, often emotionally charged issue. He’s unafraid to confront both conservatives and progressives when facts merit frankness or confessing limitation when knowledge forbears on solutions. Migration has both pluses and minuses. Collier appraises both.

For the positive, immigration ameliorates poverty in third world countries, allowing for a diaspora abroad that sends back remittances averaging $1000 annually to families in their former countries.

It rewards young people for their education and skills that contribute to their new homelands.

Host societies garner a steady revenue flow in taxes in a return on education it didn’t have to pay for. (Collier suggests host countries pay back the countries of origin.)

Nationalism needn’t be made synonymous with racism. As Collier sees it, “identifying with a nation has proved to be an extremely powerful way in which people bond.” You might think of it as the family writ large.

This becomes nearly a refrain in the book, the assertion that without the goodwill of the host society, immigration can flounder. Multiculturalism, while conferring stimulating variation, can foster resentment of the outsider who prefers not to assimilate while competing for employment, housing, and social benefits. On the other hand, seeing others as members of the same community fosters acceptance of social and economic equality.

Ironically, it’s the failure of clans in many African nations to integrate into the national fabric that’s played havoc with social stability and economic progress, with local loyalty prioritized over national welfare:

A standard characterization of African political economy is that each clan regards the public purse as a common pool resource to be looted on behalf of the clan.

Migrants from developing nations are largely escaping from dysfunctional social models. That they are poor countries is the net result of that dysfunction:

Functional social models are decisive, but they do not just happen: they are built as a result of decades, and sometimes centuries, of social progress.

Collier cautions that immigration requires continual monitoring. If a diaspora grows disproportionately large, it can deter integration and exacerbate public sentiment.

Large diasporas can even offset point admission criteria in countries like Canada and Australia by way of chain immigration, ultimately leading to less educated and skilled immigrants that may become public charges and increase crime.

While Collier doesn’t advocate discriminatory immigration on the basis of race, he notes that the more culturally distant the immigrants are from the host population, the less likely assimilation will occur. Some may even bring with them the dysfunction of their homeland. Conversely, America’s large Latinx influx has assimilated fairly well, perhaps largely as a result of cultural similarity.

Point systems, in any event, accelerate the flight of those vitally needed to build capital investment and stability that can potentially help developing nations achieve a reasonable prosperity for their people. When the educated and skilled emigrants leave, pervasive incompetence, disregard for rules, and corruption occur, setting in motion imitative behavior.

Nations like Haiti can never catch up. With a 10 million population, it has lost 85% of its educated people. While taking-in large numbers of a poor nation’s intelligentsia may benefit prosperous nations, it has tragic fallout for nations like Haiti.

Meanwhile, many in the West fear not only competition from immigrants, but replacement. As Hillary Clinton astutely observed, “I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message – ‘we are not going to be able to continue provide refuge and support’ – because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.”

Collier’s answer is that “for assimilation and fusion to work, there is a need for controls on the rate of migration that are fine-tuned to take into account its composition.” Government policy needs to assess both domestic and homeland impact.

Without monitoring, immigration is likely to rapidly increase with potentially harmful results for both host nations and those left behind in impoverished countries. (In the U. S., low wage undocumented immigrants compete with unskilled indigenous workers, frequently people of color.)

Not everyone will find Collier’s conclusions palatable; for example, his view that educated immigrants might possibly be granted guest worker status, then returned to their homeland as nation builders.

As for “brain drain,” they may argue that Collier exaggerates, with Haiti an isolated example. According to The Guardian, two thirds of government officials in developing countries have studied abroad. Still, how many others leave, never to return? Critics seem to forget that Collier knows his turf as a World Bank economist with expertise in development economics and lived several years in Africa.

Enthusiasts for immigration may find Collier’s analysis rather pessimistic. But this isn’t really the narrative Collier delivers. He attempts a balanced assessment of immigration’s effects on migrants, their host nation, and on those left behind. Who does immigration help? Who does it hurt?

Critics alleging the success of immigrants in Britain curiously ignore Britain and the Continent’s growing unease and incipient popular front resistance to immigrants in France, Germany, Italy and, especially, Hungary and Poland, menacing the European Union. As I suggested at the outset, Brexit resonates Britain’s desire to recover its identity and control its destiny.

