Real Estate by Deborah Levy

I read the three volumes that make up Deborah Levy’s Living Autobiography over the year, beginning with the slim Things I Don’t Want to Know, a writer in the cocoon stage of transformation, the threads wound tight. A confrontation with denial, it is equally enticing as it is uncomfortable, it reveals as it obscures trying to fit into George Orwell’s framework from his essay ‘Why I Write’.

In The Cost of Living, a more expansive narrative, the threads unravel and insights are plentiful, though some of the thinking that created the earlier restrictiveness remain.

Real Estate Deborah Levy Memoir AutobiographyAnd now the final volume, Real Estate, which might as easily have been called UnReal Estate, in tumeric coloured silk, Levy has shed the cocoon, ready to embrace a new decade, the nest empty.

I became obsessed with silk. I wanted to sleep in it and wear it and somehow knew it had healing properties. It started when a royalty cheque came in and I took it literally and began to sleep by royalty.

With marriage and motherhood behind her, she dreams of a home with a fountain in the garden, a mimosa tree, a place to welcome friends, unencumbered by practicalities or marital vows.

Yet in my unreal estate dreams my nest was not empty.

If anything the walls had expanded. My real estate had become bigger, there were many rooms, a breeze blew through every window, all the doors were open, the gate was unlatched. Outside in the unreal grounds, butterflies landed on bushes of purple lavender, my rowing boat was full of things people had left behind: a sandal, a hat, a book, a fishing net. I had recently added light green shutters to the window of the house.

Deborah Levy Real Estate Paris

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As with the previous book, there are recurrent themes, there is a sense of humour and a search for something elusive in the idea of an appealing mature woman character. Deconstructing the stereotype of these persona, she ponders why no scripted female characters had full lives of their own.

It occurred to me that what was wrong with the scripts was that the mothers and grandmothers were always there to police the the more interesting desires of others, or to comfort them, or to be wise and dull.

Accepting a fellowship at the same time her younger daughter leaves home, she prepares to spend some months in a bare apartment in Paris, a new source of inspiration and insight, rereading and reflecting on the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras and Katherine Mansfield, researching the subject of the doppelgänger.

My empty nest in Montmartre was really a version of my two writing sheds, except I could cook and sleep in it. I worked through the night on my new novel, while the sculptor downstairs worked through the night with her electric saw.

Approaching her sixth decade, somewhat in isolation brings on a melancholic reckoning, a party and as the mimosa blooms, the mood lifts.

mimosa Paris Deborah Levy Creative nonfiction

Photo Larysa Charnakal Pexels.com

It’s not easy to describe the book, being a circular narrative that moves forward at the same time revisiting themes, turning back on itself, considering different perspectives.

The combination of grit, pearls of wisdom and humour, combine in a rollicking read of interconnected thoughts and observations, the searching for and letting go of ideas, those that promise an experience and the outdated that no longer serve the purpose of finding contentedness as a mature woman.

I loved it, finishing it in two days, and all the more for having struggled through the first volume, been both delighted and frustrated by the second and arrived here, at the evolution of an observation and examination of what it means to live, to love, let go and just be.

Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

A Reckoning On Race and The Asian Condition

Essays Race Asian AmericanMinor Feelings is a collection of creative nonfiction essays that invites the reader to view aspects of the life experience of artist and writer Cathy Park Hong, from a little observed and known viewpoint, that of an Asian American woman pursuing her own authentic form of expression, while looking for other role models, disrupting the silence that is expected, through a polemic on race, ethnic origins and art.

There have been a few books published in recent years, on the subject of race and intersectionality, where race intersects with other characteristics such as feminism, gender, class and civil rights.

Cathy Park Hong’s contribution moves between different subjects in seven compelling essays that begin with a memory of her own depression, anger and growing realisation at what was at the core of her disturbance.

In her essays, she deconstructs aspects of life that have contributed to a feeling of oppression and her discovery of artists, comediens and writers, who have overcome something, their example like a stepping stone to her own liberation.

It is a thought provoking exploration of both her own personal experiences and opinions and the examples of other artists, citizens, friends and family that have inspired her to delve into the subject and express a truth.

United

In the opening essay she searches for a therapist, having described what lead her to that moment and then her difficulty in being able to engage with the one she selected.

I wanted a Korean American therapist because then I wouldn’t have to explain myself so much. She’d look at me and just know where I as coming from.

connection race Minor feelings

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Her inability to get what she wants or an adequate explanation, followed by a thought provoking conversation with a friend, prove to be defining moments, as she experiences a moment of equanimity, seeing herself from outside of herself, raising her awareness. Her determination and vulnerability fight it out against each other. Intelligence finally wins.

Racial self-hatred is seeing yourself the way the whites see you, which turns you into your own worst enemy. Your only defense is to be hard on yourself, which becomes compulsive, and therefore a comfort, to peck yourself to death.

Her enterprising and persevering father, who studied his way successfully out of rural poverty, immigrated to the US in 1965 when the ban was lifted. The little detail of the hard working father and the frustrated mother provide a barely visible backdrop to the narrative, yet illuminate a strength, highlight contradictions and suggest future avenues not unexplored by this collection.

Stand Up

In this essay she finds inspiration listening to and watching Richard Pryor’s 1979 classic concert film Live in Concert, leading to an epiphany, a brief career in comedy and a deeper understanding of her world.

Pryor told lies – by spinning stories, ranting, boasting, and impersonating everything from a bowling pin to an orgasming hillbilly. And by telling lies, Pryor was more honest about race than most poems and novels I was reading at the time.

The transparency she finds in stand up comedy is like an apprenticeship in opening up and practicing in front of an audience. Comedians can’t pretend they don’t have an identity. They can’t hide behind words, they stand inside them.

It is here she defines for us what ‘minor feelings’ are, acknowledging a debt to cultural theorist Sianne Ngai who wrote extensively on non-cathartic  ‘ugly feelings‘ – negative emotions such as envy, irritation and boredom.

Minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance. You are told, “Things are so much better,” while you think, Things are the same. You are told, “Asian Americans are so successful,” while you feel like a failure. This optimism sets up false expectations that increase this feeling of dysphoria.

