Category Archives: interesting books

9 keys to achieving your artistic goals? No! Way more!

Eric Maisel’s new book Making Your Creative Mark promises nine keys to achieving your artistic goals.

That’s a lie.

The book literally chimes and jingles with keys. The last eleven pages alone has 99 of them, for example these 10:

  1. One of the best ways to help yourself create every day is to craft a starting ritual that you begin to use regularly and routinely. When your ritual becomes habitual you will find yourself moving effortlessly from not creating to creating.
  2. Reframe discipline as devotion.
  3. Creativity is your teacher. Pick a creative project whose express purpose is to teach you something about your situation or your nature.
  4. If you regularly block, what do you think are the sources of your blockage? Do you block only on certain work? Do you block at certain points in the process? Do you block at certain times of the year? Become your own expert on blockage!
  5. Learn some anxiety management techniques. Anxiety makes us undisciplined. Learn a deep-breathing technique or a relaxation technique to help you stay put. Anxiety is part of the process – learn how to manage it!
  6. Don’t shrug away the fact that you’re not completing your creative work. Get to the last sentence of the last page of the last revision. Then launch your piece into the marketplace. If you are not completing projects, do not accept that from yourself!
  7. Do you have a plan to survive the countless rejections that will come your way? Create that plan!
  8. Create everywhere. Create in the rain. Create buy the side of the road. Create wherever you find yourself!
  9. Say, “I will astonish myself.” Then you’re bound to astonish others.
  10. There may be days when the work frustrates you horribly. Maybe you’ll downright hate it. Those are the days to love your work! Remember to love your work especially on the days you hate it.

And it goes on and on. The thing is that it goes on and on in that vein – the vast majority of his ideas are just really good, and not something you’ve already heard over and over again. Take what he says on anxiety. He devotes a whole chapter to stress and anxiety as it relates to the creative process. In it is a subchapter on The Stress of Marketing Art. Isn’t every creative person familiar with that? When I worked at the Alliance for Arts and Culture, advising artists on how to make money without going crazy, that was a topic we talked about a lot (kudos here to Judi Piggott, the patron saint of Vancouver artists, who invented and ran that program for twelve years). So what are the parts of that stress?

  • Thinking about selling your art
  • Not knowing what to say
  • Dealing with people who hold the power and the purse strings
  • Feeling pressured to “sell yourself”
  • Dealing with people who dismiss you
  • Not feeling up to asking

Does any of this feel familiar? Of course. And you may not even be an artist. And over and over he says, if this creates anxiety for you, go and find a way to deal with the anxiety. Don’t give in to it. That in itself is a pretty uplifting message. Maisel doesn’t give you tons of ways to deal with the anxiety; instead he points to one of his other books, such as Mastering Creative Anxiety. Oh yes, he knows how to sell his own stuff, so he knows what he’s talking about. And he has a lot of stuff – almost 40 books, seven of them fiction. And some meditation decks. And a home study course. And he’s a coach and a therapist with a PhD.

Honestly, I think every creative person should own at least one of his books. This man knows what he’s talking about.

full cup, thirsty spirit – a book about self care

it is important that we bow down to the breadth of our human experiences and to the larger mysteries that surround us. seeing beauty in the swirls of life’s busyness, making the most of what life brings our way, offering kindness to those around us, and being able to laugh from time to time. these gestures may be as grand as anything we can offer in our human life.

these are the parting words of karen horneffer-ginter in her book full cup, thirsty spirit – nourishing the soul when life’s just too much .full cup, thirsty spirit

like many of us, i have become weary of self help and motivational books – will this be another author telling me what to do, heaping platitudes on me, haranguing me to make endless lists, boring me with (most likely invented) stories about tracy the stockbroker and bruce the bank executive? you know what i’m talking about, right?

what a lovely surprise full cup, thirsty spirit was! it started with my eyes – i like a pleasing cover. the warm yellow and brown colours of a tea cup and pastel-yellow blossoms promised me rejuvenation and calm. if you’re still a “real book” reader like i – this is a book you want to have around, it feels good.

