10 books for serious readers*

*And the people who love them anyway.

Ten notable books I’ve read and reviewed on Goodreads this year. Literary gifts for the serious reader in your life, which might be you!

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin. Enter the anonymity of Lucia Berlin, who must have written her stories between addiction and abuse, poverty and pregnancy, romance and rehab, all manner of disaster and distress, a writer who writes without reader or acclaim, beyond rescue, from a motive so pure that it renders her posthumous words startling and brilliant. You will learn everything about Lucia in these stories, no truth too precious to hide, and afterwards you will hunger for more. She is a writer’s writer, which means she is a reader’s writer—hard knuckled, plainspoken—a cleaning woman’s cleaning woman. High praise.

All the Living by C.E. Morgan. Epically tender and exquisitely wrought: hard love on dry ground.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín. I loved this quietly lustrous book, just as I loved the movie, so faithfully rendered. A reminder that modest lives now scarcely remembered—those of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents—entailed profound risk, loss, hope and courage.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. A down-deep revelation of what a family silently imparts to itself. This will make you wonder how your impact—the stings, the slights, the oversights, and misperceptions—will reverberate long after your last breath. I took it personally, and could not put it down.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. Quietly thunderous where words don’t reach.

Purity by Jonathan Franzen. Don’t even bother wondering what this book is about. It is not a story. It is a diagnosis. Yes, it was hard to love at first. But Franzen has once again astonished by taking on our culture’s big lies and crimes, mapping the DNA of our delusions: the rage for privacy amid the lust for fame; our worship of truth and appetite for lies; deep, personal isolation and alienation in a world of false connectedness; the noble ideals of art and equality hiding the ugly animal ferocity of our killer instincts. As in The Corrections and Freedom, Franzen drills down until we see that the big things that seem beyond mere mortal intervention—irreducible trends, events and technologies, history itself—reflect the small intimacies of our relationships. Left with only the unrelenting pain of this modern life, he comes down on the side of love, which, after all, is why we read. PS Anyone who wonders who killed America must read this book.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro. I feel obliged to tell you you’re not going to like this book. You may never read it and if you start you might not finish it. It is strange and not like any other piece of contemporary fiction I’ve ever read. It is about the ultimate journey we take in our life—our life—and the destination that lies ahead. We forget where the future will deliver us, just as we forget where we’ve been. And all along we embellish our story with myths and fantasies, history, fear, vague memory and conflicts so intense that we obscure altogether the absolute reality we dare not face. And yet, on this one-way journey, there is no turning back or getting around, no short cut, no other ending. The river flows. No knights can save us, no magic, no miracles, no medicine, no prayers. Finally, on the last page, we remember, and we go on alone to the other shore. What a curiously brave undertaking, Mr. Ishiguro. Even if this wasn’t your intention, we can’t avoid the truth when we find it.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. Speechless.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix. A wicked romp. Loved it.

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. The young neurosurgeon is ambitious and accomplished, a fascinating person whose early death from cancer is sad and unfair. But the most poignant passage in this autobiography does not arrive until the last paragraph, when he is well past memoir, beyond eloquence and intention, when he writes with simple, aching truth about the joy he finds with his newborn daughter. It’s a reminder of what most of us never see or know until the end: that there is nothing worth having that isn’t already here. And then, because that last paragraph is the first and last of its kind—incomparably pure and true—you know how life stops. In the middle of everything, just like that. Oh, to have a little more time to appreciate.

***

Give the gift of books that change lives. My publisher New World Library is offering a special discount of 50% off all titles, including Paradise in Plain Sight and Hand Wash Cold, until 12/21 (plus free shipping in the US on orders of $35 or more!) Simply enter the code “HOLIDAY” at checkout.

the rules are broken

Last night I saw my neighbor at the gas station in town. We didn’t recognize one another at first even though we’ve lived next door for 17 years. A sad sign of the times. We immediately fell into each other’s arms, saying what needn’t be said, that every day it gets unbelievably, horrifyingly worse and that our country is dead. I told her it feels like the flags should be flying at half-mast. She said she feels sorry for our teenage daughters, a year apart. There was a contract we thought we had, a contract with the future that depended on our effort, intelligence, honesty and decency. Did you ever feel that? It was fragile, to be sure, but it’s what we grew up believing.

The rules are broken, I said.

