Sunday, July 28, 2013

"Our Glory Is Hidden In Our Pain"

"..the gift of life has revealed itself in the midst of all the losses." Henri Nouwen
I’m going to do something a little different with the slim volume I’m reading called Turn My Mourning Into Dancing by Henri Nouwen.  I’m going to write about each section of the book because to do otherwise would be unmanageable.  The book reveals too many truths and inspires too many thoughts to do less.  

The first section of the book addresses how we deal with our own suffering.  There are so many different kinds of brokenness and loss in our lives.  We all struggle with letting the same situations and the same people break our hearts over and over again.  The worst pain doesn’t come at the time of wounding; it comes at the time of scarring.  We have all been scarred; we are all wounded.

Nouwen teaches that the way out of suffering is “in and through,” that we must accept suffering and move through it instead of fleeing from it.  He says that only those who can fully face, confront, and accept their pain can heal and grow.  Attempting to avoid and forget pain only temporarily masks it.  Embracing your whole life, including your pain, and finding peace in spite of it keeps you whole.  It sounds facile and cliched to say that it’s not about what happens to you but how you handle it, but it really is true.   And this is a truth we have to learn and re-learn every day.  It is perhaps the most difficult, yet most important of all truths of who we are, who we become, and how we affect the world around us.

Often, we need only to step outside of ourselves and our lives to forget in order to remember:   to forget the overwhelming mess we live in and to remember the overwhelming beauty that we live among.  Sometimes, just doing one little thing:  a walk, a ride, a movie, dinner with a friend will re-center our entire lives for that one moment in time.  And sometimes, that’s the best we can hope for -- one calm moment.  Because all life is really about is choosing to keep breathing in gratitude and breathing out compassion.  When we are wrapped up in our own pain, we skip right over the pain of others.  When circumstances around us seem to be spiralling out of control, we feel helpless and insignificant, and we rant and rave just to be heard, to exert some kind of control and influence.  But the voice that heals is the quiet voice of peace.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Did I Love The Ocean at the End of the Lane

photo by Amy

I'm going to start this post with a caveat so I don't engender angry comments.  I know a lot of people love everything Neil Gaiman writes.  The Ocean at the End of the Lane was my first adult Gaiman novel.  The caveat to this review is this:  while I seem to be reading a lot more than usual recently, I don't seem to be able to love anything I read.  In addition to the annoying weather, (it's been ridiculously hot and humid here in the South), one personal irritation after another keeps piling up, so maybe that's why I didn't love The Ocean at the End of the Lane, or any other book I've read recently.

When I first started the book, I thought I was going to love it, but it just never seemed to develop fully enough for me.  It felt more like a short story (or maybe a JF book), and I've never been a fan of short stories. Too many things felt undeveloped or incomplete, like an outline, rather than a finished work. I do often seem to feel this way when reading Science Fiction, so it could just be the genre for me.  One thing I do love about science fiction authors is their penchant for embracing vast philosophical questions like why we are here; where we are for that matter; who we are; and what happens to us after death.  I loved the idea introduced when the narrator wants to stay in the ocean of all knowledge and is told that if he does, he will eventually spread out into points of everything and become nothing.  That's a fascinating interpretation of what happens to us after death, I think.  Something about this idea reminds me of the end of Arthur C Clark's 2001:  A Space Odyssey.    Another interesting idea touched on in this part of the story is the fallacy of self-knowledge.  When our narrator finds himself in the ocean of all knowledge, he realizes that while he may be able to know and see everything, the one thing he cannot know or see is himself, his true image.  I like the idea that the only true unknowable to us is ourselves.  No one can truly, objectively see himself. 

