Mindfulness

Savor
by Thich Nhat Hanh

Having read Living Buddha, Living Christ and skimmed Hanh’s Meditations on Mindfulness, I was pleasantly surprised by the time I finished Savor, co-written with Dr. Lilian Cheung. The practice of yoga first introduced me to the idea of living in the moment several years ago, and Thich Nhat Hanh writes compellingly about the practice. Yet I had always thought of mindfulness as a spiritual practice–a means to deepen my relationship with self, others, and the Divine.

The opening chapters of Savor were a primer on the practice of mindfulness, and I so skimmed much of them. Then followed some information about the necessity of healthful eating and exercise for weight reduction–and anyone who has gone through years of Weight Watchers as I have knows the score on that front. So it is probably safe to say that for the book’s first half I was a bit disappointed.

Until, that is, I came to Hanh’s idea of habit energy–the idea that many of our harmful eating patterns are no more than a habit, and that habit exerts an energy that often governs our behavior. The way around the habit energy of poor eating are the Seven Practices of a Mindful Eater. Now this was a little more food for thought (pun intended): honor the food, engage all six senses, serve in modest portions, savor small bites, eat slowly, don’t skip meals, and eat a plant-based diet. Pretty basic, but at least a fresh look at what I already should know. And since we’re finally entering the summer season, the idea of honoring food when I shop at the farmer’s market is easy, as is engaging all senses.

But it was the Mindful Living Plan that more fully incorporated the idea of mindfulness and made the practice … well, practical (would you believe I just now noted the root of the two words is the same?)! Hanh’s plan is composed of three components: InEating, InMoving, and InBreathing. Each of these practices incorporates the mindfulness breathing technique–“I breathe in … I breathe out …” InMoving has me walking mindfully, becoming aware of my feet and focusing on their contact with the ground–walking in the moment, no “to-do list” racing through my head. InBreathing is given the most consideration, with breathing meditations for everything from teeth brushing to emailing to traffic jams. The thought of applying mindfulness to brushing my teeth seemed both ridiculous … and sublime. Of course this is mindfulness, and at its purest.

In the end, I would recommend Savor to anyone who wants to deal with poor eating and exercise habits in a more holistic manner. Those who are familiar with the practice of mindfulness can skim through the first half of the book; those who are new to the idea will find it easy to understand and accessible.

A twenty-four hour read–


Servants’ Quarters
by Lynn Freed

It has been at least a year or longer since I’ve been compelled to read straight through a book, taking time only to eat, sleep, walk the dogs, and keep the house running. Lynn Freed transported me completely into a world I’ve read about, but only rarely. The voices of Penelope Lively, Dickens, and perhaps even the Brontes whispered around the edges of this story and I was sorry to have it end so soon at only 212 pages.

Cressida lives in Africa amongst an odd assortment of characters. Several years after The War, its horror still visits her Jewish family. Older sister Miranda screams in night terrors, father lies comatose in the back bedroom, and eccentric (or insane?) Aunt Bunch demands constant watching. But it is Cressida’s neighbor who is at once both the most compelling and the most repellent of them all. Mr.Harding, wounded when his plane was shot down over Germany, bears the visible scars of war time–horribly disfigured in the crash, he wears a veil over his panama hat to hide his hideously burned face.

The back story of the events that carry Cressida throughout the novel is complex–sex, money, power, and jealousy compound life at every turn–and Freed only reveals that story a drip or drop at a time. Mr. Hardy, lord of the Big House, watches Cressida from infancy and sees in her a soul that doesn’t belong to the world she inhabits. Here Freed begins to parallel Great Expectations, a conceit that is difficult to ignore once the two stories are connected. Cressida and her family come to live in Harding’s servants’ quarters and it is here that he begins to influence the course of her life. Cressida, herself longing for something more, abides by Mr. Hardy’s rules and rises to his expectations as she grows. Unlike Pip’s, however, the family Cressida must reject is worthy of no nostalgia–crass and common, the reader is relieved whenever Cressida separates herself from them.

Jane Eyre‘s shadow hovers over the novel’s love story–but this element of the novel was still a surprise to me. Poignant, offensive, and touching, I was willing to allow their love to unfold without judgment. If I had any complaint, it would be that Freed chose the easiest way out and relied on a Coda to finish Cressida’s story. In a novel this complex, it seemed too pat an answer.

But it could be that Coda was where Mr. Harding had been leading Cressida all along.

Me, too–me, too!

Knit Two
by Kate Jacobs

Another round of Friday Night Knitting Club and I’m buying it all the way. Take up knitting? Me, too! Bake some muffins? Me, too! Go to Rome? Me, too! Open a bakery? Me, too! Live in New York? Me, too! Kate Jacobs strength is not necessarily in fine writing–but in making her readers care about her characters. I want to be part of their world … and so I power-read through Knit Two, happy all the way.

Several years after the death of Georgia, Dakota has finished a year of college, teetering on the edge of adulthood. The rest of the ladies have moved on–Darwin has twins, Lucie struggles with single parenthood, Anita anticipates marriage to Marty, Peri runs the shop. It is perhaps Catherine who transforms herself the most–going from self-absorbed socialite to a woman who gives up the mask she’s worn, finding, at long last, who she wanted to become.