oh, and the words! they are all as lovingly written as the quote above. karen horneffer-ginter comes across as a gentle friend, someone on whose sofa you want to curl up, someone whose quiet wisdom will enrich your life.

this book is about self care, a topic about which i know quite a bit about, and something about which i preach to anyone who will listen. it takes quite a bit, then, for me to find new and interesting approaches. this book delivered just that.

i like the metaphors. she talks about thirst, one of our most essential drives, second only to the need to breathe. it expresses how much our spirit needs watering. how preposterous that we so often neglect such an essential call! the first chapter uses the metaphor of rhythm. she asks a lot of questions, such as

are there places where you get stuck in the movement between engaging in the world and turning within?

do i ever! i think there is a little part of me that rebels every time, that feels yanked back and forth: “8 hours for work! 3 hours for family! 1 hour for relaxation!” what if i want to work for 10 hours and then just … well, maybe swim around in my life, without being plonked into the next activity?

in turning within, she touches on how our use of language can thwart us.

if we had a socially acceptable language for naming “i’m unplugging today,” “i’m on sabbatical today,” “i’m going inward today,” this would be helpful. often when people say, “i’m taking time for myself” or “i’m taking personal leave today” the questions that follow suggest that we should be inserting some alternative activity into the day in order to justify our time off: “do you have a doctor’s appointment?” “are you getting caught up with some errands or yard work?”

that makes me think that “socially” acceptable can mean all sorts of things. we can wait till the cows come home until this sort of thing is acceptable in western society as a whole. but really, i don’t live in society-as-a-whole. i live in smallish societal circles, some of them overlapping, and why not experiment here and there what is acceptable, or even what i can make acceptable, simply by being the one who starts a particular use of language?

some years ago, when i was running a small but very vibrant and busy social service agency, i decided to emulate gandhi once in a while and have a day of silence in the midst of my busy work place. it didn’t mean that i wouldn’t work – i just didn’t talk. and you know what – it went well, and had a positive influence on everyone. that would be an example of experimenting with the notion of “acceptable”.

there are many, many gems in this book, and i honestly urge you to read it. i’ve been given a number of books to review here on this blog over the years – i think i’d put this in the top 5.

let me end with a quote from a poem by oriah mountain dreamer, which the author mentions in the chapter on embracing difficulty:

i want to know if you can see beauty, even when it is not pretty every day, and if you can source your own life from its presence

i want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand at the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, “YES!”

tarot for beauty

page of swords

the princess or page of swords from the zerner-farber deck

tarot cards have interested me for quite a few years. i started playing around with using them for getting insight into situations back in 2005 but could never really get into it. i got some books and a few decks, but just like arthur rosengarten says in his fabulous book about tarot and psychology, like so many others in my profession, i was turned off by the idea of fortune telling, which has never interested me. methinks that part of the future is completely unknowable, and much of the rest if what you create for yourself, so what’s the point in fortune telling?

and then in february of this year, it all changed.  i found the right deck. i’m still not interested in predicting the future but it is as if suddenly a door opened and i have been given the gift of seeing how tarot cards can be used. they are these beautiful pictures that can help us look deeper into an issue that interests or troubles us and see a much wider “spectrum of possibilities”, as arthur rosengarten says. (i have to say i’m comforted by the fact that dr. rosengarten is a well-respected psychologist who has spent many years studying the applicability of tarot to the helping profession. makes me feel a little less weird.)

for the last 9 months then i have spent an inordinate amount of time with tarot cards. one of the things that i find particularly interesting is having what i call “tarot conversations”. it is one (or maybe two) of those tarot conversations that i am donating to the beauty for a cause fundraiser this week, a fundraiser for beauty night, a very, very worthwhile charity that builds self esteem and changes the lives of women and youth living in poverty through three streams of programming: wellness, life skills development and makeovers.

in tarot conversations, the other person (the “sitter”) and i discuss the sitter’s issue in light of tarot cards that the sitter chooses – usually at random, sometimes on purpose. i listen carefully to the impressions and ideas that the cards evoke in the sitter and then add my own observations. we may choose additional cards, remove some cards, or rearrange them. in the end, we will probably come up with one action idea to pursue.

