Meditation and Remembering

I have arrived at the ‘practice’ part of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Coming to Our Senses. I’m not sure why it’s taking me so long to move through this book; Kabat-Zinn’s thoughtful essays on touch and smell, air and skin, have made me think, made me listen, made me appreciate.

But it’s still slow-going, and I still reward myself for every reading by treating myself to a good dose of story.

But now: it’s get cracking time.

The first exercise in the ‘practice’ section is lying-down meditation. Kabat-Zinn proposes several different ways of going about this; he calls it falling awake, and recommends doing it last thing at night, first thing in the morning. He cautions against the possibility of drifting into sleep, warning that this may be an overwhelming temptation. This, like any art worth pursuing, will take work, he warns.

So. Last night: I stretch out in bed, arms at my sides, toes pointing to opposite walls, and I listen. Mark’s C-Pap machine whooshes gently and rhythmically. The dog is snoring. The air conditioning thrums. There is a creak as my son gets up to use the bathroom.

There is a creak as Mark gets up to shower; it’s suddenly 5:30 AM.

Ah, well. I will start my morning by falling awake. I stretch out again, arms at my sides, feet pointing toward opposite walls, and I listen. A bird is calling ‘Shoodie shoodie shoodie.’ The dog sighs and rustles.

I wake up when I hear Mark’s shower stop at 6 AM.

Ah well. Only one night’s attempt; more to come. I am sure that I will learn to break through to ‘falling awake’ sometime soon.

In the meantime, though, I have to confess to feeling nicely, nicely rested.


I have almost finished Pat Conroy’s My Losing Season, a basketball memoir. The tricky relationship between memory and perception compel my reading. Throughout the book, Conroy tells us what a hack he was on the court, a mediocre, workhorse kind of a player. I think he is convinced of the truth of that. I think he’s a really humble guy.

But the facts he relates as he takes us to his ballgames–and I can see the games, hear the crowds, feel the tension; this is good writing–don’t add up for me. I think Conroy was a great player; the game results agree. The journalists he quotes agree.

Why, I wonder, doesn’t Conroy remember it that way?

I think about little triumphs I’ve experienced, and I understand. I don’t remember the plain, unpeeled event; I remember what it felt like from the flannel-y interior of my own head. I didn’t just embrace the good news. I brought to it a whole heap of baggage; my hands, and arms, were full. So I remember the fact that my mother was shocked to hear of my promotion, that the plumbing chose that particular day to break, that the little triumph occurred in the shadow of the tragic death of a dear friend. There is a swirl of detail swathing the core event; it becomes not a single, pure happening, but part of a bouquet.

And not everything in that bouquet smells sweet.

So, as I read Conroy’s memoir, I am sad that his glorious court days were tainted with the scorn and insecurity of cruel men who couldn’t bite off a word of hard-earned praise. I feel his need to be responsible, this boy-man who had been his mother’s and his siblings’ protector from the random violence of their erratic Marine. His basketball accomplishments are wrapped in woolly worry, but every once in a while, the absolute joy of being on that court when everything clicks breaks through. Conroy sees and he shows us, in sweet, simple prose, what it looks like when a team IS a team.

It can’t, of course, be sustained constantly or indefinitely, that synchronization; time forges ahead, the rhythm breaks, spirits breaks under the coach’s abuse, the team members grow. Eventually, Conroy himself leaves the college court for the last time, leaving behind a new team, a different team. And he goes on to create a tremendously successful life.

But in an imaginary meeting he writes about, when he greets and talks to a fictional character, Conroy tells the boy his life has not turned out well. It makes me sad. A writer of renown, a man who spills his ideals onto the page, who writes of honor and respect, of family and friendship, does not (at least in this writing) feel accomplished. He does not feel joy or pride.

How do we take the memories out and unwrap them, removing the aged cotton batting and letting them shine in the light? How do we take the goodness from our past and remove from it the lingering shreds that taint it?

Conroy has done his readers the great honor of allowing them to follow as he worked out the unwarranted brutality of his childhood in his writing. I hope that he has reached a place of satisfaction; I hope that he can say to himself:

“I was a damn fine player.”

“I wrote a damned fine book.”

“I made the world a little bit better because I worked hard to contribute.”


Wallace Stegner: Angle of Repose (1971, Penguin Books)

How much can be forgiven?

This is my second Wallace Stegner book; in Crossing to Safety (1987) he explores friendship and the balance of power in that relationship. In Angle of Repose, it’s the marriage relationship that he explores.