I’ve learned so much from Collier’s painstaking analysis of a controversial issue, likely to accelerate like climate change in its immediacy, the latter propelling mind-boggling numbers of climate refugees, particularly from Africa, by century end.

Presently, the U. S. takes-in more than two million immigrants annually, not including millions more through chain immigration and asylum seekers. And then there are the undocumented, now grown to 12 million.

The U. S. also conducts an annual lottery for 55,000 immigrant visas for applicants from countries with low immigration rates to assure diversity. In 2018, 23 million applied.

None of this occurs in a vacuum. Immigration is a complicated issue and done a grave disservice by xenophobic, even racist, conservatives and naive progressives advocating virtually open borders and tax payer supported social benefits for the undocumented.

Collier doesn’t propose he has all the answers and often tells readers when the evidence proves lacking or ambiguous. But I respect his acumen and, even more, his honesty.

As Collier rightly puts it, “The angry debate between xenophobes and “progressives” addresses the wrong question: is migration good or bad? The relevant question for policy is not whether migration has been good or bad overall. Rather, it is the likely effects at the margin should migration continue to accelerate.”
–rj

2020 Draw-Bag Reading List

I can’t believe it! Another year has passed. Last year, I drew up my first annual Draw-Bag Reading List (2019). Happy to say, I’m glad I did it, as it structured my reading. While I didn’t get to read every book, I did read many and the plan kept me motivated. This year I’ve had better sense to list authors alphabetically, along with annotated commentary to remind myself just why I should read a particular book. There are so many wonderful books out there that I had difficulty choosing which ones should make my list.

I can’t say when I learned to read, but it was early, nor who my teachers were that taught me how, but I’m grateful. I am so much an offspring of the books I’ve read that I can’t fathom a life without them. In the witness of others, we find community and with it, both solace and wisdom.

A Happy New Year to all of you, filled with many hours of good reading.

FICTION:

Aciman, André. Call me by Your Name. (Coming of age novel by famed Egyptian writer)

Adiche, Chimanda Ngozi. Americanah. (Prize-winning novel by a Nigerian immigrant to U. S., who discovers what it means to be Black in America.)

Akhmatova, Anna. You Will Hear the Thunder. (Shafak says this is a book that makes her wish she could speak Russian.)

Alameddine, Rabih. An Unnecessary Woman. (Nominated for National Book Award, tells story of a 72 year old divorced woman who translates literature in her Beirut apartment.)

Atwood, Margaret. The Testaments. (The sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.)

Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. (You’ll never see an urban landscape the same way again. Written by a superb intellect and rebel.)

Brookner, Anita. Hotel du Lac. ( Brookner’s novels center on intelligent, marginalized women attempting to find themselves in a society where the greedy and shallow often win out over the kind and generous.)

Choi, Susan. Trust Exercise. (Love between teens at a performance school meets teacher intervention. Pulitzer nominated.}

Clegg, Bill. Did You Ever Have a Family? (Nominated for Booker Prize, what happens when life throws you a curve.)

Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. (One of the most beautifully told family sagas treating issues of identity.)

Ishiguro, Kazuo. An Artist of the Floating World. (About aging, memory, solitude, loss, and art set in post war Japan.)

Johnson, Denis. Twain Dreams. (A novella of the American West that captures the ending of a way of life and the unfolding of a new America.)

Kafka, Franz. The Trial. (The classic novel that propelled Kafka to fame.)

Lerner, Ben. 10:04. (“Lerner captures what it’s like to be alive now, during the twilight of an empire, when the difficulty of imagining a future is changing our relationship to both the present and the past,” —Publisher)

Melville, Herman. Benito Cereno. (Poet Gary J. Whitehead wrote a screenplay adaptation.)

Mitford, Nancy. In Pursuit of Love. (Sardonic portraitures of upper class English life, mirrored on her own.)

Obreht, Téa. The Tiger’s Life. (Set in an unnamed Balkan country, a story of love, loss, and legend and novel debut by a Serbian-American novelist recognized as one of our most talented young writers.)

O’Brien, Edna. Country Girl. (Her debut novel that shocked Ireland with its sexual frankness. O’Brien considered one of the greatest living Irish authors.)

