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These spiritual reflections of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (AD 121-180) show a leader trying to make sense of himself and the universe, and cover diverse topics such as the question of virtue, human rationality and the nature of the gods. In developing his personal beliefs, Aurelius created one of the greatest works of philosophy: a series of wise and practical aphorisms that have been consulted by statesmen, thinkers and everyday philosophers for almost two thousand years.

The four months of ceiling and kitchen renovations are over, and I am back once again at my old day job as a kitchen hand and behind-the-counter sandwich and salad flunky. It’s not bad work, in and of itself: I would quite enjoy wielding my knife in a quiet corner of the kitchen, running on automatic to do this simple work, and using the time to think about books I’m reading, projects I’m planning, something I want to write.

Unfortunately, the fly in this Zen ointment is the boss, as she makes this sort of quiet, peaceful industriousness nearly impossible. She’s had this business for years and years, you’d think that by now she’d have acquired a more placid and practical attitude to the little hurdles and challenges that, naturally, pop up when your business is food-related and relies on daily deliveries of fruits and vegetables, on the cooking gas getting delivered, on backpackers who sometimes don’t turn up for work, and where time and freshness are of the essence. These are the sort of wobblies that any seasoned manager or business owner learns to take in his stride—because having a cussing fit, or bursting into tears, or taking your frustrations out on the staff, or storming around the kitchen like a whirlwind because you’re running behind (and then usually dropping something, which slows us down more, and makes matters worse) doesn’t improve anything, and stresses everyone else out.

After three years on and off at this job, I’ve managed to become desensitized to the high dramas that rock the foundations of this little empire of yogurt and chickpeas, in that I no longer take anything she says or does personally (because, well, to put it mildly, she’s a headless chicken—when a problem turns up, she cannot follow any sensible line of  reasoning, reacts with her emotions, and lashes out nastily because it’s all too much for her. And then she takes you out for coffee at the end of the day, having forgotten everything, and talks about jewelry as though you were just two gabbing girlfriends on a shopping spree) but I still have trouble conducting myself as though she didn’t exist (because I am not rude enough to wear ear plugs in her presence) and I still struggle to maintain a serene and impassive countenance under the barrage of sometimes stupefying things she can carry on about.

After Day One at the job this week, I wearily betook myself to a bookshop and, browsing the shelves for A Sign from God, came upon Marcus Aurelius.

“Men seek retreats for themselves—in the country, by the sea, in the hills—and you yourself are particularly prone to this yearning. But all this is quite unphilosophic, when it is open to you, at any time you want, to retreat into yourself. No retreat offers someone more quiet and relaxation than that into his own mind, especially if he can dip into thoughts there which put him at immediate and complete ease: and by ease I simply mean a well-ordered life. So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself. The doctrines you visit there should be few and fundamental, sufficient at one meeting to wash away all your pain and send you back free of resentment at what you must rejoin.”

—Marcus Aurelius, #3, Book 4 of Meditations

Meditations are a collection of passages that this much-loved Roman emperor wrote for himself...a diary, in other words, where he developed his personal philosophy and attempted to answer that eternal question, “How should one live?”

I have never read his writings before, though I’ve known about him for 14 years because Kris considers him a major influence in his own life. “One of my teachers,” is what Kris calls Marcus Aurelius. My little Popular Penguin edition of Meditations is like a deep-tissue massage for the soul. I carry it with me like a talisman these days…dipping into it during my 15 minute breaks, before heading back into Hell’s Kitchen. I can open the book almost anywhere, and find a passage that resonates with my own feelings, that whittles all the confusion of the world down to beautiful, simple ideas, and that nourishes my mind and spirit. There are really only half a dozen books (if that!) in my life that I feel this way about. Alain de Botton‘s The Consolations of Philosophy is one. Coleman Barks‘ translation of The Essential Rumi, and Kris Larsen’s Monsoon Dervish are others. In high school, Richard Bach’s Illusions was “one  of my teachers,” as were Herman Hesse’s Siddharta, Strunk and White‘s Elements of Style, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and Kahlil Gibran‘s The Prophet. You know the sort of volumes I mean? Those slim, cheap paperback books that you often have more than one copy of (because every time you come upon a copy, like an old friend sitting forlorn on a shelf, you have to take it with you) Those dog-eared manifestos that you carry around in your backpack when you travel—and the extra weight be damned—or that you pack separately from the rest of your library when you move to another house or another country? Taken together, these works constitute my bible. They mold my thoughts and guide my actions, they teach me how to live, and prepare me to die.

