Book chat


Notebook-finishing day

Today while writing my almost-daily journal pages, I filled one Moleskine notebook and moved onto the next. Notebook Finishing Day always feels like a special occasion: just by keeping at it, the pages fill.

Snow on the ground, new leaves on the shrubs. #signsofspring

I’m reminded of the story I re-read in Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street this morning: “Four Skinny Trees,” about the four city-planted saplings on Esperanza Cordero’s street. They teach her “how to keep” by sending down “ferocious roots.” These trees, she says, “grown down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with their violent teeth and never quit their anger.” It’s an image that could have been written only by a girl who had watched trees twist and toss their leafy heads in summer storms: a girl like me, or Esperanza, or Cisneros.

Almost spring

The four skinny trees give Esperanza hope when she is “too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, when I am a tiny thing against so many bricks.” The four skinny trees grow “despite concrete,” and so does Esperanza. Like the trees, she “reach[es] and do[es] not forget to reach.” This is how we all keep and keep keeping.

Emergent

I write my journal pages on paper, a product made from trees. This is, I think, part of why I like to write by hand. The touch of the page reminds me of all the trees I’ve known, like the big, branching maple tree in the courtyard of my childhood home, in whose leaves I’d play every fall: one of my closest childhood friends. Every child should have at least one tree–a big branching one, or several smaller skinny ones–to teach her how to stand, how to hold the sky, and how to keep. That last one is the most important: a lesson to last into adulthood.

Spring green

Tree at my window, window tree–why are there so many songs about rainbows, and so many poems about trees? Trees just keep keeping their quintessential tree-ness; there is no running away when you have roots. Day by day, page by page, I keep writing, most days not knowing what I want to say until the words appear under my pen: thoughts about the weather, worries about work, complaints and quibbles. All these are uttered page by page, leaf by leaf: baby leaves becoming big leaves becoming insect-eaten leaves becoming fallen leaves becoming compost. Leaves gathered in bushels and pages contained in books: this is how we keep keeping, “our only reason,” as Cisneros says, “is to be and be.”

Wall at Central Square

I recently started reading Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. The main premise of the book is that many of the things people do to study or memorize things actually aren’t effective, and what does work is counter-intuitive.

Wall at Central Square

One of the things the book insists, for example, is that pure repetition doesn’t implant long-term memories. You might memorize something for a test by repeating it over and over, but you’ll quickly forget that information: a nugget of wisdom that matches pretty much every student’s experience with cramming.

According to Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel, repeatedly re-reading a textbook or class notes won’t help you master the material because repetition lulls you into thinking you understand underlying concepts when actually you’re simply memorizing someone else’s explanation. Instead of memorizing material through blind repetition, you need to apply the material, either by re-stating concepts in your own words or using those concepts to solve a problem.

Wall at Central Square

The example Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel use at the beginning of the book involves aviation. You can memorize the parts and functions of a plane engine, but that knowledge won’t become real–it won’t be yours, something you’ve truly mastered–until you face a situation where you have to use that knowledge, either in a flight simulator or actual plane. If you can connect abstract concepts to your own life–something you’ve lived and care about–those concepts will “stick” longer than facts you’ve simply drilled into your head through repetition.

Wall at Central Square

The other insight I’ve gotten from the book so far is the importance of “interleaving”: the cognitive multitasking that happens when you study multiple subjects side-by-side rather than focusing your entire attention on one subject. I haven’t read far enough into the book to understand exactly why interleaving is so powerful, but I suppose it’s the mental equivalent of interval training. In my own experience, studying more than one subject allows you to take breaks by switching back and forth between topics, and it also allows you to draw novel connections among subjects. (As a professor, for example, I’m always happy to hear students connect something they’ve learned in another class to something we’re discussing in mine.)

