January 2011 Archives


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Years ago I heard a well-known meditation teacher tell a story about fame, Mickey Mouse, and the inflatable ego. A wealthy and powerful movie producer had gotten in touch with the meditation teacher to ask for help. The producer had come down with a degenerative nerve disease, and was by then in a wheelchair, unable to dial his own telephone. He told the teacher that over the months, as he got weaker and weaker and became less capable of conducting business, he'd begun to notice himself growing oddly light-hearted. Some terrible weight had been lifted from his life, and with the help of the meditation teacher, he wanted to figure out what it was.

After studying with the teacher for a while, the producer said he'd discovered what had happened.

My ego used to be like one of those big inflatable Mickey Mouse Dolls, the producer told the teacher. But there was a catch; it had a slow leak. Every morning I would get up and return phone calls, and that would pump the doll full of air for a few hours. But then around lunchtime, it would be deflated again, so I would have to go to a lunch meeting that made me feel important. Then in the afternoon, more phone calls. At dinner, another meeting. And so on. My whole day was spent keeping Mickey Mouse inflated. But now I can't do any of those things. And I look at the empty plastic doll at my feet and feel relieved. That's over.

This story has stayed with me for years, because it provides a strikingly accurate image of my own ego--a plastic Minnie Mouse doll, with a leak. I get an essay accepted by a magazine that pays well, and Minnie is ready to rock and roll. A week goes by with no new publications or money, and she's flat on the floor.

Which is where she has been these last few months, what with the lull in publishing news, temperatures below zero, and snow piling up in the meadow. Also, I have a major birthday next month, so I feel not only failed, but also old, an old failure, which means I have missed the exit. It is finally too late for the total reinvention of self in which I become a modest woman who makes my living carving bowls for Tibetan hermit nuns.

Recently I came across this paragraph in Joko Beck's book, EVERYDAY ZEN:
"Our whole life consists of this little subject, looking outside itself for an object. But if you take something that is limited, like body and mind, and look for something outside it, that something becomes an object and must be limited too. So you have something limited looking for something limited, and you just end up with more of the same folly that has made you miserable."

I KNOW that. I have read this paragraph before, and a gazillion paragraphs like it. And yet, the great ego-brain-being that likes to go cantering off into the dark valley of self-loathing wants nothing to do with this information. It just wants to be fed giant buckets of oats and grain, apples and carrots--or pumped up by an infinite supply of air, depending upon which ego-image you prefer.

It is snowing again here. And each of the golden-brown dried hydrangea blossoms outside my window wears a peaked cap of snow, so that the blossoms resemble ancient, hatted men with curly beards.

I wish I could avoid the same folly that has made me miserable so many times before. I wish I found the world to be enough today, exactly as it is.

Good Books

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Just before the flood of enforced holiday downtime swamped my boat, a friend sent me a review by B.R. Myers, titled "Smaller Than Life." Myers's point is that a good deal of award-winning contemporary fiction gives us small characters in small lives doing no-account things, delivered in a language that conjures an overheard subway chat, as if it were fiction's job to reflect back to us in a sort of funhouse way the most tedious moments of our days.

Plenty of the writers producing the subway-chat fiction are smart, thoughtful, and talented. I have heard and read what they have to say about their work, and they clearly have in mind an esthetic that reflects, to them, essential realities of our 21st century world. My own response to their work is grounded in the simple fact that I experience the world differently. I don't find daily life thin and bloodless. I find it rich and weird, deserving of a broad vocabulary, a varied syntax, and a willingness to go way out on a limb to capture the dazzling array of events. To me, these are the necessary elements of a good book.

After I read the Myers essay, I posted it on Facebook and immediately got responses from others who feel frustrated and lost when it comes to the world of contemporary fiction. A couple of people asked if I would suggest some good books, and that seems like an ideal task for the new year. So, my criteria are these: rich language, varied syntax, and a willingness to go out on a limb to capture the dazzling array of events. What follows is a hodge-podge of old books, new books, mysteries, and thrillers, since I find some of the best novel writing is being done by authors in the so-called "genre" categories. I haven't even addressed non-fiction, poetry or drama here, but maybe I will do that somewhere down the road. Also, I've stuck to English-speaking writers (with a couple of exceptions, like Tolstoy). In many cases, I only mention one book by each author, because that happens to be the one that stuck with me, but for most of these writers, all their books are finely-crafted and thoroughly worth the read. Finally, this will work best if readers send in your own favorites, so that we end up with a juicy list of good books that will last us all a good long time.

Old Books: A LEGACY by Sybille Bedford is often my favorite novel, though surely HOWARD'S END, by E.M. Forster, is a more wonderful book. Both the authors concern themselves with the sweep of history and class politics as they play out in the characters' lives. And the characters are stunning.

Other Old Favorites: THE YEARS, by Virginia Woolf, Eliot's MIDDLEMARCH, Wharton's HOUSE OF MIRTH, James's THE AMBASSADORS, and, of course, SWANN'S WAY. My daughter just reminded me about WAR AND PEACE, which is our favorite Tolstoy. If you want to see why and how point of view matters in a novel, reread THE GOOD SOLDIER, by Ford Maddox Ford. I'm a huge Dickens fan; no one more shamelessly puts his characters through the wringer, so that they can come out alchemized into gold or meet their deserved disastrous ends. BLEAK HOUSE is the best, and it leads nicely into another category--mysteries.

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