ARGUING WITH A GREAT MEMOIR

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A GREAT MEMOIR IS LIKE A LINGERING CONVERSATION

I’d heard about but not read Mary Karr’s classic memoir The Liars Club (1995), until after the release of her masterful how-to treatise, The Art of Memoir (2015). Karr followed up Liars Club with two more bestsellers, Cherry and Lit, setting the bar for personal accounts of surviving apocalyptic childhoods that plunge into wild, self-abusing adolescence and early adulthood. In a world where self-destruction is always an option, people with their own threats to survival are drawn to real life stories for inspiration and perhaps the chance to feel part of a secret community amidst their isolation.

Sometimes what inspires comes by arguing a bit with the author.  In The Liars Club, Mary returns to her East Texas home from college:

Back at school, I’d been trying to read the philosophy of art…. I loved the idea that looking at a painting or listening to a concerto could make you somehow “transcend” the day-in, day-out bullshit that grinds you down; how in one instant of pure attention you could draw something inside that made you forever larger. In those days the drug culture was pimping “expanded consciousness,” a lie that partly descended from the old post-industrial lie of progress: any change in how your head normally worked must count as an improvement.

It was either her belief in this “lie” about altered states of consciousness, she writes, or beer, that propelled her into a most beatific game of pool, where even her father whistled at the incredible efficacy of her bank shot. She was floating in joy to be back home with her dad in the Legion Hall where he and his fellow oil workers—all low paid and receiving no honors for punching the time clock—gave pool the kind of attention their jobs didn’t deserve. They played pool for “itself alone.” Its spiritual comforts, such as friendship, could not be “confused with payback for something you’d accomplished.”

I was taken by Karr’s lucid particularity, not so much on the methodology of playing pool, but on the exhilaration that comes with pure, selfless attention. Quality attention, such as these vets with mind-numbing jobs played this game with zero vanity, posturing, or expectation of recognition for their skill. However…as a metaphysician of attention, I found myself questioning Karr’s so-called “lie” about expanded consciousness that she ties to the so-called industrial revolution’s so-called idea of progress.

Karr’s memoir seemed to be giving the art of playing pool for itself alone the kind of status she’d debunked in her philosophy of art class. So let’s dismiss all phonies who pretend to love great art for reasons outside the art itself [such status-seeking], and focus on people who sincerely want to explore what goes into making great art. The latter might ask: Is Karr’s eye for the geometric wizardry of pool all that different from an art historian’s meticulous analysis of Vermeer, Matisse or deKooning? Since many of us cannot claim pool as part of our personal skill set, Karr’s memoir seems to capture what it meant for the working men of that East Texas oil town and frame it on an indelible canvas. With full respect, who is she to imply that readers of her memoir might experience moments of pure attention that could expand our consciousness, possibly a real, if ineffable, “improvement”?

Being with her father’s friends relaxing at the Legion Hall, Karr writes, “clarified who I was, made me solid inside.” Isn’t that a chunk of self-knowledge, achieved by means of pure attention—via the hard-won honesty of memoir writing? Could we dare to call it a respectable way to “pimp” expanded consciousness? I wrote the preceding lines before reading Karr’s Art of Memoir. In the latter I learned that she’d been recommending all sorts of consciousness expanding techniques—including meditation—and having similar conversations with herself and her writing students for 30 years.

My next piece will attempt to share some of the ego-evaporating experience of returning to playing classical piano after decades of ceding to other priorities, neglect, guilt and frankly, missing the frustrating practice that I loved.

When Attending To Something Is a Puzzlement

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Attention can be a puzzlement. (‘Just saw a revival of “The King and I” and couldn’t resist.)

M-J, a close friend, recently confided that within the past year she—not a fan of whodunits—saw a cheap copy of a John Grisham mystery at a recycled book shop and got an inexplicable urge to buy it. She only dimly recognized his name. But the book was only a couple bucks, so she indulged the impulse. In a day or two she’d finished it, and found herself returning to the shop for another. Then another. In almost no time she’d bought and read all the pre-owned Grishams at that place, and was determined to find everything else he’d written at other spots around town.

At this stage in her strange quest M-J began to wonder if she ought to feel guilty. She had more serious books to read, and what about her devotion to Bible study?