One concept in the book that spoke personally to me was when the narrator says, "and I would imagine that I was in my boat on the ocean and that it was swaying with the swell of the sea.  I did not imagine that I was a pirate, or that I was going anywhere.  I was just on my boat."   Often when I can't sleep because my life feels overwhelming to me, I will imagine myself on a train to lull myself to sleep.  This is a very specific fantasy:  I am in a sleeping berth beside a window on an overnight train in Russia, crossing a snowy steppe with a view of the Ural Mountains in the background across the moonlit plain.  I have no idea where any of that comes from, as I have never been to Russia, nor have I been in a sleeping berth on an overnight train.  Reincarnation, maybe?  Regardless, it calms me and puts me to sleep every time.  And it calms me to know that at least one other person on the planet thinks this way too, even if it is a British author I will never meet. Maybe that, too, is the power of art, literary or otherwise; it helps us feel less alone in the world of our thoughts.
Another point of synchronicity to me occurred when Ginnie Hempstock says of Ursula Monkton, (who is the most insidious kind of evil, like Doroles Umbridge in Harry Potter -- the type masquerading as perfectly good):  "I don't hate her.  She does what she does, according to her nature."  This touches on a conversation I've had recently and often with a friend about people who hurt others with their neglect or selfishness or dishonesty.  Certainly, some people are natured to be selfish and dishonest and neglectful, and certainly they will hurt those around them, and those of us who are not natured to be that way would do well to accept the truth of who these people are and move on (and avoid them like the plague), but does that make it acceptable for people to be this way?  To have this kind of Zen attitude about these people is almost akin to saying it is acceptable for them to be thus.  I don't know exactly what I think of this issue, but I did find it interesting to run into it in this book, when I've been discussing it so much recently for personal reasons.

Interesting that a novel I didn't love provoked such an outpouring of words from me.  I think this has been one of my longest blog post.  I did find the book to be well-written, engaging, and entertaining, and Gaiman did a great job with the narrator's voice, which I found to be very convincingly child-like and natural.  I just wish the ideas and plot points had been more fully developed and explored.  Had Gaiman finished this novel, it could have been fantastic.  

Now I'm off to Barcelona to finish the Carlos Ruiz Zafon Shadow of the Wind series. 


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Much Ado About Nothing Again

photo by me
"No, sure, my lord, my mother cried; but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born...." Beatrice
I don't usually discuss movies on here, as this is a book blog, but last night I saw the new version of Much Ado About Nothing, and it was FABULOUS!  I may be a bit biased, as the witty banter in Much Ado makes it one of my favorite Shakespearean comedies.  The visual styling of the movie (shot in black and white, with classic clothing and hair-styles) combined with much of the original dialogue was a treat for eyes and ears.

Every time I see Shakespeare, I am amazed at how funny and true his words are today.  People truly do not change.  We continue to cross ourselves up over nothing and bicker and complain about nothing to the point of breaking each other.  Even when our natures are pure and true, we fall into the trap of exaggerating our problems and risk losing people we love over the superficially inflated molehills in our lives.

The new Much Ado About Nothing was a much needed 2 hour break from reality that left me still smiling this morning.  What a wonderful testament to the power of art that the words of a man 400 years dead continue to change hearts, minds, and moods every day, including mine.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Just Be Beautiful As You Are

Driftwood at Dawn
photo by Amy Brandon
"Stories are people.  I'm a story, you're a story...your father is a story.  Our stories go in every direction, but sometimes, if we're lucky, our stories join into one, and for a while, we're less alone."  Alvis Bender in Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter is book I should have loved but didn't.  I liked it, but for some reason (maybe the scattered, disjointed narration), it never grabbed me and held on.  I liked the plot, the characters, and the setting, but I didn't like the mechanics of the story jumping between different points of view so often and so abruptly.  There's a fine line between too many points of view and plot lines and the perfect amount, and Beautiful Ruins, to me, often felt a bit ADD. I found myself angered on occassion by having to stop reading in the middle of a story over and over to readjust to another story.

That said, and complaint department closed, the writing in this novel was lovely and moving, as were many of the ideas and truths revealed.  I love the theme of learning to appreciate the present, to live in the now, to be happy with the person you are, instead of always grasping and striving for more, and the lesson of how that continual grasping will make your life a beautiful ruin.  How much better just to be beautiful as you are, instead of a beautiful ruin of what you wanted to be. 

Less Sure About Less

" And at fifty, Less muses drowsily, you're as likeable as you're going to get." I experienced a strange transitio...