On reading Coming to Our Senses (Jon Kabat-Zinn)

Almost one hundred pages into Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Coming to Our Senses, I am glad to read, “Confused at this point? Not a problem.”

I have been eking meditation time at night and trying, really trying, to constantly call myself to mindfulness. I want Kabat-Zinn to just tell me how, and instead, he’s telling me why—sort of. There’s a little ‘how’ thrown in; then he writes that meditation is everywhere, that to talk about technique is to completely defeat the purpose. But then he adds that knowing technique can be helpful too.

He wants me to be aware of being aware.

Aaaargh! Just give me a mantra to mutter and tell me how long to breathe in, how many beats on the exhale…

So I sit at night, my back up against the headboard of my bed, trying hard to relax and be aware. I clear my mind—I like to imagine a little broom sweeping away all the detritus of that inner room. And I breathe and I focus on the breath…

…and guess what? I’m thinking about the laundry. Did I change it over? I hate to have a set of soggy clothes sitting overnight.

Wait! I tell myself. Come back to the present; sweep the mind clean.

I breathe in, mindfully. I breathe out.

And now I’m thinking about the yard, which is half a mess. The tree in front is spewing those horny little pom-poms that look like something Dr. Seuss dreamed up. I’ve gotten the front area raked and bagged—and there were more than a few leaves left over from Fall, since it snowed so early. And Mark and I got the area to the right of the walk done Sunday. So that leaves—

Come back!!! Sweep the mind.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

I’m surprised that significant time has passed when I open my eyes. I feel like I’m doing this so completely wrong. And what’s supposed to happen? Where am I supposed to be?

This feels like failure.

And yet.

I take a little inventory and realize that just recently I have begun acting on what I see. I’m washing dishes and I notice an empty pot has rolled out of the carport, dragging a piece of rope with it. There are a couple of little bags that need to go in the trash huddled with them. I dry my hands and run out to pick them up.

Looking out the kitchen window as I return to the dishes I am content—that little vignette looks so much better.

And I’ve been intending to work with Jim on creating a weekly schedule. This week he prints out a template and we fill it in—his appointments, his ‘chore goals’ for each day. We get him set up for the curbside pick-up service to take him to the library Friday, when I’ll be out of town at a meeting.
It feels good to do that, finally.

I pull out the bill file and realize it’s a mess—things are misfiled, unpaid bills are stashed with February’s paid ones; the hanging folders have disappeared. I straighten things and pay what’s due.
As I do that, I notice the number of Kroger trips we’ve made—side trips in addition to the big shoppings, and I take the ledger and the calculator and I figure up just what we spend by taking those little excursions. Ouch! The number hurts, but I am glad to know how money is leaking away; now I can plug that leak.

I meet Kim at Sip’s in Mount Vernon for coffee, and enjoy talking with her about books and church and people whom we both love. Kim has cancer; she’s in a state called ‘reprieve.’
“Come see me,” she wrote. “I have time—but who knows how much?”
All this busyness has been interfering for weeks…and then suddenly, the time was there, and I just went.

The house is straightened, the cookie jar is full; we finally connected with Kay and Brian to plan to get together. The birthday package is in the mail on time, and the weight of things undone does not seem so pressing.

Is that mindfulness? Does that come from awareness? Does meditation foster a clutter-free house? I don’t know…but all of this seems much easier, much more do-able since beginning the book and stepping on to the meditation path. I haven’t gone far, and I’ve already stubbed my toes several times, but maybe, in spite of me, something is happening. I’ll follow Kabat-Zinn’s direction, and sustain and persist.

I do find, though, that I need story. So, in addition to Coming to Our Senses, I am reading a Joanna Trollope novel, The Choir. It’s one of my favorite kinds of relaxing reads—a proper English tale with characters I care about.

This tale takes place in a cathedral town and the central dilemma is whether or not to continue the Cathedral choir. Some plot against; some plot for. The plotters are human and sympathetic even at their Machiavellian worst.

I know which side I’m rooting for.

And it’s interesting to be reading about the Cathedral in the 20th century after reading The Pillars of the Earth, about a cathedral’s construction. Alas—there was intrigue and collusion in the construction process in the 1100’s and now there’s intrigue and collusion in the continued consideration of the cathedral’s role in the life of the town. Do we humans change? Do we grow? Is our consciousness evolving?

These are things on which to meditate.


Coming to Our Senses, by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Coming to Our Senses, by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Hyperion (NY); 2005

Bought through QPB several years ago on the recommendation of my son’s therapist, this book has waited patiently for the ‘right time to read it’ to arrive!


