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Monthly Archives: January 2017

My reading goal last year was ridiculous, I admit. I wanted to read 50 books in the year 2016 in a burst of driven enthusiasm. I ended up reading 45. I want to be clear that this was only accomplished by choosing slimmer books with smaller page counts and I’ve gone in the complete opposite direction for this year’s goal, choosing a mere 10 books, in order to allow myself to read longer books at a slower pace.

There were many noteworthy books that I read in this challenge and I would like to share them and hopefully inspire a few people to pick up a title or two. I purchase the majority of my books on Amazon, seeking out used copies that cost between $1.00-7.00, meaning that with delivery the books tended to cost me between $5.00-15.00. It was very workable and I hope you can also locate these books for similarly cheap prices.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson 

Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer and founder and executive director of the Eqjustmercyual Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization that provides legal representation to individuals who have been wrongly convicted of crimes, those who cannot afford representation, and those who have been denied a fair trial. He is especially focused on individuals who face the death penalty and young people with long, harsh sentences. In this book, he talks about his experiences working in the criminal justice system as a lawyer who takes these kinds of cases. Even more specifically, he looks at racial bias in the justice system and how it disproportionately harms the poor. The humane and empathetic look at criminals who suffer enormously in our current system makes this is a necessary read. Also, his overarching message is very important for those worrying about the upcoming four years: he acknowledges how defeated he has felt, working on a never-ending mountain of tough cases that appear hopeless, but states that rather than give up, he has found it essential to maintain hope — how useful hope is, that it must be nurtured, and that great good can be done if one can hold onto it.

Chronicles of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquezchronicles

This novel has the rich and vivid language found in Marquez’s other novels (other than his journalistic News of a Kidnapping) coupled with a narrative that is essentially a mystery story: how did a young man’s murder unfold? Or, more importantly, if everyone knew the murder was going to take place, why did no one stop it from happening? The narrative is fun, looking at the events of that day from numerous perspectives, an atmosphere of absurdity and whimsy surrounding the entire affair. Your mileage may vary, but this has become one of my favorite Marquez novels, and I’ve nearly read them all at this point. It’s also a rather quick read.

Substitute: Going to School With a Thousand Kids by Nicholson Baker

This book was not largely well-received. This is reflected in its Goodsubstitutereads rating. I can understand where this comes from: to start, teachers are an ornery group, often talked over by people who don’t know anything about education, often pressed underneath the system’s feet. Also, this book has an older white man who is a writer and not a teacher documenting his every day while substitute teaching for a month in a school district. There’s a lot to disagree with in this set-up. However, speaking as someone who was a classroom teacher and has stepped back into a substitute teacher role after moving to a different state, his observations are often relevant and worth reading. Many times, they were not dissimilar to things I have thought. Although he is largely ignorant of the dynamics within education, I enjoyed reading this book and I think his perspective as an outsider is not without value. You may want to couple this book with a Jonathan Kozol book, however, or at least some book written by an actual educator.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemiquantumthief

This science-fiction novel is the first of three and I admit that I’ve only read this first part and have yet to make time for the other two. However, even without continuing with the storyline in the next installments, the society-building in Rajaniemi’s novel is fascinating. The plot might seem a little cheesy at first, with a Puss-in-Boots style thief that naturally outsmarts nearly everyone around him, but Rajaniemi makes it work well and the society he envisions on Mars, in the Moving City of Oubliette, is an amazing concoction of futuristic technology, complex government control, subcommunities and their function, and privacy and social engineering — it’s really unique. If you’re a fan of world building and science fiction, this is worth checking out.

The Art of Communicating by Thich Nhat Hanhhanh

Hanh is a Zen Master and this book is a quick and easy read thanks to his succinct and brief writing style. Hanh has many books on zen and compassion and this one focuses specifically on how to listen with compassion in order to communicate effectively. His message is simple and repetitive, but I found the simplicity of the message extremely applicable to my every day interactions with other people. He talks of writing, speaking and listening as a form of consumption, and as consuming unhealthy food inevitably harms us, consuming toxic speech also harms us. He presents compassion as a useful tool. He gives examples of how practicing compassionate speech (and compassionate listening) can work in different kinds of environments. I found myself re-reading certain useful passages months after completing it.

The Plague by Albert Camusplague

I picked up this book in the oppressive heat of last summer. My god, the environment in which I read this book made its contents weigh even more heavily upon my imagination. This book takes place in the African coastal city of Oran, which Camus also wrote about in his essay The Minotaur, during a period of plague that sweeps through the urban center. The story follows several characters, one a doctor, as they pass through the rise and fall of the plague, quarantined from their loved ones, experiencing profound suffering, ennui, entrapment, compassion, death and self-deceit. Camus tends to explore the same themes of death and ultimate meaning and absurdism in all his work, so those themes are present here as well.

