Category Archives: Nonfiction

Cultivating Discomfort

From An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor:

“…I stopped the poetry reading earlier than I had planned, but at the break I had them all go outside and read at least one poem to a tree. I could not have asked someone to do something like that when I was thirty years old, but at fifty-six, I am willing to take more risks. Some of the students looked at me as if they were deciding whether it was too late to transfer to another class, but…after the break I had some converts.

“‘I read those poems before I got here,’ one of them said, ‘and they were okay. Poetry’s just not my thing. But when I read one of them to the tree like you said, it sounded different to me. It was like the words had an inside and an outside and I had only read the outside. Reading them to the tree, I heard the inside. The words were so beautiful I almost cried.’

“‘I felt completely stupid,’ another one said, ‘standing there in the quadrangle reading to a tree, but after a couple of lines I realized that the tree was really liking it. I am going to try reading to a bird next.’

“After the testimonials were over we all agreed that we would not speak to the other graduate students about this experience, at least not until happy hour. My point is how often we are embarrassed to do and say the things that really affect us. Perhaps this is because we cannot defend ourselves while they are happening. Or perhaps we have a corporate agreement that we will not embarrass one another, even if it means never going very deeply into the things that matter the most to us.”

The Interplay of Contemplation and Creativity

What I’m reading right now:

 

 

Summarized in the phrase “pray and work,” “The Rule of St. Benedict” provides the inspiration for Christine Valters Paintner’s newest exploration of the mutually nourishing relationship between contemplative practices and creative expression. Artists of all stripes and stations in life—poets or painters, potters or photographers—will discover how traditions of Benedictine, Celtic, and desert spirituality can offer new sources of inspiration for their work. Through this twelve-week course, themes like “Sacred Tools and Sacred Space,” “Creative Solitude and Community,” and “Nature as a Source of Revelation and Inspiration” are enriched by Paintner’s perceptive discussion and enhanced by insightful quotations from well-known artists and writers. Each week offers suggestions for grounding both the creative and the spiritual life through three basic practices: walking, lectio divina, and journaling. In sync with Paintner’s vibrant Internet presence, The Artist’s Rule is supplemented with online resources, including guided meditation podcasts, video lessons, and discussions.

Buy this book

Three Ways to Deal with the Hard Stuff

This is going to be short. It has to be. Thanks to an unexpected case of tendinitis–though is there ever a case that is expected?–in my left shoulder, I’m typing it with my non-dominant hand as I wait for the Ibuprofen to kick in.

And my blog reboot had been going so well!

Luckily, I did some serious spiritual work during my disappearance from social media. Let’s see if any of that meditation, mindfulness, and gratitude practice took root. Right now, I’m calling upon the sage advice of Eckhart Tolle, whose books I’ve read and re-read this past year. As he sees it, there are three sane ways to deal with hard breaks:

  1. Change the situation.
  2. Leave the situation.
  3. Surrender to the situation.

My tendinitis IS. I can’t change it. I also can’t walk away from it. I can only accept that this is what’s happening to me NOW. Well…Tolle admits that there is a fourth way to deal with hard breaks–suffer. But why bother? This injury has caused enough inconvenience and physical discomfort, must I add anger, resentment, impatience? Must I wound myself far more deeply and painfully than the stab in my shoulder?

No.

Not saying it will be easy. I can’t drive like this. I have a disabled mother who requires a lot of physical assistance, and a stepfather who will need transportation to/from a medical procedure in about three weeks. He’s counting on me to provide it. So this is scary.

But I can feel the fear, the frustration, acknowledge it, and then let it go.

So even if my shoulder is injured, I am just fine.

All the rest? It will work out the way it works out, and probably a lot more smoothly without me getting hysterical.

Want to know more about how to thrive no matter your circumstances? Start here:

PUT AWAY THE RAZOR by Carolee Kassman

*Author provided a copy in return for a fair and honest review

If you find yourself facing a hard, dangerous journey, it pays to get the advice from someone who’s traveled the same road and lived to tell the tale.

Put Away the Razor. Surviving Suicidal Thoughts and Beating Back Depression One Day at a Time

Put Away the Razor. Surviving Suicidal Thoughts and Beating Back Depression One Day at a Time

Suicidal Depression is about as hard as it comes life-wise. PUT AWAY THE RAZOR begins with some scary statistics–there are over 1 million suicide attempts in the U.S. each year, and more than 105 people commit suicide each day. When all you can see ahead of you is a dark, yawning abyss and instead of stepping away from the edge, you are drawn to those depths, you need guidance from a soul who knows exactly what you’re going through. Carolee Kassman struggled with her first suicidal thoughts in the 6th grade and knows from experience how–day by terrifying day–it IS possible to turn from death and toward life.

PUT AWAY THE RAZOR is a short, practical, purpose-driven book. That purpose is to help dangerously suicidal people stay alive–even for just another twenty-four hours. It offers a four-step plan to strengthen and support the suicidal/depressed person and provide a way back from the edge if things do go wrong. Central to Kassman’s plan is a transformation in thinking–the ability to counter destructive thoughts with positive ones. What do you live for? Who do you impact in your life? What’s the silver lining in the current troubling situation?