The End of White Innocence

Here Park Hong looks sideways at childhood, finding her own definition for what that means, dissecting Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, set in 1965 – a violent, landmark year for the civil rights movement, the assassination of Malcom X – yet manages to avoid everything outside the nostalgic memories it recreates.

Moonrise Kingdom is just one of countless contemporary films, works of literature, pieces of music, and lifestyle choices where wishing for innocent times means fetishizing an era when the nation was violently hostile to anyone different.

She writes of innocence and shame, of power dynamics, disobedience and indignity.

The alignment of childhood with innocence is an Anglo-American invention that wasn’t popularised until the nineteenth century. Before that in the West, children were treated like little adults who were, if they were raised Calvinist, damned to hell unless they found salvation.

Bad English

Recalling her early school education and affinity with bad English, her fascination with stationery.

It was once a source of shame, but now I say it proudly: bad English is my heritage. I share a literary lineage with writers who make the unmastering of English their rallying cry – who queer it, twerk it, Calibanize it, other it by hijacking English and and warping it to a fugitive tongue.

An Education

The final essays focus on her university years, her influential friendships and the path of being an artist and eventually moving away from painting and sketching towards poetry and narrative.

The greatest gift my parents gave me was making it possible for me to choose my education and career, which I can’t say for the kids I knew in Koreatown who felt bound to lift their parents out of debt and grueling seven-day workweeks.

Her focus is on her friendship with two friends in particular, unapologetically ambitious artists Erin and Helen, deflecting interest in her mother. The poet Hoa Nguyen persevered:

“You have an Asian mother,” she said. “She has to be interesting.”

I must defer, at least for now. I’d rather write about my friendship with Asian women first. My mother would take over, breaching the walls of these essays, until it is only her.

Portrait of an Artist

Asian American visual artist poetA tribute to thirty one year old artist and poet Theresa Hak Kyung  Cha visual artist and poet who on the day she hand delivered an envelope of photographs of hands, for an upcoming group show at Artists Space Gallery, whose book Dictée had just been published, was raped and murdered on her way to join her husband, by a security guard, who knew her.

Cathy Park Hong comes across Dictée when it is assigned by a visiting professor, ‘a bricolage of memoir, poetry, essay, diagrams and photography.’

Published in 1982..Dictée is about mothers and martyrs, revolutionaries and uprisings. Divided into nine chapters named after the Greek muses, Dictée documents the violence of Korean history through the personal stories of Cha’s mother and the seventeen-year-old Yu Guan Soon, who led the protest against the Japanese occupation of Korea and then died from being tortured by Japanese soldiers in prison.

Struggling to find much out about her, she brings the life of this exceptional artist out of the silence she has been buried, back into focus. What she finds is extraordinary.

The problem with silence is that it can’t speak up and say why it is silent. And so silence collects, becomes amplified, takes on a life outside our intentions, in that silence can get misread as indifference, or avoidance, or even shame, and eventually this silence passes over into forgetting.

The Indebted

The final essay looks back at those to whom she is indebted and discusses this trait as a concept, the weight of it, the gift of it. The difference between indebtedness and gratitude.

Further Listening Reading

Podcast New York Times: Still Processing – The Asian-American poet wants to help women and people of color find healing — and clarity — in their rage. Culture Writers Jenna Wortham & Wesley Moram discuss Minor Feelings & talk to Cathy Park Hong, April 2021

Article The New Yorker: “Minor Feelings” and the Possibilities of Asian-American Identity – Cathy Park Hong’s book of essays bled a dormant discomfort out of me with surgical precision by Jia Tolentino

Interviews – NPR, Goop, Kirkus, NY Times, The Atlantic, Vox, The Yale Review, Medium, Glamour and more.

Cathy Park Hong, Poet, Author

Cathy Park Hong has written three books of poetry Translating Mo’um (2002), Dance, Dance, Revolution (2007) chosen by Adrienne Rich for the Barnard Women Poets Prize, Engine Empire (2012). She is the recipient of the Windham-Campbell Prize and fellowships from Guggenheim, the Fulbright Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Her writing on politics and her prose and poetry have appeared in the Village Voice, the Guardian, New Republic, Paris Review, Poetry,  Salon, Christian Science Monitor, and New York Times Magazine.

Minor Feelings was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography, and earned her recognition on TIME’s 100 Most Influential People of 2021 list.

She is the poetry editor of the New Republic and is a full professor at Rutgers-Newark University. 

“Cathy Park Hong’s brilliant, penetrating and unforgettable Minor Feelings is what was missing on our shelf of classics….To read this book is to become more human.” –Claudia Rankine, author of Citizen

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

This second volume of Deborah Levy’s Living Autobiography trilogy has a completely different feel to the first Things I Don’t Want to Know, stuck as that first volume was, between the parameters of George Orwell’s four motivations in Why I Write and Levy’s own resistance to engaging with aspects of her subject that were rearing up to confront her.

Things I Didn’t Want to Know But Have Discovered

The Cost of LIving Deborah Levy memoirSo we now know a little of her motivation, however now comes the struggle, as she must balance writing with the cost of living; her circumstances have changed and we are going to learn how she manages as a single, independent mother.

This time she creates her own structure, using a series of 14 interlinked vignettes, episodes within the journey of releasing herself from a life lived within what were once deemed the acceptable parameters of a societal construct “marriage”, into the undoing of and reconstruction of something like “the pursuit of” but not quite, freedom.

In the opening, a 19 year old woman character is being chatted up by a man referred to as ‘Big Silver’, he is the wrong audience for the young woman’s story, however Levy decides she is the right reader for this one:

“To speak our life as we feel it is a freedom we mostly choose not to take”.

The young woman has the audacity to interrupt the man’s narrative sharing her own poignant story, as Levy introduces us to one of the recurring themes of her book, minor and major characters.

It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be a minor character and him the major character. In this sense she had unsettled a boundary, collapsed a social hierarchy, broken with usual rituals.