The narrator takes us on an exploration of his grandmother’s life–she, Susan Burling, was a gifted east coast artist and illustrator who unexpectedly throws in her lot with a mining engineer, Oliver Ward. His work on frontier mines in the late 1800’s takes them to desolate places in all parts of the West. He shows his devotion by preparing homes for her; she shows hers by staying, bearing children, creating a space that welcomes visitors, creating a place for talk and ideas to flow.

But they are never perfectly suited, and the inevitable comes crashing into their lives, and with it a tragedy, a loss that no one speaks of after it happens.

The couple stays together until old age–but at what cost? Are there things that just can’t be forgiven?

The narrator confronts this question in his own life; we think he is not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Written and set in 1970-ish California, the setting and tone evoke that age so well. The adults are confused and bruised by the changes they’re living through; young people are flailing through uncharted shoals. It’s hard going for one character here, especially; I cringe as she makes choices I’d like her to rethink. Even so, I bow to her courage in trying to create a path where none exists.


Just as I was beginning Angle of Repose, I found Gladys Taber’s Stillmeadow Cookbook at an Earth Day event. I discovered Taber’s books long ago on a forage through a library’s shelves; she writes about everyday life in a way that celebrates and elevates it. I love her quiet memoirs, and so I was happy to buy her cookbook.

In it, oddly, I learned that Taber’s father, like Oliver Ward in Angle, was a mining engineer, and that she, like the characters in Stegner’s book lived in various parts of the US West and Mexico. Both women–the fictional Susan, the real-life Gladys,–seem to have weathered huge changes in their lives, definitive endings–and worked their ways through to acceptance. Taber’s writing is joyful, I think; I’m not sure the character of Susan Burling ever reached joy. But both women, the real and the created, fiercely demonstrate the importance of family–an interesting, interesting juxtaposition of reads.

Scapes in Kabat-Zinn

Middle of the night awakening, and tired, I cannot seem to still my thoughts and sleep. Then I remember Jon Kabat-Zinn’s discussion of the ‘soundscape’ in which we are immersed and I turn off my thoughts for a minute just to listen. I sink into sound; the deeper I go, the more aware I become of levels and layers of sounds and rhythms in the mid-night world.

And then the alarm is thrumming and it’s time to rise.

I walk the dog in the early morning and the air is cool and light against my skin. I think of Kabat-Zinn’s discussion of airscape–of swimming in air. “Myself,” he writes, “I am currently having an on-again, off-again love affair with the air. When I remember, the affair is on. When I forget, it is off again until the air itself re-minds me and re-bodies me.”

I try, this week, to stay in the ‘remember’ zone.

Coming to Our Senses: Simultaneous sensing—and a slave owner turns infamous abolitionist

Perplexity came to her from the beast. “What is this dark? What is this light? We do not understand. Your father and the boy, Calvin, have asked this, too. They say that it is night now on our planet, and that they cannot see. They have told us that our atmosphere is what they call opaque, so that the stars are not visible, and then they were surprised that we know stars, that we know their music and the movements of their dance far better than beings like you who spend hours studying them through what you call telescopes. We do not understand what this means, to see.”
–Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

There is poor Meg, stuck on a fortunately friendly planet, a result of her father’ s clumsy tesseract. They have escaped, temporarily, the dark planet, but they have left her little brother Charles behind. They will have to return.

Meantime, they are being cared for by gentle, wise sightless creatures. Although they cannot see, these creatures have such finely tuned OTHER senses that being sightless is certainly no deficit. They can, as Aunt Beast tells Meg in the passage above, sense the stars and their dancing better than those who can see them.

It’s one of the points Jon Kabat-Zinn makes in Part 3: The Sensory World, of Coming to Our Senses. We have lost, through mindlessness, through lack of urgency, the keen abilities our ancestors enjoyed through using their sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. We see those who, deprived of one sense—the sightless, for example,–develop other senses to an amazing degree.

And we forget that our senses are a team of abilities that work together— so that the art of seeing a summer day is not as completely appreciated without the feel of the breeze against my skin or the fresh smell of newly cut grass.

I used to have an hour’s drive to work, through beautiful rolling country. As I drove, I would listen to audio books. Weeks and months later, rounding a curve, passing an Amish homestead, words from a book would come back to me in an audible memory. I would hear the reader’s voice saying the words I’d listened to in just this spot on a day past. I’m guessing some quality of light or temperature or scent was identical at that time, in that place, and that triggered a complete sensory memory.