Robinson, Marilynne. Lila. (Girlhood lived on the fringes of society by one of our finest contemporary novelists,)

Rooney, Sallie. Conversations. (Remarkable debut novel by an Irish 26-year old that has rocked the literary world.)

Rooney, Sallie. Normal People. (Rooney’s most recent second novel many say is even better than Conversations. On Obama’s 2019 reading list.)

Rushdie, Salmon. Quichotte: A Novel. (Rushdie delivers with wit and humor reminiscent of Don Quixote}.

Shafak, Elif. The Bastard of Istanbul. (Good intro to Shafak, in my view, one of our foremost women authors.)

Wharton, Edith. The House of Mirth. (Perhaps America’s best female novelist, Wharton’s 1905 portrayal of upper class mores remains timely and brilliant.)

NON-FICTION

Ackerman, Diane. One Hundred Names for Love: A Stroke, A Marriage, and the Language of Healing. (Ackerman endures as one of my favorites. This book narrates what happens in a loving marriage when your spouse undergoes a devastating illness.)

A
manat, Abbas. A History of Modern Iran. (One of the best places to begin.)

Baldwin, James. Notes of a Native Son. (Baldwin’s first book (1955), a collection of ten riveting essays still relevant by a remarkable writer.)

Boska, Bianca. Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste. (Sensory, fascinating exploration of wine aficionado expertise.)

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. (The early classic that would initiate environmental consciousness.)

Epictetus. The Enchiridion. (Stoicism, with its philosophy of rational living and quest of virtue, begins with this ancient work.)

Goldstein, Joshua S. and Steffan A. Qvist. A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow. (Some countries have replaced fossil fuels. We can do the same by mid-century if we have the courage.)

McKibben, Bill. Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? (“As climate change shrinks the space where our civilization can exist, new technologies like artificial intelligence and robotics threaten to bleach away the variety of human experience.”)

Montgomery, Sy. How to be a Good Creature. (National Book Award finalist. Book features 13 animals from whom author has x learned life lessons.)

Piketty, Thomas. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. (Ground-breaking history and analysis of capitalism and its contemporary contribution to rising inequality.)

Rich, Nathaniel. Losing Ground: A Recent History. (In 1979, we knew about global warming and how to stop it. This book tells of those who risked their careers to convince the world to take action before it was too late.)

Solnit, Rebecca. A Field Guide to Getting Lost. (Essays in Wanderlust, or of wandering, getting lost, and exploring new vistas and relationships.)

Stein, Murray. Map of the Soul—Persona: Our Many Faces. ((I knew Murray and his family well in my early youth. Murray went on to become a leading Jungian, the famed Swiss psychiatrist who influenced me profoundly.)

Wallace-Wells, David. The Uninhabitable Earth: New A Story of the Future. (The consequence in our near future of our not taking action to mitigate climate change.)

Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees. What They Feel and How They Communicate. (The title says it all. You’ll never look at a tree the same way again.)

–rj

Thoughts on a remarkable book I’ve just re-read

This week I re-read Brad Willis Warrior Pose, a book that has lodged in my memory since I first came upon it two years ago. I read a lot of books, but only a few do I read twice. It’s the highest compliment I think I can render a good read.

Warrior Pose: How Yoga Literally Saved My Life is Willis’ account of his arduous journey from illness to healing, and I mean of both body and soul.

Formerly, an international correspondent with NBC, Willis was at the top of his game, doing what he loved, traveling to the remotest parts of the world, often in war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, when life unleashed, as it sometimes does, its heavy, arbitrary hand.

In a freak accident while vacationing in the Bahamas with his girlfriend, a sudden storm erupted and reaching high from a chair to close an obstinate window, he fell to the floor, breaking his back.

Surgery only complicated his condition and ultimately physical pain ended his career.

A modern Job, Willis subsequently was diagnosed with Stage IV throat cancer and given two years to live.

In a dark night of the soul, he chanced upon yoga and almost immediately found relief for pain and an inner calm.

Two years later, Willis confounded his doctors. His back had healed and his cancer had gone into remission.