Using the Master’s Tools

Levy’s observations are astute, comical and laced with self-irony, questioning the role and discovering the tenacity of the woman writer, though her verse is peppered with an abundance of references hailing from the tradition of well documented and taught, dead white men.

In the opening sentence she reminds us that Orson Welles once said, if we want a happy ending, it depends on where we stop the story. His words will frame the book and are thought provoking sure, but he was also known for saying there were three intolerable things in life, cold coffee, lukewarm champagne and overexcited women.

Was this irony ?

Or was it the result of a slanted education of a certain era/affiliation. It speaks to what is being read and consumed and to an old monopoly on ideas, that rendered a canon of white men the originators of knowledge.

louise_bourgeois_maman

Louise Bourgeois ‘Maman’

For this reader, it was taken too far when redecorating her bedroom, upon rejecting the bright yellow, embraced too soon (overexcited), she repainted the walls white and chose to hang a portrait of Oscar Wilde, while on the same page, looked at photos of British sculptor Barbara Hepworth and French artist Louise Bourgeois that graced her fridge and wrote of them “the forms they were inventing gave them beauty without measure,” additionally sharing that the moths seem to like landing on those two.

Bourgeois had unfashionably declared that she made art because her emotions were bigger than herself.

Unable to relate to the women, it is towards Proust she inclined, when he said:

Ideas come to us as the successors to griefs, and griefs at the moment when they change into ideas, lose some part of their power to injure the heart.

Sister Outsider Speaks to Me

As I let this frustration percolate, trying to understand it, I wondered about the difference between gender politics and feminism. I admit that my annoyance has much to do with a decision to address an imbalance in my own reading when I started counting and analysing what I read and discovered too much of the same thing by the same type of people. So forgive me for projecting.

Sister OutsiderA voice repeated in my mind, ‘the master’s tools, the master’s house’ – you know when you recall a fragment of a quote but can’t quite remember it. It was the passionate sage wisdom of Audre Lorde reminding me of her essay, The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House in Sister Outsider (1984). Four pages of thought provoking, mind opening courageous speech.

“For women, the need and desire to nurture each other is not pathological but redemptive, and it is within that knowledge that our real power is rediscovered. It is this real connection that is feared by the patriarchal world.”

Audre Lorde speaks too of those standing outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women and suggests that it is learning how to stand alone, unpopular, sometimes reviled, and to make common cause with others identified as outside the structures, that we can create a world in which we can all flourish.

“It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

Freedom Hurts

Freedom is not to be pursued lightly, as she discovers when she exits her marriage and Victorian home as she enters her 50’s and a 6th floor apartment with her two daughters, soon developing the physical and energetic strength to endure it.

Freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.

Each vignette explores this struggle to cope and live with this new freedom, through a series of anecdotes that allow certain themes to repeat and by the time we read Gravity, she has been loaned a shed in the bottom of a garden in which to write and is kept to task by random apples that fall on the roof.

As I begin to read The Body Electric the writing energy and pace picks up a notch, we are out of the apartment and the shed, out of her head and on the road and what a hazardous place it is, but what energy and humour it brings to the narrative. Cycling became an obsession and kept her rage off the page.

I cursed and shouted at drivers when they opened their front doors in a way that toppled me on to the road. I had road rage. Yes, I had graduated to road rage on my electric bicycle. That is to say, I had a lot of rage from my old life and it expressed itself on the road.

There is the tiresome neighbour who waits for her to arrive to tell her off about temporary parking, intent on making her life more difficult, a situation various friends are keen to advise her on. But Jean is essential to the narrative, her ability to irritate prompts the author to ponder on what a woman is, on what she should be, or not be, a question she has no time to ask Jean.

It was possible that femininity, as I had been taught it was coming to an end. Femininity as a cultural personality, was no longer expressive for me. It was obvious that femininity, as written by men and performed by women, was the exhausted phantom that still haunted the twenty-first century. What would it cost to step out of character and stop the story?

yellow flowers in brown woven basket on bicycle

Photo by Valeriia Miller on Pexels.com

And in the middle of The Black and Bluish Darkness as she is riding up the hill in the rain, comes the most tender and humorous moment, we can afford to laugh reading in the comfort of home, but imagining the scene (no spoilers) and the reminder of the underlying reality, feels a little heart-breaking – except we know she does not indulge in self-pity, and has wonderful friends to call on. She recovers well, reaching out to one of them, who arrives with a box of strawberries and runs a bath for her. There it is, that redemptive power, those good, reliable female friends that no woman can do without.

Levy further explores the lives of other role models and how they managed to write, love, being woman and further reflects on her own role model, her mother, who even after she has passed, whose loss results in Levy sometimes literally getting lost, severed from her origins, somehow manages to remain present, symbolically.

It is certainly the case that there are fewer references and tomes written by women in previous centuries that analyse the sacrifices they make to pursue their art and ideas. That freer life a writer desires comes with a cost of living and women have long been making it easier for others to manifest their dreams while either sacrificing their own, or sacrificing something else in their determination to attain them.

Making her lived experience the lens through which she observes the role of the woman writer, Levy provokes us all to think more about the choices and sacrifices we make and the balancing act required to pursue our creativity and passions.

Next Up : Real Estate!

Further Reading

Guardian Review: The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy review – a memoir and feminist manifesto

Article: Why Not Ask a Powerful Man What He’s Doing to Help Women? By Stella Bugbee

Article France Culture: Louise Bourgeois, “une femme enragée et agrippée” (1911-2010)

Review: Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Things I Don’t Want to Know by Deborah Levy

There are two ways of reading Deborah Levy’s slim memoir, the first in her Living Autobiography trilogy:

things-i-dont-want-to-know-deborah-levy1. just open it and start reading taking in what is actually shared at face value, a woman on the cusp of a life change, whose suppressed emotions will no longer stay down, who leaves town to try and figure them out, looks back at her childhood and adolescence for inspiration, then decides to look forward instead and begins to write (on the last page);

or,

2. consider the framework within which she writes; a response to the essay ‘Why I write’ by George Orwell, who claimed 4 chief motivations, in this order:
i. sheer egoism
ii. aesthetic enthusiasm
iii. historical impulse
iv. political purpose

which Levy moves around, addressing but not – in the following rearranged order.

i. political purpose – her feminist awakening opening, as she ponders her role and her desire, supported by poignant quotes from Simone de Beauvoir, Margurite Duras and others, culminating in a brief getaway, escape to Palma, Mallorca, reading her journal ‘Poland 1988‘ in which she witnesses a soldier’s farewell to his mother, sister, girlfriend.