Funny thing, M-J noted: even when she’d more or less invited guilt to rise up within, none did. What arose instead was a hunch that her obsessive consumption of bestselling thrillers was for a purpose yet to be identified.

So in one year M-J plowed through all twenty-seven of Grisham’s oeuvre! Twenty-six novels and one non-fiction whodunit, “An Innocent Man.” She also learned that the initial print run of Grisham’s first book, “A Time To Kill,” was only 5,000 copies. The author—a practicing lawyer at the time—had been rejected by many publishers before one took a modest chance on him. But those 5,000 were not selling well, so Grisham spent his weekends drumming up readers at garden parties and county fairs, hawking copies from the trunk of his car. People took a chance, liked what they read, and word got around.

Finally I had to ask M-J, “Why do you think you were drawn to this guy’s books?” She was sitting at my kitchen table at the time. As she answered I noticed goosebumps on her arms.

“Eventually I realized that what I was learning was what it takes to write a page-turner…and that I’d need to know this if I was going to be any real help to you.”

Now it was my turn to get goosebumps!

In truth, a year before M-J’s marathon of crime thrillers, she’d read a previous draft of my memoir, and noticed that she was simply checking for typos and marking the occasional unclear reference. Anyone could do that, she thought. If she wanted to provide more useful feedback—something to increase my chances at getting an agent and a publisher, she told herself—she had to get a feel for pace, flow, and punch.

I’d seen Grisham interviewed by Charlie Rose, and recalled him saying that he relies on his wife—who reads everything he writes—for just this kind of advice.

When M-J read the manuscript I planned to submit to an agent, she scrutinized it like a seasoned editor. The shorter chapters flowed better than the longer ones, she said—pointing to lines she thought packed enough punch to end right there, not pages later.   She circled telling phrases in the text that could serve as chapter titles, drew arrows to connect paragraphs that belonged together or elsewhere. In short, she functioned as a pro, with no previous background in the field—except for Grisham’s 27 thrillers.

You can bet I’m taking M-J’s advice, because I know how smart and good a friend she is. Which is to say: I value the quality of her attention.

Which brings us back to puzzlement. Here is someone who followed a weird (for her) but not harmful inclination, though clueless where it might lead. All she really knew was (1) she had no desire to waste her time, and (2) somehow her time would not be wasted.

Do you have an urge to attend to something that is a puzzlement? Do you wonder if you ought to feel guilty for indulging this impulse, but no guilt seems to arise?

Well, if you’re not harming anyone or anything, why not go with that odd inclination?

High quality attention does not always indicate why it’s happening. The fact that you want to pay keen attention to anything is promising and mysterious in itself.

The reason you’re being drawn to it may be a puzzlement, but if you don’t allow your powers of attention to focus where they wish, how will you ever find out what purposes lie waiting to be identified?

 

 

The Grandmaster – Master Class in Attention

Right away, most people who see “The Grandmaster” will be bowled over by its visual virtuosity.  The movie’s fight scenes zing by with balletic grace and the rhythmic flourish of great music.  The plot begins to bubble when a secretly trained female kung fu expert from the North appears to challenge the main character, who’s been chosen as best of the Southern Chinese masters.

The pair’s eye-popping altercation entices us into a haunting near-Platonic love story.  That element, alas, is invented.  In a way the film pays tribute not only to a legendary teacher of Bruce Lee.  It also draws attention to the unknown women who managed to master forms of the martial arts despite the entrenched tradition of denying this knowledge to females.

The movie presents two kung fu artists at the pinnacle of their powers: Ip Man, the real-life southern Chinese master played by megastar Tony Leung; and the daughter of a fictional great northern Chinese master, Gong Er, played by the beautiful Ziyi Zhang.  [The movie’s original title was “The Grandmasters.”]

The Sino-Japanese War, the invasion and occupation of China that led up to the Asian theatre of WW2, rears its ugly historical head.  Viewers are informed that during his time Ip lost two daughters to starvation.  (The real Ip was survived by two sons…were his sons fed better during the hard times—a long and ignominious tradition in more than one society—or were they born later?)  I’ve read that the Chinese language version of the film is 30 minutes longer because gruesome facts of the Japanese invasion are shown in more detail.

