Every month I receive a 3-card Animal Medicine reading from my friend Laura at Wild Goose Guidance. Laura uses the metaphor of animal lore to bring attention the inherent wisdom of the soul, to “help with the stuck places” as she puts it. I maintain a healthy skepticism of the pseudo-scientific, but I am not one to turn up my nose at the use of mystical metaphor. For many years in my teens and young-adulthood, the Christian narrative of Jesus was a metaphor in which I sought refuge. It is only when one’s belief in a particular narrative shifts from helpful-perspective to only-perspective that it becomes dangerous. Thus, the space where wonder meets critical thinking is where I attempt to reside.
When I open my heart to these animal medicine readings every month, I do so with the full understanding that I am using the lens of these metaphors as an aid to help me unearth and flesh-out (and then to bring my conscious attention to) that wisdom which already resides within me. I pay cash money for this each month, an act that feels nearly as sacred as the readings themselves. In doing so I am making a tangible statement of self-care: my inner landscape is worth tending to. I think nothing of paying a monthly fee for a reasonably priced gym membership. Is not the exercise of following my own wonder into the depths of my being and there discovering the universal wisdom of my soul worth at least as much?
This winter, I chose a reading called Heartwood. In response to the the reading I made an animal totem collage. The deeper meaning of the collage was unclear to me at first: something about integrating my ability to observe objectively (the world around me, the sensations of my body, the emotions that arise) with the actual felt-sense of these experiences. To watch while on the ground, feet aflame. To feel and see at once.
I have spent a great deal of time and attention developing these skills separately. I am *such* a good feeler, but I only feel behind closed doors, alone, in the safety of my own home. I’m such a good manager of All The Things, but when I step into that role, I leave my feelings at the door. Integrating these aspects of myself seemed too daunting a task to tackle head-on, so I tucked the collage behind my desk and got on with my life, trusting that the necessary emergence would take place naturally.
Meanwhile, I developed another image in my mind to which I affixed my inward journey. This image was blue. A blue room? Somewhere warm and breezy but also crowded and foreign. And because this somewhere felt so unknowable to me, “…as if the passage from one to another involved not a journey but a change in elements” (Italo Calvino, Invisible cities), I made a playlist to take me there.
When I imagine myself in this city of spaciousness (location being here a placeholder for an inner sensation I can only as of yet imagine) I feel connected to a deep love of adventure, a kind of freedom I sometimes felt during frenetic irresponsibility of my early twenties backpacking around eastern and western Europe. This season of my life was rich in adventure but also with upheaval, heartbreak, and violence – with the inability identify where I ended and others began; marked irreversibly by my continuous and severe inability to utter the word ‘no’ and thus create any boundaries around my self, my body, my space.
The adventure of my season in Wallowa County is one of stability and safety, both deeply unfamiliar experiences to me growing up and thus things I believed did not deserve, didn’t know how to create, and was too frightened to reside in anyway. What freedom there is in these states! These four walls, these three meals, these precious routines have given me the space to settle into my own skin and befriend the darker passageways of my own mind.
Perhaps it is possible to live in a state of internal spaciousness and possibility, to honor that wildness and hunger for life, without losing connection to the adulting that supports it: the job, the groceries, the routine. As artist and author May Sarton writes in her diary:
“…however terrible the storms may be, if one’s life is sufficiently stable and fruitful, one is helped to withstand their devastating aftereffects. For most people their job does this – provides a saving routine in time of stress. I have to create my own to survive. And now it is time to fetch the mail and get the car started. -Journal of Solitude”
The golden rule, in my view, is not a mandate but a statement of observation: you do, you will, you can only love your neighbor as much (or as little) as you love yourself. It is my belief that the action of love in this context is simply to befriend. To love yourself is to begin to recognize your own sensations as beloved messengers of information, there to tell you what you need, prefer, desire, dislike. Thus, my relationship to the narrative of Jesus eventually evolved into something I value far more than a savior or mentor or teacher. Jesus, to me, is simply a fellow explorer, someone who courageously plumbed the depths of the experience of being fully alive as a human on this earth.