“We have made absorption in the future and in the past such an overriding habit that, much of the time, we have no awareness of the present moment at all. As a consequence, we may feel we have very little, if any, control over the ups and downs of our own lives and our own minds.” (22)

I clearly remember, in that scary stage between high school graduation and figuring it out, wishing I could just go to sleep and wake up twenty years later. By then, I figured, ‘it’ would all have settled down, everything would be firmly in the right place, and I could just move forward. (Just as well not to be able to go back and tell that 18-year-old self that life doesn’t always look much more settled at 38.)

Of course I didn’t really go to sleep. Lots happened in those twenty years–marriage and motherhood, bachelor’s and master’s degrees, a budding teaching career and some administrative positions, the passing of my parents, moves and new friends and much to thank God for. We had challenges, too, like the dawning knowledge that Jim would need more support, school-wise and socially, than the average bear.

Those were years of growth and change, of hurts and tough-earned knowledge and unearthed compassion, and of much that was good and rich and germinating—the seeds still sprouting, the magic still emerging, another twenty years later.

But I can’t say I went through those times with my eyes open and my appreciation on high alert. In fact, there are whole years I think I navigated on auto-pilot—years when the date would suddenly surprise me (“How can it possibly be 1994?”), when my own age came as a suddenly-realized shock.

I careened, even though I often careened in a fairly capable fashion, from passage to passage, and from event to event. Although those were the years when I earned my master’s and we laid the foundation for Mark to begin work on his law degree, it seems like we spent more time reacting than planning. It was as if life were a giant, cloth-covered mallet that kept whacking us, without rhythm; the best we could do was to plan how to absorb the next strike.

Challenging things happen, and we struggle—but the silver lining is that we can always leverage new knowledge and understanding from the difficult times. And so it was by talking with a wonderful therapist when Jim, in his mid-teens, hit a really tough depression wall that I learned about mindfulness and the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn.

I DID incorporate a lot of changes into my life as a result. I went to qi gong classes and started a practice I still embrace. I started writing morning pages in earnest. I practiced meditation, off and on, enjoying it, deepening the habit, and then losing the thread as a Big Thing happened—a job change, a major move, a family shift.

And I ordered Jon Kabat-Zinn’ s books, Wherever You Go, There You Are and Coming to Our Senses. They arrived; I put them on a shelf, ignored them for easier thrills—sorry, books, you’ve been shoved aside by a murder mystery—and moved them to two new homes.

There’s a thing that happens, I think, when you’ve been in school and in a profession that demands and prescribes reading—some of us get rebellious and think, “No one is going to tell me what to read in my leisure time!” I was that way, and so, despite believing in the strong and necessary message of the book, Coming to Our Senses, I just couldn’t make myself read it.

First, I’d say, I’ll just finish this nice little mystery series about knitters by the New England ocean… And then I’d take Jim to the library and come home with four books from the new book shelves—due in two weeks, of course. Gotta read those…might be someone waiting for them…

A falling boulder tips the scales sometimes; others, it’s a featherweight that changes the balance. This winter, no major changed occured; I just looked at the stack of books I’d accumulated (more than a stack, really; they range throughout the house) and thought, “Okay, it’s time.”

And it is. It is the right time now to wake up and read about mindfulness. As my 60’s approach inexorably, as Jim looks at transitioning to adulthood opportunities and challenges, it is time to be aware and awake and proactive—not reactive. I’m looking forward to renewing a meditative practice; I’m looking forward to clearing away the cobwebs and discovering where the path is leading.

I’m looking forward to coming to my senses.

The Pillars of the Earth

“…In both cases, weakness and scruples had defeated strength and ruthlessness. William felt he would never understand it.” (p.908, The Pillars of the Earth)

Brutal. It’s the only word for the actions of some of the powerful, arrogant, ambitious characters in Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. There were scenes that were devastating to read—Aliena’s rape; the death of the miller as the knights pulled down his mill, bringing, inexorably, the heavy millstone down upon the miller. The death scene of Thomas Becket.

Oh, my God; people can be so evil.

Yet the story takes place in the framework of a cathedral, literally—the beginning of Follett’s work leads directly to the beginning of the Kingsbridge building project. As the foundation is laid, the relationships are forged—loyalties, enmities, uneasy alliances—that will shape the story.

What a savage time, in many ways—the 1100’s—and yet it brought us beauty, the incredible architectural breakthroughs of the soaring cathedrals of Europe.

As hopeless and degrading as life is for many of the characters in Pillars, there’s always sunlight breaking through a tiny crack. Some men treat women in bestial ways; but some women rise above the times to become successful. The Church condones unforgiveable acts; but some of its own lead lives of such integrity and goodness that I can see what the Church is meant to be.