Using unvarnished examples from her own experience, Kassman encourages depressed people to acknowledge how they’re feeling rather than trying to deny or minimize sadness. This kind of honesty can help a person identify the particular triggers that send them into a downward spiral. If you know your triggers you can handle situations that arise before they get out of control. For example, if exhaustion is a trigger, find a way to rest, even if it means admitting to others that you’re not coping as well as everyone thinks. This leads to another tool in Kassman’s survival kit: gathering a support team, lifeguards who can come to your rescue at those times you are going under.

Even with its call to ask for needed help and build support, PUT AWAY THE RAZOR isn’t about considering yourself a victim or waiting around to be rescued. It’s about taking control. Pointing out the strong link between mental illness diagnoses and suicidal behavior, Kassman urges those who live with these illnesses to take a proactive stance toward their own health. They need to learn what works for them and what doesn’t, so that they can ask for and receive treatment that drills deeper than mere symptom control and truly addresses the root causes of their illness.

Personally, I consider Kassman’s most valuable insight to be the simplest: that a person doesn’t have to solve “depression” or “anxiety” or any other huge issue to stay alive. All you have to do is live TODAY. If you have TODAY, you can begin to deal with the other stuff a bit at a time, by making use of Counter Thoughts, emotional honesty, your personal lifeguards, and taking control of your larger health/emotional issues.

With its combination of straight talk and believe-me-I’ve-been-there compassion Carolee Kassman’s PUT AWAY THE RAZOR is a powerful resource for those who feel they have no one to turn to and nothing to live for.

LIVING WELL, SPENDING LESS

Financial blogger Ruth Soukup offers advice for getting the most out of life without going broke.

Living Well, Spending Less: 12 Secrets of the Good Life

Living Well, Spending Less: 12 Secrets of the Good Life

I was surprised at the depth of this book. There’s more here than tips on how to get stuff cheap or cut your grocery bill, though that kind of information is included. But the author also shares her own personal demons–clinical depression bad enough to lead to hospitalization, compulsive overspending. She makes clear the link between emotional conflict and overbuying, clutter and excessive spending, and offers a good discussion on the philosophy behind moderation.

On the practical side, there are plenty of questions and exercises to help readers define The Good Life as it relates to their own lives. Soukup shows how to take steps toward gaining control of your wants, so that you meet your needs and build a solid money management style. The tone throughout is conversational and approachable. There’s a definite Christian slant, but it doesn’t cross the line into preachy and it doesn’t diminish the book’s value to those with a more secular view of the world.

A useful book about the meaning of money and the power it exerts.

Review: IF YOU WERE ME AND LIVED IN CHINA

A short, beautifully illustrated introduction to China for young readers.

If You Were Me and Lived in...China: A Child's Introduction to Culture Around the World

If You Were Me and Lived in…China: A Child’s Introduction to Culture Around the World

This book attempt to give children a brief, flavorful introduction to the geography and culture of china. Each two-page section takes on a specific aspect of the nation…geography, history, food…and included boxed text and a lavish illustration. The text presents Chinese terms along with a bracketed phonetic pronunciation. By the end of the book, the reader has a nice handful of useful Chinese vocabulary words and phrases.

I did find the text a bit cramped and the text boxes dark, especially in contrast to the light, bright and generously proportioned illustrations. illustrations. I read the book on a new tablet with back lighting and I had to almost squint to make out some of the text. Part of the issue is likely the black font is enclosed in a burnt orange text box. A paler color would’ve worked better. And taking the font up even one or two points would have made a big difference.

Overall a fun and informative book.

Finding Your Natural Audience

A review of Intentional Practice & the Art of Finding Natural Audience ( a framework for artists and professionals) by Marc Zegans.

Intentional Practice & The Art of Finding Natural Audience: A Framework for Artists and Professionals (Intentional Practice in the Arts and the Professions)

Buy this book on Amazon

Artists and professionals don’t have to choose between their integrity and making a living.

In this article, Marc Zegans offers a thoughtful approach to facing market realities while maintaining artistic/professional ideals. Since it is relatively short, I can’t go into as much depth as I normally might or readers could be tempted to take the summary in place of the article. That would be a shame. Zegans sets out a clever program for using one’s core beliefs to both create their best work and reach those who will be most receptive to that work.

Zegans process of intense practice manages to meld intuition with practical method. The bridge between art and audience is a series of diagnostic questions that keep the artist in tune with the message/intention his art conveys and aware of those who share the intention and are therefore the “natural” audience for that message in the form of a book, painting, or music CD. Further, readers learn how even their natural audience is made up of distinct types of individuals. Zegans calls them champions, collectors, and visitors. Understanding the differences between these “fans” helps the artist further hone and direct her message.