A night or two after the election my daughter came into my room as I was sitting. “Mom, if you let me get a tattoo . . . ” she launched into a proposition that she knew was absurd, “would you get one with me?” She explained that since she was under 18, she could only get a tattoo with a parent’s consent.

Every institution in our country is collapsing and what comes up in the middle of the fall is the tiny matter of a tattoo.

I did not straight away say no, because of the realization that has taken hold in me: the rules are broken. We’re going to have to depend on something else, you see, than what we thought was allowed. How we thought things worked.

I said yes.

I told her about a certain phrase in of one of my books that has inspired quite a few people, words that I wrote with only her in mind. I suggested that if we got identical tattoos based on that message, even though people all over the world have shared it on the internet, we would be the only two people in the world who shared it in real life and knew what it really meant.

And that dialogue has since caused piercing pain for me, but total amusement and pride for her, and considering the way the world is going, it has made us both very happy to have each other, two blossoms blooming on a branch that will never break.

healing the fall

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Empty-handed, the masters say, we attain the Way. This is the healing power of your peaceful presence, resisting nothing, adding nothing, thinking nothing. Sit quietly and enter the fullness of time, where the seasons advance in one viewing. Know that leaves bud and break. Flowers bloom and burst. Fruit softens and drops. Earth is our mother. She heals even the last fall.— Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden

Please remember to purchase this book for holiday giving. It is perfect for making peace with mothers, fathers, daughters and sons, and conveying love to gardeners, caregivers, teachers, neighbors, friends and enemies. Thank you for supporting my life and practice.

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stronger together

 

The Clinton-Kaine sign is still in the front yard, worse for wear what with the rain and wind but I don’t yet feel inclined to toss it. It’s like a gall bladder scar, and here’s me, lifting my shirt to show it to the cameras.

In the four weeks that have passed since election night, I’ve heard from a lot of you. The basic sentiment is how in the #&%## world are we going to get through this. I don’t know how we’re going to get through this. I don’t know how to get through anything. The basic sentiment governing my life is not knowing how to get through.

Last week I sat a retreat, which helped. It helped because when you’re sitting in stillness for eight hours a day you don’t have time to creep back onto your carefully curated news sources to seize on the glimmer that affirms your fear or hope or rage. And avoiding that kind of misery is good for the moment. It’s good to be quiet right now as we recover from trauma. Until we’re back on our feet and storming the streets.

The first day home I woke with a headache and within an hour was throwing up my morning coffee, then yesterday’s, and then a lifetime of yesterdays, in spasms so violent that it occurred to me that I was finally achieving my yoga teacher’s instruction to inhale your navel to your spine.

By evening I was a shivering husk writhing in bed and wailing to my husband in the next room who tiptoed in from time to time to ask if he could do anything. It struck me then how completely helpful he was being, although there was nothing he could do to help. He was so totally kind and present to my pain, unafraid to walk into the door and stand beside my contaminated self.

I am afraid, I said. I don’t want to be alone.

And he stayed.

That’s how we’re going to get through this, friends—together. I’ve seen the writing on the wall.

Los Angeles – Feb. 16 at 7:30 p.m.- Feb. 19 at noon
Winter Moon Weekend Retreat
Hazy Moon Zen Center
Contact me for more information and registration

with a little help from my friends

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The other day my friend Tim dropped by after work with four brand new copies of Paradise in Plain Sight for me to sign. He had two friends in mind to give them to, and he would think of others for the rest.

I need more friends like Tim. We all do.

Soon you will be thinking of friends and family for holiday gifts and I’d really like you to give people this book. First, it’s cheap: $12.01 for a paperback on Amazon.* For that price, it will give a good amount of peace and comfort. Second, the story it tells is true. It’s not a big or important story. Nothing shocking or scintillating happens in it. But it’s deeply honest and real. As honest as sunlight. As real as a tree, rock, or pond that you can see with your own eyes.

Lastly, and this is the most important reason, it will really help if more people buy the book. The truth is, it hasn’t sold as well as my other books, and it’s easily twice as good.

People keep asking me when I will write another book. The answer is that I can’t publish another unless this little book sells better. That’s the way it works. Sometimes I’ll say that I’ve lost my ambition, but the truth is that I can’t afford to have ambition. This year I’ve made $156 in book royalties, and that wasn’t even for this book. So you get the picture.