At my own church this week, we are talking about forgiveness. We struggle to understand why a loving God allows acts of unspeakable cruelty to happen—especially to children, the disabled, the defenseless. We talk about free will. I think what Pastor Steve is leading us to see is this: a just God does not condone or preordain human acts of aggression and brutality. But God creates the possibility of learning, healing, and redemption when the hard things happen.

Redemption happens in The Pillars of the Earth. So many people—Aliena, Jack, Phillip, Martha—are forever changed by the things that they have endured—conscious abuses of power that hurt them irrevocably. But they do not give in to the desperate need for revenge; instead, they work to create.

And so an earldom is restored to a just ruler, who leads the people dependent upon him (her) to prosperity. The priory, once lackluster and spiritless, becomes a place of grace and sanctity. Inconsequential Knightsbridge becomes the Bishop’s seat. And from the literal ashes of a burned wooden church rises a phenomenal cathedral.

The Pillars of the Earth, just shy of 1,000 pages is a sweeping read, but worth the investment of time and the endurance of difficult scenes. This is truly a triumphant book.

Please see http://www.ken-follett.com for more about this book (which has been made into a mini-series) and its author.

A book my Dad would love…

Dad retired young, before he hit 60, because of his health.

He had open heart surgery in the mid-1970’s; it was still a new process, and what the surgeons at Buffalo General could tell him was that they were confident this would give him another five healthy years.

Going from working a very active, heavy equipment-wrangling, outdoors type job to being a retired guy challenged Dad. For the first few weeks, he drove my mother crazy. He followed her around as she did her daily chores; he went with her on every errand.

The doctor recommended taking up a hobby, quitting smoking, and reading.

My parents started junking, picking up poor neglected pieces of furniture at secondhand shops and turning them into gems. Dad did the woodwork, the sawing and pounding, and the sanding. My mother learned to upholster, stain, and paint. Although they collaborated, the work was individual, and as Dad got more engrossed, the intense togetherness relaxed a bit.

The smoking cessation–well that lasted a scant few days, but Dad had always been a reader. During his working life, he gravitated toward spy thrillers,–relaxing and easy reads.

I might mention that Dad was half a math credit shy of a high school diploma. He’d studied at a seminary as a boy, his education funded by a dowager who had some connection to the family. In Dad’s pre-war Catholic, blended family–which eventually numbered 14 kids–it was a mark of honor to have one of the boys turn out to be a priest. Dad, two or three slots from the eldest son, was smart as well as athletic and hardworking, and so he was chosen. He excelled at his schoolwork, but left the seminary in the last half of his senior year of high school.

His explanation was a little vague and flexible. Usually, he told us the dowager had died, and the money dried up, and he left to help support his family during the Great Depression. Somehow, though,–maybe through Dad’s ‘kid’ brother, my Uncle Bill, the knowledge trickled down to us that there’d been some kind of an issue with a priest. Whatever the issue, it was something Dad couldn’t live with, and he left the school abruptly.

He had a store of Latin, a love of history, and a passion for reading. (There were gaps in his math education, however. In his forties, Dad went to night school to try to get that half credit, just to have his high school diploma. Some of his co-workers from the electric plant went, too. The young teacher, maybe in the arrogance of youth, looked at them and saw louts. Dad found the instructor harsh and scathing; he was humiliated, and left the class. Years after Dad’s death, the government awarded GED certificates to those men who’d served in World War II at the expense of an education. I wish Dad had lived long enough to get that little piece of paper.)

It was not too long after Dad retired that I moved back home for about six months, saving some money before my first wedding.

I was working at the Book Nook at the time, and we were encouraged to read widely and talk intelligently about the books on the shelves. We could borrow books if we’d coddle them; we also got a hefty discount, and I took advantage of that to buy the books that were keepers. I was a book addict; I always had to have a book in progress, or I’d grow very, very nervous. So I had not only a book I was reading, but a book in waiting.

Turns out Dad and I had very similar taste in books.

It was the early 1980’s, an era of sweeping sagas. We re-read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. We raced through The Thorn Birds. I had discovered Leon Uris’s work when I worked at the College library; I started reading him chronologically, buying the paperbacks.

Herman Wouk’s Winds of War (and later, War and Remembrance) captured both Dad and me. I would read it at night, compulsively, staying up until the birds chirped; Dad would read the same volume during the day, when I was at work. We were compelled by the Henry family and their story (Rhoda! What were you thinking???? Natalie! Get out of Italy!!!) The book had two bookmarks. If one of us put it down, the other snatched it up and ran away to hide and read.