Improbably, half the club find themselves in Italy for the summer. Dakota accompanies Lucie to nanny, James tags along to watch over Dakota, Anita searches for her long-lost sister, and Catherine goes … just because she can, I think! Nowhere but in a novel would such circumstances evolve–but somehow, it doesn’t seem far-fetched. Jacobs touches on some big issues–single-parenting, aging parents–and knits each situation up neatly with no raveled edges. Certainly not very much like life, but satisfying enough for a spring weekend. In fact, should there be a third Knitting Club novel … I’d very likely pick it up again and willingly let myself be transported to Walker and Daughter on the Upper West Side.

Greater love hath no man than this …

Cutting for Stone
by Abraham Verghese

From the very first pages, I heard echoes of John Irving in Verghese’s first novel: the exotic setting, strangers in a strange land, and unbelievable (and yet SO believable!) twists of fate. Imagine–a British doctor and an Indian nun work together in Ethiopian mission. Sister Mary Joseph Praise finds herself pregnant with Dr. Thomas Stone’s baby, and dies giving birth to Siamese twin boys. Stone, attending the birth only in the latter moments of Sister’s life, attempts to save her by (unsuccessfully) crushing one of the baby’s skulls. The mission’s obstetrician arrives at the last moment, safely delivering the twins by C-section. The boys’ conjoinment, it turns out, is minor–they are attached only by the flap of flesh on their foreheads that is easily detached.

Preposterous. Yet totally reasonable in this convincing novel. The story of Marion and Shiva Stone is a riot of Ethiopian sounds and smells and tastes and
sights. Stone, devastated at Mary’s death, leaves the mission with only the clothes on his back, and isn’t heard from again for twenty-some years. Indian obstetrician Hemlatha is at one of life’s crossroads, and fostering the boys, mothering the boys, gives her a life she dared not imagine. Hema and internist-cum-surgeon Ghosh (who is Stone’s replacement in more ways than one) create a family and find joy in each other. The boys share a magical bond–Marion, ever practical and often altruistic; Shiva, a genius who lives in the moment with seemingly little concern for others.

Events and a woman (isn’t it always a woman?) find Marion in New York, finishing his internship at an inner city hospital. Rudderless, Marion tries to reconnect with his Beatrice, only to have that connection bring him close to death. It is Shiva who comes to Marion’s rescue, along with Hema and Thomas Stone. N0 spoiler alert here–but suffice it to say, with only 75 pages to the end my guess as to who would die was wrong.

If I have any criticism of the novel, it is that Verghese leaned a little too heavily on medical technicalities; I didn’t need to know quite so much about the repair of fistulas or TB or even cirrhosis of the liver. I’m guessing the doctor in the author (for he IS one of those physician authors) got the better of him at times! And near the end, when, say, I STILL couldn’t figure out how the novel would end, I did tire of the plot twists–every corner I turned, it seemed, held another gut-wrenching event. But I reminded myself that Irving writes in much the same manner, seems preposterous himself at times, and still brings me back for more.

It was not without surprise, then, that as I read the author’s meticulous acknowledgments I found the following: “I am grateful to John Irving for his friendship all these years. I have learned so much from him both in our correspondence and in his published work.” Abraham Verghesse has obviously done more than one successful internship, and his mentor’s influence shines brightly.

Next up: finish my February New Yorker! This was a long one at 657 pages.

Big Love–

The Little Giant of Aberdeen County
by Tiffany Baker

–but not the kind in the cable series! Truly Plaice’s life would be extraordinary whatever her circumstance. Born with acromegaly, she is, indeed, a giant. Truly’s mother Lily, sick with cancer, struggles to deliver this incredible child, all the while composing a letter in her mind to the baby she assumes will be a boy. Her dying words are that letter’s closing, “Yours truly” … but the doctor catches only a whisper, and assumes Lily had named the child.

As in most stories where a mother dies leaving her infant children and grieving husband, Truly’s childhood was the stuff of fairy tales: a drunken father, poverty, separated siblings, and menacing authority figures. What distinguishes Little Giant from fairy tales, though, is Truly’s medical condition and her village’s reaction to her. Shunned, hidden away, and mercilessly teased, Truly sees herself as others see her: ugly. While Truly adores her older sister Serena Jane, even that love is rejected. Instead, Truly bonds with Aberdeen’s other outcasts–a speech-impaired girl and an eccentric young genius.

Time is not kind to Truly; she eventually seeks out medical care from one of the very boys who bullied her throughout childhood, but the prognosis is not good: Truly will continue to grow (in both height and heft) until her organs give out. While her life sounds grim, Truly does make a kind of truce with the circumstances that surround her. She gently raises her sister’s child and falls in love of a sort.

Even more important, Truly finds she possesses a gift. Housekeeper to Dr. Bob Morgan, last in a long line of Morgan doctors who ministered to Aberdeen residents, she uncovers the family’s long lost secret. That first Dr. Morgan had married the town witch who secreted away her spell book before she died. Truly discovers that Tabitha Morgan had “hidden” the spell book in plain sight–and she begins to unravel the dangerous secrets of herbs and potions.

To be honest, I was worried that, as the story grew grim, the novel’s ending would be unresolved, even unhappy. But while I wouldn’t say the ending was happy in a fairy tale type of way, it was satisfying enough. Little Giant is the type of book I love to love–a pinch magic, a dash of love, and a good dose of healing. A cover review compares Baker’s story to Alice Hoffman’s and I couldn’t agree more.

Just started: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. What few pages I’ve already read are compelling. Quote I think I’ll always remember: “Remember the 11th commandment. Thou shalt not operate on the day of a patient’s death.” Can’t wait to give this book some more time–I’ve finally got my AP class’ essays graded, so I might be in luck tomorrow! (Except then I’ll have my yearbook proofs nagging away …)