Well, that was a good ways back in time. Today he flourishes as an internationally renowned yoga instructor, lending the wisdom gleaned from his arduous deliverance from a cauldron of pain and despair, to helping others through the healing potential of fully implemented yoga for both body and mind.

In re-reading Willis’ inspiring book the following salient passage really strikes home to me for its acuity in summing up life’s essence, given fate’s vicissitudes and life’s relative brevity:

‘I’ve learned that humility and softness are far more powerful than the sharp edges of bravado and hubris of my earlier years. That accepting what is takes more courage than forcing what I think should be. That judgments and opinions, and the need to be right can be great hindrances. That it is always better to give than to receive. Affirm rather than criticize. Serve rather than be served. I’ve also learned to be grateful for the smallest, most ordinary things. The morning light. A sip of water. A breath of fresh air. The privilege of being alive.”

–rj

On Reading Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch

rebecca-mead-my-life-in-middlemarchAll of us have a favorite book we wouldn’t mind reading again. For me, it’s David Copperfield, simply because I identify with much of what happens in it. The same holds true for Rebecca Mead in her bibliomemoir, My Life in Middlemarch, which explores Eliot’s masterpiece as a personal game changer.

I’ve always liked Eliot immensely as well (see Brimmings, 8/17/16), especially for her bottom line, “the truth of fellow feeling,” as she aptly phrased it in Adam Bede. As Eliot put it later,  “The only effect I ardently long to produce by my writings, is that those who read them should be better able to imagine and to feel the pains and the joys of those who differ from themselves in everything but the broad fact of being struggling erring human creatures.”

She had been raised in a fiercely Calvinist home, sharing its piety, until she began reading German “higher criticism,” which read the Bible as a human rather than divine construct. Rejecting Christian theology, she retained its ethic core of human sympathy, or what today we term empathy, i.e., the putting of yourself in another’s shoes.

Put into practice, we’d wake to a better world.

Although I had read Middlemarch way back in grad school and made Eliot a centerpiece in my later teaching of Victorian lit classes, the years had taken their toll, so I wanted to pursue Eliot’s classic again as backdrop for Mead’s book, and I’m glad I did.

Mead skillfully assembles the nuances of both Middlemarch and Eliot’s life that have resonated for her over the years, underscored through subsequent re-reads; for example, Eliot’s rural upbringing, her several loves until finding in her middle years a sustaining relationship with a fellow writer, her delineation of love’s growth and the empowerment of women—or lack thereof.

But some readers may think Mead lapses into narcissism, reading herself into Middlemarch. Mead devotes, for example, considerable space to Eliot and her companion, George Lewes and his three children, drawing a parallel to her own commitment to a man with three children: “…a few years later [following a failed relationship] I met a man who had three sons, not very different in age than were the Lewes boys when George Eliot met George Lewes.”

At another juncture, she reflects at length on Eliot’s maternal relationship with her stepson “Thornie,” and her own role as a step-mother.

She later notes that Eliot and Lewes lived, though briefly, in her Dorset town of Radipole, now incorporated into Weymouth.

Eliot prefaced each of her many chapters with an epigrammatic quotation. Mead extrapolates several of these for her own chapter headings, rendering them congruous with events and discoveries in her personal life.

Ironically, Eliot had written an early article for the Westminster Review decrying readers who overly identify with a character, as Mead acknowledges.

In her defense, while the analogies do pile-up, it’s a minus only if we leave things there. It’s not the analogies, but their lessons that matter. Besides, we’ve all come across books delivering a right uppercut that staggers us into questioning our assumptions and grants us new vistas and resulting options.

Some books not only make us wise, but better people for having spent time in their company.  If we lose ourselves in such books, might we not also find ourselves there as well?  Thus, I fully enter into her meaning when she writes that “there are books that seem to comprehend us just as much as we understand them, or even more. There are books that grow with the reader, as the reader grows, like a graft to a tree.”

If Mead strays, it may be she admires Eliot to excess, sometimes appearing defensive when finding Eliot in real life not quite the paragon of moral virtue given off in her novels. She could sometimes prove harsh, if not cruel, in her patronizing and judgmental strictures. So George Eliot was no St. Teresa of Avila. I rejoice!