What interests me (in my sheriff’s notebook) is the act of kissing in the middle of a political catastrophe.

ii. historical impulse – her white South African childhood in which her father is imprisoned and her mother sends her to stay with relatives whose political leanings are opposite to her father’s. Everywhere there are signs, reminding them of their privilege.

There was something I was beginning to understand at seven years old. It was to do with not feeling safe with people who were supposed to be safe.

iii. sheer egoism – the sadness of exile, adolescence and separation in London, England, writing on paper serviettes in a greasy spoon cafe, avoiding home life. The first tentative steps towards becoming a writer.

I was born in one country and grew up in another, but I was not sure which one I belonged to. And another thing. I did not want to know this thing, but I did know all the same.

iv. aesthetic enthusiasm – in which she has dinner with the Chinese shopkeeper, a continuation of the story  begun in the opening section – and there it is, the reflection of that kiss in the middle of a catastrophe.  I skipped forward after i. to read this section second, it being clear from the beginning that this was a framing device, I was immediately drawn to read it whole, not in parts. It’s not like other books, it doesn’t spoil the story to read the end before the middle.

At first I found it annoying, that the framework of Orwell had been used and quoted on the back of the book, while the contributions from the feminist writer’s in her opening section had so much more to contribute to her reasoning. I asked, Why not create your own framework? Then later, thought, perhaps she does, disguised as it is, within the infamous outline of the other. Making the reader try and read between the lines.

Levy places the life of a woman writer (herself) into this construct created by a male writer, his opinion on  the motives of writing – already an act of rebellion, and though it doesn’t work entirely, perhaps it was never intended to, though it may have lured some otherwise reluctant readers in.

Joan Didion Writer Essayist

Joan Didion, Author

Joan Didion also wrote an essay Why I Write in 1976, prompted by the same source. Ignoring Orwell’s framework she delved immediately into sharing her flaws and inability to conform, out of which grew her own singular way of seeing, observing and recording answers to her own curious questions, the flexing of imagination.

I knew that I was no legitimate resident in any world of ideas. I knew I couldn’t think. All I knew then was what I couldn’t do. All I knew then was what I wasn’t, and it took me some years to discover what I was. Joan Didion

When Levy writes, there is an absence, a reluctance. It is admitted in the title, it stems from a childhood, continues into an adolescence and confronts her in middle age as she rides the escalator and can no longer keep it down. It threatens to overflow and engulf her.  Those things she does not want to know. That she laughs off.

It occurred to me that both Maria and I were on the run in the twenty-first century, just like George Sand whose name was also Amantine was on the run in the nineteenth century, and Maria whose name was also Zama was looking for somewhere to recover and rest in the twentieth. We were on the run from the lies concealed in the language of politics from myths about our character and our purpose in life. We were on the run from our own desires too probably, whatever they were. It was best to laugh it off.

She is left with her question. What do we do with the things we do not want to know?
She realises she can not accept her own question. She will continue to write and perhaps find the answer in the next book. I will read it and find out whether she has the courage.

In the meantime Didion persevered with hers:

Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer. Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Joan Didion

Further Reading

NY Times Review: Serrated Edges by Lisa Zeidner

Guardian Review: Kate KellawayDeborah Levy’s rich response to George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay “Why I Write” is unmissable

Deborah Levy

Deborah Levy On Writing and Living

Deborah Levy, Author

Deborah Levy is the author of seven novels: including Swimming Home, Hot Milk and The Man Who Saw Everything and a short story collection Black Vodka. She has been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize and the Man Booker Prize.

She has also written for The Royal Shakespeare Company and her pioneering theatre writing is collected in Levy: Plays 1.  She has written a trilogy of memoirs, referred to as a living autobiography on writing, gender politics and philosophy. The first two volumes, Things I Don’t Want to Know and The Cost of Living, won the Prix Femina Etranger 2020. The final volume, Real Estate, was  published in 2021.

Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty

A stunning reflection by a 15 year old boy, over the course of a year, season by season into how nature provides him with a breathing space, a remedy to his own being.

nature writing Wainwright prizeDara McAnulty is autistic, as are his mother and two siblings, a beautiful advantage, because the family seem to understand exactly how to mitigate the intensity and lived experience of this characteristic.

As a result, they often escape their suburban habitat for the slightly wilder places within reach, places where whatever constraints they might be feeling inside, that might otherwise result in some kind of behavioural impulse, can be released into the conducive expanse of a living outdoors, an ecosystem, they feel at one with.

He reflects on the influence of both parents:

“Many people attribute my love of nature on him He’s definitely contributed deeply to my knowledge and appreciation, but I also feel the connection was forged while I was in Mum’s womb the umbilical still nourishing. Nature and nurture – it’s got to be a mix of both. It may be innate, something I was born with, but without encouragement from parents and teachers and access to the wilder places, it can’t bind to everyday life.”

Dara channels his passion for wildlife and nature into a series of journal entries, written with language that is beautifully descriptive and resonant, that conjures up exactly how it might feel like to be this young man, whose five senses are so intense, who wants to understand more, to do what he can to improve the state of our planet, its nature.

On dandelions:

yellow dandelion flower

Photo by Daniel Absi on Pexels.com

“…I love dandelions. They make me feel like sunshine itself, and you will always see some creature resting on an open bloom, if you have a little patience to wait. This vital source for all emerging pollinators is a blast of uplifting yellow to brighten even the  greyest of days. It stands tall and proud, unlike all  the others opening and swaying in the breeze. The odd one out.”

Spring ends with the announcement that the family will move to another village to be closer to a different school and for their father to be in closer proximity to Belfast. At first disillusioned, Dara soon learns there is a forest nearby and a whole new ecosystem to explore and learn. The move marks a significant change in his experience of the school system, he begins to thrive.