 

We were too busy to shout “Happy New Year,” so the DJ calmly expressed his well-wishing as we clasped the arms of the people closest to us and pressed our bodies together. The second floor of the club, splattered with layer upon layer of graffiti that commemorated a thousand separate memories, crowded us together between several pillars on a flimsy dance floor that shuddered under our bouncing weight. Once midnight hit, our friend had been pounced by an old fling of hers whose eyes were wide and sparkling, rolling on molly, and they were entangled in the middle of the room in a kiss.

graffitipink.png

My partner and I had moved to this city inspired largely by her, but once we arrived her life fell apart. She lost her wife, she found someone new, and then she lost her too. The overwhelming density of her strife meant we had also lost her. She lived down the street but she was adrift in her endless preoccupations, not answering our messages and canceling plans. I was irritated, yet empathetic, and through my annoyance I continued to comment on all her photos and reach out to her, even if she didn’t respond.

And now, once she parted from her most recent lover and stumbled away, she came to our arms and we hugged her and told her we loved her and were inspired endlessly by her.

The three of us left the narrow old building that housed the club, standing on the sidewalk with goosebumps crawling up our arms and Uber vehicles crowding along the side of the road. Our friend’s tryst stood in the doorway, her body alight, her wild eyes trained on us, insisting we enter her vehicle and come downtown to Black Mass with her, dance away the rest of the night with her even though they would soon be unable to legally serve alcohol. We weren’t alive with uppers, however, and had multiple bottles worth of depressant drenching our organs, so we slid into a van to head back to our friend’s apartment.

Around the time I entered the Uber, my hair slick with sweat and my damp shirt slipping down over my shoulder, 200 miles away in another state, my father’s heart muscles struggled to receive a supply of oxygen. He laid down in bed, squeezing his eyes shut and thinking that if he died, at least the pain would stop.

But he woke up the next morning. He went to the hospital and they slithered a wire through his veins and put a stent into his heart with a balloon catheter.

My little brother contacted me the following morning, our lives so different yet his brain so much like mine, doing neurotic circles, a game show reel spun out of control and every prize actually a possible demise. He had recently had his first child and he held his newborn, contemplating worst case scenarios. When I called my father’s cell phone, my mother was a manic scribble as well.

My own neuroticism was firing off and so I recalled the progress I had made, the progress I had reflected on while drunk and silly in the graffiti’d club bathroom the night before, fluffing my hair in the mirror and staring into the drunken spiral of my eyes, observing the purple half-circles of perpetual illness standing out crass against my pale skin. I rubbed my face to bring some color and, as the New Year’s occasion called for, reflected on my personal progress of the past year.

I assume that others, during the whir of drama and chaos and inebriation, stare at themselves in the mirror and demand the truth. My soul procured what I most desired in that moment, which was pride — in myself. For what? What good had I done in this past year? I had barely made enough money to get by, many bills going unanswered and mostly unnoticed; I had worked pitifully small jobs and hardly lived up to my full potential, failing to inspire during job interviews; my relationship had completely fallen apart and I had managed to slap it back together with skill and grace. So much failure, but that last one — the latter conflict — had put me on a path of realization.

It hasn’t been that long since my last meltdown, my last time checking into a crisis service center and begging them to help me sleep. A year and a half, not even. Since then, I had put forth a considerable effort to help myself, or, to try to build up some defenses and thought patterns that would prevent myself from shutting down again. I read articles and books that were not necessarily always about self-help but had the sort of content I could use to infuse myself with good ways of thinking that I could practice.

I had practiced changing my thoughts. Swiveling away from the anxiety and neuroticism to more constructive ways of thinking. I flexed my brain cells, attempted to build a reflex toward reason. I read many articles on, simply, how to breathe. I felt silly reading them, but still — I caught myself not breathing when I stressed out. I found myself remembering to take good breaths.

I also found myself asking this question that had been repeated to me over and over again by therapists, who I had ignored: What can I take care of right now, in this moment? I began to seriously ask myself this. Often, the answer was nothing. Often, I found myself jotting down a time in which I would take action toward solving a problem, which wasn’t at that current moment. I had trained myself into a habit. This question had been meaningless to me for so long, until I managed to prescribe it with my own personal, intimate meaning of self-improvement. Maybe one day it will be meaningless again to me and I will need to find a new question to infuse with intimate personal power.

Standing in the club bathroom, surrounded by graffiti about hot, wet pussy and colorful tags, I stared myself down and acknowledged that a year had passed and the work I had put into myself was noteworthy and fruitful. Though continuously plagued with insecurity, I felt pride bubbling up in my chest. A sense that these thoughts, habits, friendships, myself… were not worthless.