Perhaps what Mead appreciates most in Middlemarch is Eliot’s psychological acuity as the first novelist to dwell on the interior life of her characters, fraught with tensions delivering them from stereotype. Governed by every human emotion and vicissitude of mood, affected by both choice and chance, they become ourselves and enter into our experience. Mead quotes D. H. Lawrence pioneer observation, “It was she who started putting all the action inside.”

As a former international correspondent and, currently, a staff writer for the New Yorker, the ability to discern the unspoken when interviewing would obviously appeal to Mead:
“…being a journalist for all these years had taught me a few things: how to ask questions, how to use my eyes, how to investigate a subject, how to look at something familiar from an unfamiliar angle.”

It may seem incredulous, but in deftly applying these skills it’s as though Mead just pulled off a live interview with her subject, intuited the unspoken, enabling both biography and memoir; thus my earlier term, bibliomemoir, or a book about a life of reading.

I think of other salient bibliomemoirs, notably Phyllis Rose’s A Year of Reading Proust: A Memoir in Real Time and William Deresciewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship and the Things That Really Matter. There is also Helen Macdonald’s Hawk, winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize, that I recently read and esteem greatly. Reading My Life in Middlemarch has opened up a new portal of discovery for me via this sub-genre.

In many ways, Middlemarch’s supreme ambience is one of melancholy in its depiction of the changing fortunes of its principal characters as they experience the dissonance between desire and result; and yet the novel rebounds with achieved happiness for several of its characters, including its heroine, Dorothea, whose initial disillusionment yields to a discerning maturation.

As Mead observes in quoting Eliot, “We cannot give the young our experience. They will not take it. There must be the actual friction of life, the individual contact with sorrow, to discipline the character.”

Paradoxically, however, Eliot does a whole lot of that in her thumping moral asides, awkwardly delivered in convoluted prose, throughout her novels. Jane Austen. on the other hand, succeeded without the editorializing often repugnant to contemporary readers.

In reading Middlemarch again, I remembered my own lugubrious involvement with a chosen author–in my case, James Joyce–the tracing of a life, traveling, papers, interviews, contact with manuscripts and, yes, myriad readings of authorities on one’s subject.

Mead proves scrupulous and unsparing, eloquent and moving, in exploring authorial events possibly shaping the novel’s characters, commanding a prose that often approximates poetry. That said, In her scholarship, she owes a considerable debt, among others, to Rosemary Ashton’s 142 Strand: A Radical Address in Victorian London.

If you read Middlemarch, whether for the first time or anew, I highly recommend you try out Mead’s testament of affection as a sequel to this greatest of Victorian novels.
I did, and for all my reading of Middlemarch and study of George Eliot over the years, Mead made me wiser and more sensitive to Eliot’s resonance in my own life and for
our own time.

–rj

On finding a new booklist quarry

Aaron Hicklin
Aaron Hicklin

I confess I’m addicted to booklists. No sooner do I finish one book, but I’m into another.

What surprises me is that I can’t remember anyone in my family serving as a role model when I was a child, either reading to me or picking-up a book for themselves, with the exception of the late intervention of my eldest brother, David, recently discharged from the army after WWII and anticipating college under the newly inaugurated GI Bill.

One night before David left for the University of Miami, he gave me my first book, Huckleberry Finn. I still remember the occasion–eight years old, sprawled out on the floor of our Philly tenement, absorbed so fully in this really good book that it muffled the adjacent Front Street el with its interminable trains, dutifully groaning past our rattling windows every fifteen minutes.

Soon I discovered the Montgomery County Library. I didn’t mind walking the two miles, knowing what lay up ahead. It was  one of those supreme pleasures like feasting on a well-stacked hoagie or downing a cold strawberry ice cream soda on humid summer Philly nights; maybe I even liked it as much as playing stick ball every day against the factory facades lining our streets.

Books gave me refuge in a home torn apart by alcohol. I became aware of a larger world, where good really did exist, and people could be kind and often courageous. I found heroes like Lincoln, Gandhi, and Gehrig that would become staples in my life.  Books transported me to far away places—Australia, New Zealand, the South Pacific.