“Many people accuse me of ‘not looking autistic’. I have no idea what that means. I know lots of ‘autistics’ and we all look different. We’re not some recognisable breed. We are human beings. If we’re not out of the ordinary, it’s because we’re fighting to mask our real selves. We’re holding back and holding in. It’s a lot of effort. What’s a lot more effort, though, is the work Mum did and does still, so light-heartedly. She tells us it’s because she knows. She knows the confusion. That’s why she and Dad will be doing the worrying about moving, and why Mum will be doing all the planning and mind-mapping, and will somehow know how everything fits together. I’m lucky, very lucky.”

He asks himself constantly, is this enough; to observe, to spend time in nature, to speak, to write?

If this was all he ever did, it is already enough, but it is clear he is destined to do more.

Silverbar, the Sanderling

A sanderling shore bird

Observing the sanderling, I am reminded of Rachel Carson’s excellent Under the Sea-Wind, where she too brings this bird to life:

I reach for my binoculars and see them: sanderlings, about thirty, moving erratically yet with powerful purpose. Blurred black legs. A flash of beak prodding the sand. Sand ploughman. They whirl with the waves, never stopping. Scurrying. Rushing. Every movement too fast for me to focus on. Dazzlers of the shore.

Sanderling plumage is snow-white and pewter-black, the crown darted with linear black-among-white. They come to winter in Ireland from the high Arctic, travelling nonstop for over 3,000 miles. Their movements are completely hypnotic, especially as I focus in one bird and observe how it moves relentlessly at speed between the waves and shoreline, sandpeckering as it goes, and repeating it all over again as the waves recede, over and over, over and over. What tenacity. I’m not sure how productive it all is, as they never stop for a second and must spend so much energy making each tack from wave to shoreline.

When he begins to doubt himself or feel overwhelmed by what he understands is happening to the environment, his ever patient, wise, knowing mother is there:

She also tells me that I need to hold on to grace and gratitude. ‘Hold them close’ she says. ‘And remember by writing down all the good things in life.’ She’s right of course, but it takes every muscle to agree.

A wonderful, inspirational book and journey to a few of the wildish places of Northern Ireland.

Loved it.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Delighted to pick this up at a book sale in the small French village of Ansouis recently, it contains two pieces previously published in other formats, brought together in this slim but powerful book, originally published in 1963, a period of time when he had returned from eight years living in Paris and before he returned to live in the south of France for the last 17 years of his life.

I have read one of Baldwin’s novels If Beale Street Could Talk (also made into a film in 2018) and listened to his 1965 impassioned speech in the historic debate between James Baldwin v. William F. Buckley Jr. at Cambridge University on the question: “Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro?“.

Letter to My Nephew

The Fire Next Time James BaldwinThe first ‘Letter to my nephew on the one hundredth anniversary of the emancipation’ entitled My Dungeon Shook originally appeared in the Progressive Madison, Wisconsin – a magazine known for its strong pacifism, championing grassroots progressive politics, civil liberties, human rights, economic justice, a healthy environment, and a reinvigorated democracy, is a letter to his 15 year old nephew James (who appears in a photo with his author Uncle on the cover of the book I read).

He shares with him what and who he sees in him, that comes from within the family, qualities that endear and those to be careful of, all from a place of deep love.

He writes to him too of his country and what it means to be of this country, to be black, to be at home in it despite all, to retain dignity and remember, to take inspiration from the long line of poets he comes from and remember one of them who said:

The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off.

A Letter to Me and You

The second is an essay Down at the Cross first appeared in the New Yorker as Letter from a Region of My Mind and is a wonderful talking through of his own development of self-awareness as he entered adolescence, describing how he and his peers came into a change that transformed girls and boys into something other and the refuges they seemed destined for, given how much beyond childhood wasn’t available to them.

He dissects his own choice to simultaneously seek refuge and revenge by going into the Church and the clarification it gave him, having seen beneath the veneer of that institution, while equally learning to use the tools it flexed to bring about an objective.

“I was saved. But at the same time, out of a deep, adolescent cunning I do not pretend to understand, I realized immediately that I could not remain in the church  merely as another worshipper. I would have to give myself something to do, in order not to be too bored and find myself among all the wretched unsaved of the Avenue. And I don’t doubt that I also intended to best my father on his own ground. Anyway, very shortly after I joined the church, I became a preacher – a Young Minister – and I remained in the pulpit for more than three years. My youth quickly made me a much bigger drawing card than my father. I pushed this advantage ruthlessly, for it was the most effective means I had found of breaking his hold over me. That was the most frightening time of my life, and quite the most dishonest, and the resulting hysteria lent great passion to my sermons – for a while. I relished the attention and the relative immunity from punishment that my new status gave me, and I relished, above all, the sudden right to privacy.”

He also speaks of his meeting and audience with Elijah Muhammad, then leader of the Nation of Islam, and analyses what he perceives of this man and their intentions, beyond the religious element.

america ancient architecture art

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

It is noteworthy to consider this organisation that brought together religion and a population suffering from racism, when one thinks about the fact that most wars come about over religious difference, what terrible outcome might have occurred should they have been successful in the aim of their conversion, to make Islam the religion of Black American people, thus turning an issue of race into one of ideology.

“It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.”

Ultimately Baldwin’s message is one of love, for standing up for one’s rights, of dignity and the health of one’s soul, of our responsibility to life. His words seem as relevant today as they were at the time he wrote them.

“I am what time, circumstance, history, have made of me, certainly, but I am also, much more than that. So are we all.”  James Baldwin

Highly Recommended.

James Baldwin (1924-1987)

James_Baldwin_in_his_house_in_Saint-Paul_de_Vence

Baldwin at home in Saint Paul de Vence

James Baldwin was an essayist, playwright, novelist and voice of the American civil rights movement. His essays, collected in Notes of a Native Son (1955), explore intricacies of racial, sexual, and class distinctions in the society of the United States during the mid twentieth-century. 