lately, i’ve also done quite a few online “readings”. here is a real life example. (i have gotten permission from the person to blog about this.)

question:
i would like to know how i should approach my next significant relationship. what should i do and not do to get along well and avoid misunderstandings and hurt, which have been a problem in the past.

answer:
i’m a counsellor first and foremost and would feel remiss if i didn’t share with you same basic information about this topic. john gottman is the expert on relationships – nobody that i know of has studied the topic as deeply as he. i have been following him off and on for the last 12+ years, and have yet to see something where i disagree with him. and i’m saying this not only as a counsellor but also as someone who after several failed attempts has been in a happy relationship for 20 years now. anyway, gottman’s principles are here http://www.gottman.com/54756/about-gottman-method-couples-therapy.html.

so … let’s get to your questions …

i used the zerner-farber deck.

what you could do to get along well
king of swords
a strong warrior decked out in full roman garb. his helmet has wings. his right hand rests on an immense shield. he is girded with a big, broad sword. his left holds a lance; a white dove flies across the top. the king looks like he might be standing in the clouds. the top of the card shows two identical coats-of-arms.

my immediate impression is that this guy has no interest in war but by jove, if you threaten his peace, he will protect his people and fight to the last drop. it feels like a card of strength of the best kind – exactly the kind of king a country would want to have.

the implication is easy to read: be in peace with your new mate, but make it clear to him in the way you carry yourself that you are strong and know how to protect yourself. then you can “fly” with him 🙂 (the suit of swords is usually associated with the element of air, which usually points to matters of the mind; maybe you’ll find companionship particularly in the area of intellectual pursuits.)

what you could do to avoid misunderstandings
princess of swords
a very well-dressed lady intently reading a letter – of good news, apparently because she looks happy and excited. she appears to be standing in a park. a big lacy white butterfly is flying in the blue sky.

a very obvious card: pay attention to what is communicated to you, and there will be butterflies and blue skies 🙂 that sounds a bit corny but in my experience it is very true. paying attention to what is said to you, to body language and what is written to you (and not reading into it what’s not there) is an absolute must for the success of any relationship, not just a romantic one.

what you could do to avoid getting hurt
chariot
a man wearing a bedouin-type headdress and a long blue cloth around his waist is riding to the right atop a mythical creature that looks like a cross between a horse and a stag. he is looking back and riding very fast. we can see a butterfly directly above him.

what can you do to avoid getting hurt? when you see the signs (because you’ve paid attention like the princess of swords), get on your horse and run! there is absolutely no reason to stay. and because you gave signals yourself (in the king of swords) that you are not a victim, you probably won’t attract people who are out to hurt you. since this is a major arcana (one of the 22 powerful “trump” cards that tarot decks have in addition to the normal playing cards) i think this message is particularly strong.

general ideas for your next relationship
three of hearts reversed
three teenaged girls prancing about in light dancing clothes, each carrying a heart high over her head.

since this card is reversed, i think this card may be saying not to forget that relationships with men are different from relationships with our girlfriends. i myself sometimes fall into the trap of wanting my husband to be like my best friends – and darn, he isn’t! he’s not a woman, he doesn’t think like a woman, and i married him for who he is and not for who he isn’t.

this card may be going even further to advise that we need to be careful with high-flying ideas about romance. there’s a fine line between being romantic, which is lovely, and going off into la-la-land, which can be unrealistic and hurtful to an otherwise good relationship. i’m going back to the princess of swords: if you pay attention to the particular nature of this new relationship, you will get a sense for what’s possible and what comes straight out of a disney fantasy world.

when i do an online reading like that, i always add something like this:

i hope this helps! let me know what you think – any feedback, “positive” or “negative” alike, is appreciated. if you need clarification, please let me know, too!

