Book chat


Tree of heaven

After spending too much time this week glued to my bad-news feed, on Wednesday afternoon I stepped away from my desk to do some errands in West Newton. There, in the deep-slanting light of a summer afternoon, a sprawling tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) stood, its boughs brimming with clusters of yellowish, pink-tinged seeds.

Tree of heaven fruit and foliage

I’ve seen trees of heaven before, but I’ve never been stopped in my tracks by one. The species is invasive and often grows in places where other trees can’t, like urban alleys and streets: the tree that famously grew in Brooklyn was a tree of heaven. But a gangly “ghetto palm” sapling in an alley is quite different from a full-grown tree setting down roots next to a grassy ballfield, with ample room to spread an expansive crown.

When I got home, I looked on Google Maps to see if the playground in West Newton has a name, and indeed it does: Eden Playground, a fitting place for a tree of heaven to grow. Female trees of heaven bear samaras, which are winged seeds that spin like helicopters as they fall, and right now the tree at Eden Playground is heavy-laden with them. Whereas maple samaras have twin seeds with wings shaped like rabbit ears, trees of heaven bear clusters of single-seeded samaras, each one twisted like a egg noodle.

Tree of heaven fruit

Before setting out to do errands on Wednesday, I started reading Strong for a Moment Like This, a collection of daily prayers and Scripture meditations the Reverend Dr. Bill Shillady emailed to Hillary Clinton during last year’s presidential campaign. (A more sensational title for the book would have been “Hillary’s Emails.”) I became curious about Rev. Shillady’s book after reading his oft-shared (and, unfortunately, partially plagiarized) email to Hillary the morning after her defeat to Donald Trump. I suspect I’ll need lots of prayer and devotion to get through the next four years, or however long it takes our country to jump off the Trump Train.

Trees of heaven are quick-growing but not long-lived: who knows how long the one in West Newton (or her forebears, since this tree spreads via suckers as well as seeds) has been quietly growing in an edge of forgotten soil behind a gas station. What ballgames has she witnessed, and what playground dramas? How much car exhaust and human angst has she absorbed, exhaling oxygen to the clouds? With her toes in the earth and her arms spread toward the sky, this tree of heaven enjoys the best of both worlds, rooted in the dirt but stretching toward the heavens.

Tree of heaven fruit

These days I genuinely wonder how we can collectively spread our limbs toward love, the only counter to hate. I struggle with this personally, as my grudge-holding heart sometimes feels as twisted as a spinning samara. Is more prayer necessary, or more devotion? If I were Hillary Clinton, I’d still be doubled-over with rage, as I was the morning after the election and still sometimes am when I scroll my bad-news feed. How can we sprout from the dirt of division and expand into the flower and fruit of love?

There is, I trust, no hate in heaven, not even righteous indignation; I believe hate gets stripped away in the wash of God’s love. But here on earth, where meanness rages, lies are perpetuated, and the evil and greedy reap great rewards, where does the God of justice hide?

Into this life a little light falls, as do spinning samaras, and occasionally trees have ample room to spread and shine. Perhaps that is the only taste of heaven we’re presently permitted.

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

I’m currently reading Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit. The book tells the story of Christopher Knight, who lived alone in the Maine woods for 27 years before being arrested for burglary in 2013. The book reminds me of Into the Wild, the book Jon Krakauer wrote about Christopher McCandless, except that while McCandless died after 100 solitary days foraging in the Alaskan wilderness, Knight survived for more than a quarter century on food and supplies he stole from nearby cabins.

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

With both books, the question of “why” spurs readers onward. In Krakauer’s book, you eventually learn that McCandless didn’t intend to live his entire life as a hermit: during part of his journey, he befriended others, and he intended to return to civilization after his Alaskan sojourn. McCandless was a social, likable fellow when he was around people, and after living on his own in Alaska for several months, he intended (and tried) to leave the wild. It was a cruel accident, in other words, that McCandless died a hermit’s death.

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

Knight, on the other hand, is a true solitary, but it isn’t immediately clear why he shuns human contact. Knight returns to civilization unwillingly. After burglarizing area cabins for more than two decades, he is captured and thrown in jail: a hermit tossed in with criminals. McCandless had specific reasons for shunning his family, but Knight doesn’t seem to hold any animus toward his family in particular or society in general: he just chooses a solitary path.

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

McCandless died at the age of 24, but had he lived, he would now be 49 years old: a middle-aged man approaching fifty. Knight survived his stint in the Maine woods, and he was apprehended and arrested at the age of 47. The hermetic lifestyle holds a certain appeal when you’re young, but how does it hold up as you approach middle age?

We can write-off Chris McCandless’ quest as the wayward ways of a young man who hadn’t yet found himself: Krakauer, who wrote McCandless’ story when he was 42, looks back upon his own youth and finds parallels between his life and that of his subject. But if youthful restlessness similarly drove Knight to the forest, what is it that kept him there?

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

We’ve all probably had times when we’ve wanted to abandon our obligations and escape into the wild, but those of us who are middle-aged presumably outgrew those inklings, choosing instead to settle down and get serious about the business of homemaking, starting a family, or pursuing a career. But Knight sidesteps all those presumably normal pursuits, walking into the woods at the age of 20 and showing no signs of wanting to return. How do you live 27 years of your life in a solitary camp with nothing but a long list of burglaries to your name? Wouldn’t you at some point decide to pursue another path?

Bald Peak & Parkman Mountain

This is what keeps me reading: I want to see what would keep a man in the woods for over two decades. I can understand the impulse that would drive a person to leave society, but not necessarily the fortitude that would keep him away.

Today’s photos come from a solo trip to Maine I took in September, 2004 and blogged here.

What do you think you're doing?

Today I finished reading One Hundred Demons, a graphic memoir by Lynda Barry. In this work of what she calls “autobifictionalography,” Barry sets out to draw one hundred demons, a practice she heard about in an old Zen story. While drawing her demons, Barry revisits pivotal, often painful anecdotes from her life, which she tells in cartoon form.

The result is quirky and surprisingly powerful: a memoir-like collection of cartoon episodes that point to the persistence of even minor memories. Barry learns (and readers discover) that both our childhood and adult identities are shaped not by major, life-changing moments but by the incremental influence of seemingly innocuous events.

Who do you think you are?

Being an adult, Barry suggests, is like traveling by plane. From the sky, you can’t see children playing kickball in the streets below: the mundane details of one’s childhood are overshadowed by other, more pressing concerns. But when Barry reflects back on her childhood, it is the little stuff that lingers–an early, cruel boyfriend; the moment she became too self-conscious to dance; a first kiss that comes after she’d already lost too much of her innocence. Often, the things we don’t understand or recognize as important at the time are the ones that stay with us decades later.

I first encountered Barry when I read Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, which I blogged several years ago. Syllabus is a book about art, teaching, and creativity, and the playfulness of that book is what initially drew me in. Barry notes that every child can draw, but adult self-consciousness causes too many of us to put down our pencils and pens. Barry encourages readers to draw with self-abandon, suggesting that there is no such thing as a bad or “wrong” drawing.

Why even bother?

In One Hundred Demons, Barry shows the source of her creative courage. Barry isn’t afraid to draw a wrong line because she’s already lived and endured so much wrongness. When you draw your demons, you necessarily have to face them, and when you face your biggest, most daunting doubts and detractors, you sometime realize they look an awful lot like you.

Inspired by Barry’s book, this morning I doodled the demons that illustrate today’s post. Click here to see more of my demon-doodles: enjoy!

Retreat journal - March 1994

I recently discovered a journal I kept when I was on a week-long retreat in Rhode Island in 1994, when my then-husband and I lived in Boston. I don’t remember journaling during that retreat; as far as I remember, we were told not to write, just as we were discouraged from reading. So when and how did I scribble a substantial number of pages in looping longhand?

Dharma room Buddha

This morning I started reading Hourglass, a thin memoir of “time, memory, [and] marriage” by Dani Shapiro. In the opening pages of the book, Shapiro discovers a journal she kept on her honeymoon some eighteen years earlier. Like me, Shapiro doesn’t remember keeping this journal; even more oddly, it is a journal where she refers to herself in the third person, as “D.”

Shapiro is a memoirist; I am not. I continue to keep a journal all these years later; Shapiro’s honeymoon notebook, on the other hand, is significant in large part because it is one of the last she kept.

Diamond Hill Zen Monastery

Because of this, Shapiro and I have different approaches to memory and journaling. When she did keep a journal, Shapiro did so as an orderly act of closure. By laying down the details of her life in writing, Shapiro suggests they could be filed away and forgotten:

Keeping journals was a practice for me, way of ordering my life. It was an attempt to separate the interior from the exterior. To keep all my trash–this is the way I thought of it–in one place.

I, on the other hand, lack a memoirist’s memory: I rarely write about my childhood, for example, because I remember so little of it. For me, journaling is a necessary act of remembrance. Knowing I won’t remember anything I haven’t written down, I trust my days to the page so that it, my journal, will remember my life for me.

Retreat (not) in progress

Shapiro and I have different perspectives on memory and journaling, but we share one thing: we each have earned the wisdom of hindsight. Shapiro reads her honeymoon journal after being married for eighteen years, and I am re-reading my retreat musings more than two decades after I wrote them. Both Shapiro and I peek into the lives of our younger selves with a knowledge of how things turn and are turning out.

People sometimes talk about the advice they’d give their younger selves: what do you know now that you wish you’d known then? This is an interesting if useless exercise: useless because our younger selves would never listen to the advice of us oldsters, and interesting because it forces us to take stock of the wisdom we’ve acquired the hard and messy way.

I’m not sure whether Shapiro offers any advice to her younger self: I haven’t read far enough into her memoir to know. But all I’d say to my younger, greener self is this: Keep writing, and keep everything you write. One day, you’ll marvel to think you ever were so young and so green.

I shot the photo of my 1994 journal this afternoon and the photos of the Diamond Hill Zen Monastery in Cumberland, Rhode Island some ten years ago.

Sherman Alexie poses so everyone can take their fill of photos.

Last night I took the T into Harvard Square to see Sherman Alexie read from his new memoir, You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me, at Harvard University’s Memorial Church. I had never seen Alexie in person, but I knew from radio interviews and other media appearances that he has a razor-sharp sense of humor, and that quick wit was apparent in his reading, which at times felt more like a standup comedy routine than a serious literary event.

For us and our allies

Alexie didn’t take questions, wryly noting that with the sort of subject matter his book discusses, a Q&A session would quickly turn into a Twelve Step meeting. Instead, Alexie regaled the crowd with anecdotes and pointed observations on everything from the smelly state of his luggage after a nine-day book tour (think damp underwear) and his reaction to the election of Donald Trump. (No indigenous Americans voted for Trump, Alexie claimed, except perhaps seven Republican Indians. Alexie’s main observation about the election was that white liberals now know what Native Americans have felt since colonial days: namely, what it’s like to be stripped of power by an unholy trinity of corrupt government, business, and religious institutions.)

Organ

Amid such sidenotes, the central theme of Alexie’s talk (and his new memoir) was the death of his mother, Lillian, in 2015. After spending his career creating various fictionalized versions of his father, Alexie realized he had never given his mother her due. Alexie described his mother as an epic character: one of the last surviving speakers of the Coeur d’Alene language and the person who should have led her tribe. But instead of being revered as a leader, Lillian Alexie and her greatness went unrecognized, as the contributions of indigenous women often are.

Eagle podium

In addition to reading excerpts from his book, Alexie led his audience through an irreverent and honest recollection of his last encounter with his mother as she lay dying in one of the houses where he and his siblings had grown up. This account was simultaneously heart-rending and humorous, often veering from one emotion to the other in the course of a single sentence. Poverty, Alexie explained, was his family’s spirit animal, and humor was a coping strategy he honed out of necessity. His mother, Alexie explained, didn’t teach him their tribal language, telling him that English would be the weapon he’d need to survive. She was right.

Overhead

Lillian Alexie was beautiful, Alexie explained; in photographs from her younger days, she looked like Rita Hayworth or what Alexie called a “reservation Audrey Hepburn.” Lillian was a short woman–barely five feet tall–but Alexie said she never seemed small until she was laid low by the cancer that killed her. Alexie’s relationship with his mother was complicated. Shocking her family by turning affectionate in her final days, Lillian Alexie continued to be passive-aggressive, telling Sherman in full earshot of his siblings that he had the best hair of any of them.

Book signing with Sherman Alexie

Alexie is a master story-teller; anyone who has read any of books or seen one of his films knows that. But telling a story on paper and captivating a live audience are two separate skills, and Sherman Alexie is a master at both. Whatever skills Sherman Alexie has honed over a long and decorated literary career, however, he nevertheless insists that Lillian was a more skillful storyteller than he is. After a career of trying to mold himself into a facsimile of his father, Alexie has finally admitted how much like his mother he was all along.

Robot kid

I recently started reading David M. Levy’s Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives. The book was published last year, but I checked it out from my public library last week, when I upgraded my smartphone and am hyper-aware of how reliant upon technology I am in my daily life.

Mindful Tech is filled with exercises encouraging readers to observe how they interact with technology, and it’s encouraging me to revisit and reflect upon my own use of email, social media, and other apps. Although I was one of the last of my friends and colleagues to get a smartphone several years ago, I quickly became dependent upon it for a wide range of uses.

Robot

On a typical day, I use my phone to check email, access my calendar, manage to-do lists, and follow news stories. I take photos on my phone, and I use my phone to post those photos to Instagram, Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook. I manage blog comments on my phone, I read Kindle books and New Yorker articles on my phone, and I use smartphone apps to pay for parking, manage my library holds, and time my meditation and writing sessions. Although I do occasionally use my phone to make phone calls and send texts, I mostly use it throughout the day, every day, to manage my time and daily tasks.

Given all the things I do on my phone, it’s easy to become an obsessive checker, even when such checking isn’t helpful, useful, or efficient. In the summer and on weekends during the school year, for example, I’ve gotten in the habit of checking school email on my tablet in the morning, before I begin my morning journal pages. I don’t check email then because I have time to answer any important emails I’ve received overnight but because I want to make sure there aren’t any important emails awaiting. What I’m looking for when I check email in the morning, in other words, is permission to start my day…and when I phrase it that way, it doesn’t sound like a good or healthy thing.

Molten

When I check school email in the morning on my tablet, what I find in my inbox sets the tone for what’s to follow. If there aren’t any urgent emails in my inbox, I am relieved I can start the day with a clean slate. But if there are urgent emails awaiting me, one of two things happens: I either get sidetracked into answering those emails right away, which always takes longer than I’d planned, or I put off answering those emails for later, which means the thought of Unanswered Messages hangs over my head like a boom that’s just waiting to drop.

On a purely rational level, checking email just to check doesn’t make much sense. Unless I have time to answer any urgent emails immediately, there’s no reason not to put off checking until after I’ve written my journal pages: any student who has waited overnight for an answer can surely wait another half hour or so. Levy’s book is encouraging me to look more closely at habits such as these, not with a prescriptive aim of telling me how I should interact with technology but by encouraging me to ask honest questions of myself. Why do I check email or interact with social media the way I do, and how well are those choices working for me?

Robot Kid

I’ve just started reading Levy’s book, so I don’t know what conclusions I’ll ultimately draw from it. But already, it’s been helpful to think about my work habits as a series of choices that are largely under my control. Although I can’t control all the parameters of my work life, there are some basic habits I can enforce, such as making a conscious effort to bring my awareness back to my body as I am working: how am I breathing? How is my posture? Where in my body do I feel stiffness or tension?

This simple act of bringing attention back to one’s body is a meditative act that can be done anywhere, including at one’s desk while doing work, so it makes sense that Levy encourages it. The mind can wander, but the body can only be here. The moment you bring your attention back to your body, your focus instantly and automatically returns to the Present Moment: a low-tech attention exercise that can be done anywhere at anytime, with or without a smartphone in hand.

Little Free Library

Little Free Libraries have been popping up everywhere in Newton these days. We’ve had a Little Free Library in our neighborhood in Waban for a couple years now; there have been two at “The Street” in Chestnut Hill for nearly as long; and in the past few weeks, others have appeared in front of the Waban Library Center, a house on Beacon Street, and a house in Newton Centre.

Take a book, leave a book

Anyone can put up a box filled with books with a sign telling passersby to take a book and leave a book, and it seems our neighbors are fond of reading and encouraging others to read. Although I mostly read books borrowed from the public library these days, having so many Little Free Libraries around is encouraging me to re-visit my shelves, looking for books I’ve read and don’t plan to revisit.

No book-lover likes to weed out books; ideally, we’d keep every book we’ve read or wanted to read. But giving books away is different. Leaving a book in a Little Free Library feels like the bookish equivalent of catch-and-release fishing. Having held a book in your hands for a little while, you set it free for some other reader to enjoy.

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