An unfinished manuscript, Remember This House, was adapted for cinema as the Academy Award–nominated documentary film, the visual essay currently showing on Netflix (in France) I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

Other notable works include Go Tell It On The Mountain, Giovanni’s Room, Another Country, If Beale Street Could Talk.

Further Reading

Interview: Paris Review – The Art of Fiction James Baldwin talking with  Jordan Elgrably

New York Times: James Baldwin – His Voice Remembered; Life in His Language by Toni Morrison

LA Times: 30 Years After His Death James Baldwin Has Another Pop Culture Moment by Scott Timberg

 

Aroha by Hinemoa Elder

Ancient Voyagers, An Oral Storytelling Culture

Recently I read and shared my thoughts on Christina Thompson’s, Sea People, a non fiction collection of historical explorations of the Pacific and various attempts to recreate the voyages of the ancient navigators of Polynesia. It finishes with the exhilarating re-enactment of a 2,500 mile canoe voyage led by a descendant, using non-instrument navigation, proving what many Europeans had seen the result of but denied was possible in such challenging seas.

Some of the most challenging journeys were made by the Maori on their ocean going waka canoes, carrying them across Te-Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand, the most southern point of the Polynesian triangle. And it is from this culture that another descendant, Hinemoa Elder shares some of their ancient wisdom through a modern day interpretation, finding meaning and encouraging others to find theirs too.

Maori wisdom for a contented life lived in harmony with our planet

Aroha is the Maori word for love, but look a little deeper and we learn that it is a concept, described by Hinemoa Elder as a deeply felt emotion and way of thinking that encompasses love, compassion, sympathy and empathy.

Aroha Maori Wisdom Hinemoa Elder

A compound word, ‘Aroha’ includes the parts Aro, Ro, Hā, Oha.  Words that contribute additional layers of meaning:

ARO is thought, life principle, paying attention, to focus on, to face or front
RO is inner, within, introspection
HA is life force, breath, energy
OHA is generosity, prosperity, abundance, wealth

This little book of Maori proverbs and wisdom is an attempt to reconnect to the wider meaning of an ancient word.

They are called whakatauki and are a way to connect to the words of Maori ancestors, an oral history passed down.

a portal, a doorway into the ancient, sacred energy of aroha, the timeless wisdom of Maori culture.

They provide insight and can be interpreted by the reader, offering an alternative perspective with which to look at the world and a reminder of our connection to nature and our duty to care for her abundant resources that are under threat. 

Aroha Hinemoa ElderThere are 52 whakatauki, one for every week of the year and it’s a book that can either be read through or dipped in and out of randomly. The sayings are grouped into four themes, each one explained at the outset of that section and further inspired by toi whakairo, the Maori art of carving:

  • Manaakitanga – te aroha ki te tangata

care, respect and kindness towards other and ourselves

  • Kaitiakitanga – te aroha ki a Papatunuku

love for our world

  • Whanaungatanga – te aroha ki nga hononga

empathy and connection between people

  • Tino rangatiratanga – te aroha ki te tika

the pursuit of what is right, self-determination

Many of the proverbs refer to nature, the sea, the forest, observations of how it is, that we can think about and reflect on in our own lives.

Hinemoa Elder translates the saying literally, then offers an alternative in English that better reflects her own interpretation of it. She then writes a two or three page conversation-like reflection on what it brings to mind for her. Some of them like this one below, have the kernel of a myth inside them, combining story and nature to bring a lesson.

wp-1624958913074.jpg4. 

Ko te Mauri,

he mea huna

ki te moana.

The life force is hidden in the sea.

Powerful aspects of life are hidden in plain sight.

This refers to an ancestor who cast his traditional feathered cloak into the sea, a treasure, that is still there, out of sight, said to signify the ongoing presence of those that have gone before and to the hidden gifts that reside within us, that we have forgotten, that can be awakened with a little effort and reflection. You can reclaim them.

Remember your hidden powers, your true self, and bring it into the light.

There are many more to discover, it is a very easy read, full of nuggets of cultural wisdom and it is especially good for young people to read,  clearly having been written and partly inspired by her encounters with youth.

Highly Recommended.

Sea People by Christina Thompson

In Search of the Ancient Navigators of the Pacific

Growing up in rural/coastal New Zealand and being immersed in Maori culture from the age of 5-12, the myths, legends, stories, cultural practices have always resonated with me.

Perhaps because I was so young, or because there was a clear connection to the landscape and environment that rang true, the geography of New Zealand was part of the mythology, that curious blend of enchantment and reality; it made sense to a child.

Sea People In Search of Ancient Navigators of the PacificA Polynesian Connection and Resonance

I read Sea People not so much out of that European curiosity to discover where people originated from, but for the familiarity of that “way of seeing” through the oral tradition of storytelling, of describing things from where I see and what I see around me, not from the lofty heights of above looking down.

My curiosity in all honesty, lay too in wondering if a woman’s perspective and approach might be different.

As the number of oral cultures in the world has diminished, interest in them has grown, and one of the most intriguing questions is whether there might be such a thing as an ‘oral way of seeing’, a  worldview common to oral peoples that might be different in some generalizable way from the worldview of people in cultures with writing.

I loved it.

Like her own mixed family, the author Christina Thompson straddles the masculine/feminine, Polynesian/European aspects and shares something that goes back over all the approaches to Polynesia from the earliest eyewitnesses of 1521 to the brilliant modern day reconstructions of Polynesian canoes, that set sail with a crew of experimental voyagers, trained in the old non-instrument methods of navigation, to re-enact the voyages of the ancient Polynesians.

map-polynesia-frontThe Polynesian Triangle is an area of ten million square miles, defined by the three points of Hawai‘i, New Zealand and Easter Island. All the islands inside this triangle were originally settled by a clearly identifiable group of voyagers: a people with a single language and set of customs, a distinctive arsenal of tools and skills, and a collection of plants and animals that they carried with them wherever they went.

Sea People tells the story of these remarkable voyagers and of the many people—explorers, linguists, anthropologists, folklorists and navigators—who have puzzled over their astonishing history for more than three hundred years.