I used to ask my composition classes to listen to the passage about Meg and Aunt Beast, and then I would say to them, “Pretend you’ve met someone who cannot see. Pick a color and make your blind friend KNOW what that color is.”

They would write about red in terms of fire and passion, warmth and danger. Blues came alive in coolness, depth, water, sky. Brown was muddy, earthy, fecund. The students used smell, touch, scent, and even taste to deliver the essence of what their chosen colors were. Their work was clear and true.

My challenge this week, as I read Part 3 of Kabat-Zinn’s book, is to be aware, and to consciously use as many senses as I can in that awareness. It’s a perfect season to be doing that—the flowering trees are bursting into Springtime life, the air is scented with those flowers, and warm sun alternates with soft gray days. The birds are raucous and joyful. I steal time from other things and work outside, digging in the dirt, unearthing tiny, tender shoots, displacing worms, and clearing out the matted leaves hidden since last fall.


My story reading counterpoint this week was Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. This book has slavery and subjugation at its core, from the harsh physical and mental slavery Handful and her mother endure to the more silken, sly subjugation of Sarah and her sister Angelina.

Set in South Carolina between 1805 and 1838, Kidd’s telling doesn’t spare us. The slaves are horribly abused, with terrible punishments that only a sadist could have spent time devising. Sarah is abused, too, with harsh condescension and scorn. A brilliant, plain girl, she is told, forcibly, to forget about being a lawyer and to settle for her lot, looking for a husband, looking forward to running a household.

The miracle of the story is that spirits survive intact. Sarah and her sister escape to the North, where they become notorious abolitionists. Handful and her sister, too, make it north, where they become free Blacks, working and living with pride and dignity.

What bravery that took. I have to wonder, faced with such an oppressive society, could I have struck out as boldly as these characters did? They made tough choices and let themselves be shaped by life’s forces without sacrificing their true beliefs.

Unsetting, The Invention of Wings, but the quiet triumph of the resolution (based on historical figures) suggests there’s hope.

Connection, Emptiness, and a Magic Ring

I’m being challenged, in reading Coming to Our Senses, to think about connectivity and identity.

Contemplating connectivity is ironic, I guess, in this age of instant connection. I’m checking time on my cell phone these days; I don’t even own a watch anymore. I type on my IPad; when we travel, I bring that and/or my laptop. Having embraced, like the other slow-flowering technology users of my generation, Facebook, I am now slowly dipping my toes into the world of Twitter.

I do turn off my cell phone or put it on vibrate sometimes; I do create boundaries for checking email and Facebook. I do try to write at least one pen and paper letter every Monday. But the reality is, there is never a time when I’m completely disconnected from the electronic information expressway–not even when I sleep. What does this mean for us today?

Kabat-Zinn says it fosters a syndrome called ‘Continual partial attention,’ and he asks, “Can we pay attention to just one thing, the matter at hand, whatever it may be? Are we ever going to be off duty, so we can be rather than just do? And when might that be?”

It’s a question with big implications in my life; I’m always partially listening for the ping that means a new email, the buzz of the muted cell phone, the post on the Facebook page. So here’s a goal, to be implemented right now: I will make zones in my life where electronic communications cannot intrude. The early morning hours, before work and before necessity mandates one hand on the keyboard, can be a thoughtful time; the hour between 8 and 9 PM, when the family tends to gather, will no longer be an ‘Uh huh, uh huh’ time of distracted focus.

And if I can wrestle these two hours–two small but sacred hours–into ‘total focus’ times, maybe, just maybe, that can be expanded. And maybe I’ll connect more with myself…


I’m wrestling with Kabat-Zinn’s discussion of identity. He uses the image of a business, a big corporation–proposing that the identity depends on the functioning of each component–from the clerks in the mail room to the head honchos in the big corner offices with lots of windows. The identity, the being of the entity, shifts as people come and others leave, as mood and illness and bursts of productivity or inspiration change daily patterns.

That’s true with each of us, too, he points out–each cell that contributes to our total being does so without awareness of the whole. Our body functions like a corporation, with separate jobs being handled by separate components. If one’s productivity changes, the body as a whole is affected.

Perhaps a more through awareness of our bodies could change our total perception of the world and our place in it…

Emptiness is where this discussion is headed, and this is a concept that will take some struggle, for me–that idea of letting go my concepts of myself. Self-concept is such a concern in this land; don’t we believe that a good one is a personal necessity? Exploration needed; I approach page 200 of Coming to Our Senses feeling like it’s a muscularly thoughtful endeavor!


