Crooked Grow the Trees by Carmel Hanes

Crooked Grow the Trees is an engaging, insightful and well-informed read that I remain in awe of since I finished reading it. I bought it not long after an online group conversation on Goodreads with Carmel Hanes about Bernice L. McFadden’s Praise Song for the Butterflies.

Since our connection is a little story in itself, I will share the comments that lead to my discovery that she had written a book and my desire to read it.

My comment on Praise Song for the Butterflies read:

Without resorting to a happy ever after cliche, I enjoyed the possibility that the experience of trauma didn’t have to equate to continual suffering, that one’s personal narrative does not have to continue to be that which happened in the past, that it is possible to change, to move on, to find community in another place, to rebuild, to have hope. Perhaps that is what happiness really is, a space where hope can grow, might exist, not necessarily the fulfillment of, but the idea, the expression.

to which Carmel replied:

What an eloquent and delightful summary of what happiness might be. “Hope” being the magnet that pulls one through life’s bitter shavings. Thanks for sharing that perspective….I love it.

What a beautiful, illustrative metaphor of hope being the magnet, pulling one through life’s shavings. I was enamoured by the ease with which her turn of phrase became a metaphor and wondered what else she had been reading, only to learn she was a published author, described as follows:

She hid among the likeable misfit toys she worked with in public schools and detention centers during a thirty year career as a school psychologist. The indelible imprint they left on her insisted on expression in this debut novel, exposing the struggles we all have to overcome early influences.

Well that combination of the spontaneous metaphor, a career of working with misfits and the promise of insights into dealing with young people who had been the victim of trauma was enough to make me curious. And what a find it was!

Review

Crooked Grow the Trees is an intriguing title, one I imagine refers to the impact traumatic events have on the growth and development of young minds, some children are unable metaphorically to grow as straight and tall as they ought to, depending on their influences and experiences during childhood.

The novel is a dual narrative between Sophia’s professional life dealing with the boys in the detention centre and her personal life, which has brought her siblings together as their father awaits death, awakening a past she has long buried.

The brilliant cover art depicts the main protagonist Sophia and her brother Marcus, whose way of being in the world has been significantly affected by memories and perspectives of childhood, in particular in relation to their father, the dark element seen in the base of the trunk. Nevertheless, they are survivors, they have used their experience to forge their way ahead (even if they face opposite directions), each attempting to consciously eradicate while subconsciously using to good effect, that which left a mark on them.

Navigating the complex relationship with her father had been like walking through an emotional minefield.  Explosion after explosion had blown so many parts off the relationship there was nothing recognizable left but a spongy mass of raw nerves and charred intentions.

Unfortunately that resulted in them having opposite views in many areas of life, a source of friction that kept them apart, rarely seeing each other, until now circumstances force them to be together again.

They had little in common other than shared ancestry. Marcus held strong opinions that bordered on bigotry, while Sophia was inclined to see people as complex and multi-dimensional, not categorizing as quickly as her brother. They were on different sides of the political divide and rarely agreed on how to solve the social and financial issues the country faced.

What seems like an irredeemable divide proves challenging when it comes to dealing with their father’s affairs, Marcus is inconsolable and Sophia wants to understand why he acted the way he did. Hanes cleverly puts the siblings in a room where unknown elements of their parents lives are revealed, they are able to talk about, clarify and recalibrate events from the past, in a way that helps them understand each other better, healing some of the latent trauma.

A foundational brick in her self-view had been flawed. Years of experience wrapped around this inner core, tendrils of assumptions and beliefs, unraveled as the core foundered. How do you reframe a lifetime of feelings? How do you rewrite decades of misunderstanding?

Similarly in the workplace, when there is disruption, she comes into conflict with the position of staff who take a more punitive approach to dealing with the young. Uninterested in investigating what happened, or any extenuating circumstances, some advocate for severe punishment.

I don’t care what the excuses might be; they simply have to follow the rules regardless of what is happening. WE are in charge not them. The more they get away with these take-it-in-my-own-hands decisions the more at risk we are, not to mention their families and the community when they finally do make it out of here.