I recently hung a photo above my bed, ripped in careless delight from the back of a waiting room magazine. It’s the blue room in Portugal! It’s the passageway into my own wonder. I love that it turned out to be a street and not a room, not a destination but a passage to more discovery.
Only after I hung it up did I notice the striking similarity to the blue belt in the original collage, which I felt at the time, to be representative of my body: a self-contained unit that encloses my true home, my felt-sense. Synchronicity is ever the answer to following the call of the heart. That which we dub ‘spiritual’ or magical, then, is simply that instinct we follow before there are words to explain. It’s intuition. It’s the blue road of your own wonder. It precedes science but does not ever preclude it.
I was recently captivated by a trailer I saw for 2016 Cannes winner and Academy Award nominee Embrace of The Serpent, a Colombian film written and directed by Ciro Guerra. I followed that curiosity and found myself watching his first film, a project he made when he [and I both, incidentally] were twenty-three years young. Wandering Shadows (La Sombra del Caminante, 2004), is a film about two middle-aged men living in Bogotá – one of those urban landscapes in which it is possible to live constantly in the presence of people and yet never really be seen.
One of the men in the film is missing a leg and hobbles painfully around looking for work, at the mercy of the juvenile bullies in his neighborhood who routinely push him down and steal what little cash he has made. The other is a “silletaro”, a man who carries another person around for money. He wears a mask over his eyes and a chair strapped to his back and lives in a tent in which he brews tea out of a mysterious herb that we later discover is the only thing keeping him alive. As their friendship matures, these men must navigate the tension between their deep yearning to be known and the risk of rejection, of being seen and found wanting.
The simplicity of the film, the patently grainy, black-and-white cinematography, makes the film feel intensely intimate. I was both comforted and disturbed by the lack of technology in this film: my body was restless, so accustomed have I become to valuing that which is new (read: relevant) above that which is old (read: out of date). Once I allowed myself to sink into this film, helped more than a little by my own herbal medicament, I understood how technology can actually be a barrier to the experience of empathy.
The sensation of realness that high-definition/color film offers can make an experience feel so real that we must necessarily protect ourselves internally. In taking out the clarity and color, Guerra removes this obstacle – whether this is the result of an artistic choice or economic circumstance, I do not know. Regardless, it relaxed my inner guards and I felt my heart become available to the experience, felt like it was only me and the characters in the room (a sensation augmented, by the fact they we were the only people in the room: me sprawled out on my futon in the dark with my laptop and headphones, sipping kombucha and sucking on cough drops).
There is so much walking-away-from, running-(or hobbling)-back-toward, and running-away-again in the visual mechanics of the film. We do so much of this in life, so much chasing after happiness and running away from pain. What is it that causes us to want to claim ownership over experiences like intimate love or exquisite beauty? Why must we attempt to prolong bliss? I know the answer, of course: we are terribly afraid of pain, of exposing our hearts and meeting with rejection, of loosing the aliveness we find in romance, the comfort we find in familiarity.
When I encountered Maja Ruznic’s most recent collection of paintings, Soil As Witness, I was confronted with a similar reflection. I saw myself particularly in the positions of the bodies: attending to another person while also moving subtly away or holding the posture of stillness while being stormed by sensations of the past. I saw the tension in these bodies, as they unveiled themselves to my gaze, and felt this tension in my own body, rising and falling, as violent and predictable as the tide.
Ruznic’s paintings can be viewed as mirror of un-distortion, in which reality is laid bare without the mask of achievement or beauty or strain. In her paintings, people with heavy burdens drag their feet or carry them in bound satchels on their backs, bent low beneath their weight. In real life this is also true, but sometimes the way in which these burdens are carried is not readily apparent to us. Her paintings feel like a refuge to me in this way, a world in which I cannot be deceived. A world in which I am welcome be fully and only myself.
This is the purpose of art, I believe: to realize that our experiences, while unique are not isolated or estranged – and thus are deserving of compassion. Empathy begins with curiosity about our own inner landscape, our own subjective experience of life. It is only through this curiosity that we can truly encounter another being. Firmness exists in the knowing our own inner tides, and when we are grounded in this ever-constant-movement, we can begin to inhabit moments of great beauty and loss without needing to possess or push away.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
An easy-to-read, enjoyable story that left in me with resounding empathy for the immigrant experience. Jende and Neni are Cameroonian immigrants living and working in New York City during the advent of the recent economic crisis. Mbue is not writing a fairytale and her characters are flawed and human – often painfully so. Cameroon’s male-dominant culture nods at us through the seams of this tapestry. Jende, who we spend the whole book getting to know and love, hits his wife. Neni, his wife, blackmails a former employer with unexpected and devastating consequences. Throughout the book I was at once rooting for them to stay, despite all the setbacks, and wondering at the fierceness of their determination. Many times I caught myself thinking they should just do this or do that, and then realizing that they can’t because these privileges are not available to people without American citizenship. This is a snapshot of a world I could never occupy, and as such, occupies the league good literature. I would like this to be on Trump’s required reading list.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a fierce and captivating book; I couldn’t put it down. The underground airlines are not airlines, just as the Underground Railroad was not a railroad; rather it is a symbolic term for a collection of independent cells working to free enslaved people in the ‘four’ – AKA the four states in which slavery is still legal. Winters does a marvelous job at imagining what America would look like if slavery had not been abolished. Not ‘how shitty the world would be if barbarians ran it still’, but really: what would modern-day human enslavement look like? How would it be justified? How would it be seen by the rest of the world? And he keeps these contextual details on the sidelines, giving just enough to construct a very believable world. The real heart of this book, though, is the main character, Victor, who is layers and layers of human: flawed, lovable, and immensely talented. Victor who painfully dishonest. Victor who, throughout the story, is shedding the lies he tells himself in order to survive. Winters’ prose is sound and his imagination is magnificent and, more importantly, he is a keen observer of human nature in all its intricacy.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Did you know trees communicate? Neither did I. The content of this book is fascinating and pretty easy to understand for a lay person. I found the science a little tedious so unless you enjoy science reading, I recommend you skip the book and read Maria Popova’s delightful breakdown, The Secret Life of Trees: The Astonishing Science of What Trees Feel and How They Communicate in which she quotes the most important bits, the bits that will give wings to your heart and open your eyes to the magnificent community of forest-dwelling, living-being trees.
I listened to this podcast, but since it has been made into a book, I thought I’d give it a review. Becoming Wise takes the best snippets if wisdom from Krista Tippett’s On Being conversations and squishes them together into twenty, bite-sized parts. It’s a great way to wade into On Being if you, like me, feel somewhat intimidated by the sheer volume of episodes and don’t know where to start. My favorites were Maria Popova, Matthew Sanford, Bessel van der Kolk, and John O’Donohue – but there were none that I didn’t enjoy. If you’re looking for something to remind you of what is important in the most fundamental way, and if that something needs to be accessible to you while you wash dishes or take a dump, this is your jam. Follow it up with more On Being, possibly the best podcast in the world.
It took me a long time to start this book, and once I did, a long time to finish it. First of all, the subject sounded boring. Second: the size of this tome and its sequel are frankly intimidating. Then I cracked it and it was amazing. It begins with Thomas Cromwell being beat within an inch of his life by his father, staring at the lacings on his boot as he lays on the cobblestones in a pool of his own blood. And then Cromwell does what all survivors of abuse do: he survives. He runs away from England and learns a three-card trick and makes friends and becomes a soldier and eventually finds his way back to England where he marries and becomes lawyer to Cardinal Wolsey (fancy!) and then adviser to the king. What kept him alive on the cobblestones, the resourcefulness that he learned surviving on his own as a young man on the continent, alone and without familial support, make him a source of intrigue to those who know him – able to speak confidently with a king but with no title or claim to power, other than the knowledge of his own heart. Mantel’s rendering of him is masterful and intimate. I feel close to the man, I feel I know him, I feel some how that he is me.