I needed some good story-telling to balance out all the challenges Kabat-Zinn poses, so I grabbed up a paperback by Edith Nesbit. I bought the two-book volume after reading a novel based on Nesbit’s life–in that book, the author proposed that the fictional writer’s craft supported not only her family but her husband’s infidelities. The non-fiction bios I’ve read support that–the Nesbits had an unconventional and controversial life, to be sure.

Her work, however, remains vital and readable, and great fantasy writers–CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, are a few Sanford Schwartz invokes in his introduction–have been inspired by reading Nesbit.

Back when I first bought the book I read the first offering, Five Children and It, and I saved The Enchanted Castle for later. Later finally arrived, and I rescued the book from a dusty shelf, delighting myself by finding a BookWoman bookmark my friend Marsha gave me for a birthday many many years ago, and set to reading.

I can see Lewis’s later premise in this book–two brothers and a sister, Jerry, Jimmy, and Kathleen, are forced to spend the summer holidays away from parents and family. In Lewis, it’s the war that forces the children to stay with strangers in the English countryside; in Nesbit, a cousin’s measles makes home off limits. Jerry (who narrates life with himself as the hero–“The young explorers,” he intones at the very beginning of the adventure, “dazzled at first by the darkness of the cave, could see nothing.” He continues, “…their dauntless leader” –Jerry himself, of course– “whose eyes had grown used to the dark while the clumsy forms of the others were bunging up the entrance, had made a discovery”) takes charge and organizes their explorations.

The children are staying at Kathleen’s school; Mademoiselle, the schoolmistress, has allowed herself to be thoroughly charmed by Jerry. And so the children have unprecedented freedom to wander and explore and, of course, to meet an unusual friend, find a place of enchantment, and to get into trouble. There’s a magic ring and unsettling consequences; there is an invisibility spell, statues that come to life, and wishes that come true at unforeseen cost. There is a wonderfully happy resolution to an old, old sadness we couldn’t predict when the story begins.

Unique and interesting, Nesbit’s books are, and the reading leaves me adding a biography of the ground-breaking writer to the list of things I want to read once my shelves have been read.

Will that be soon? Even this year? I’m dubious. I confess to picking up two more books during a weekend foray to Half Price Books–Pat Conroy’s My Losing Season, and Marcia Willett’s Second Time Around. Just when progress has been made, I listen to nature abhorring the vacuum of space on a shelf, and I fill that space back up.

And next week, we’ll be working the Library’s buck-a-bag book sale. As Jerry might say, “Will our hero resist temptation? Or will she trundle home bearing unread volumes in capacious paper bags?”

I will report back with the bitter truth.

The Art of Racing in the Rain, Garth Stein

2008, Harper Collins

Snapped up at the library’s buck a bag sale last year

I have a wonderful daughter-in-law, Julie, and a beautiful teen-aged granddaughter, Alyssa, and I don’t see nearly enough of them. They live 350 miles away, and they are busy with work and school, activities and obligations, friends and family life. They are animal lovers who have dogs and guinea pigs, fish and rabbits, and who spend a good amount of time volunteering at the Humane Society.

Julie and Alyssa both told me The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, would be the top book on the list if they made a list of books to recommend. When I found a hardcover copy in great condition at our library’s Buck-a-Bag book sale last year, I stuffed it into the bag.

It is a lovely story. Enzo the dog is the narrator. (Hmmm, I thought at first, but Enzo’s dog stance gives us both a unique closeness and a little appropriate distance from the characters who speak in this book. It is a fresh and engaging perspective.)

Enzo is loyalty personified, and his devotion to Denny, his race-car driving master, is limitless. Denny leaves the TV on for Enzo, and the dog watches and learns. Throughout the book, he shares auto racing wisdom with us—Enzo has gleaned this wisdom from watching racing on TV, with Denny and during the long days Denny is at work.

Wet, rainy tracks require great skill and intelligence to navigate, and that creates the metaphor for the entire book. Denny meets Eve, and their bond is immediate and irrevocable; they marry and have a baby girl named Zoe. Enzo’s charge is expanded; now he is Zoe’s protector as well as Denny’s companion. He takes it seriously.

We learn from the beginning that Eve’s health is more than worrisome, that her parents are not to be trusted, and that the track ahead is perilous—these characters will need steady hands on the wheel and alert, intense driving. The narrative rolls out in the period of one day, as Enzo, reflecting on his life, retells his story.