It’s such a delicious feeling, knowing that life can be a gradual discovery of books written by teachers like these, and that the consolations of their wisdom are available to anyone that wants them. Like a gingerbread cottage, in a forest where the witch has gone to visit her sister.

What are some of the essential books in your life’s backpack?

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reading pile…

Picnik collage

Between bouts of painting or embroidery, I have also been reading. What a delicious, decadent thing it is to have the afternoon off, and a new book from the library waiting to be cracked open! I get shivers of pleasure just knowing that such an afternoon is waiting for me. I can’t get over what a privilege it is to be able to sit down for a spell, open a book, and—how can this not be magic?—suddenly find a distinct human voice, the voice of an author…from another place, a different culture, another time, start to speak.

These are the books I’ve managed to read since August. Any of them familiar to you? If you’ve read a title or more, I’d love to hear what you thought of it/them.

*********

Status Anxiety and How Proust Can Change Your Life,

both by Alain de Botton

Fine, fine, I’m a big fan of pretty much anything de Botton writes. I like the easy, familiar, almost casual way he moves through forests of philosophy, literature, and The Big Ideas. I like the way he applies classical thinking to solve or at least illuminate very ordinary, modern problems—calling on heavy artillery like Aristotle, Seneca, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Montaigne, Proust and many others, to deal with these sordid, pathetic, all-too-human grievances.

Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman

What can I say? Gaiman is a fantastic storyteller, with an imagination that is not of this world. He is playful and experiments a lot—as he did with the stories and fragments in this work—but his play is backed up by a tremendous body of knowledge about all things strange, creepy, sublime; also, a passionate curiosity about all the quirky things that make up the experience of being human. When this writer asks “What if…?” universes are banged into existence, and some of them are so wonderful that I find myself wishing I could apply for citizenship, and move there. Also, his language is a joy. Neither too erudite nor dumbed down, the words are chosen not only for their meanings, but for their music. Gaiman’s stories are perfect to read out loud, because they sound lovely. Not a word out of place, not one unnecessary phrase or sentence.  Hard to explain, neither frugal nor extravagant…like Goldilocks’s porridge test, Gaiman’s choice of “the best words, in the best order” is somehow Just Right.

My only puzzled question about Fragile Things pertains to his story about a Chinese Emperor who went crazy designing bigger and bigger maps…maps so true to the original (scale 1:1) that they became quite useless.  Gaiman writes a short introduction/background about each of his stories, and I couldn’t figure out why, in his introduction to this particular story, he made absolutely no mention of either Lewis Carrol‘s Sylvie and Bruno, or Jorge Luis Borges‘ short story The Rigours of Science (Del rigor en la ciencia) upon which Gaiman so obviously based his own work on. I cannot believe it was oversight, and I am positive he did borrow the idea from one or the other, if not both…there is no way that he could have stumbled upon the same idea on his own…not because he isn’t clever enough, but because it would have been impossible for a writer and reader of his calibre to avoid Carrol’s and Borges’ story in all the years of his life. Maybe he just didn’t think it mattered enough to mention his sources…*shrugs* Fair enough, I’ll accept that. I’ll accept anything, so long as Gaiman writes it. *smile*

Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev by Robert Dessaix

Interestingly, Robert Dessaix’s wiki says that this work takes its inspiration from “Alain de Botton‘s works on travel, art and philosophy.” Explains why I like it so much, it does run along the same vein. Defying classification, it is a personal travelogue that incorporates, or at times runs parallel to biographical notes on Turgenev. I love both kinds of writing…artistic or philosophical reflections upon travel, as well as stories of the larger-than-life Russian writers of the 19th century. This book was like listening to an orchestra perform a major work: pleasurable and rich, but I had to work for that pleasure, I had to pay attention in order to get something back.

The Library At Night by Alberto Manguel

Books about books are some of my favorite reading. The Library At Night looks at both real , fictional, and mythical libraries. Manguel writes about library architecture, unusual and eccentric systems of cataloguing, the destruction of some of the world’s greatest libraries, the survival of others, about famous librarians (Borges, already blind, became Director of The National Library in Buenos Aires). It’s a beautiful celebration of the library as more than just a storage for books, but a symbol of man’s thirst for knowledge, of human life (as in Borges’ fictional library, where heaven is a library and every life is a book), in our longing—already become nostalgia—for immortality.