Wall at Central Square

The concept of interleaving reminds me of the intricate clockwork desk naturalist John Muir built when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin. Muir loaded the desk with his various textbooks, and it would automatically open each of his books at pre-arranged intervals so he couldn’t spend too much time on any one subject. Although it might be a bit obsessive to design a desk that forces you to cycle through a set number of subjects, I often read more than one book at a time: when I grow tired of one book, I move to the next, and the connections and I make between the two keep me engaged longer than focusing on merely one.

Wall at Central Square

So, while I’m reading Make It Stick, I’m also reading Sam Quinones’ Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic, which is about a whole other kind of “sticking.” Sometimes you want to etch information indelibly into your brain, and other times, you want to disentangle yourself from habits that stick too tenaciously.

Scheming

One of the benefits of being an English professor is the way my job forces me to read several books at once. Right now I’m re-reading Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio for my American Short Story class, Toni Morrison’s Sula for my American Ethnic Literature class, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me for my Introduction to College Writing class. This particular combination of books isn’t one I’d intentionally plan: instead, it’s a serendipity of semester scheduling.

Sinous

In addition to the books I read for work are the books I read for fun. This morning, for example, I finished reading Difficult Women, Roxane Gay’s new collection of short stories. Every difficult woman has a story of how life made her so, and this a collection of those stories. Gay describes women who make poor choices, but she also chronicles the cumulative cruelties that led to those choices. Gay is neither sappy nor sentimental: she never moralizes. Instead, she illuminates the dark, difficult roads that lead to human resilience.

Cocktail party

This morning, I realized an interesting overlap between Gay’s stories and Morrison’s novel. Sula is a difficult woman: even when Sula was a child, her own mother admitted she loved Sula but did not always like her. Both Toni Morrison and Roxane Gay realize difficult women aren’t born; they are made. Sula refuses to be owned by any man, and this gets her in trouble, repeatedly. The only person who understands Sula is her childhood friend, Nel, but even their relationship is not easy. When Nel marries and thus chooses a conventional life, her life is set at cross-purposes with Sula’s. Loyalty in love and loyalty in friendship don’t always coexist.

Genteel

Roxane Gay’s stories are full of twins and inseparable sisters, shared trauma bonding women together more strongly than blood. Toni Morrison’s Nel and Sula are such a pair: they are friends in part because they share one another’s secrets. Ultimately, both Morrison and Gay suggest a woman can be loyal only to herself, and this is a crime patriarchy can never forgive. Women can remain true to their sisters, friends, or even children, but men are infinitely replaceable.

Aristocratic

Mary Austin once said men can’t survive without women, but woman with a child will do perfectly fine. Both Morrison and Gay go one step further, suggesting that even a child isn’t necessary, difficult women having within themselves the resources to stand alone, resilient.

Twas the night before Christmas

I recently finished reading On Living, Kerry Egan’s memoir of her work as a hospice chaplain. I took my time reading the book: like dark chocolate or strong medicine, On Living is best in small, savored doses. Each chapter describes patients Egan has met over the years and the lessons she’s gained from those encounters, and these seemingly simple accounts are surprisingly powerful.

Going places

Early in the book, Egan struggles to describe her job to a woman at a party who can’t quite understand what it is, exactly, that hospice chaplains do. I suppose the word “chaplain” evokes images that might not match the reality of the person standing next to you at a party: Egan isn’t a priest, nun, or pastor, and her book isn’t full of the God-talk and conventional piety you might expect from clergy. But that, actually, is what makes the book so powerful.

Caroling

Egan doesn’t spend much time preaching, praying, or enacting overtly religious rituals at the bedsides of dying patients; instead, she describes herself as showing up and spending lots of time listening. Egan calls this endeavor “being present,” and it seems a deceptively simple thing: surely anyone with a backside to sit on and a mouth that closes is equipped to sit and listen, but of course it isn’t that easy.

Ice cream shop

Judging from the stories Egan tells, a chaplain’s most powerful skills are the abilities to listen, empathize, and refrain from casting judgement. A good chaplain, Egan suggests, suspends her desire to jump in and fix the situations she encounters. Better than even the best advice and encouragement is a well-timed nod or genuine question that reflects a patient back upon her own lived experience: gestures that say “Tell me more” rather than “Let me tell you how it is.”