Julie and Alyssa have done their own driving in the rain, with sure and steady hands, and navigated tricky curves to arrive at their current safe and secure places. I’m very proud of them, and I’m glad they recommended this book. I finished it while cold April rains poured down outside, and the story made me sad and warmed my heart.

Illness and Dis-Ease

Fake palm trees, golden age of rock throbbing, people with plastic leis and name tags surging through a room crowded with tables and working stiffs like me getting an early workday break. It’s an annual breakfast for community professionals, and the local DJ handles the mike suavely, moving through the welcome to the awards and then energetically introducing the featured speaker.

He’s a coach! He’s a teacher! He’s a survivor! (Ahhh—now we get the desert island theme!)

A skinny, bespectacled man with reddish-sandy hair fading to gray bounds on to the stage. He grabs the mike and thanks the DJ with a grin and a joke, and then he turns to incite the audience.

He’s there, he tells us, to let us know we can do ANYTHING!

He gives us these examples:

When he was a young man, he was in a catastrophic accident. The doctors told him he’d never walk again. But—because of a tough nurse who taught him the knack of visualization—he pictured himself walking every day.

Within two years he was walking. He was back in school getting his college degree and preparing to coach athletics.

He taught visualization to his athletes, and they were very successful.

Then, three years ago, the doctors slapped another burden down. Cancer, they said. Get your affairs in order.

But guess what?

Visualization. Here he is, full of energy. Selling his can-do book.

I admire his energy and his perseverance, but I think his message is a little dangerous, a little guilt-inducing. It seems to me the opposite of mindfulness: ignore all those messages the body is giving you, and just picture yourself healthy and free!

This week, in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Coming to Our Senses, I’m reading about dhukka, dharma, and dis-ease.

I believe Kabat-Zinn when he says that our ignorance of ourselves, of our basic bodily needs as well as our emotional needs and intellectual and spiritual desires, takes away our ‘ease,’ puts us in a state of ‘dis-ease,’ and can literally make us sick. I believe it is hard to slow down in today’s world and look deeply within ourselves—there are no prizes or award for deep reflection.

And yet we need to do it…to take the time to know ourselves, to scan our bodies, to listen when our stomach gripes, our head throbs, or our bowels twist. I believe that the balance mindfulness brings is a healthy state we should all aspire to.

But I don’t believe a person with cancer or AIDs or pulmonary heart disease or something caused genetically or environmentally has a guarantee of complete remission if he or she just visualizes heartily enough. I am glad it worked for the coach, but I don’t think those who die from terminal illnesses are guilty of faulty visualization.

I think of my friend Kim, content in her cancer’s ‘reprieve.’ Kim lives a mindful life. I love to eat with her; every muffin is a banquet. Where I tend to gobble and get done, she savors and celebrates. She slows me down and makes me appreciate.

Kim appreciates the ability to walk from place to place—she has so many offers of rides, I think it makes her feel a little guilty saying no so often, but she is mindful of the gift of today’s health. Today, the sun is out and she can walk to the Greek restaurant downtown and get a hunk of their flat bread. She will savor.

Kim goes regularly to qi gong practice, using that ancient process to slow down and listen to her body. She enjoys the practice itself and she enjoys the energy of all the people doing these forms together.

Kim appreciates the fact that she has eyelashes and eyebrows—things chemo stole from her.

She walks to the church every week and helps serve a hot meal on Tuesday nights to those who can’t provide a meal for themselves, and she gives hope and compassion to people who are tired and stressed.

I think of the almost manic quality of the coach bouncing around on stage, telling us he can’t HEAR us, inciting us to roar “YESSSSSSS!!!” back at him.

I think of Kim’s quiet progress through her days, of her delight and gratitude.

I don’t think Kim is ‘guilty’ of a lack of visualization—or of any other step that might, if she only took it, cure her cancer. Sometimes, bodies break down.

Kim doesn’t suffer from a major case of dis-ease, though—she is very much aware of where and who and HOW she is. She has struggled through to peace-filled.

Coach—of course, I don’t know Coach, and he’s paid to bounce around a stage, getting folks excited, getting folks optimistic (and what’s wrong with that?), and getting folks to buy books. But there’s a danger, I think, in urging people to ignore the causes and focus on a blue horizon. We will all have to end someday; that’s not a person’s failure.

I think that disease and dis-ease can be related; I think that disease and mindfulness often do co-exist in one frail human body. All of us should work toward that wonderful goal of balance.

No one should feel guilty, though, for being sick.