Something of Mindlessness

The bench was divided into two sections, I occupied the left side closest to the sun. I took out my book, Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk, and surrendered my to-do list to the blue sky and rippled water of Green Lake.

An older couple came and sat in the other half of the bench next to me. They never say a word. For twenty minutes they held hands, resting their heads together as they gaze at the water, or perhaps something beyond it. The man had a knit green cap, thick brown corduroy pants, and a brown flannel tucked into his shirt. He must run cold, because I was already flushed from the heat and everyone else in sight was wearing shorts. The woman wore faded jeans and a dusty purple sweater. They looked ready for a fall breeze, not the beginning of summer.

Eventually they stood up, without speaking, and began walking away with careful steps. They continued to hold hands as they walked, supporting each other with each slow movement.

I returned to my book.
 

I would like to learn, or remember how to live. I come to Hollins Pond not so much to learn how to live as, frankly, to forget about it. (pg 14)
 

A woman rushed up to me, her curly short hair fluffed by the wind, and asked if her daughter can sit next to me while she ran to the restroom. I looked behind her to see a timid girl with bright blonde hair. I smiled and said yes, that would be fine.

The girl was wearing black capris and a white shirt with rainbow gems along the collar. Her hair was pulled back in a long, buoyant ponytail. I asked her name—India. I asked her age—8. I asked if she was in school—second grade. She said she likes it, but she thinks spelling and math are kind of boring. Her mom returned and they too walked away hand in hand.

A bird pecked by, and every few steps it slowly puffed out, wings extending, making a noise that sounded like a text message alert. It flits away and I gaze back at the yellowed pages.
 

I don’t think I can learn from a wild animal how to live in particular…but I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive. (pg 15)
 

A man parked his bike near mine and sat on the other side of the back-to-back benches. He rested one arm over the top of the bench and huffed in controlled spurts.

Behind us on the walking path a man strummed sporadic cords on an off-tune guitar. He spoke at random:

“I was born in an espresso stand but raised by wolves.”
“Keep it down doggies, I’m trying to talk to the community.”
“Like most people I hate TV, except when I’m on it.”
“I would love to make a dollar today.”

My biker bench companion smirked at me, eyebrows raised—“So much for peace and quiet.” He hoisted his spandex clad body onto his bike. “Good luck with your novel or whatever.” And he rode away.

I had five more minutes before I had to go home and have dinner. The sun was slowly sinking to dance with the water in a mirage of metallic ripples. The bustle behind me continued, the bird resumed it’s notifications, and I finished the chapter.

We can live any way we want…The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn’t “attack” anything; a weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity. (pg 16)

Green Lake sunset
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Tell Me A Story

After 8 days of writing every day, I encountered my first day of writer’s block. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write, it was that words would not even bother to show up in my mind long enough to make it on the page.

Thankfully I know the magic cure for writer’s block: read something. Once I have soaked in a bath of someone else’s poetry, absorbing their eloquence and breathing in the steam of sophisticated prose, it is easy to write again.

This is why today’s favorite thing is not just reading, but a good story.

The book I chose as today’s medicine was actually the Nobel Lecture by Mario Vargas Llosa In Praise of Reading and Fiction, which my wonderful brother mailed to me a few months ago in a surprise care package.
Care Package

Favorite brother award goes to my (only) brother John. And another favorite thing: care packages filled with goodies like this one.

I have already read this book, but I return to it frequently as a reminder of why I read and why I write. Usually this is necessary after I’ve binged on Netflix for too long and forgotten how glorious book pages are.

In the lecture Llosa says, ““We would be worse than we are without the good books we have read, more conformist, not as restless, more submissive, and the critical spirit, the engine of progress, would not even exist. Like writing, reading is a protest against the insufficiencies of life.

Writer’s block certainly counts as an insufficiency of life. Beyond that, reading will also cure loneliness and heartache, complacency and boredom. Reading urges us to be better humans, to reach the full potential of our imaginative neurons and compassionate hearts. All of this is achieved through story.

People have feared the disappearance of paper books ever since the first e-readers hit the market, but people also worry that television and digital content in general will make novels and voluntary reading obsolete.

Such concerns are silly when you consider that human beings are wired to love a good story. Marketing professionals know this, pastors know this, doctors, lawyers, salesmen, inventors, producers, and businesses know this. It is almost impossible to motivate someone to change or adopt your way of thinking without giving them a powerful reason through relatable narrative.

Stories can protest the insufficiencies of life because they fill in the gaps and the questions, even if that is done through more questions. Stories give us permission to ask more of our situations, demanding explanation or purpose. Stories also provide us with the comfort of not knowing, consolation in the face of loss, and room to grieve or wonder.