I will say that the language Zegans employs is a bit more formal and academic than some artists might be used to. Artists and professionals are so used to getting marketing tips in bite-sized, bullet-pointed blog posts and newsletter features where they can scan the sentences in bold type and glean the major points in a minute or two. This article requires close reading and focused attention. Further, putting the advice it offers into practice is an ongoing process. So, it’s good that the article is short–since you’ll likely have to come back to it multiple times as you fine tune your audience-finding efforts.

A somewhat demanding but valuable primer for artists and professionals preparing to face the marketplace.

Review: THE LIFE-CHANGING MAGIC OF TIDYING UP

Life works better when everything is in its place.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

I approached this book more as a cultural study than a how to manual. I enjoyed the peek it gives into contemporary Japanese life–like the idea of collecting little “fortunes/blessing” tokens from shrines and monasteries. How they can pile up and actually become powerless after a year as the luck is used up. Little cultural details like this are more interesting than much of the tidying advice. Not that there aren’t some useful tips on tackling your mess. Kondo’s assertion that it’s better to have one huge clear out than to try to do it piecemeal has a lot of merit.

Kondo’s authorial voice was the biggest negative for me. Her tone tips the balance from enthusiastic to strident. I’m not sure I believe she’s been a fanatical tidier since age five. Or the part about making “studies of organization” at age eight. It’s just a little too outlandish. And the long, long section on “how to fold” got tedious.

I did enjoy Kondo’s ideas about the spirit inherent in inanimate objects, and how that spirit impacts our daily lives. Also, her focus on understanding what our stuff really means to us is important. We give our clutter such power over us, over our mood and our self-image. Kondo’s book is a good reminder that our personal space and the things we allow into it matters.

What Matters in the End

Atul Gawande’s BEING MORTAL is a penetrating and insightful exploration into how modern medicine’s focus on extending life at all costs can lead doctors and other carers to harm those they want to serve.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

The author begins his discussion with a detailed look at how modern society deals with aging. He points out that this isn’t just a matter of the locus of care of the elderly and infirm shifting from the extended family to professional caretakers. It’s an overarching attitude that aging is a disease to be fought rather than a natural process that needs to be accommodated in a way that preserves the older person’s general well being. Too often, elder care focuses on health and safety to the exclusion of personal satisfaction–even if it means stripping adult human beings of their independence and freedom of choice. Treating old people like children or prison inmates to keep them “safe” (from falls, from advancing chronic illness, from failing to take their medicine) undermines their happiness and quality of life. Gawande points out that the assisted living movement, designed to solve a lot of these conflicts, has been damaged by its own success. It is so profitable that corporate overseers want to maximize returns even if it means they chip away at their original mandate–to focus on the independence and day-to-day satisfaction of residents.

The second part of the book deals with care of the terminally and chronically ill. Here technology has become a two-edged sword. It allows people to live longer through new medications, diagnostic procedures and surgical advances. But in doing so it urges people to look for “the next new cure” even when the risks far outweigh the benefits and might make one’s last days more miserable than necessary. Gawande suggests that doctors treating the terminally ill ask patients what is most important in their lives. What do they most want to continue to do as long as possible? What are they willing to risk or give up to attain that goal? These are also the questions patients must ask themselves when an eager medical professional suggests yet another potentially toxic drug or risky procedure. Ironically, studies of cancer survival rates show that these heroic measures either don’t add to survival times or at most add a few weeks to a few months.

What I like about Gwande’s approach is that he never makes blanket statements about how doctors or patients should approach illness/aging. He simply suggests that people take the time and trouble to consider what the patient/older person’s personal goals are. It may well be that they want to try anything and everything to live as long as possible. But it’s just as possible that they don’t. That a comfortable, well-lived “now” is more important to them than squeezing every minute out of life.

Life as a Work of Art

I hadn’t heard of Amanda Palmer before a friend recommended this book saying it changed how she managed her indie writing career. Have to say that I admire Palmer’s honesty and her bravery. She holds nothing back as she describes her struggles to live her art. At times I doubted there was a usable takeaway for the more introverted among us. But the more I read, the more I saw that the same online world Palmer makes such good use of can be a comfy place for shy people to connect with fans and fellow artists

The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help

The Art of Asking; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help

Palmer’s strength is her beautifully human approach to art. Her efforts to democratize it, making and sharing it in a way that doesn’t depend on mainstream Curators of Culture, is refreshing. I also appreciate that she doesn’t minimize the financial worries that haunt creative types. Most of us would work for free if not for a few inconvenient truths–such as the need for food, shelter, and antibiotics. Palmer shows by example how we don’t have to make a fortune from our art for it to count. Just the fact that you’ve created a painting, a book, a performance piece, gives it value. At the same time, she acknowledges that society doesn’t always see things this way. It’s okay to work in an office sixty hours a week to afford a BMW and trips to Aruba. But working in an ice cream shop to buy time to paint or write? That only counts in hindsight–after snagging the book-movie deal or the show on reality TV.

THE ART OF ASKING does jump around in time, and the text is occasionally interrupted by song lyrics, but this jagged style fits Palmer’s story and reflects her personality. On the whole, it’s an entertaining and thoughtful memoir by someone who’s led a fascinating life just by following her own star.