Bearing gifts

This practice of “being present,” in other words, is amazingly difficult exactly because it is unbelievably simple. “This is a real job,” Egan’s fellow party-goer asks her with a mix of hostility and incredulity, “that people go to graduate school for?” This question points to the paradox of pastoral care: the things that seem the simplest to do are actually the most difficult, many friends and family members avoiding awkward visits to the hospital or nursing home exactly because they don’t know how to act, what to do, or what to say when faced with a person who is terminally ill.

Carolers

I’m not a hospice chaplain, but I found myself nodding as I read Egan’s book, her experience at the bedside of dying patients ringing true with my experience giving consulting interviews as a Senior Dharma Teacher. When I started giving interviews, a Zen Master friend gave me a bit of advice that has proven to be invaluable. Giving consulting interviews, he explained, isn’t about answering questions; it’s about sharing an experience.

Photo opportunity

In the years I’ve been giving interviews, I’ve decided he’s exactly right on that point. The folks who come into the Zen Center interview room aren’t asking for advice; instead, they want the reassurance of knowing they aren’t alone in whatever challenge they face. Faced with a receptive listener who has reined in her desire to jump in and fix their life situation, the folks who come talk to me usually come to their own clarity and conclusions. All I do by being present is give them permission to listen to their own gut.

Band

Being a hospice chaplain, Egan explains, isn’t about being a storyteller; it’s about being a story holder. As people face the end of their lives, they are in a unique position to look back and reflect, and sometimes what they want is nothing more than a nonjudgmental person to sit quietly alongside them, ready to cherish whatever stories they want to share. On Living is a repository of these stories, and that is what makes it priceless.

DISCLOSURE: I received a free copy of On Living through a Goodreads giveaway.

Pride

When I first started teaching more than twenty years ago, I asked my undergraduate mentor how long it would take before I could teach without jitters, and he responded with a remark I’ve never forgotten. “If you’re not nervous before teaching a class,” he said, “you have no business teaching that class.”

I’m remembering that long-ago comment as my Intro to College Writing students begin discussing Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which was this year’s common reading for incoming students at Framingham State. I first read Coates’ book last December, soon after it came out to popular and critical acclaim: I was curious to read for myself a book that generated so much heated discussion about the sadly relevant topics of racism and police brutality. But casually reading and thinking about a book is vastly different from engaging a classroom of first-year students in a discussion of the touchy subjects raised by that book, so I’m more than a bit apprehensive as I look ahead to this week’s classes.

Hipster trash

Between the World and Me is a difficult, unsettling text because it resists easy answers: when it comes to race in America, Coates isn’t optimistic or hopeful, and that is not a popular outlook. Mainstream American culture likes to fix things: we’re addicted to happy endings, and we like to think we’ve made great strides when it comes to social issues, even when the most cursory examination of the nightly news suggests we haven’t come far enough.

In the opening pages of the book, Coates describes a satellite interview where a TV journalist asks him why he believes America was founded on a history of theft and violence against people of color, and his response is sadness: not sadness over the realities of American history, which are not new to him, but at the implicit obliviousness of the journalist’s question. Realizing there is no satellite powerful enough to built a bridge between someone who has experienced racism and someone who has not, Coates is saddened for the journalist who interviews him, the society that protects her within a bubble of privilege, and his fifteen-year-old son, who is coming of age in a society where there is no buffer between him and threat of racist violence.

Consumption Lust Security

I am nervous to broach these topics with my students because they are so relevant: the issues that spurred Coates to write his book have continued to simmer and boil. As much as the American cult of positivity encourages us to ignore complex issues in favor of quick-fixes and feel-good bromides, I know difficult conversations are the only path forward. But considering my own classes, I feel ill-equipped to facilitate those discussions: at the end of a week where black men are still being gunned down by police and a campaign worker for Donald Trump had the temerity to suggest President Obama is the source of racial unrest, I don’t feel I have any answers or insight into the difficult questions my students might pose.