heaven

heaven.  i’ve always liked the sound of the word – the soft consonants immediately conjure up the fluffy clouds of my childhood image of heaven – it’s like this huge, downy, unimaginably comfortable bed up there where the sky is always blue and the sun, stars and moon always shine.  maybe there are harps playing somewhere and manna, a food made by and for gods, is available in inexhaustible supply; the taste never grows old.  up in heaven (definitely up!), people (souls? angels?) live in never-ending bliss.  it’s like chocolate, cointreau and orgasm all rolled into one.

somewhere around the twentieth word or so of writing this, it all started to feel a bit cartoony.  the memory of a famous german animation film started to rear its head.  it’s called “ein muenchner im himmel” (“a guy from munich in heaven” – watch it – even if you don’t understand the wonderful narration, you’ll definitely get the gist of it).  the important part for us that this guy, alois, hates it in heaven because there is neither beer nor snuff and he has to rejoice and sing hosanna all the time.  fortunately god has mercy on him and proposes to make him his emissary to the bavarian government.  so alois is sent off with his first letter to the government – but as soon as he touches the soil of his beloved munich, “he felt like he was in heaven.”  he gets so busy drinking beer that he never delivers even the first letter, which is why the government, to this day, lacks divine counsel.

so there are a number of things – heaven as a childlike fantasy, as a caricature, heaven as boring, heaven as a very individual thing.  lisa miller, in her book heaven – our enduring fascination with the afterlife – touches on them all and at times wonders whether our minds are too limited, too two-dimensional to think about this place.  or is it a state?  a feeling?  god’s love?  it may be this confusion as well as our relatively good life that make it all a bit too difficult to think about.  this results in an ever declining interest in this – thing (we still don’t know what or where it is.)

barack obama’s former preacher, the revered jeremiah wright, complained about this in a 1990 sermon at his chicago church.  his “educated friends,” he said, wished he wouldn’t talk so much about heaven “because that’s so primitive, you see.”  but wright argues

if i drop heaven, i’m going to lose the first verse in my bible … i’m going to lose two of my ten commandments … i’m going to have to stop praying my favourite prayer, ‘our father’ … i’m going to have to do away with the second coming; i’m going to have to get rid of pentecost.  i’m going to have to throw revelation out of my bible … don’t make me drop heaven!

i find the reference to “primitive” interesting but before i muse on that i must tell you that one of the things i disliked about miller’s book is that she had to go and do the old abrahamic faith thing.  well, i’m sorry, but heaven isn’t only populated by christians, jews and muslims.  buddhists, especially tibetan buddhists, have a complex, intricately worked out theory about heaven; the idea of heaven exists in confucianism as much as it does in daoism.  examples from lesser-practiced or older religions include the eternal hunting grounds of some first nations and the valhalla of norse religions.  and we haven’t even talked about other major religions yet, such as hinduism or sikhism – wikipedia’s entry on heaven will point to more.  i don’t expect the writer on such a topic to cover all of them, but i do expect either a nod in their direction or an explanation of why these other heavens weren’t discussed.  the global context within which everything happens nowadays just does not allow us anymore to ignore the multiplicity of cultures and beliefs.

let’s go back to the primitive and, why not, to our friend alois.  the interesting thing is that while alois had all sorts of complaints about heaven, he DID go to heaven, and heaven was a familiar place.  if you watch the movie and don’t speak german, you’ll still understand the story – st. peter, the angels, the voice of god, and that it’s up in the sky.  this is because heaven is ingrained in us, and arguably not just through cultural learning over the generations but perhaps deeper.  maybe it’s “just” our imagination, our dreaming – don’t we all want to have a place where everything and everyone is cleaner, shinier, sexier, safer, more loving, more exciting; just perfect?  maybe there is such a “place”, in a physical, ethereal or mental abode.  maybe it starts in the heart.  or maybe, as miller recounts in her book, we can literally build it right here.  i’m grateful to her for familiarizing me with the history of habitat for humanity, a powerful international “nonprofit, ecumenical christian housing ministry that seeks to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness from the world and to make decent shelter a matter of conscience and action.”  habitat for humanity started with a small christian commune in 1952 named koinonia, founded by clarence jordan, which was

“a demonstration plot for the kingdom of god” (a demonstration plot is where farmers experiment with new seeds or planting techniques – and then invite their neighbours to come see what they’ve done.) … jordan invited his neighbours – the grandsons and -daughters of the slaves and sharecroppers who had ploughed that land for generations – to work with him.

miller recounts the story of georgia solomon, who grew up near koinonia.

when she grew up, and had three babies and not enough to eat, the people at koinonia built her a house.  “i made it through my trials and tribulations,” she said, “and now i’m striving for eternal life.”

maybe heaven is food on people’s plates, smiles in their hearts and roofs over their heads.