We discovered, too, Ken Follett’s early books–The Eye of the Needle and The Key to Rebecca. We agreed that Follett could tell a mean story and keep a reader thoroughly engrossed.

The reading season ended; I got married and life, on both sides, pulled hard in many directions. Dad and I still shared books, but more sedately,–maybe a once a month conversation with the passing of a tome. We each had our reading quirks–Dad would not read anything written in the first person. I went through a feminist period of only reading women authors. But we still found common ground.

Dad died in 1988, a year and a half and a day after my mother. I still miss my reading buddy.

So, when I came across Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth on a clearance rack–brand new, only a buck!–I did not pass it by. I discovered, during some Internet research, that this is the book of which Follett is most proud.

And Dad would enjoy it, too, I know, steeped as he was in Catholic worship and history, this story of the plans and machinations and personalities that went into the building of a cathedral circa 1100 AD. Dad spent some time in Father Baker’s orphanage as a boy; the orphanage was close to a basilica where Dad sometimes served Mass. It was a place we took pilgrimages to periodically when my brothers and I were kids…a special church with a special history.

Follett’s book is about a special church with a special history, too, and I am drawn into the story.

The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman

Where did we get this book? Hmm. It looks brand new. I think we must have bought this at Barnes and Noble on a Sunday browse, and then let it slip to the bottom of the stack.

It’s time for a palate cleanser after two rather serious books about the bonds women create, one a hefty tome, the other a thoughtful work of non-fiction. It’s time for something lighter, something fun. It’s time to read a book I can talk about with my son James.

James is 24, bright and funny. Jim is on the autism spectrum, which gives him the ability to focus intensely on a topic, and his intense focus is on sci fi and fantasy story. He loves the written word and he loves film.

And he loves to share those interests with us, his parents. Sometimes our interests overlap, and sometimes our interests are far, far apart. So it’s nice to find a book we both like.

Ordinarily, I’m a wimp about the supernatural stories—I am not at all a fan of vampire lit (Jim loves it) or tales of moldering evil. But I’ve seen some of Neil Gaiman’s work made into film, and I see that he handles his topics in a way that makes the supernatural seem commonplace and matter-of-fact.

So The Graveyard Book begins with a horrific murder, and the fact that a toddler is taken in by the spirits in an old cemetery seems right and just.

The baby never learns his birth name. He is adopted by a kind dead couple, the Owens, and he becomes Nobody Owens: Bod for short.

In Gaiman’s hands, a wee one growing up in a cemetery doesn’t seem weird at all; it’s warm and safe and fascinating. Bod grows into a kind and brave young man, and he is a favorite of all the spirits. He learns how to read and write, and he learns graveyard skills. He can Fade. He can pass through walls.

But the evil that killed his family is pacing, waiting to find him, too, and so Bod must grow stronger and stronger until he can face and defeat—we hope—his foes. It’s a classic coming of age tale told with a witty flair.

It’s a riff on the Jungle Book; did I ever read the Jungle Book? It’s going on the list of books to read after the shelves have been cleared.

I recommend The Graveyard Book; it’s a well-written quick read, and it’s something squeamish moms like me can share with their bold-reading kids.

The Graveyard Book has won a slew of awards, including the Newberry; go to http://www.neilgaiman.com to learn more. Gaiman said the book began to percolate when his son was two; the child was riding his tricycle on graveyard paths and a story began to nudge… Many years later, the award-winning The Graveyard Book emerged.

I enjoyed the black and white drawings that accompany, but don’t overwhelm, the story. I think I might (once the shelves are clear, of course) check out some of Gaiman’s work for grown-ups, too!

Review: Once Upon a Quinceanara: Coming of Age in the USA

“What KIND of book is that?” asks my son, and I ponder. Is Once Upon a Quinceanara: Coming of Age in the USA a memoir? Sort of. It’s also, a little bit, investigative journalism. There’s poetry dancing through the language on its pages. It’s a cautionary tale, philosophy, and a prophecy.

“It’s…non-fiction,” I tell him. He nods.

I could have said, “It’s a book about stories: the ones we tell our children; the ones someone told us; the ones we wished we’d heard; the ones, ultimately, that need to be told.”

Alvarez, who started out in the Dominican Republican culture and came to rest in the United States American, has a panoramic view of the Quinceanara. She loves the way it folds the generations of Hispanic women together, grandmother, mother, daughter,–hands entwined, braiding a custom.

She hates the way it glorifies commercialism, encourages families to spend beyond their means, and the girls themselves to see themselves as princesses—princesses dressed in $5,000 dresses waiting for their princes to arrive in stretch Hummer limos.