NOTE: I have not finished all 531 glorious pages of this book yet, but I feel like it is time to put it down for a while as I explore other rich narratives.
This is easily my favorite book of 2016; I can’t wait for it to be old so that I can afford to buy it and underline everything. Olivia Laing is a genre-bending beast of artistry. Her own journey of post-breakup loneliness evolves into an exploration of the subject itself, its taboo a source of intrigue, a gravity she organizes herself around. She compassionately explores the lives of a handful of visual artists who have been deeply touched – perhaps even scarred – by loneliness. These biographies serve to illuminate the social factors that create isolation; they are platforms from which to leap into discussion about how marginalized people survive, what isolates populations, and how important connection is. This is a work of deep celebration of human resourcefulness and resiliency, grounded in the struggles of real people who made in order to survive. You do not need to have an interest in visual art or art history in order to be moved deeply by these portraits.
This is a weird and wonderful little book of experimental fiction that reads like poetry. In it, Marco Polo is telling Kaublai Khan, an emperor, about the cities he has visited. At some point it becomes clear to Kublai that he is, in fact, describing the same city over and over again. the book consists of tiny, poetic “chapters” that are the descriptions of this city. The context seems a fairly obvious literary device, similar to the walls of a home: it allows life to be contained within. Each chapter is delightful adventure of the senses. This line, above all, encapsulates the enchanting quality of this book: “There is a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening, with the odor of the elephants after the rain, and the sandalwood ashes growing cold in the braziers, a dizziness that makes rivers and mountains tremble on the fallow curves of the planispheres”.
May Sarton’s journals should be consumed as a series meditations on the inner life of an artist – and by artists, I mean any human in relentless pursuit of their own authentic life. I could have done without the detailed descriptions of flowers, but then again, they seemed to be sources of awe and inspiration for Sarton. Not so much for me. More than anything else, what I got from this book was validation that my own deep desire for solitude is wholesome and that I am not alone in that need. My favorite quote:
“I am here alone for the first time in weeks, to take up my ‘real’ life again at last. That is what is strange- that friends, even passionate love, are not my real life unless there is time alone in which to explore and to discover what is happening or has happened. Without interruptions, nourishing and maddening, this life would become arid. Yet I taste it fully only when I am alone here and ‘the house and I resume old conversations’.”
The backdrop of everything I’m writing and reading these days is sprinkled with Luke Howard’s haunting piano compositions. I especially recommend Ten Sails, his 2015 collaboration with trumpetist Nadje Noordhuis.
This playlist helps me remember to come home to my heart.
This song (on the Breathe 2 playlist!) featuring Alan Watts, contains in it all the mystery I seek so tirelessly to understand in the world and to recognize in my Self these days.
And this song, a gift from my friend Harmony, reminds me to trust the direction of my heart,
even especially in the storms.
I tend to indulge my celebrity crushes (usually writers) heartily, nursing a few at a time, often the authors the books I’m currently reading. My ferocious inquiry into how these humans tick informs a lot of the listening I do. Podcast Addict has a function that allows the user to add a search based podcast to the list of podcast subscriptions, so at the top of my podcast list are the names and faces of whomever has most recently captured my curiosity.
Right now I am voraciously consuming all the interviews I can find with Anthony Doerr, one of my favorite authors – a writer whose skill at the craft is a marvel of otherworldly dimension. Here is one of my favorites:
Hilary Mantel, an author who was brought to my attention by Mr. Doer in an interview with The NY Times about what he likes to read, is the prize-winning author of Wolf Hall, which I am currently reading (and Bring Up The Bodies, its sequel). These historical novels revolve around Thomas Cromwell, a weathered and worldly man of low birth who becomes adviser to King Henry VIII.