After Dark by Haruki Murakami

Not among my major favorites by this author, but I liked fragments tucked away here and there. The world in Murakami’s writing is generally quite stark, lonely, isolated…one gets the impression of too much unnatural light…small cold rooms in large unfeeling buildings…the echoing sanitary hallways of hospitals…and there is always a maddening feeling that everything has gone quiet, expectant, and something is about to explode. In his major novels, explode it does, and there a very satisfying catharsis. After Dark sort of kept that hushed and expectant feeling through to the end, and after I’d shut the book I felt like there were bright white spots clouding my vision, as though I’d been staring at a thousand-watt bulb for three hours, when the lights were suddenly turned off.

An interesting thing about this book is that the persona is Mari, a young woman…usually his personas are male (though I have not read all his novels). Although even as the lead character, Mari is rather meek. She’s cool—I liked her—not a silly, giggling girl, but slightly cynical, guarded, definitely able to think for herself, a reader of thick books. A friend of mine told me she was irritated by the way Murakami depicts women: weak, passive, victims, prizes, or objects. I agree, Murakami’s women are mannequins; but I’m way past the point where I read a feminist slight into this, or insist that a book’s female characters be strong and complex and compelling. Probably because I am past the age of looking for female role models from among the characters in books. Also, it must be terribly hard to be a typical male, and write from within the head of woman. Come to think of it, many of the male-authored female characters I have enjoyed were so likeable probably because they were actually men, trying to be women, and that’s what made them so tough.

The parts I loved in this book are where Murakami writes about the Dark, the Night, the phantom hours between nightfall and dusk…where, he posits, the hard, crisp edges between people dissolve, the boundaries waver, reality twists and our dreams and fears and pain and longing all become part of one dark, deep, monster-trawled ocean. Like Robert Frost, Murakami is one acquainted with the night…and he reveals these long, lonely hours with tenderness, with knowing.

Strangers by Taichi Yamada

This is a great little jewel of a book, a ghost story quite unlike your typical Western ghost story. A television scriptwriter moves into his office after losing his house to his ex-wife in divorce. The building is occupied by businesses and offices—buzzing with phones and commerce by day, but empty at night—and there are only two people who actually live in units, the writer, and a young woman named Kei. The ghosts of the story are the writer’s parents, and there is nothing terrifying about them…quite the opposite, they are lovely people and being able to see them again brings the writer tremendous joy and peace. But the unnatura contact between the living and the dead is killing him. Kei’s love for him seems like the only thing that can save him from crossing over to the other side.

this short novel blew my mind. The writing (even in translation) was refreshingly bland…no, really! It’s like your own voice, when it’s running along, in its ordinary way, in your own head…and that’s what gave this work such verisimilitude: No heroic or poetic pronouncements, no Henry Miller cerebral acrobatics (see next book)…just a salary man muttering and musing to himself. It’s a voice you don’t hear all the time unless you are alone a lot. And that’s what this book is all about…the tremendous loneliness that can exist in individuals, and their desperate attempts to break out of that loneliness, and connect with one another.

The ending of Strangers totally threw me for a loop, too…no spoilers, this is one you’ve got to read for yourself. It’s delicious.

Plexus by Henry Miller

Fascinating Mr. Miller…Plexus is the second in a trilogy known as the Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy. The novel is largely autobiographical, and covers the period in Miller’s life when he and his second wife were bumming in New York…trying to find the money to live in the decadent and high-spirited way to which they were accustomed, but without having to succumb to a regular and soul-killing nine-to-five job. Not yet published, but convinced that he is destined to be a writer, Miller seems so ‘stuck’ and yet manages to hang onto his conviction that one day he will write something, and it will be amazing.

And so he did. This is a massive book, so much (disparate) material mixed into it (just like a real life, I guess you could say) and sometimes Miller waxes sentimental, sometimes he’s a bearded prophet in furs, come out of the wilderness raving and prophetic, and sometimes he’s a lazy and irresponsible jerk, but always, always, he is an artist, deep in his soul—not just when it’s easy or convenient, but even when they haven’t eaten for days, or have nowhere to sleep, Henry Miller knows that to run for security and comfort will cut him off from the writer he is destined to be. And those are the best parts of the book, the art and literature ravings, the gut-wrenching fears of failure, the struggle to stay true to something that nobody else can see. I think every artist should read Plexus, to see that the creative life isn’t always a bed of roses, sometimes it’s a road to crucifixion.

Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono

this will have to wait…I’m not very deep into it, yet. Jumped the gun, adding it to the mosaic (for symmetry’s sake, no doubt).

*********

I don’t feel comfortable reviewing books…I pretty much like anything that I read, because the ones I can’t stand, I don’t bother to finish. Really, in the end, everyone’s got their likes and dislikes, I think that one should read whatever calls out to her, and not force herself to read those titles—however classical, celebrated, or popular they may be—which she clearly does not enjoy.