“invisible driving”: a memoir of mania and depression

here, finally, is a review long promised, of alister mcharg’s extraordinary memoir, invisible driving. this book, says alistair,

reads with the urgency of a novel. my work delivers a wild and hilarious thrill ride through the misunderstood, phantasmagorical world of manic depression, providing both a visceral sense of the experience and a thoughtful context for understanding it. while other books have described the surrealistic circus, invisible driving takes readers along so they can smell the sawdust for themselves.

alistair mcharg spent his early years in edinburgh and amsterdam, moving to philadelphia with his father, ian, and mother, pauline, at age six. he attended germantown friends school, haverford college, and the university of louisville. the prestige of an M.A.. in creative writing enabled mcharg to secure employment with one of philadelphia’s least reputable cab companies, providing the background for his first novel, moonlit tours. other forays into dead-end employment have included deckhand on a norwegian tramp freighter, forest fire fighter in alaska, and guide at a canadian wilderness survival camp. alistair has been arranging words for a living since 1983. apart from invisible driving, he has written countless poems, hundreds of movie and book reviews, and an ever-growing catalog of cartoons. his second novel, washed up, was released last year.

what follows is a conversation we had last tuesday.

moritherapy: what do you like best about your book?

alistair mcharg: the writing itself, the way it puts readers inside the experience of mania. (and of course, the humor.)

moritherapy: have you found people who are/were interested in the literature aspect of your book? actually, that sounds a little strange – “literature aspect.” the way i read it, your book is literature, and it is about the topic of bipolar illness. thoughts?

alistair mcharg: i totally agree with your description. it is a memoir first. in essence it is a coming of age story about facing demons, battling them, and becoming a man – a human being – in the process. the landscape where that battle plays out is manic depression. the people that don’t get it are the ones who don’t realize that the manic narrative is there to put readers inside the experience of a manic episode – you have to surrender to it to get the true benefit. – i have indeed found many readers who appreciate it as literature – rather unorthodox literature.

moritherapy: there is a rhythm to your book that is clearly there but hard to pin down. it sure isn’t a simple little polka. in the beginning you seem to have a “crazy” chapter taking turns with a “normal” one; then the manic and the normal (if i may use that word) start to take turns within the chapters, then two or three chapters in a row are wild and woolly, etc. etc. can you say something about that? to what degree is that a stylistic device, and to what degree does it echo your experience? can the two be separated at all?

alistair mcharg: the manic chapters came first. then a literary agent said that there needed to be “depth” – a second voice that was sane, reliable, and recovered. i rewrote the entire book several times. i now see she was so right – the chapters in the recovered voice provide the background – the psychological architecture. the reader finds out why i was vulnerable – what the triggers were – and what was significant about how i acted out. yes the point/counterpoint is very deliberate. (you would think that the wild, manic chapters would have been hardest to write – but the sane ones were much harder – more soul searching of real things.)

moritherapy: actually, to me, imagining writing the book, it felt that the manic ones were the ones that were written with more ease. perhaps that is because i was frankly flabbergasted how much i could relate to a lot of what you wrote. i think that’s what first drew me in. i knew exactly what you were talking about, even though my bipolar experiences are extremely mild. i’m still astonished at that.

alistair mcharg: interesting. maybe the bipolar experience is essentially the same, and what varies is the degree. it is a very nice compliment that the writing registered with you. (when i gave the manuscript to my psychiatrist he said he had to put it down now and then because it was making him manic!) i can’t say that they were written in ease – recreating the pitch of mania, the quicksilver logic twisting and slipping, the bobbing and weaving, energy, raw creative force – when i was squarely back on earth – slightly depressed – took a tremendous amount of labor and craft – craft i didn’t know i had until i attempted it.