Admittedly, this sounds boring; and Tudor England is a notoriously thorny subject, which is why Mantel’s rendering of Cromwell’s life, rich with internal landscape and personal growth, is especially masterful. I quite like the main character and identify with him deeply: his brutal past, his sensitivity, the space he occupies between these polarized selves. The passage below is a touching demonstration of how he cloaks his empathy in the masculine roughness demanded by the time.
Marginalia – those terribly valuable observations you jot in the margins of books – is something I re-learned from Maria Popova, the author and curator of Brainpickings, a wildly successful blog, and one of few that I read religiously.
Popova writes about the meaning she derives from whatever she is currently reading, often the out-of-print diaries and letters of long-dead writers and artists. Sometimes she also reads and reports on newer explorations of timeless wisdom, like The Lonely City by Olivia Laing, a captivating work that “thrives between genres” about the relationship between loneliness and art [source]. You can listen to a short reading from the book about loneliness and technology on the Guardian Long Read.
What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time, these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged. It hurts, in the way feelings do, and it also has physical consequences that take place invisibly, inside the closed compartments of the body. It advances, I’m trying to say, cold as ice and clear as glass, enclosing and engulfing.” -Olivia Laing, The Lonely City
While Doerr and Mantel are, to me, exalted giants of literature whose feet I am unfit to wash, Popova and Laing are flesh-and-blood role-models, closer to my own age and writing in that nebulous personal-essay-meets-memoir-meets-non-fiction genre that feels like home to me. What do they do all day? How do they support themselves? When do they work out*, what do they love to eat, how did they find the courage to pursue these writing dreams? These are the things I ache to know.
*Turns out Maria Popova, a native Bulgarian, was previously a competitive body builder and runs sprints at the gym while she reads.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Historical Fiction
Gyasi’s sweeping narrative traces forward the lineage of a fictional family in Africa from the beginning of the slave trade to their descendants in modern day America. I still can’t fathom the width and breadth of racism in this country, or the damage done to the very real people that were enslaved. Within the pages of this book, as in real life, it is the resiliency of the human spirit in the face of staggering abuse that inspires me to fill my lungs again: to trust a little more in my humanity, to scream louder on behalf of my peers. Homegoing is a story of how we got to where we are. It’s an astonishing work of art that reels your heart in and then breaks it with reality, over and over again. And yet, somehow, this book still felt warm and inviting in my hands. I made friends, if only to loose them – I made good, good friends.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Non-fiction, Autobiography, Memoir
The palpable attraction – shit, the painfully obvious love – between the author and her incarcerated childhood neighbor, Corey, continues to tear at my heart days after I have put down this refreshingly honest memoir. This relationship is the heartbeat of the book. It pulses through Palm’s description the Kankakee’s dirty water, it wafts above the cheesesteak fries she serves. How can someone you love do something terrible and why doesn’t this make your love disappear? This is a question with which I am acutely familiar. I have rarely seen this internal conflict rendered well, if at all, in literature and this has often made me feel very alone. The sensitive display of such utterly unsolvable conflict is the crowning achievement of this book.
Then there is the drought that is the middle of this narrative, in which I slogged through page after Corey-less page, bored and yearning. Perhaps this is a reflection of the author’s own life. Or perhaps the things we silently year for and grieve come alive on the page in a way that alive things do not. It’s an excusable offense for a first book. And because Palm’s voice is searching and authentic, and because her writing is good, I persevered. And I was rewarded by rich, lightening-veined descriptions of her prison visit at long last. These pages haunt me still, as does the cognitive dissonance within them. I will eagerly consume whatever Palm writes next.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Essay, Feminism, Gender, Race
You should know before you read this review: I’m fairly obsessed with Roxane Gay. I read everything she writes, listen to all the podcasts on which she appears. Basically, I would like to be her when I grow up. Her essays are intelligent, insightful, funny, bold. But more than that, she illuminates concepts in a way I have never experienced before; she puts words to things that occupy a wordless space in my heart. These essays are jam-packed with cultural criticisms and they are motherf*cking magic.