This is, I think, what my undergraduate mentor meant all those years ago. It would be both arrogant and misguided of me to walk into class with a smug sense of having an insight into Coates’ text: if anything, Between the World and Me forces white readers like me to set aside our easy answers. (When the reporter interviewing Coates in the book’s opening pages asks him whether a viral video showing a young black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer gives him hope, Coates admits a sense of defeat. If you think systemic racism can be eliminated with a hug or two, you haven’t comprehended the true depth of the problem.)

Reaching

My students, I know, want answers and the comfort of clarity: they understandably want to know what they need to extract from this or any other book to impress me, get a good grade, and graduate into a successful life. Coates himself is suspicious of schooling, seeing it as an institution that encourages conformity more than free and critical thought, and I can’t say I blame him: it is a dangerous power-trip for any educator to stand in front of a classroom and proclaim the Way Things Are or Should Be.

As I re-read the opening pages of Between the World and Me, I’m reminded of my true job as a college professor. As much as I want to waltz into my classes with The Answer, all I can honestly do is encourage my students to approach the text the way I do, with a willingness to listen and have my preconceptions shattered. More than any insights or answers, all I have to offer my students is a way of reading that holds open a genuine question.

When you open a book, you hear a writer’s voice, and some of the most interesting conversations happen when you’re humble enough to refrain from judgment, simply listening to the ideas that emerge, even if (or especially if) those ideas seem different from your own. When I read a book like Between the World and Me, I don’t try to crack it like a nut that yields a clean kernel of truth. Instead, I open myself to an ongoing interrogation between the book and me that calls into question my own assumptions, blind-spots, and the systemic forces that keep me from asking difficult questions of myself and others. I hope to encourage my students to do the same.

Journal pages

In yesterday’s mail I received the UK edition of Alexander Masters’ A Life Discarded, which I’d ordered online after Steve had mentioned the book on his blog. Masters wrote A Life Discarded after friends gave him a stack of 148 diaries they’d found in a trash bin, and the book recounts his attempt to reconstruct the life of the person who wrote and then discarded the volumes.

Keeping a journal is an immensely personal endeavor, but it is also an inherently egotistical one. You have to be a little bit crazy to think your life is worthy of a faithful day-to-day record. Even if you don’t plan on inflicting your thoughts on an unsuspecting public, as bloggers regularly do, when you set pen to page you make an implicit assumption that your thoughts–your mundane life and the things you believed and felt during that life–are worth jotting down for future reference.

There is, in other words, a hint of egomania in journal-keeping–a step or two beyond merely talking to oneself. And there is a complementary kind of craziness in the urge to read someone else’s journals: the friends of Masters who retrieve the notebooks are more than a little nuts in their belief that a life recorded and then discarded is worth diving into a dumpster to examine.

Shelved Moleskines

I’ve read only the first few pages of Masters’ book, but I’m already sucked and suckered into the mystery. What kind of person faithfully records the mental minutia of their life only to toss that record into the trash? This impulse to record–to scribble down inane thoughts into notebooks that are then carefully numbered and shelved–is obviously one I share, which is why I was eager to buy a UK edition of Masters book, which doesn’t come out here in the States until October. There is something both crazy and compulsive about journal-keeping: it’s an obsession that is but steps away from collecting old newspapers and stockpiling empty tin cans. (Surely it is no accident that the name of my blog contains the word “hoard.”)

But one person’s insanity is another’s art, and I am grateful that the likes of Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Merton, and May Sarton all decided to trust their thoughts as well as their days to the page. When great men and women keep diaries, it is the stuff of history, but when the rest of us do it, there is a hint of pathology: egotism, error, or worse.