Nearly as important as the library was a humble bookstore on Girard Avenue that I often passed on my way home from Chandler Elementary, filled with used paperbacks. What got my attention were two cardboard boxes piled high with comic books. I gravitated to the one filled with Classic Comics with their graphic renditions and abridged texts of literary fare.  The price, five cents, sealed the bargain!  I’d “picture” my way through, say, Les Miserables or Treasure Island, then pick-up the hardback version at the library. By the time I was 13, I had read many of the classics, including War and Peace, Moby Dick, and Silas Marner.

As for the many booklists I’ve ransacked through the years to feed my addiction, I’ll just say my favorite has been Brain Pickings, whose cerebral fiber fences it off from the traffic lane of your typical booklist..

For the most part, I shun the New York Times best seller lists, annoyed by their often fad offerings of dubious value other than to entertain or tell how you, too, can cash in and grow healthy, wealthy and wise.  A few weeks later, I’d find these books either gone awol or sunk to near oblivion.

Before the Internet opened up our information corridors, I’d reminisce earlier times venturing into a library, losing myself in its stacks, often looking for one book, but emerging with another. Call it serendipity, but the chance encounters I’ve had with library books have often proved fortuitous with surprising consequences.

Take, for instance, one chance venture when I pulled a book off the shelf by an author I’d never heard of. Lucky draw, it turned out to be Thomas Wolfe and his Look Homeward Angel. I was 17 at the time, a homesick GI in Korea resorting to the humble base library to annul slow time. Hooked, in subsequent years I rampaged all of his novels, ultimately enrolling at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Pulpit Hill of Look Homeward Angel.

Books often haunt my mind, ghosts of delightful company with motley heroes, or of vistas spinning new threads of excitement, belief, and desire in conspiracy against the old.

But I’ve found that even the Internet can surprise me. Several days ago, for example, I stumbled upon an extended New York Times Style Magazine series, “My 10 Favorite Books,” edited by Aaron Hicklin.

Hicklin edits a magazine called Out and recently opened up a bookstore called One Grand Books in Narrowsburg, NY. In a clever ploy to attract readers, he’s come up with the idea of asking well-regarded people from various walks of life what ten books they’d want to have with them were they marooned on a desert island. Each listing would feature annotated entries explaining their choices or how these books came to shape their lives.

Hicklin doesn’t want just another bookshop, a dubious business venture in this age of online behemoths like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but a resource for discriminating readers to find books of substance readily.

As I write, contributors to “My 10 Favorite Books” include, among many others,

 Allan Hollinghurst

 Edmund White

 John Irving

 Ta-Nehesi Coates

 Gloria Steinem

 Gia Coppola

Michael Pollan

Erica Jong

What’s nifty here is how when you select a contributor you get a cascading menu of ten annotated preferences.  In short, each menu constitutes a sub-booklist in the series.  Amazingly, very little overlap occurs among contributor choices, yet each listing is profoundly discriminating.

Absent from the list are two writers I’m unfamiliar who intrigue me for their choices, since they complement my own interests–artist Terence Koh and author, Brett Easton Ellis–the former for his love of Eastern thought with its subdued nuances in a sound byte world; the latter, in sharing tastebuds with me for writers like Tolstoy and Flaubert.

Hicklin, by the way, keeps an online blog, onegrandbooks, that provides you with an archive of previous contributors and a weekly focus on a current contributor, sparing you the cumbersome difficulty of finding each series individually online. You can even sign-up for his weekly newsletter and have your purchased item shipped conveniently to your doorstep.

I hope Hicklin’s venture succeeds. It’s a brave new world out there

Meanwhile, I’m on safari, exploring panoramas of infinite sweep_better because unanticipated, by way of my new booklist quarry.

–rj

 

 

 

Brimmings: Five Years and Counting

journalingI’ve been keeping my blog, Brimmings, for five years now, never realizing when I began that I would pursue it for so long, initially undertaking it to assuage my wrestlings with serious illness at the time, or as diversion from anxious self-preoccupation, for liberating reflection of a wider scope. When we let loose our moorings, we sail into discovery.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised I’ve persisted beyond that troubled time, now seemingly in remission, enjoying new strength, gathered insight and, undoubtedly, an incipient awareness of life’s essentials in foraging out its meaning.