No, not magic. Human. These essays are intellectual AND deeply personal. They’re observing but they’re also participatory. Gay scathingly criticizes immature, one-dimensional pop-culture sensations like “Fifty Shades of Gray” and “The Help” while baring her humanity: Fifty Shades turned her on at times, she cried multiple times during “The Help”. She cops to her own [understandable] bias against white people writing black characters. She writes about the sexual assault that preceded her own weight gain and her desire to occupy more space with the same frankness which which she calls out the elitism of “Girls” (and no, you don’t need to be familiar with pop-culture to understand her work). The valence of both her strength and vulnerability startle, inspire and challenge and, as you might have gathered, I am star-struck silly with delight.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction, Fantasy
This is not a life-changing book, but it’s fun. It’s really fun. It reads like YA lit to me, and if I were Anders’ editor, I would have advised her to strike the sex scene, shaved balls and all, and sell it as such. I loved how easy this was to read and, in equal measure, hated its simplicity (I felt similarly about Station Eleven, minus the love – and fully excused it in The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender precisely because it was sold as Young Adult). While it’s fun to read about hipsters at parties, dialog that begins with “She was like…” makes me want to rip my nails out one by one. That said, Anders’ creativity is mesmerizing and I kept coming back for more. Please make this into a movie so I can actually finish it.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Bone cleaved my heart in two halves and I let it, only to discover ripe fruit inside, dripping with exquisite sensitivity; that which I thought was was my heart was a brown and shriveled walnut-matte shell. Yrsa Daley-Ward’s poetry and prose is a courageous, bold, feminine, authentic to distraction – equal in power only to the work of nayirrah waheed and Warsan Shire. Her words burst with pain, with joy, with that thing in yourself you have neglected, with Yes (and also with no). I feel like I know her intimately. More than that, I feel like she knows me.
Like salt, these poems will invite you to your core. Be afraid. Be courageous. Dive.
every poem. here.
is an unwrite.
of everything that has been written in me without. permission.
-nayyirah waheed, nejma
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Essay, Nature , Memoir
Rich with earth and hot like a desert wind, High Tide In Tuscon emerges – to my surprise – as one of my favorite Kingsolver books. Packed, as usual, with delightful observations about the natural world, it feels like Kingsolver is in her natural habitat in these essays – or, at least, can’t wait to get back to it: her cowboy boots, her inquisitive toddler, the post-divorce smattering of reliable, workaday friends. With intriguing personal inquiry on why she chose to move to the desert and oft-painful personal realizations about how to be a good parent to an small but emerging human, this collection of essays felt like a portal to my true home, nestled in the dry-sage earth. If you like Kingsolver’s fiction, this will make you feel like she’s your friend.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Genre: Non-fiction, Memoir, Writing
This is a memoir about the finding of one’s own voice; an uncomfortable and necessary task if one wants to be free from the narratives thrust upon her. I do. And this book spoke deeply to those still-bound parts of me. I had not read any of Karr’s memoirs when I read this book, but it stood on its own. Karr is ruthlessly honest (but measured); articulate (but playful). I will read this again and again.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Non-fiction, Creativity, Self-help
I feel exactly the same about this book as I did about The Signature of All Things: bored. I didn’t learn anything new, I wasn’t moved or changed or challenged. I just went on a comfortable ride through a comfortable climate and was reminded, comfortably, to keep at it – but only if I want to. The only useful part of this book was Gilbert’s policy of greeting rejection letters by sending them back out into the world. Her childhood fearfulness was interesting, but as usual, she shies away from difficult subjects (also her parents are perfectly supportive, yawn). It was mildly validating in its encouragement of creativity and for someone balanced on the ledge of should-I-or-shouldn’t-I-create, this book could be a balm for teetering legs. Big Magic can be summarized in one clause: Everyone who wants to create should create.