Journaling about journaling

Part of what attracts me to the story behind Masters’ book are the layers of obsessive behavior it describes. A nameless woman is obsessive enough to chronicle five decades of her life, strangers are obsessive enough to retrieve her diaries out of the trash, and Masters is obsessive enough to read, research, and write a book about the whole story: obsession stacked upon obsession.

If a stranger were to happen upon the shelves of filled Moleskine notebooks I have dating from 2002 to the present, what would they discover about me? They’d learn my mind often falls into the same predictable ruts, with page after page recounting mundane chores and errands, the litany of an ordinary life. They’d see moments of observational brilliance interspersed with whines about the weather and a catalogue of aches and pains. They’d find, in other words, the kind of stuff pretty much any of us have rattling around in our heads: hopes and disappointments, resolutions and regrets, faults and failures. They’d find nothing at all remarkable, just random bits that are noteworthy only because they are captured and contained.

A journal is like a fossil, preserving one creature at a single moment in time. Pressed between the pages of a journal, you’ll find the faded flowers of someone else’s life, preserved. The journals tossed into a dumpster in Cambridge, England were discarded and then saved, the life they chronicle frozen into prose like a fly in amber.

The first and third photos illustrating today’s post show yesterday’s journal pages, where I wrote a first draft of this post. The second photo shows part of the shelf where I keep my filled Moleskine notebooks.

Face to face

There is only the solitary self facing the page.
–Dani Shapiro, Still Writing

I’m reading a ragtag assortment of books at the moment: this seems to be how my brain works. If I were a naturally disciplined, focused person, I’d read one book at a time, and those books would be on the same or at least similar topics, one logically following the next.

How are you?

But instead, I’m an omnivorous reader set loose in a banquet world. I read books I’ve browsed on library shelves, books I’ve heard reviewed (or even briefly mentioned) on the radio, or books quoted in other books. If in passing conversation I hear someone mention a book that might be interesting, I’ll add it to my to-read list and request it from the library. Some people have an in-depth knowledge of a particular topic, but for better or worse I’m a dabbler who is easily distracted in diverse directions.

One of the books I’m currently reading is Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, a book that one of my colleagues mentioned in the context of a yoga retreat she had gone on. The book is a ragtag assortment of short musing on writing: the kind of inspirational stuff writers always have (and presumably always will) publish because it’s easier for aspiring writers to read about writing than it is to face (and fill) the blank page.

In progress

The blank page is a mirror that reflects your insecurities, doubts, and fears. Writing is a form of meditation because it requires a quiet, unheralded kind of courage. The world is quick to praise (and rightfully so) the obvious courage of heroes running into burning buildings, leaping in front of oncoming trains, or standing up to bullies to save another. But it takes its own kind of quiet, inconspicuous courage to face the blank page with nothing more than an embryonic hope that something you say could be of use–inspiring or encouraging or even just entertaining–to someone else.

Blocks

Last week I heard a radio interview with Sherman Alexie, who was discussing a children’s book he’s written about a young Native American boy who shares his father’s name. In the interview, Alexie mentioned reading Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day as a boy. Alexie said it was the first time he’d encountered a brown-skinned boy–someone like him–in a book, and the moment was life-changing. It was a moment of realizing he wasn’t alone in the world: there were other little brown-skinned boys who looked at the world the way he did.

I grew up as a little white girl in a world full of books about little white girls. But because I grew up as an introvert in a family of extroverts, I grew up befriending people in books more deeply than I did people in the real world.

BBQ dad's unite!

I remember wanting to be Anne Labastille when I was a girl reading about her work in Guatemala to study and save endangered grebes, and I remember feeling like I’d met not just a friend but a version of my own true self when I first read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. These were books I felt I could have written because they were inspired by eyes that viewed the world how I did.

Surveying his work

It takes courage for a solitary self to face the empty page: there seems to be so many more important things to do. But writers face the page with a deep-seated faith that somebody, someday, might find in their words an idea or insight they’ve waited their entire life to hear.

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