Reading Through Perplexity and Grief

clip_image004Even the first epigraph is a hook. Thomas à Kempis. “Everywhere I have sought rest and not found it, except sitting in a corner by myself with a little book.” A few months ago I read The End of Your Life Book Club (Knopf, 2012) by Will Schwalbe as I had promised myself. (See my blog posting “Reading, Writing, and Vicarious Longevity” — October 2012). Schwalbe does well to honour his mother and the relationship he had with her, particularly through their shared reading, but for me the book lacks depth. Schwalbe’s career as a publisher is both an “in” and a distraction; he’s not a common reader and I couldn’t identify with him. By contrast, Nina Sankovitch’s, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading (Harper, 2011) held me.

At dinner that night, I raised my glass of Italian white, just poured out by our efficient waiter, and looked Jack in the eye. I had his attention.

“To my year of reading,” I announced.

“You’re really going to do it?” he asked.

I nodded.

“A book a day? How about a book a week?” he asked.

No, I needed to read a book a day. I needed to sit down and sit still and read. I had spent the last three years running and racing, filling my life and the lives of everyone in my family with activity and plans and movement, constant movement. But no matter how much I crammed into living, and no matter how fast I ran, I couldn’t get away from the grief and the pain.

It was time to stop running. It was time to stop doing anything and everything. It was time to start reading.

“To your year of reading, then,” Jack seconded, and clinked his glass with mine. “May it be everything you want it to be, and more.”

My mother suffered a stroke in late November, and I moved into her apartment in northwestern Connecticut to be close while she was in rehab working with the physio and occupational therapists. I found Tolstoy and the Purple Chair in a pile of books (more like a mountain of books) by her bed. At the end of Tolstoy Sankovitch lists the 365 works she had read that year, and mom had checked off the ones she had read. Continue reading

Reading, Writing, and Vicarious Longevity

Sacrifice

Sacrifice (copyright Paul Vreeland 2012) Scott Kelby 5th Annual World Wide Photo Walk — Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island

Adding years to our lives is not a numbers game; it’s about living a thousand years of experience during the four score and ten we’ve been allotted. Is that you muttering, “Platitudes and philosophical pap”. Hold on. There’s scientific evidence to the contrary—evidence that also offers a valuable tip to writers. But before we get there, let me develop a theme.

There are, it seems to me, at least three things we can do if we want to extend and expand our lives. First, we can join the slow movement, taking the time to savour moments of our lives. Secondly, we can re-examine portions of our lives and re-live and re-create them. Thirdly, we can live the lives of others, real and imagined. We can be a confidant to earth-bound articulate people with exciting lives and experience the stories they tell us. We can be readers living through characters on the printed page, or we can be writers living through the lives we create.

You’re still muttering. I can hear you. You want the science, I know. Let’s take a walk.

October 13, 2012

The hard edge of a chilly and windy autumn morning pulls at my inadequate jacket, the end of summer sleeping in my eyes. A cold front paints a plain blue pallet on a clear sky. I’m walking the Confederation Trail through Charlottetown with a camera, having joined 32 thousand other photographers in 1300 cities for the Scott Kelby’s 5thannual World Wide Photo Walk. It’s my first World Wide Photo Walk. It has a fixed term of two hours, from 10 a.m. to noon, and a couple of kilometers of fixed locale. And given a dozen other photographers, there is a competitive aspect to the event. How much can we “see” while strolling along a well-trafficked urban path? How much can we “see deeply”? We start out together after a group shot, and the pack soon disintegrates.

Some promoters have billed the Photo Walk as a social event, yet every photographer shoots alone. A hundred meters down the trail another photographer joins me. He chats, I listen, all the while my eyes wanting to be engaged elsewhere. He stops to take a photo, and I leave him. Grateful for the tips he’s given me, I’m happy to be alone again.

Setting out I am overly self-conscious, overly sensitive to a self-imposed pressure to “see” better than the others “see”, or to see what they don’t. And as much as I hate to admit it, I’m self-conscious about my entry-level gear.

My expectations are low and this event is challenge. I’ve walked this trail before. I know where it goes and I know the major landmarks along the way. I wonder if others have scouted the trail in advance, lined up pre-shots. After a few minutes I spot a collection of orange pylons in front of a red storage shed, and I slip into that slow zone where imagination and creativity take control of the clock. The two/three kilometer walk may as well have been fifteen or a hundred and fifty; so much was “seen” during the two hours that passed as two seconds. Cold coffee syndrome: when I take my eye out of the viewfinder, the day’s half over and I’m at the end of the walk, grateful for the lesson.

World Enough
Christian McEwen opens her new book World Enough & Time: on creativity and slowing down (Bauhan Publishing, Peterborough, New Hampshire, 2011) with George’s story—a story about another exercise, another walk, another lesson:

Twenty-five years ago, I was teaching a creative writing class in London. Some of my students were young mothers, relieved to find themselves in adult company again after the unremitting demands of their small children; some were middle-aged, with modest private incomes, and the rest were older people, recently retired.

There was a man in this last group whom I’ll call George, a creaky, lanky, doubtful sort of fellow, perhaps in his mid-seventies. I don’t remember his real name. But I do remember his response to one of my assignments. It was the sort of lesson, at least for me as a teacher, that I hope I will never forget.

`I had asked the class to take some ordinary task—washing the dishes, tidying up the children’s toys—and to tackle it at less than half the usual speed. “Look at the bubbles on the knife-blade as your rinse it,” I told them. “Feel the hot water on your hands. Enjoy that moment when the room is clean, and every single toy is put away.”

The point behind all this, of course, was slowing down: slowing down enough to be there in the present moment, enough so they could notice and describe. I didn’t know much about eastern religions in those days, but what I was proposing was in fact a very basic exercise in what Buddhists would call “mindfulness.”

Several mornings later, everyone gathered around the long oval table to report back on what had happened. George was one of the first to speak. He had a part-time job, he told us, even though he was officially retired. It was a job he had been doing for a great many years. He always walked home along the same few streets, taking the shortest possible route. But the previous afternoon, fulfilling the assignment, he had walked home from work a different way. His face creased with pleasure as he described what he had seen: the pink geraniums in someone’s window-box, the unfamiliar houses. It had taken him perhaps half an hour longer than usual. But he had enjoyed every minute. For the first time in thirty or forty years, his journey had seemed fresh to him.

I read the first chapter of World Enough & Time, and then did something unanticipated. I went back to the beginning and read the chapter again. I’m still reading the book. I wish I could say that about all the books I have opened. Now it seems that when I say, “Oh, yes. I’ve read that book,” stressing the past tense and the act of completion, I’ve missed the point.

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