That said, give each book a chance, read at least a few pages to see how it develops…to reject a book simply because you have decided you don’t like the genre it has been thrown in with, or precisely because it is the sort of doorstop tome that snooty literary types insist you must read, is just as foolish. A book is a voice, and every voice deserves a chance to make itself heard, if only so that you can make an informed decision about whether you want to go on listening to that voice or not.

handgeweorc : : leading the soul camel home

Camel

It has been five days since I returned to Darwin after a month-long visit with family and friends in Manila, and only today do I feel comfortable with being back home and taking up residence within my old life again.

The first two days were something out of Dante’s Purgatorio…I was using the words ‘lost’ and ‘disoriented’ repeatedly, to describe the way I was feeling. Often these words were accompanied by a strong urge to cry. During the daytime I wanted nothing more than to sleep the time away…sleep as though dead; but at night I would fidget and squirm next to my husband, complaining of restlessness and imaginary discomforts.

“Oh, jet lag!” the modern world would diagnose, and prescribe pills or a bizarre schedule of waking and sleep that involved long walks, alcohol, and caffeine. But jet lag (extreme tiredness and other physical effects felt by a person after a long flight across several time zones) just doesn’t manage to explain away the full range of ‘effects’ experienced by someone who has just traveled, over the space of a few hours, from a Third-World Asian megalopolis like Manila, to the relatively sparsely populated, big empty streets of a small-scale city like Darwin in Australia…with the total time difference comprising a mere hour and a half.

Neither is culture shock (the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes) to blame when, as now, the traveler is having difficulties assimilating the details of her own home environment!

What has really been going on? The way I see it, I was traveling too fast this time, and my soul was left behind. In Singapore, actually.

Life is so short, we must move very slowly.
—Thai proverb

I have hardly ever traveled by plane. This recent Darwin-Manila (and back again) trip has required my first international flights since 1979, when my parents took me, aged 5, to the USA. Otherwise, Kris and I pretty much travel overland on foot or by bicycle…further afield, we go by bus or car; we move between neighbouring islands by row boat, pump boat or ferry, and between neighbouring countries by sailboat. The few times I boarded a small plane for a domestic flight I experienced a confusion and disruption similar to (but only for a few hours…a day, at the most) my recent condition.

In his books, essays and interviews on the subject of modern travel, Alain de Botton explains:

“There used to be time to arrive…time to get used to the idea of being in a place…nowadays, people constantly get to their destinations too quickly…arriving in Mumbai or Rio, Auckland or Montego Bay, only hours after leaving home, their slight sickness and bewilderment lending credence to the old Arabic saying that the soul invariably travels at the speed of a camel.”

My soul arrives at the speed of a camel…(may as well be a camel, then, eh? Why not? A Soul Camel) to which ancient wisdom I would like to add that, according to my grandmother, the Soul—like a small child—is easily lured away from its familiar (hence boring) body by all things new and unexplored…charming little colonial streets, marketplace tchotchkes, the beckoning wonders of a foreign land. What am I saying? I’m saying that when I took the train into the city of Singapore and got off at Bugis Station, my soul took one look at those little shops with marzipan mouldings in pastel colors, and parks full of modern sculptures, and went off to explore the place on its own…taking all of five days to catch up with me in Darwin.

Makes perfect sense. Explains a whole bunch of things that neither jet lag nor culture shock can. Alain de Botton (sort of) concurs…and that’s always a good sign. What is more, my grandmother moved through her life with the purpose and authority of a military commander—looking much less lost, insecure, and confused than a lot of so-called rational and scientific people I have met—so why wouldn’t I take her word over theirs?

What to do till the camel comes home…

Don’t fret, for it will catch up. In the meantime, don’t make too many demands on yourself…accept that you’re not quite arrived yet—not all of you, anyway—so you can’t expect to snap perfectly into your old life like a piece of Lego.

Go slowly, be patient with yourself and others, find activities that you can work on quietly and in solitude.

Activities that ground you, similar to the ones witches recommend after working a major spell or raising a cone of power, are good: gentle housework or manual tasks like sprucing up the pot plants, weeding a patch of garden, doing dishes, folding dry clothes, or an easy craft that you know well and won’t have to think too much about…anything that you can do without having to make big decisions or come up with creative solutions, can help ground you.

Such actions connect you to the physical reality of where you are; they help build mini routines, that in turn help to re-establish the bigger routines that made up your life before you went traveling. Routines are firm shells that enclose and delineate space, so that your soul camel—with its creativity and passion and expressive fluidity—can feel safe to check in, unpack, and then jump on the unmade bed until dinnertime.