moritherapy: i was wondering about the mood you were in when you wrote those passages! the fact that it was indeed a re-creation speaks to your fantastic writing skills. were there moments when you wondered whether recreating this would take you back into the mania?

alistair mcharg: thank you – it was writing this book (my first) that turned me into a real writer – it was transformational. — your question is pivotal. i began writing immediately after the episode described had ended. i was terrified, really shaken. i had suffered with the illness long enough to know that a trigger could send me off again – and i was pretty sure another episode would kill me. but i knew i couldn’t write the book unless mentally i went back in. (rock & hard place.) so i went deeply back into the middle of it. that decision is what made the experience transformational. i knew it might set me off on another high, i knew that might kill me – i did it anyway. i knew that i had to face this darn illness or be destroyed by it.

moritherapy: fascinating! i am really touched by what you say, can feel it in my gut. and what hits me is, again, this commingling, meeting of art, this thing called mental illness, and the healing of/from/with it. it reminds me of a poem i wrote many years ago when i was close to dying of typhoid fever. i wrote it in spanish so it’s a bit hazy in my memory but something about the need to climb the mountain of art, alone, naked, because there is no other choice. does that resonate?

alistair mcharg: resonate indeed. that is exactly what i had to do – and it was probably the single bravest thing i’ve ever done. as you say in your poem – i had to do it alone. i had been fed so many lies – i was very fear-based – i had to strip absolutely everything away until there was nothing left that wasn’t true. and then i rebuilt – i reinvented myself. – but what you say about comingling is deep – and many people do not understand. i say often that manic depression and alcoholism have given me more than they have taken. in manic depression i saw rare things – and was forced to evolve. alcoholism ultimately took me to a better way of life and a higher power. it has all been a spiritual journey and while mental “illness” has caused earthquakes in my life it has also produced angels. (typhoid fever!! yikes! thank goodness you’re okay.)

on my blog today is a poem called “rex” — you see, i was shy, i hid, i felt “less than” – but manic depression made it impossible for me to hide – and also – it forced me to admit my power.

moritherapy: more on the commingling … so there is the art, there is the “mental illness” (funny how i often feel i have to put it in quotation marks), there is the healing, there is the acknowledgment of power – and then there is humour. there’s a lot of humour in your book. page 218:

and how do these aristocrats of oddness settle down after a busy day of counting their fingers and slashing their wrists with plastics forks?

humour in these circumstances can be taken as disrespect sometimes. do you hear that sometimes? how do you react? (by commingling i mean that the humour seems to be part of it all.)

alistair mcharg: humor and music are in the very center of me. to me the best humor is never nasty, it doesn’t single out anybody and it is never there to make me feel better than you. real humor celebrates the absurdity of all life, human vanity, fatuous selfishness. you will notice that most of the humor in the book comes at my own expense. – that said, when i was manic every mean quality came out – the anger, the hurt, the fear – and, combined with an intellect caught on fire – all this hurt often found expression in really cruel humor. other times it was quite surrealistic and charming. even in my other books – both satiric novels – and my cartoons – even my poetry – you will find that i include myself – all of us – when aiming barbs. i disrespect parts of people, racism, jealousy, entitlement, xenophobia – but it is never about disrespecting people – it is about loving truth and loving what people could be but are afraid to be.

moritherapy: one last question for now: towards the beginning of the book you say, “the love of my daughter is my favourite thing about myself.” in therapy, there is often a dictum that people should change for themselves, not for others. as a father, would you agree with that?

alistair mcharg: this is a great question. the easy answer is yes! there is a saying in AA that is told to the uncertain: fake it till you make it. at first it doesn’t matter if you are in therapy – or recovery – for the wrong reasons – so long as you are there. (bring the body and the mind will follow.) but absolutely, there must come a time when you are doing it for yourself – otherwise you will never commit fully and you will never get the full benefit.

if you asked me that question today i would answer – my favourite thing about me is that i know what i have to offer and i am doing my best to put it to the service of others.

moritherapy: thank you, this was absolutely lovely!