This is about a culture and its future embedded in a larger, more vacuumous one.

This is about the need of children in all cultures to have a valid rite of passage.

And what IS that rite of passage?

It is not just an event, although, as Alvarez attended party after party for the young ladies turning 15, she began to see their value. The party/event may be the door opening, the signal that the time of change has come.

Door open, though, the elders are to come through and surround and support the youngster. They are to reflect back what they see. “You are a gentle nurturer,” they might say, or “Your music makes stodgy old men want to dance!” “The way you write is a gift from God.” “No one makes people feel as good as you do when you listen so carefully.”

It is the time for the elders to tell youth their stories: this is who we see you are. And the young people gather those tales like scraps in a basket, and after a time, they take them home and sort them out, and use them, along with other materials they have gathered and other dreams that they have dreamed, to piece together their own stories.

“This,” the young one may write, “is who I think I am, and this, I think, is my quest.”

And then, with encouragement from those supporters, the young one ventures off on that quest. What will s/he find out there? Will it be successful? Will s/he fall? Will s/he be hurt?

All of the above could happen, but with the right support and the right understanding, the young one will think and heal and grow; her/his story will deepen. The path will open up.

If. If. If. The rite of passage as beginning of supported journey—a need for all children, but especially, as Alvarez notes, for Hispanic girls, in danger of early pregnancy, dropping out of school, drug addiction, and death by suicide.

We need to re-learn the art of supporting the journey. Alvarez’s work explains that beautifully, in the stories of the girls she meets, in the stories of her own steps and miss-steps, and in the research that she shares. It took me a chapter or two to get into this book, but then its voice took hold, and its wisdom drew me in.

Quotes I Liked From Once Upon a Quinceanara

(8) And for those who like myself are entering into elderhood, this book is an invitation to take up that mantle or mantilla of elders of the tribe, to consider what it means to be at the other end of our young people’s coming of age.

(10) But even when I am writing about myself, that self is not personal but a creature of language in a story that is ultimately about all of us.

(22) It’s worth remembering the old adage about how our strengths are often so tied up with our failings that we’d better be careful where we snip and what we cut off.

(44) This is the voice of experience, looking back at the excesses of our youth which we always want to say were our parents’ fault.

(55) We Abbott [Academy] girls were encouraged to develop our minds, not leave our brains parked at the door of our gender.

(57) Quoting Bruce Lincoln: …women’s initiation offers a religious compensation for a sociopolitical deprivation.

(94) Being thrown together with other points of view can mollify our own views, round us out, add extra lanes to our one track minds.

(160) “[The Quinceanara] should not be about just one night, but about the girl and what happens afterward in her life.” Quoting Bisli of Bisli Events

(217) I know enough about ritual to understand that it involves a surrender to cosmic time, so that one is safely, symbolically ferried past those jolting transitions of our mortal life.

(252) Change is necessary, but it should be change based on the needs of our young people, not a corporation’s bottom line…Traditions are made of sturdier stuff, and our ongoing responsibility is to revise and renew them so that they continue to fulfill their authentic purpose, to empower us.

(268) Wisdom is not a fixed quality. It circulates among us.

What I found out about Julia Alvarez

I looked Julia Alvarez up on a couple of sites: the Encyclopedia of World Biography, and on http://www.biography.com, and I found the basics of her life:

Born in New York City on March 27, 1950, she returned to the Dominican Republic when she was three months old. There, her father, a doctor, ran a hospital. He was very involved with politics—opposing dictator Rafael Molina. Dr. Alvarez became involved in a plot to overthrow Molina in 1960; the plot was uncovered, and an American agent helped the family escape to the US. They again settled in New York City.

Alvarez, the biographies say, found assimilating difficult. She read constantly. As if–caught between two very different worlds—having fled from one, not quite embraced in the other—she escaped again into a third world—the universe of books.

Alvarez earned her bachelors at Middlebury College in Vermont (1971), and her masters in creative writing at Syracuse University (1975). She turned to teaching to make a living, and wrote poetry; her teaching took her across the country as a migrant poetry instructor, into the high school classroom, and finally back to Middlebury.

She married Bill Eichner in 1989. In 1991, she received tenure at Middlebury and her novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, was published, to, as they say, great acclaim. Since then, Alvarez has written another novel, children’s books and books of non-fiction. She and Eichner own a sustainable coffee farm in the Dominican Republic.

After finding all that out, I discovered that Alvarez has her own website (www.juliaalvarez.com); on the website is a link to an interview she gave about Once Upon a Quinceanara: