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Letting in Other Voices

I’ve always been a fiction girl. From my early days with B is for Betsy, Babar and the Ramona books, many suggested by the lovely librarian at West Prep, but also fostered by my mother reading to me at night. Over the years, I dabbled in a limited way with the odd mystery a few biographies, certainly with journal articles for work related research, but truly I was never too interested in sci- fi, self- help, New Age. I suppose that is keeping with my concept of myself as meat and potatoes in which everything is compartmentalized and sits on the plate not touching, to be eaten in a specific sequence.

Not that I am a total slave to routines. In fact I find them boring. And what is wonderful about my Pilates classes here and at home : they are variations on a theme so that the instructor never repeats him/herself in what exercises or areas of the body are targeted. The element of surprise works to alienate the tedium of the same gongs of the bell and makes it lively – at least for me, themes that relate but do not disrupt the whole.  

But this year my reading list has varied. Stimulated by a friend who had read Niall Ferguson’s biographies,almost 1000 pages each, I decided to plunge into Part One of the Rothschilds. I think the way historical books are presently written has changed over time. Not dry or dull in spite of an objective narration, details of context are included to enliven the writing and make sense of the actions and words of the people. Perhaps this was always so, but having never indulged in this genre, I cannot say. Although I do know that there has been a shift from the heroes and conquerors to the victims, particularly in school texts. And that is a very good thing.  

Ferguson, author of the recent Kissinger and many other biographies, wields a light hand. Afraid The Rothschilds would be hampered ( for me) in the heaviness of financial dealings which must be part of the story as it is essential to the family’s amassing of their immense power and fortune,I was delighted to discover the narrative very interesting, highlighted by the descriptions of Jewish oppression in Europe: from early days on the Judengasses in Stuttgart and the airless unsanitary conditions to defaming cartoons in France that insultingly targeted not just Jews but Scots and Brits. Context is often everything. 

Ferguson also includes the family’s subjugation of women in the family, to be without money or any inheritance, because they were women. Paradoxically for me, the manipulation and build up of the Rothschilds’ fortunes felt somewhat convoluted as the support of governments, the “ rentes”, the stocks, the mergers were grand and sweepingly explained: to my liking, yet leaving me with only a sense of their machinations. Typically we cannot have it both ways, too much detail leaves us confused and bored; and not enough causes us to desire a deeper comprehension. But yes, I read and enjoyed my first 1000 pages.  

Similarly I immersed myself in Mark Epstein’s The Trauma of Everyday Life. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_WAzVEJoxN8).. It is a very readable book that moves among three voices. There is the author’s own warm, friendly probing stance as he investigates himself, relating his personal progress in order to make sense of his own aloneness and difference; there are the stories or accessible tales, exemplars or guides from the life of the Buddha; and finally Epstein the therapist, connecting his own medical background as a psychiatrist to Buddhism. References to other standout theorists and influential gurus are thoughtfully entwined, primarily , the work of Donald Winnicott on the essential relationship of the mother to the child.  

Much resonates- in terms of treating oneself lovingly as in the mother- child paradigm. And although I concur with importance, wisdom, support and unrelenting love of the duo, Epstein builds his argument on the death of Buddha’s mother seven days after his birth, locating much if not all Buddha’s search on this deprivation- in spite of a second wife/ mother stepping in to most likely to shower , nurture and love the child. It is distressing to all parents and adopted children to imagine, it is only the biological mother who can rear the child in security. That this connection is so innate, that the search might propel a child on his/ her journey of relational knowing is distressing. This recalls for me a recent Margaret Wente column in the Globe where she told her readers it is not necessary to read to your kids because their in- born intelligence will dictate their futures- in spite of whatever doting parents do. 

Epstein recalls an old diagram from medical school of arrows connecting the world with the receiver, as we make the world through our perceptions. Our knowing it, creates it. He explains as well that more than the actual trauma, is our relation to the event. I reflected too on Epstein’s two- prolonged approach to compassion: that we should forgive ourselves our troubling behaviours from the past; along with the compassion we might understand of the present day self who is still struggling with those tormenting narratives. His description of Jack Kornfield’s Vietnam’s nightmares illuminated the possibility of meditation’s healing. From this example, I comprehended that we really do not/ should not just live in the present , that we consolidate past traumas into the present day and allow them to co- exist with the good, bad and ugly: all grist for contemplation. They are part of who we are, and they can foster a new experience that need not retraumatize when those miseries resurface. In this way, Kornfield could remember the blue skies and warm beaches of Vietnam, before the atrocities he had witnessed. 

I realized from reading the book that my initial understanding of letting go of the past constitutes only part of Mindfulness. Epstein iterates that we must go “through”our traumas in order to emerge from them, that emotions are not to be cut off, but examined as part of the process, that the focus on breathing in Mindfulness training is a place to focus in order to separate ego and disaffected or repressed parts of self. We should be able to stand outside of ourselves tenderly looking inward. 

Eventually I will read John Kabot Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living. But for now Epstein’s book is a gentle touchstone towards the topic. Not preachy or overloaded with medical terms and most importantly, the tone is warm and somewhat searching in itself as he grapples with his own anxieties. 

But again it is the voice , not the old omniscient know-all that speaks down to the reader. Epstein, although knowledgeable, does not laud with scholarly information but offers his own probings as he makes those connections among the personal, historical and medical. He is the best of teachers who is able to awaken in his readers ( patients) those bridges that make sense of narratives, that strive for the insight: the epiphany of the Ah- ha moment, when life is rearranged freshly. Like a good piece of art, the work will speak to diverse viewers in multiple ways.  

Critics say that about Sol Lewitt’s constructions and that is the reason I am a fan of the Abstract Impressions. You can intuit the pain in Mark Rothko’s paintings, layer upon layer of resonating reds, for example. Morris Louis’s paint that sinks into an unprimed canvas and runs in rivulets off the page or Jackson Pollock’s mounding pebbles and lumps of paint that can enclose you into a moment.You must look deeply, be open to the conversation,piercing ( going through perhaps) the canvas to generate something of yourself to yourself. And if you can go far enough, something new and unknown or unfelt may appear. I was interested to read Epstein’s reference to Marcel Duchamp in which Duchamp refers to the deep implicit relationship of a work of art that can make meaning to the viewer through their own personal narrative. 

As I sit doing my 10 minute body scan meditations every morning after coffee, my meta- brain is still floundering en route to witness whatever disassociated everyday traumas I am hoping to disclose to myself. Letting other voices in such as Ferguson and Epstein’s has extended my thinking beyond fiction, these narratives involving the personal to make facts and theories come alive. 

But Alas, at heart, I must confess that I am still that girl who revels in fiction.Having just finished Fates and Furies, I am looking forward to Franzen’s Purity.

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