Maybe even buy four or six or ten! (I have some amazing friends who have actually done this.) And if you don’t have anyone to give it to, buy one to give to your library. Some people tell me they haven’t read any of my books because their library doesn’t have them. So a single copy could enrich a lot of people.

I don’t like to ask for help—not many people do. But I’ve reached a point where I can. So I’ll say it again: I need your help.

Thank you.

*It helps if you buy it on Amazon or from another bookseller because it doesn’t cost me anything.

From a reader: how this book changed her life

being free

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A Manifesto for a Sane World

Get off Facebook. Permanently. It has corroded our society and degraded our intelligence while enriching a single misanthropic person to inconceivable wealth and power.

Quit Twitter. It serves no purpose now other than to elevate the ego of one dangerously corrupt and self-obsessed human being.

Watch no cable news. Subscribe to a newspaper, but not any newspaper. These days the Washington Post is the standard of excellence and independence.

Protest with your mouth, your feet and your dollars. Open your eyes. Get out of your chair.

Realize that every moment spent scrolling, clicking and typing into your device amounts to silence. Silence is doom.

Know enough to be afraid. Without fear, there is no courage.

Have no hope. Hope is a slogan that will divert your attention from the reality at hand.

Believe nothing. Investigate for yourself. Search the internet the way you used to. Look for evidence, not false assurances. The truth is always the simplest and most obvious thing in the world.

Be sane. A sane mind creates a sane world.

If you need a friend, contact me via my website. Send me a message asking for my mailing address and then write to me. I will respond.

 

the school for citizens

5357047-una-campana-grande-de-metal-con-una-grieta-a-traves-de-el“What do you think of western civilization?” a reporter asked Gandhi.
“I think it would be a good idea,” he replied.

You who are most afraid of this country that we have become, hear this.

There is only one place. The one you’re in. You can never leave, but you can turn it inside out. Do you want to live in friendship or fear? Peace or paranoia? We are each citizens of the place we make, so make it a better place.

Do not waste time deceiving yourself with “what ifs” or “how comes” or that noisy drum of self-righteousness, “I told you so.” I, for one, will not listen to any more ugly, ignorant blame. The facts are simply too blatant to argue. More people are suffering, and will suffer, at the hands of their own neighbors. We don’t need to know how this started to know how it will end. Will you merely stand witness to destruction and degradation or will you heed the bell?

Our daughter went to the public school down the street. The hallways were a little scruffy. The classrooms were crowded. The kids were just neighborhood kids. Not a single one looked like any other. She called them her friends, and she had far more friends than I did. The money there was scarce, but the opportunity was wide open and free.

It wasn’t my first choice, but in the end, it was my only choice.

On the first day of kindergarten, the teacher stood before an array of beautiful faces. She spoke loudly to reach the pack of teary parents spectating at the back of the room.

“Our job is to create citizens,” she declared, and turned to face the flag. I placed my hand over my heart with allegiance. I didn’t know I still had the old feeling in me, but at that moment, the school for citizens had created one more.

It’s a new school day. There is so much to learn and share. Claim your citizenship. Stand up and speak. Correct wrongs. Defend rights. Demand fairness. Do good without ceasing. And do good not just for yourself, but for the very ones who are causing the most harm. I happen to know some of them. I have to overcome my own fear, hatred and resentment of them or my pledge is false.

My kindergartener is now 17. The morning after the election she went to school as if it was a normal day. At 7:22 am, she sent me a text. “Mommy, I am scared.” Not scared of the school or of the radiantly diverse people there, but scared of her own life and future. And so I pound out these words with hopeful urgency. Wake up!

This is based on a chapter from Hand Wash Cold, a book I wrote nearly eight years ago. Eight years is not so long. Four years is even less. One week has already passed. The bell has rung. The bell has rung. The bell has rung.

***

The grieving among us (and I am one) have asked for guidance as we enter this dark and savage night. Below is a link to the recording of a talk I gave in Kansas City last weekend to those assembled in the sanctuary of retreat.

A Special Message from Maezen

simply the place

The poet has come to set these things first of all: to lift up his eyes and see the mountains; to lower them and listen to the stream; to look about him at bamboos, willows, clouds, and rocks, from morn till nightfall. One night’s lodging brings rest to the body; two nights give peace to the heart; after three nights the drooping and depressed no longer know either trouble. If one asked the reason, the answer is simply—the place.