Despite the historical gravitas, visual thrills, and emotional pull of all these factors, to this attending metaphysician, they remain surface attention-grabbers.

Below these layers, I was intrigued by the amazingly non-hostile look in Leung’s eyes as he takes on a raft of arrogant martial artists in challenge matches throughout the film.  Especially in his duel with Gong Er, his expression is humble and alert rather than macho and patronizing.

In all Ip/Leung’s battles, of course, he is fighting for his life, or at least his honor, should he be spared by an opponent.  But what an outlook!   You have to see the set of his face, the quiet, non-hostile readiness for each attacker, to appreciate how wonderfully this actor portrays his character’s confidence—visible in the quality of his attention.  Why does he look so consistently, um, friendly?  It’s disconcertingly unwarriorlike.  But convincingly, uh…masterful.

Perhaps part of it stems from the fact that Tony Leung trained for three years before the cameras rolled on his portrayal of Ip Man.  Some very well known kung fu masters participate in this film, several of them having helped train Leung.  Is that why he looks at his opponents with something akin to respectful fondness?  Or does he somehow exude a feeling like that of Wilfred Owen, the WW1 British poet-soldier who wrote of his adversary as “My enemy, my friend”?

Ziyi Zhang has a background in dance, but she also trained rigorously in kung fu before being filmed.  She looks demure rather than friendly, and intent on defending her father’s reputation. Their convincing performances, even with occasional use of body doubles, is steeped in painstaking prior attention to training and fitness.

Perhaps the highest moment of artistry—and depth—comes in a snow-flecked nighttime showdown on a train platform in Hong Kong.  Gong Er has caught up with her nemesis.  This man, an orphan her father trained to succeed him, betrayed her family’s honor by collaborating with the Japanese, and expelled her from her family home.  By the time they meet we know that their form of kung fu is lethal, this guy has no conscience, and it’ll be a fight to the finish.  A terrible moment comes when she is pinned, her head inches away from the wheels of a passing train.  One more shove and she’d be decapitated.  Somehow she escapes his clutches and renders him unable to rise from the platform.  When he tries to appear noble in surrendering his position, she replies, “Let’s be clear,” and states firmly to his followers that he has done so only because she’s defeated him.

Uh-oh.  Didn’t the Chinese originate the concept of saving face?  And isn’t that expression crucial to the quality of attention one might expect to receive from others?  What Gong has done is vindicate herself, whom this traitor threw out of her home with a sneering put-down that she was ‘only a woman.’  But she has also humiliated a man desperate to retain the admiration of his followers…a man who’d used all his skill to try to kill her.

We watch her leave the scene in apparent serenity, only to observe how, in the privacy of her home, she coughs up blood.  Afterward, she stops practicing medicine and becomes addicted to opium.  One has to assume that this is no idle indulgence, but a last resort to endure mortal pain.

Alas, the price of revenge is steep.  Gong accepts it, diverting her attention away from disappointment and towards readying herself to die.  Was her father right all along?  Now she is too injured to carry on her father’s teaching, and too weak to heal others.

Meanwhile, Ip locates her after the war in Hong Kong, and she accepts his invitation to tea.  He does not know the price she has paid to avenge herself and her father, and hopes she will look upon him as more than a rival she narrowly defeated years ago.

Alas again.  She admits she has cared about him, even uses the word love, but says this will be their last meeting.  Only the viewers know why she is so discouraging to him, and are allowed to taste the bitterness and honor of her confession.

Maybe I’m a hopeless romantic, but no sex scene in any movie I’ve ever seen can match this quiet conversation over tea between two incredibly attractive characters who do not so much as touch hands.

Ip, so innocent in his optimism, urges Gong to continue her father’s teaching.  As if most of her has already died, she answers that it is part of life that great forms of knowledge have been lost or forgotten.  She says she has already forgot the “64 hands” for which her father was legendary.  As though passing a mystical baton, she expresses hope that Ip will continue to teach and expand his own knowledge.  From what we know, he surely did.