I planted one packet of marigold seeds and pruned the basil………I brushed the cat for an hour each day………I did the laundry………I brought my bicycle back up to snuff (replaced two broken spokes and trued the rear wheel, changed one tube, cleaned the gears, removed a troublesome mudguard)………

I started on a journal. I worked slowly. On Tuesday I stitched the paper and wooden covers into a coptic binding. Yesterday I played with a few headband ideas that didn’t work out. No matter. I undid everything and went at it from another direction.

This morning I think my soul camel finally arrived—every hairy, harrumphing inch of it—for I was suddenly vacuum-sucked out of my lethargic and bewildered state, into an absolute frenzy for everything I was doing before I left Oz in early March…embroidery, bookbinding, writing, mail art, visual journal pages, reading, working out, designing things, drawing, gardening…oh my god, I want a finger in all these pies, and a lifetime of plums!

I’m back. We’re back. How’ve you all been? ◊

The Consolations of Creativity

Yes, still mucking around with the felt shapes! I am playing with the heart shape, now. Kris rolls his eyes in disbelief… he’s never seen me work with hearts before; it’s not a typical motif for me, admittedly, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like them. I’m actually just daunted by the symbol: it’s so old and so universal that pretty much anything you could think of doing with it has been done. Trying to find a way of making these felt hearts that doesn’t look like everyone else’s felt hearts can be challenging. I threw myself into the task today, cutting 100 heart shapes out of felt and playing with colour combinations (limited, because I have a very small felt stash of odd colours that I didn’t give much thought to when I bought them; my self-imposed rule is that I have to use old materials up, not buy more!) I braced myself with lashings of black coffee, and music from the 80s. It is such a joy to be able to spend the days this way: intense, busy, engaged, mindful…but doing what I love, and making things that I love.

I started reading Alain de Botton‘s The Consolations of Philosophy last night…no doubt the last book I’ll manage to squeeze in before the year ends…and it would have to be the most enjoyable book of the year, too, wouldn’t it? When you find yourself giggling over a book about the ideas of Socrates, Epicurus and Seneca, you know you’ve got a very special philosophy book in your hands, and have found a very special author. Alain de Botton’s humour is so gentle that it works on you slowly, and at first you don’t know whether he’s being funny, or you are. *pregnant pause* This is where I warn you that mine is a black and evil heart, and I have a taste for the funny that runs to morbid. There, a caveat.
The book’s six parts detail philosophy’s consolations for Unpopularity, for Not Having Enough Money, for Frustration, Inadequacy, a Broken Heart, and Difficulties. Part of what I thought was so funny was having to agree with the author (and his philosophers)that “Yes, we humans do make a big technicolor drama out of some ridiculous things, don’t we?” Fifteen pages into the book, I had a silly smile on my face…and by the time I had read halfway, I was laughing out loud. Kris kept looking up from his drawing to check that I was still reading the same book, he couldn’t believe that such a title was making me chuckle. The ideas, of course, are delightfully presented, too…applied to modern life, clearly outlined and presented in a levelheaded way, this is a good introduction to a handful of Western Civilization’s greatest thinkers.

Kris Larsen's With Mermaid Up A Moonberry TreeOther books I read in 2010 were: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and The Discomfort Zone and How To Be Alone; Edward de Bono‘s Six Thinking Hats; Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Everything is Illuminated; David Malouf‘s Ransom; John Banville‘s The Infinities; a whole bunch of books from The New Glucose Revolution series; Martin Versfeld’s The Philosopher’s Cookbook; DBC Pierre‘s Ludmilla’s Broken English; Plain Anne Ellis by Anne Ellis, and my partner, Kris’s, second book, With Mermaid up A Moonberry Tree (which made me cry buckets, but only because it was about the way Kris and I used to live)…and I can’t remember if I read anything else.

Sure doesn’t seem like much! I really hope I manage to do more reading next year…I had a reading list in 2009, but I don’t think any of the books I finally did read were on my list! I find that life very often leads me to, or presents me with, the books that I need to read…do you get that? When something you pick up and start reading speaks directly to who you are, where you are, at that moment? That wouldn’t happen if you were just going down a list and ticking them off as you went, would it? There are advantages to allowing serendipity to choose your books for you. I think I’d like to read more nonfiction next year, but no idea which ones. Mainly books about how to live well, that sort of thing. Like a more gentle, garden variety philosophy, for days when you have your period and can’t focus on Socrates.

What was your favourite read for 2010? Have you got a reading list for 2011, or do you just read whatever comes your way?