Po Chu-i (772-846)

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Kansas City – Nov. 11-13
Ordinary Mind is the Way: Zen Retreat
Rime Buddhist Center
Registration open

what’s holding you back

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Is it possible to live in a universe without fear?

I wish more people would ask.

Anxiety disorders are the number one diagnosis of the mental health industry. Each year, about 40 million American adults seek treatment for debilitating fear and dread. Now children are swelling their ranks. In one recent year, 85 million prescriptions were filled for the leading antianxiety drugs. Antidepressant use has quadrupled over the last twenty years. About one in ten people suffer from chronic sleeplessness. Deaths from prescription painkillers are epidemic and higher than those from illegal narcotics. There are 140 million people in the world with alcoholism. In America, heavy drinking is the third leading preventable cause of death. These numbers may not be completely accurate, but they are entirely true. If they don’t apply to you, then they apply to people you know and love, people you live with or used to live with, people barely alive or dead too soon.

We live stupefied by our own deep terror, our unmet fears. Out of fear, we crush our own spirits, break our own hearts — and if we don’t stop — rot our own flesh.

How do we end up like this? I don’t know why we reach for noxious cocktails to drown our fear and pain, but we all do, and they don’t work. Every time we turn away from what is right in front of us we are headed in the wrong direction. So don’t turn away.

These days we live in what we consider to be a mobile society. It seems like we can do anything from anywhere. And yet, we are immobilized as never before. Some of us are too terrified to unlock our doors and step into our neighborhoods. Too timid to take a walk, drive our cars, or board a plane. We live straitjacketed by our touch screens and chained by convenience. If what we’re looking for isn’t on the closest corner, like Starbucks, or streaming, like Netflix, we don’t feel terribly inclined to go farther. I hardly ever have to leave my own confines, having fashioned a world in which nearly everything is delivered to me automatically.

Nearly everything. read more

follow

 

A road leads deep into a  Kansas cornfield in late July.

Follow the humble. They will lead you to dignity.

Follow the gentle. They will lead you to strength.

Follow the kind. They will lead you to gratitude.

Follow the silent. They will lead you to truth.

Follow the simple. They will lead you to wisdom.

Follow your heart. It will lead you home.

Follow the path. It will lead you everywhere.

the face in the mirror

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When my mother graduated from high school in 1950, she was the valedictorian, captain of the volleyball team, head cheerleader and homecoming queen. Granted, hers was a class of less than 50 students in a town of 800 in the empty farmlands of Central Texas. Her parents spoke German. Her father raised sheep. Her mother took in boarders. The family of seven lived in four rooms plus a parlor opened for Sunday company.

As valedictorian, she was awarded a full scholarship to a teachers college. I’m not sure if a desire to become a teacher preceded her enrollment in a teachers college, but that is what was available to her in 1950. It must have been impossible to imagine going anywhere else or becoming anything but.

Her father had to be convinced. He opposed the idea at first. He intended that only his sons would receive college educations, one by entering a seminary, the other by enlisting in the Navy.

But she left home and graduated from college in three years. The next year, she had her first child. Two years later, I came. She was a full-time teacher when my youngest sister was born in 1960, and she never stopped teaching or learning again.

She believed in people, and she believed in opportunity, even if the opportunity you got wasn’t quite fair or equal. She believed in working harder if you had to, and in charity, humility, and love.

She typed her master’s thesis on a portable typewriter that sat on our dining room table for months or maybe years, the same table where we ate the breakfasts and dinners she cooked every day. She did all that. She did everything, seeming to be made of steel.

For one very long stretch of time, she drove 70 miles round-trip several nights a week to take classes to earn a curriculum consultant’s credential, and then an administrative credential. With all her qualifications and after 37 years as a classroom teacher she still had to wait for every football coach in the district to be promoted to principal before she got a shot at the job she was most qualified for. When it came, it was at the worst-performing school with the least-skilled staff in the most run down building in the poorest part of town, a job that no one else would take.

But she did her best, and she made it as good as she could. She loved the kids, mentored the teachers, came early and stayed late. Having started out in life with nearly nothing, she cried for these little ones who had been given even less. She saw what the world was becoming.

And for all this, she took blows. Her own relatives ridiculed her as an educated woman, and worse, a liberal. They laughed at all her reading, writing and opinions. She served her critics Christmas dinners and sat at their bedsides when they were dying.

She loved every last one of them and they knew it. She never turned away from the opportunity to give, or do, or care. She showed up.