—–

alister mcharg’s blog, america’s favorite manic depressive, is at http://alistairmcharg.blogspot.com/

the book’s web site is at http://www.invisibledriving.com

the wisdom to know the difference

the good people at TLC book tours asked me to write a review of eileen flanagan’s book the wisdom to know the difference – when to make a change, and when to let go. let’s start with a tidbit that resonated with me

“often when we accept something we shouldn’t, we feel resignation, rather than serenity.”

the book, as you might have guessed, takes as its root the serenity prayer

grant me the serenity
to accept the things i cannot change
courage to change the things i can
and the wisdom to know the difference.

the quote above goes right to that difference. how do you know when to accept something and when to change it? the answer is often quite muddled, and so we need wisdom. one of the ways the wisdom can come to us is through feeling into a possible decision. acceptance, ideally, brings with it a feeling of relaxation, of a burden lifted. and no, resignation and serenity are absolutely not the same.

a propos differences, let’s talk about how eileen flanagan’s oeuvre is different from other self help books. flanagan, among other things, is active in the quaker community, and you can see the quiet friendliness that we tend to associate with quakers all over the book. she does not wield the heavy stick that i often find in self help books; rather, she tells stories and gives gentle suggestions. each chapter of the book ends with a few queries (another quaker tradition). i liked this one:

“if you were to translate the proverb, ‘trust in god, but tie up your camels’ for your own life, what would it say?”

good question. i like the idea of translating proverbs.

the book is also well-researched. for example, she cites another of my favourites, andrew greeley (a roman catholic super priest who churns out not only one bestselling novel after the other but is also a well-respected journalist and sociologist), who “has developed a tool he calls the ‘grace scale’ that measures a respondent’s image of god … how we conceive of and describe god has profound implications for how we live.” flanagan talks about this in a chapter entitled “the courage to question”.

the serenity prayer is most often associated with 12-step programs (alcoholics anonymous, overeaters anonymous, narcotics anonymous, etc.) interestingly enough, 12-step programs encourage their members to work on their image of god, even to manufacture one according to one’s needs. however, this is by no means a 12-step book; while it occasionally mentions concepts associated with “the program” and also tells the tale of someone in AA, these instances are just one among many. this is another thing i liked about “the wisdom to know the difference” – flanagan takes great care to present a diversity of experiences. the stories that populate self-help books often have a canned feel to it. there is always the 36-year old single female executive who is disillusioned with her career, right? flanagan uses those cliché sparingly; her illustrations seem a little more alive, for example when she traces the life of a middle class african american woman who is both bewildered and inspired by the history of her ancestors. this historical and cultural context is also something that sets flanagan apart.

i noticed that most of the sections i underlined where ones where flanagan cites others. a few more examples:

“we live in a culture [that encourages] people to pursue perfection and control. the result is inevitably frustration and angst.” in quoting another book i find quite helpful, the spirituality of imperfection, flanagan points out the “anxious determination to take control, to be in charge” engrained in our culture. replace that wilfulness with willingness, is the suggestion.

quoting st. teresa of avila:

“one day of humble self knowledge is better than a thousand days of prayer.”

and a quote from thomas keating’s invitation to love:

“the regular practice of contemplative prayer initiates a healing process that might be called ‘the divine therapy’.”

miscellaneous thoughts – addiction, books, and new years resolutions

oh boy, i haven’t posted in ages! let’s have some random stuff here then:

stuff #1 – we are on vacation in arizona right now – on our last leg, in a tiny place called congress, which is close to wickenburg with the huge population count of 5,000. supposedly, wickenburg is known for its fancy addiction treatment centres. i had a quick look at the websites of four of them but so far nothing looks like something i would recommend. as much as i think the 12 steps are great, i have a problem with them being a required part of a treatment centre. that’s not how the 12 steps work. and i have a problem with a treatment centre where the only books you’re allowed to read are AA’s big book and the bible. but i guess it works for some people.