There is a reason the remote Pacific was the last place on Earth to be settled by humans: it was the most difficult, more daunting even than the deserts or the ice.

cottages in the middle of beach

Photo by Julius Silver on Pexels.com

Written in six parts, chronologically, we follow the thinking of the different eras, immersing in the exploration and research studies of the time, travelling through all the speculation, attitudes, reverence and mystery of a very Eurocentric enquiry, until recent times when those of Polynesian heritage themselves, as decolonization and indigenous rights movements were gaining strength worldwide, demanded representation and respect in these constant intellectual probings.

The first parts look at the various European explorations, their intentions, their reception, discoveries and the kind of records they kept about they witnessed. It also shows the difference in their encounter(s) when they befriend and take a Polynesian navigator with them, bridging a cultural divide, that had often resulted in violence previously.

Much has been made in histories of the Pacific about the problem of observer bias. Early European explorers saw the world through lenses that affected how they interpreted what they found. The Catholic Spanish and Portuguese of the sixteenth century were deeply concerned with the islanders’ heathenism; the mercantile Dutch, in the seventeenth century were preoccupied with what they had to trade; the French, coming alone in the eighteenth century, were most interested in their social relations and the idea of what constituted  a “state of nature”.

Part Three looks at some of the stories the Polynesians told about themselves and the difficulty their European visitors had in understanding and interpreting them.

Europeans and Polynesians, it would seem, had very different ideas about the purpose of narratives and the relative meanings of “falsehood” and “truth”.

The Polynesian Art of Non-Instrument Navigation

For me that was the highlight of the literary journey, when Nainoa Thompson, a young Hawaiian, did all he could to learn the old ways, studying the stars, the winds, reading the waves and ocean swells, the imagined island, all the techniques known that had been passed down, to navigate like the ancient mariners, great ocean distances with nothing but what nature offered to guide them.

And in the face of disbelief by all the European sceptics who’d come before, unable to embrace the paradigm of this ancient skill, they succeeded, using practical sea voyaging, no computer simulation or dusty pottery references or annals of research; a brilliant touch of reality and reaching back through the generations of ancestry.

It was a stunning achievement. Without maps or charts or instruments or recording devices, without even paper and pen, an apprentice navigator – the first from Hawai’i in at least half a century – had piloted a canoe more than 2,500 miles, spanning more than thirty-five degrees of latitude.

A wonderful history and a beautifully accessible read. While it is inevitably limited due to being addressed from within those same structures that European exploration came from, and written by an outsider (albeit married to someone from the region), it provides a valuable insight into that outsider view and representation of centuries of exploration.

It will lead very nicely on to my next read, appropriately, the inside view from Dr Hinemoa Elder in her book of Maori wisdom, Aroha.

Sea People Christina Thompson

Christina Thompson

A dual citizen of the United States and Australia, she was born in Switzerland and grew up outside Boston and spent a decade living in Australia. Since 2000 she has been the editor of Harvard Review and teaches writing at Harvard University Extension. She lives outside Boston with her husband and three sons.

Sea People won the 2020 Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Award, the 2020 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, and the 2019 NSW Premier’s General History Award. Her first book, Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All, was a finalist for the 2009 NSW Premier’s Literary Award and the 2010 William Saroyan International Prize for Writing.

Further Reading/Listening

NPR Interview: ‘Sea People’ Examines The Origins And History Of Polynesia by Ilana Masad

Read More Co: Author Interview: Christina Thompson

Breath by James Nestor

The New Science of a Lost Art

I stumbled across this book almost by accident, in a conversation with a client about the importance of the breath to regulate health. I’d been practicing a version of the Lion’s Breath to balance a throat chakra (energy centre) issue and I had become aware of the power of the breath and mantra combined.

Another client had shared after being able to resume swimming training, “Do you know what the best thing about getting back in the pool and training is? The deep breath.” Upon hearing this anecdote, the first client returned with this book.

science of breathing nasal breathing pranayamaThe book is written by the American journalist and author James Nestor, who also wrote the nonfiction science and adventure book, DEEP: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us about Ourselves (2014) exploring the abilities of those who have trained themselves to be able to stay underwater for 4 or 5 minutes without oxygen.

Breath takes that research even further and is a book he researched and wrote over a period of ten years, as he explored the hypotheses that the human species had lost the ability to breath properly, causing not only changes in the structure of the face and respiratory apparatus, but hastening health problems.

Over the millenia, these cultures developed hundreds – thousands – of methods to maintain a steady  flow of prana. They created acupuncture to open up prana channels and yoga postures to awaken and distribute the energy.

But the most powerful technique was to inhale prana: to breathe.

sportive woman with bicycle resting on countryside road in sunlight

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

His obsession with the breath took him from the Himalayas to Brazil, into the homes and offices of people equally dedicated to pursuing the art of the breath for improving health and discovered miraculous findings that western science seemed to have ignored until very recently.

Pranayama. Buteyko. Coherent Breathing. Hypoventilation. Breathing Coordination. Holotropic Breathwork. Adhama. Madhyama. Uttama. Kevala. Embryonic Breath. Harmonising Breath. The Breath by the Master Great Nothing. Tummo. Sudarshan Kriya.

I’ve been reading it over the past two weeks and I certainly agree that upon reading this, you’ll never breathe the same again, to have one’s awareness raised in this way about the health promoting effects of certain types of breathing and the detriment to the health of the other.

As a result of some of the experiments James Nestor and Anders Olsson put themselves through, another two-year study was being put together with 500 subjects to research the effects of sleep tape on snoring and sleep apnea.

man doing hand stand on mountain

Photo by Sam Kolder on Pexels.com

The overall summary of helpful breathing techniques and resources at the end of the book is excellent and the journey to get there is interesting and entertaining, if occasionally somewhat tiresome, as the level of eccentricity of the author in pursuing so many of these guru-types begins to make what should be a simple technique, into something akin to scaling a mountain.

Thankfully, the reader doesn’t need to go to any of the lengths the author did, from the summary of techniques (see the NY Times link below), it’s enough to find the one that resonates and try it out, or if it’s snoring that ails you, try out the mouth tape!

Breathing is a missing pillar of health.

Further Reading

James Nestor Responds: How is it possible for humans to have evolved this way? 