There has been the joy of Nowness, enriched by moments of solitude, yielding an increased awareness of how interconnected all of us are, bundled in impermanence, and more: of a wider empathy gleaned from that solitude affordng reflection, assuring me that it isn’t how long we live, but how well.

As for the writing, like music and painting, there exists that longevity beyond ourselves that with good fortune we may share with others in another time and place, perhaps bringing not only sobered reflection, but comfort and healing as well.

It doesn’t matter to me how many read Brimmings.  If nothing else, it has taken on the hue of an inner dialogue, often between mind and heart, with no clear winner.

And so I continue.

Peace.

–rj

 

 

A Poet Reminisces: Essays After Eighty

ows_141652973541643I have always liked poetry and poets, in particular, because of their sensitivity to human experience.

One poet I like a lot is Donald Hall, a giant among contemporary American poets, although he’s given up the craft, or as he puts it, since “poetry abandoned him.”

Hall is now 85.

Let me assure you, while the tropes may not come as easily as before, his acuity remains vibrant in his newest book, Essays After Eighty, a slim volume of 120 pages, yet filled with reminiscence, keen observation, and sober wisdom.

I first got introduced to Hall by way of his textbook, Writing Well, which I used for a number of years in teaching college composition. The book lived up to its title, emphasizing sentence clarity and how to achieve it, with eloquence added in.

Hall has always been a diligent stylist, whether writing poetry or prose. He confesses that he’s written some individual essay drafts for Essays After Eighty upwards of eighty times to get things said right.

I used to tell my students that the name of the game in all good writing lay in revision, pointing out that scholars have come upon nearly fifty drafts of Yeat’s famed “Second Coming” poem.

I like how Hall says it: “The greatest pleasure in writing is rewriting. My early drafts are always wretched.”

I’ve always held that a good style is etched by its economy, the right words sufficing for empty fillers drowning readers in verbosity; a pleasing rhythm like waves, in and out, upon a sea shore.

Good prose, like poetry, runs lean.

And Hall is the great master.

Let me give you a sampling of Hall’s trademark writing acumen, simple, yet keen with observation, each detail chosen well, verbs especially, accumulating into a verbal, painting, reflecting the ethos of a skilled artisan:

In spring, when the feeder is down, stowed away in the toolshed until October, I watch the fat robins come back, bluejays that harass them, warblers, red-winged blackbirds, thrushes, orioles. Mourning doves crouch in the grass, nibbling seeds. A robin returns each year to refurbish her nest after the wintry ravage. She adds new straw, twigs and lint. Soon enough she lays eggs, sets on them with short excursions for food, then tends to three or four small beaks that open for her scavenging. Before long, the infants stand, spread and clench their wings, peer at their surroundings, and fly away. I cherish them….

Reminiscence weighs heavily upon these essays, not surprising for a writer in his mid-eighties. the ghosts, as it were, looming out of the past–grandparents, Mom and Dad, aunts and uncles, friends;  wife Jane Kenyon, the love of his life and fellow poet, succumbing unexpectedly to cancer at age 47.

Even the northern New Hampshire topography has yielded to change, farms giving way to rebirth of forest as the new generation migrates to the prosperous cities of southern New Hampshire.

As I read this moving collection of personal reflections on sundry topics, I made sure to highlight a number of striking passages, and some of them I’ll share with you.

On writing:

As I work on clauses and commas, I understand that rhythm and cadence have little to do with import, but they should carry the reader on a pleasurable journey.

If the essay doesn’t include contraries, however small they be, the essay fails.

Nine-tenths of the poets who win prizes and praises, who are applauded the most, who are treated everywhere like emperors–or like statues of emperors–will go unread in thirty years.

I count it an honor that in 1975 I gave up lifetime tenure, medical expenses, and a pension in exchange for forty joyous years of freelance writing.

I expect my immortality to expire five minutes after my funeral. Literature is a zero-sum game. One poet revives; another gets deader.

On aging:

When I limped into my eighties, my readings altered, as everything did.

In the past I was advised to live in the moment. Now what else can I do.?

On leisure:

Everyone who concentrates all day, in the evening needs to let the half-wit out for a walk.

On mortality:

It is sensible of me to realize that I will die one of these days. I will not pass away.