stuff #2 – been thinking a lot lately about how to keep blogging and partaking in social media. to what degree do i want to contribute to the overwhelming symphony (cacophony?) of virtual voices out there? how will i help make the world a better place if i do that?

stuff #3 – the second edition of my poetry book is out. should i have a l(a)unch party? oh, that’s so much work. i totally don’t feel like organizing ANYTHING right now. but you know what, that book is darn good. it was fun to look at it four years later and to spruce it up a bit.

stuff #4 – i am reading – i am reading – i am reading – ok, i’m gonna say it, i am reading eat pray love right now. yup. i finally did it, grabbed the book off my sister-in-law’s shelf and went to it. it’s actually not that bad – there are a few neat ideas in there so far. for example the petition to god. will it make my “best books of 2011” list? no.

stuff #5 – oh, but HERE is a book that will make the list – alistair mchoag’s rollercoaster memoir invisible driving about his life with bipolar disorder. holy razmatazz! no need to be interested in mental illness to read that book, all you need is a love of reading. a review is coming up, and i’ll have to gather all my half and quarter wits to come up with something interesting after all the rave reviews he already has.

sleepingstuff #6 – resolutions. resolutions? i don’t know. i engaged in a bit of a rant against the typical approach to them in an interview with CBC parenting columnist michelle eliot the other day. more and more, i prefer themes rather than resolutions – ideas or actions i wouldn’t mind pursuing in the coming year, without going crazy about it for three weeks and then slacking off (“i will exercise of 60 minutes every day!”, “i’ll stop smoking forever!”). so two themes i’m proposing for this year is to slow down, and then to slow down some more. and extermination. of guilt.

aaah. slowing down. maybe i should stop now and go to bed.

and you?

“in love with the mystery” – ann mortifee’s new book

“mystery” – how do you talk about it? “the deeper you go into it, the more difficult it is to name,” says ann mortifee, and “everything becomes mysterious after a while.”

the first mystery that struck me as i entered st. mark’s church where ann mortifee’s launch for her new book and CD in love with the mystery was held was the image of paul horn, her soul mate and husband. there he was, standing in front of a cross as he gracefully welcomed the raging applause. why did this image speak to me so insistently? i don’t know. there seemed to be, in my experience (was it only mine? did others feel it, too?) a sort of communion, communication occurring between the man and the cross. who knows? no, i don’t know.

the word “mystery” is rooted in the greek myein, to shut, to close. it is that, perhaps, which is closed off to our knowing. all our knowing? or just the intellectual knowing?

ann certainly walks bravely into that thicket of unknowing: with words, images, music, and her voice. oh, her voice! it comes from a deep, deep place … and reaches a deep place inside us. when she let all her shamanic power loose and hurled that voice into space, she sang it into our ears and hearts – and again, into those deep spaces in between, where the mystery lies.

in love with the mystery is something physical you can take away that captures all of this. all the senses are engaged. “the whole work is a synaesthetic feast, an offering for the divine beloved,” says carol sill, who did the editorial work. the book feels good, has a nice heft, the pages are lovely to the touch. strange to talk about a book like that – aren’t you supposed to talk about the content? but any book lover will understand. there is something exciting, almost erotic, about touching, holding, weighing, allover feeling a new book. in love with the mystery is a book you want to hang out with, a book you can open on your lap while you drink a cup of tea on a quiet sunday evening, and while you listen to the music that accompanies the book. in addition to ann’s powerful voice and paul horn’s flute, miles black and edward henderson’s beautiful guitar complete the synaesthetic whole.

there is something melancholic about in love with the mystery – and it makes sense, given its history. in her talk, ann spoke often about the pain that deepens our understanding – shattered dreams and “the grit of disappointment.” these experiences inform the content of the book but there is more. the gentle images that form the background to ann’s writings were created by award-winning photographer courtney milne, who did not live to see the finished work of art. as well, the stunning design by diane jensen-feught was crafted in grief, as the designer mourned the death of her parents.

instead of an excerpt – you’ll just have to read for yourself – a few poignant lines from the talk:

“how does the mystery come?” asked ann.
“just keep breathing.”