New York Times: Breathe Better With These Nine Exercises by James Nestor

The Observer: How One Hour of Breathing Changed My Life, 26 July 2020, by James Nestor

“You can’t be truly healthy unless you’re breathing correctly.”

Nurturing Our Humanity by Riane Eisler and Douglas P. Fry

How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future

Thirty Years Later

I’d been looking forward to reading this after reading Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and The Blade two years ago, though it was originally published in 1987, over 30 years ago.

Riane Eisler is a systems scientist, cultural historian, educator, speaker and pioneering attorney working for women’s and children’s human rights, and the recipient of many awards. Her work on cultural transformation has inspired scholars and social activists. She is President of the Centre For Partnership Studies dedicated to research and education.

Douglas P Fry is an American anthropologist. He has written extensively on aggression, conflict, and conflict resolution in his own books and in journals such as “Science” and “American Anthropologist.” His work frequently engages the debate surrounding the origins of war, arguing against claims that war or lethal aggression is rooted in human evolution. He is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

A Guide to Raising More Conscious, Socially Responsible, Caring Future Generations

Nurturing HumanityBringing together these two authors has created an immensely readable work that describes how our societies and families and cultures, not to mention our brains, have been shaped by a system of domination that favours hierarchical structures, ranking of one kind over another, authoritarian parenting and leadership, fueled by fear, tamed by punishment, sustained by conditioning that makes silencing and oppression the norm.

Eisler and Fry argue that the path to human survival and well-being in the 21st century hinges on our human capacities to cooperate and promote social equality, including gender equality.

Social systems that orient closely to the domination side of the continuum are ultimately held together by fear and force. In this system, beliefs and social structures support rigid top-down rankings, and the closer a culture or subculture orients to it, the more stressful it is.

Despite the narratives that exist that suggest humanity is hardwired for ruthless selfishness and violence, there is abundant evidence, referenced here, that:

“Indicates that humans have also evolved powerful capacities, indeed proclivities, for empathy, equity, helping, caring and various other prosocial acts.”

There are examples from ancient times past (anthropological evidence) and present in contemporary Nordic societies, one of the significant differences being a greater sense of partnership and equality between couples and also in the value attributed to “caring industries”, a sector of society that has been virtually ignored by academia, and undervalued, underfunded by governments worldwide.

In contrast, the partnership configuration is more peaceful, egalitarian, gender-balanced, and environmentally sustainable. As in the strivings of countless families, businesses and communities today, the partnership system consists of beliefs and structures that support relations based on mutual benefit, respect and accountability.

Once we understand these dynamics, of domination versus partnership, and the characteristics of each, the imbalance in the world becomes glaringly obvious. This work gives multiple examples and acknowledges that pockets of the partnership approach do exist and are growing, but there are significant challenges to be addressed before we can truly begin to benefit from the improved standard of living that more ‘caring societies’ can bring.

Fear and force are not woven into the cultural tapestry of of the partnership system because they are not needed to maintain rigid top-down rankings, whether it is man over woman, race over race, religion over religion, or nation over nation. Instead of hierarchies of domination, some partnership societies and leaders use power to empower rather than disempower. So love, care, nurturance, and creativity can flourish.

New Evidence About Human Nature

There is now a plethora of evidence from many different fields, ranging from ethnography, history and psychology to genetics, neuroscience and ethology that provide a shock-and-awe set of counter arguments to the assumption that selfishness and violence are central to what it means to be human.

Nurturing Our Humanity Riane Eisler Douglas Fry Caring Economics

Photo by CDC on Pexels

Human nature has an enormous genetic capacity for empathy, working together sharing, caring and helping, however we know from neuroscience that stress can inhibit this capacity by changing our brain neurochemistry. And starting with the crucial early family relations, domination oriented societies are extremely stressful.

We Need A Caring Econonics

As long as caring is culturally devalued, we cannot realistically expect caring social and economic policies designed to promote human well-being and protection of the natural environment. Measures of economic health such as GDP and GNP include as “productive” work, those activities that harm and take life, such as selling guns and cigarettes with their resulting health and funeral costs – but they fail to count as productive  the hard work of people who care for children, the sick, the elderly and others at home, and accord very low value to this work in the market.

The book ends with four cornerstones of Partnership, Childhood Gender, Economics and Narratives & Language, with recommendations and examples of policies and practices towards improving these areas, bringing new economic and social interventions that give value to caring and caregiving work in both the market and nonmarket sectors.

Nurturing Our Humanity: How Domination and Partnership Shape Our Brains, Lives, and Future

Riane Eisler and Douglas Fry

I can’t recommend this book highly enough for anyone at a loss to why the world seems to have become so divisive and uncaring, this deeply researched, erudite text stands back and shows us where we’ve been and where we could go, and what policies need to change to bring us to a more humane era.

There isn’t a page where I haven’t highlighted a passage, reading this book makes one see the world differently, even though we already knew it. It makes me realise I’ve been working on evolving my brain for years, undoing the conditioning, rewiring it for a better way to live and be.

It makes me realise how starved I am for stories/films that present and represent the partnership model of society, rather than the proliferation of narratives that continuously adher to and promulgate the domination model. And why those stories have been having such a profoundly negative effect on me recently. The combination of empathising with characters and being witness to their maltreatment by other characters (or the author in their creation of them) is affecting my brain!

“Understanding the origins, natures, and impacts of partnership and domination systems on human lives and societies is crucial to human well-being and survival.”

Lifting the veil on the system behind so much of how our world works, to keep the domination system in place, once aware of it, it is almost overwhelming, the steep gradient of the uphill battle before us, however I like to believe we are on the way, that a new vision of future generations will embrace the partnership model more and more.

Totally fascinating and Highly Recommended.

Further Listening

Podcast : “Is Human Nature Peaceful?” Douglas Fry discusses human nature, our potential for peace, and some of the archeological/anthropological evidence behind his work.

Podcast : Behind Greatness by Inspire North : Riane Eisler JD, PhD(h) – President, Center for Partnership Studies / Author / Speaker – Building a World that Supports Capacity for Caring, Creativity & Consciousness