At some time in my seventies, death stopped being interesting. I no longer checked out ages in obituaries.

These days most old people die in profit-making dormitories. Their loving sons and daughters are busy and don’t want to forgo the routine of their lives.

Essays After Eighty has been a wonderful read for me with its acerbic wit, cogent wisdom, delivered in a simple, yet elegant, style, proving again that the best art conceals itself.

And yet there’s a melancholy that haunts these excursions into reminiscence, a sense that the best is over and, now, there’s just the waiting. As Hall confesses, “My problem isn’t death, but old age.”

Hall, of course, is addressing physical decline with its imposed limitations and dreaded dependency; but surely his words resonate still more–the sense of ephemerality that mocks our labors and brings to an end all that we love most dearly.

For Hall, “There are no happy endings, because if things are happy, they have not ended.”

Still, this work, perhaps his last, formulates a testimony to a life lived well.

And, very rarely, do you find such honest telling.

–rj

Being Mortal

gawandeI’ve just finished reading Being Mortal: What Matters in the End by Dr. Atul Gawande.

I had read his previous Complications about life as a surgeon several years ago, greatly impressed.

Both books have been highly praised, with the present book listed by the New York Times as among must reads of 2014.

As a surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, Gawande knows what he’s writing about.

And he writes well, often movingly, in layman’s language, of death scenarios with their accompanying challenges that need to be individualized, since we’re all different.

I suspect many readers will opt to avoid a seemingly morbid subject, but that’s a mistake, for   mortality knows no exceptions and our best approach is one that, through knowledge, provides us with options.

And Gawande, a writer for the prestigious New Yorker as well as a physician, delivers–deftly, compassionately, and always with eloquence, on a difficult subject.

Moreover, his book preeminently addresses the medical community, often committed to treatment paradigms that work against the patient’s welfare.

Physicians are trained to see themselves as enhancers of health and survival. They are not taught how to handle lingering illness devoid of remedy:

…within a few years, when I came to experience surgical training and practice, I encountered patients forced to confront the realities of decline and mortality, and it did not take long to realize how unready I was to help them (3).

If your problem is fixable, we know just what to do.  But if it’s not? The fact that we have had no adequate answers to this question is troubling and has caused callousness, inhumanity, and extraordinary suffering (8).

What’s the point, anyway, of continuing chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery in terminal cases when such methodologies may involve great risk and, often, increase duress?

When, in short, should doctors, not just patients, let go?

Patients cling to hope and doctors knowingly feed into this, when frequently no regimen can procure that miracle of restoring health and dignity.

Or as Gawande vividly makes clear in his allusion to Tolstoy’s powerful tale, The Death of Ivan Ilyitch:

What tormented Ivan Ilyitch most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and he only need keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result (2).

The ultimate challenge for physicians is to accept the restraints of biology and assist their patients to come to terms when that moment arrives

Otherwise, they can inflict considerable, even barbaric, suffering.

Doctors need to be patient-centered, addressing the patient’s best interests, and sometimes the greatest kindness entails being candid..

Ultimately, it’s about providing patients with options that preserve dignity, lessen suffering, and are in accord with the patient’s priorities.

We’ve made some progress in the now universal acceptance of Advanced Directives, though initially contested. But what about options for the terminal patient, still conscious, who lingers, often in great pain, and with perhaps even greater to come?

Gawande says that there are two dominating physician protocols: the one patronizing (this is what you should do); the other, informative (here are your scenarios).

Doctors do better when they ask the right questions of their patients in such contexts:

Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make or not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding? (259)

Palliative care, for example, may well be a better option to further surgery, chemotherapy and radiation when the outcome may make matters worse.

On the other hand, indulging patient fantasy may invoke “a prolonged and terrible death” (4).

Gawande carries out what he advocates. For me, his account of his father’s lingering passage into mortality is deeply moving, which I think many of us can identify with in our own wrestlings with the demise of those we love.

In addition to all of you, I wish every medical practitioner would read this book.

Death isn’t an enemy, but the natural order of things.

How much better it would be in our final moments to have someone like Gawande attending–a physician, with compassion, listening and helping us discern those best options that enhance our dignity and lessen our suffering.

–rj

 

 

 

 

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