Stories are one of my favorite things because they give unconditionally, teaching me to simply listen, to be open to the world around me. Even a bad story can be humor in itself. Stories are also a way for me to give back to others, the way we can serve others with the gift of a good story.

Another book I recently reread is The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. The ending is marvelous, and it speaks to the power of this gift when it says “You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words.”

There is great power both in the giving and receiving of stories. They preserve our history and inspire our future. They renew us when life is insufficient and we can’t find our own words to say it.

As Llosa says in the Nobel lecture, “living is worth the effort if only because without life we could not read or imagine stories.”

Pay attention to the stories around you, they can bring any day back from the brink and leave you with something to give out in return.

How have stories affected your life?

The Worst Question to Ask a Book Lover

It causes shudders of frustration, mind somersaults of decisions, and an explanation with lots of “ums” or “wells” or sighing in general.

Someone bold enough to consider asking such a question has also probably uttered queries about why Snape killed Gandalf or which episode Captain Kirk and Darth Vader faced off in. Depending on who they ask, they will either get strangled by the Force, stupefied with a swish, or perhaps given a large eye roll by the less defensive person in the room.

The question in question: What is your favorite book?

As an English major and an avid reader I receive this question more times than I can count. I have also watched as professors, classmates, and fellow readers wrestled with the question in painfully awkward moments of long silence or stuttered excuses. There is a reason that Goodreads has an entire element of their website devoted to book lists. In fact, we could probably fill an entire book with the various lists of books that exist out there.

Why is it so difficult, you ask? I could also make a list of reasons, but here are my top three:

  1. There are different genres for a reason: not all books are the same. Juxtaposing science fiction against a memoir is like trying to compare robots against puppies. Each genre involves a different range of expectations, style, and story development. It is safer to ask someone their favorite book in a specific genre, but you are still left with an ocean of choices.
  2. Decades change the scoring system altogether. Many books gained respect over time and became classics because of their ability to touch on universal themes. Literary writing styles also developed in accordance with declining public attention spans. War and Peace is considered a classic, but few people would call it a favorite because they think Tolstoy took too long to get to the point. This disregards the significance of Tolstoy’s innovation as well as the popularity of longer novels at this time in history. Trying to compare books written in different periods involves a complex analysis of varied language, writing styles, and historical context.
  3. I don’t ask you to pick your favorite child. This may seem extreme to some people, but book junkies will understand the deep emotional attachments that emerge between a reader and a book. So I didn’t actually give birth to it myself, but I carried these books lovingly for a length of time, watched out for their well-being, and saw part of myself in the eyes of each page. Picking a favorite just wouldn’t be fair, especially for the awkward middle book that no one else likes but I know its unique special qualities and love it anyways.

 

In case you still feel a deep desire to know people’s favorite books, you can check out this list of the 10 Best Top 100 Book Lists. That’s right, people even make lists about the best lists because it’s impossible to choose just one.

And if you still persist in asking such questions, go ahead and ask a cinephile their favorite movie, or a chef their favorite dish. I will have the ice ready for your ego when you get back, and a stack of books waiting for you.

What do you say when someone asks you about your favorite book?

Why do you think it is difficult to choose a favorite?

Divine stupidity or a great faith?

I started reading the classic novel East of Eden by John Steinbeck the other day. Besides enjoying it as a great story and excellent piece of writing, I also experienced some moments of inspiration that I wanted to share with you.

Although my copy is a bit tattered, and it’s not technically mine since my brother lent it to me, but I still love it mostly because of this guy on the front cover. Man how could you not be happy with a mustache like that? :)

At the end of chapter two, the following paragraph lay neatly nestled between the story lines, inconspicuous and unassuming. Yet in its humility is where I found its splendor.

“They and the coyotes lived clever, despairing, submarginal lives. They landed with no money, no equipment, no tools, no credit, and particularly with no knowledge of the new country and no technique for using it. I don”t know whether it was a divine stupidity or a great faith that let them do it. Surely such venture is gone from the worl. And the families did survive and grow. They had a tool or a weapon that is also nearly gone, or perhaps it is only dormant for a while. It is argued that because they believed thoroughly in a just, moral God they could put their faith there and let the smaller securities take care of themselves. But I think that because they trusted themselves and respected themselves as individuals, because they knew beyond doubt that they were valuable and potentially moral units– because of this they could give God their own courage and dignity and then receive it back. Such things have disappeared perhaps because men do not trust themselves any more, and when that happens there is nothing left except perhaps to find some strong sure man, even though he may be wrong, and to dangle from his coattails.”