I could hold my pettiness in my hand and then gently swat it away, just like any normal, pained human being. After this continued reflection of the night before, I held my phone in my hand, thinking of the neurotic triad of my mother, brother and myself. We had all influenced each other, touched by conflicts and trauma that traced far back into the past. It would be a long story to tell, if I were ever so inclined to write it down, but I knew where my anxiety came from. I knew who I shared it with. I knew, also, that I was capable of handling anything, that I had proven that to myself.

I spoke to my dad after speaking with them. After his dazzling heroism had worn off years ago, I had spent the majority of my adult life being angry with him, for his bad politics and prejudices. But this evaporated into a petty cloud of smoke in the conversation in which he told me his thoughts about believing that he was going to die.

Only one memory pushed to the forefront of my mind then. I was five, vulnerably small in my large bedroom, my bed pushed up against the window over the driveway and the apple tree so I could see the comings and goings of the outside world instead of the tall shadows of my cavernous room. I lay in bed with my nose pressed up against the windowpane and watched my dad’s car crunch up the driveway to rest under the tree. I was supposed to be sleeping, so I pulled the covers up around myself and pretended. My dad came up the stairs and set something next to my head, kneeling over me for a minute before leaving.

When he was gone, I rolled over. There was a book. He had brought me a book.

My entire childhood, my dad gave me books. It is because of him that I love to read. It wasn’t something that just happened, I didn’t just find books and devour them. He summarized books for me, sparking my interest, then put them in my hands. This became an integral part of my identity, leading me up to the point where I am today.

In the midst of conflict, anxiety, despair, I have managed to hold the good in my hand and ruminate over it with a calm heart. I have curled into myself in the bathroom, my chest crushed and holding back sobs that threatened to rip me apart, and I stood up afterward and recovered. This did not just happen. I wasn’t able to immediately use my legs properly after being shoved so forcefully to the ground.

But with effort, it happened.

I mull over these new realizations, habits, and histories on my drive into work, now that I’m working consistently again every day, driving a half hour to a school that offers me the best experience possible, even if without insurance benefits. I think about myself, about the politics blasting from my speakers and shaking my flimsy car; I think about the friends who both push and pull, disappear under their grief only to hold me tightly in an embrace the next time we meet. The patience I forward to my friends is worth it, despite the frustrations.

January has brought cold, icy rain that slicks up the roads and makes everything gray. I swish along the hissing water on the highway every morning, the sky blanketed with black clouds, navigating myself using the golden halo from the street lamps overhead. The sound and smell of constant winter rain is the backdrop to my thoughts on this place inside myself I’ve slowly discovered, this infinite ocean of patience that swells and moves, that is colored by my mood and kept undisturbed and endless through simple and sheer willpower. Underneath the anxiety bursts, the paranoia, the self-doubt and insecurity, it’s still there. Underneath the troublesome clouds of despair, it’s there. It’s somewhere at my center, infinite in all directions.

Acknowledging its presence doesn’t make the chemicals in my brain flux correctly however. This ocean isn’t a panacea, it’s just there and accessible. I still have my bad habits, such as washing my poor brain with all sorts of drugs to modulate my experience.

On Friday, one of the few friends I’ve made in this city returned from Saudi Arabia — having visited her family over her school’s break — and she returned wanting to do two things for her upcoming birthday. She wanted to go to her first concert ever and she wanted to take LSD while she did it. We had taken acid together before after a tryst we had the previous year, so there was nothing objectionable about this situation. I was hoping the acid could help me clear some of the depressive gunk in my brain, something that was far more difficult to rid with healthy thought patterns because it just calcified to my personality and ebbed and rose in mass throughout the month.

After the show, I burst out into the night, holding her and my partner in an embrace and breathing in cold air and tasting it, tasting the colors of the lights, tasting red and blue on my tongue. The following day, sunshine radiated through my brain and the shadows disappeared. But my energy was zapped and my heart was beating too fast.

Another week begins, my mood is high though I’m exhausted and no amount of sleep after Friday has been good enough. I want to be wide awake and I want to sleep forever. I caught myself not breathing this morning, my heart thudding in my chest, holding my breath for no reason other than anxiety rearing its face at the change in my daily schedule, however small. I’m struggling at both being awake and receiving the appropriate amount of sleep, knowing that mixed up in my desires is the need for balance in order to actively maintain good habits.

And underneath this flux of daily routines, too much sleep or not enough, distant friends and needy friends, the eternal complications of love, unexpected troubles and matters of life and death, I am aware of that infinite ocean of patience. I may lose sight of it again one day, but it’s there. It’s always there.

We sit knocking knees, looking
at one another’s lips, thinking,
“Who would I kiss? Pat on the back
over and over, just to touch?”

I don’t want to bolster you much,
just want to slide my lips sideways
across yours and clasp little fingers
together, want to touch your shoulder,
want a few grams of your warmth for
some self-esteem, to chew on meaning
and fat and multi-task my way to nirvana.

Dull fireworks, fizzling and falling,
passerby love and casual affection
mediocrity making my mouth water.

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