Sophia and her colleague appeal for a different approach:

“I think it’s important to understand what led to their decisions and reactions in order to best support them and teach them,” countered Dr Blain. “One cannot separate their actions from their histories, and change only happens when we understand what drives them so we can help them understand that as well. That is our mission, not simply to punish them for wrong actions. We can only gain that understanding through investigating all angles and hear what each person has to say.”

It’s a captivating read, enriched by experience that succeeds in presenting multiple moral viewpoints, forcing the reader to indulge and reflect on all perspectives and attitudes in the various conflicts. The conversations with each of the boys and the situations they respond to are brilliantly depicted, the dilemma feels real, the reader desperately wants them to succeed in being transformed.

Crooked Grow the Trees shows relationships healing through understanding and how those with opposite views can find common ground and forgiveness when memories and events that formed them are shared and discusses. Sadly, it is often not the case that the cause is known or shared or that people have the chance to heal from those traumas that damage them.

I find myself rereading my comment above, seeing how it resonates here too.

Perhaps that is what happiness really is, a space where hope can grow, might exist, not necessarily the fulfillment of, but the idea, the expression.

Buy a Copy of Crooked Grow the Trees via BookDepository

Into The Magic Shop, A Neurosurgeon’s Quest to Discover the Mysteries of the Brain and the Secrets of the Heart by James R. Doty

Into the Magic ShopJames Doty never really set out to write this book, but he told his story to so many people with whom it resonated and being one of the founding creators of CCARE (The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research) he was eventually convinced how many more people could be inspired by his story and learn about the amazing work being undertaken, that he agreed to share his experience.

Doty came from a poor background, raised in a dysfunctional family, his mother was frequently depressed and had suicidal tendencies, his father, who when he was sober he adored, often disappeared after one of his drinking bouts and when he did return was violent and abusive. Consequently, as a child he lived in a constant state of fear, in anticipation of when the next bad thing was going to happen, it made his heart race, his body tense and constantly made him dwell in anger and sadness.

The first major turning point in his life occurred in his early teens when he went to the local magic shop looking for a replacement thumb tip and there he met the mother of the owner, a woman named Ruth. Ruth recognised something in him and invited him to come to the shop every day that summer, promising to teach him a kind of magic he could use all his life. So he did.

She talked to him about different feelings and the emotions they stem from and taught him:
Trick 1. to Relax the Body,
Trick 2. to Tame the Mind,
Trick 3. to Open the Heart (the only one he didn’t learn) and
Trick 4. to Clarify your Intent.

She taught him to visualise and to never accept that something was not possible. He took the lessons and they enabled him to attain goals he believed would not have been achieved without the insights and practices that Ruth taught him. He went to university, to medical school and despite absences and the lack of excellent grades, became a doctor, a successful businessman and entrepreneur, a husband and father. But at a price, something he wouldn’t learn until many years later when he finally understood what the third lesson that he had failed to learn and practice was about and began to live and work in accordance with it.

Ruth was helping me form new neural connections in my brain. It was my first experience with neuroplasticity, well before the term was commonly used….Not only was Ruth training me to change my brain by creating new neural circuits but she was also training me to regulate the tone of my vagus nerve and, by doing so, affect both my emotional state and my heart rate and blood pressure.

James Doty became a neurosurgeon and shares a little of what he learned about the brain and uses it to explain how those early interactions with Ruth were changing and remapping his brain in a way that would help him in the future.

Neuroplasticity

In another turning point in his life, later when he has risen to great heights and achieved the great material success he believed was all he desired, he would come to learn how much more he was capable of with an open heart, he would bring together a group of people to scientifically research the effect of compassion and altruism on the brain.

As well as great scientific minds, he would meet with the Dalai Lama, who on listening to Doty explain his research and answering a number of questions, decided to support and sponsor the research with a significant and unprecedented financial donation, so impressed was he with the project.

When our brains and our hearts are working in collaboration – we are happier, we are healthier, and we automatically express love, kindness, and care for one another. I knew this intuitively, but I needed to validate it scientifically. This was the motivation to begin researching compassion and altruism. I wanted to understand the evolution of not only why we evolved such behaviour but also how it affects the brain and ultimately our health.