She raised three daughters who knew that they could do whatever they wanted to. Not because we had money. Hell no, we had none of that. But we had the opportunity to do our best. It wasn’t even an issue for discussion, and certainly not for brag.

So when I look at what is happening in our presidential election right now, I’m looking into a mirror. Yes, the face I see is my mother’s. A woman who works harder than everyone else. Who’s trivialized, marginalized and stigmatized. Who’s been told time after time that it’s not her turn because she’s too hard, or too weak, or too smart, or too this or that, or  just not a man. When has it ever been different?

And if you wonder when the tired, old woman who’s writing this is going to stop giving a damn, the answer is never. There are so many who will hurt so much if we turn back in fear, stupidity, bigotry, and hate.

See what the world is becoming, and then rise up. Now.

mindful in new york Oct. 21-23

Mindfulness Conference

Auburn, New York is 15 miles from Seneca Falls and 26 miles from Syracuse.

Register here.

5 steps to joy

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How do we find joy amid chaos?

I’ve been practicing meditation for 23 years now, and this question tells you why. It’s why I do retreats as a student, and it’s why I offer them as a teacher. Each of us, no matter what the circumstances, can find ourselves in a daily struggle to stay sane. And if not completely sane, at least positive. And if not totally positive, than at least moderately hopeful. There is so much going on. We can’t catch up or get ahead. Even our kids are too busy. Everyone is stressed, pressured, and anxious. The outlook is for more of the same. We may feel an urgent need to slow things down, or a depressing belief that nothing we do will make a difference.

We might think that chaos is a unique feature of our 21st century culture, but that isn’t so. True, technology means that we can work 24/7, and we have our devices to thank for our chronic distractibility. We may lack the support of family and friends, and feel disconnected from meaningful relationships. But I bet that you don’t need to look very far back in your family history to find a time when your own ancestors struggled just to maintain adequate food and shelter, or labored under catastrophic wars, disasters, and economic or social injustice. In short, life has always been hard, and often a lot harder than it is now. The proverbial “simpler time” we yearn for might not have been simple at all.

Contemplative practices such as meditation originated many thousands of years ago and haven’t changed. They don’t need to change. They don’t need to be modernized or adapted to the millennial mindset. They depend solely on oneself. And they work. This is what I have observed in my own meditation practice: stillness and silence bring peace, and from that peace springs radiant joy that you can experience for yourself.

It begins in chaos. Are you troubled, confused, anxious or overwhelmed? You’ve taken the first step to joy.

Enter the chaos

All spiritual practices are born in chaos — the shock of loss, the pain of despair, the sobering certainty of old age, sickness and death — the recognition that time swiftly passes and you are not in control. When the world is moving too fast, we always have a choice: to be tossed about by external events, or to center ourselves in the midst.

Drop resistance

The fact is, you’re upset. Frustrated, disappointed and annoyed. Resentful, regretful or indignant. Uncomfortable, uneasy and afraid. Most of us have developed a hard outer edge: the edginess that comes from resisting the way things are. Once you recognize what you are holding on to, you can drop it. It’s a lot of work to haul that extra stuff around, and it makes you feel terrible.

Exhaust yourself

No longer struggling against anything, you might instead feel . . . tired, very tired, and tender, very tender. Your heart softens, and you feel genuine compassion for yourself and others. Everyone is simply doing their best. This is a key step on the journey, because now you are courageous enough to do the most difficult thing of all.

Be still

A great teacher once said, “The effort of no effort is the hardest effort of all.” Using breath as a guide, meditation draws you into the still center of your being. You can stay, rest, and relax there. Your core of stillness, which is pure presence, is the place where healing and transformation occurs.

Enter the silence

Some people approaching their first retreat think that keeping silent will be the biggest challenge for them. I always remind folks that silence is not a prohibition. It is instead an invitation to enter the silence that is already here. Once the mind is quieted and the heart is calmed, everything is exactly as before, but without the noisy rat-a-tat-tat of our judgments. Inner silence harmonizes with all outer activity.

In silence we find quiet joy and gratitude for our life, and for all those who share it with us.

What a useful thing to bring home from retreat. Perhaps you could find out for yourself.

***

Join me at  Quiet Joy: A Zen Retreat for Busy People, the weekend of Oct. 28-30 at Copper Beech Institute in West Hartford, Conn.

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