It is a wonderful, honest account, a compelling and easy read. Doty shares his story, flaws and all, sharing the beneficial effect on his life of the rare gift of meeting someone who shared those simple life resources with him at an early age, and importantly where he got it all wrong. Through this book he and many others hope that more people will have access to them, or at least become interested enough to find out more.

It is fascinating and heartening to see the increasing scientific development in the 21st century into understanding the effect of compassion, altruism and meditative practices on the brain through science, something that ancient Buddhist cultures have known, experienced and passed down the generations through practise for thousands of years.

Dr James R.Doty, MD Stanford University and His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Dr James R.Doty, MD Stanford University and His Holiness The Dalai Lama

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.

The Examined Life

Examined LifeRecently I listened to a podcast entitled Literature on the Couch featuring Andrew Solomon, Greg Bellow and Stephen Grosz.

It was the book written by the latter that provoked my interest, Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life, How We Lose and Find Ourselves. While there are many books one can pick up, which write with a voice of authority and experience on the subject of Freudian psychoanalysis, there are few if any, which have been penned as a practical legacy to the children an author will one day leave behind.

I like the idea of leaving lessons of our life’s learning to one’s children, they are the few people on earth we are able to genuinely love unconditionally and it intrigued me to seek out this book, to see if writing for one’s children on a subject one is something of a professional expert in and having already been reasonably widely published can remove the influence of ego or meeting the expectations of one’s academic peers and make a subject or in this instance many case studies, accessible to the lay person and true to that spirit of sharing wisdom with one’s progeny.

The book is divided conveniently into five sections, beginnings, telling lies, loving, changing and leaving.

CIMG0990

My Other Passion, Distilling Essence

The chapters are like perfume samples, distilled to their quintessential essence yet encapsulating the base notes that make a scent whole or a lesson in life complete. Incredible given that many of the cases he mentions are the product of a year or two of conversation, meeting with a person for fifty minutes, four or five times a week, over a number of years. A life work of more than 50,000 hours listening, learning, resolving, and understanding (or at least trying to).

In Beginnings, the first case that made me go back and reread a few pages was How Praise can cause a loss of confidence and once you’ve read it, you’ll understand the subtle difference between giving praise and giving something else more likely to boost esteem and confidence in children, so subtle and yet so potentially powerful. And what a great gift to pass on to those children, who may one day become parents themselves.

Admiring our children may temporarily lift our self-esteem by signalling to those around us what fantastic parents we are and what terrific kids we have – but it isn’t doing much for a child’s sense of self. In trying so hard to be different from our parents, we’re actually doing much the same thing – doling out empty praise the way an earlier generation doled out thoughtless criticism.

In Loving, the chapter Paranoia can relieve suffering and prevent catastrophe is insightful and may make us more sympathetic to those who suffer from it, particularly the elderly.

With old age, the likelihood of developing a serious psychological disorder decreases, and yet the chance of developing paranoia increases. In hospital I have heard elderly men and women complain: “The nurses here are trying to poison me.” “I didn’t misplace my glasses, my daughter has obviously stolen them.” “You don’t believe me but I can assure you: my room is bugged, they are reading my post.” “Please take me home, I am not safe here.”

Grosz suggests that paranoid fantasies, such as a feeling of being betrayed, mocked, exploited or harmed are a defensive response to the feeling that we are being treated with indifference. They protect us from the more disturbing emotional state, from a feeling that no one cares about us or is thinking about us, that we have been forgotten.

changeIn Changing, we learn how our very survival can be put at risk by our fear of change in How a Fear of Loss Can cause us to lose Everything. How some of us will escape at the very first sign of danger, even if it means doing something we are not used to doing and how others may perish, because of the fear of acting without sufficient information.

“We are vehemently faithful to our own view of the world, our story. We want to know what new story we’re stepping into before we exit the old one. We don’t want an exit if we don’t know exactly where it is going to take us, even – or perhaps especially – in an emergency.”

Overall, an intriguing, easy read including stories which might easily be those we encounter or recognise in ourselves or others close to us and with a clear explanation of the hidden meaning and lessons that can be found within them. Not surprising to see it listed yesterday in the Guardian’s recommended Holiday Reads, literature for the couch, the beach, the balcony or wherever it is you’ll be putting your feet up this summer (or winter if you’re down-under!)