The most memorable adage from The Grandmaster comes from Gong Er’s father, via his daughter.  She tells Ip that there are three essential things in life: being, knowing, and doing.  In a flashback we also see that he told his unfaithful but ambitious disciple never to think himself the best: “There is always someone better.”  True mastery implies humility.

Leaving open the possibility that someone can always do it better, even if one has mastered something, is a wonderful insight into the finest quality of attention—ever willing to respect and admire others.

What a movie.  What a master class.

A Plea from Little Sister in the Body

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In response to Peg O’Connor’s excellent essay “The Light at the End of Suffering” in the Opinionator blog of the New York Times, 4/7/13, I’d like to offer a somewhat different view than I’ve seen among the many interesting comments.

O’Connor writes about people with serious addictions like alcoholism, and the question of how much suffering people can take before they break down, hit bottom, kill themselves, or seek help in programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.  I wrote in my 4/9/13 comment on O’Connor’s piece in the Opinionator that some forms of suffering can be perceived as pleas from one’s ‘higher self’ – perhaps the ‘higher power’ that both believers and non-believers can accept – for a more nurturing quality of attention to be given to our whole self.

That self, we often forget, is constantly and faithfully served by “little sister/brother in the body” (a Native American expression).  My mother taught me this tender, respectful term in childhood.  It came back to me a few weeks ago when I found myself incapacitated by an almost insurmountable flu.  I was reminded that neglecting this loyal, physical being’s needs would cause her to send signals like fatigue, indigestion, headaches, and the like.  And if the neglect persists, as mine did, the next to last recourse is succumbing to illness.  (We all know the last recourse.)

For too long, in my case, I’d pushed the limits of a natural tendency toward insomnia  —staying up much later than sleepiness told me to rest.  This bad habit—which a holistic healer explained to me is actually an addiction to one’s own adrenaline—weakened my immune system, and I came down with a very nasty flu bug.  It was so agonizing and difficult to recover from that I had to accept the possibility that I could succumb permanently if something not much worse hit me.  – That, as they say, got my attention.

Little sister in the body was too sick to help me distract myself from suffering by immersing my mind in reading, writing, and listening to informative programs on NPR.  When I could not sleep I found my mental self alone with my physical self, enduring with her all the torments of weakness, dizziness, acute pain, and difficulty breathing. The only solace was a small green shoot of awareness that I had not been attuned kindly to “little sister” for some time.  She’d been fed with a moderate concern for nutrition, while I rode roughshod over her need for a restorative sleep cycle.

It was a state of de facto meditation, a more elemental consciousness than I’d allowed myself to experience in some time, all the more ironic because it resulted from illness rather than good sense.

For many years I used to have the good sense to be a regular practitioner of meditation.  I knew it to be of lasting benefit, but let the practice lapse.  Too many things to do, including many of no lasting benefit that I could have replaced by meditating!  Little sister expressed it elementally:  if I’d kept up the practice of meditation I could never have fooled myself into giving up so much sleep at the cost of my health!

Fr. Lawrence Freeman, who travels the world teaching meditation and its spiritual connections, recently gave a talk in New York which he began by saying that prayer begins with attention, as does meditation.  As I’ve written in the introduction to this website, my own interest in attention began by learning that healthy babies deprived of attention die, and therefore attention is necessary for life.  In Fr. Freeman’s talk, he referred to ‘the quality of attention’ in several contexts, all concerned with the quality of one’s consciousness.  Depending on one’s quality of attention, one could feel isolated from others, on guard or inimical, or in friendship with them–the feeling of community or shared being engendered by meditation.

If attention is the basis of prayer, it can also be that of healing, in particular a friendly and grateful sense of being shared with one’s little brother or sister in the body.  Attention may not be able to cure all forms of suffering (but it might if given more of a chance), yet it surely paves the way for us to deal with suffering as best we can.  And sometimes the only cure for our lack of attention is illness.

Attention Lurking in the News, #4, Part Two: On Food Addiction and a Lost Friend

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Content that has depth and complexity is like a person.  We have to study it, and delay passing judgment until we’ve done our best to understand the subject.  Sometimes, like a cheating lover, the devil is found in the details.

Take the recent investigative ‘content’ concerning our nation-wide obesity problem. The Times and NPR reporters have produced in-depth reports on how the fast-food industry has devoted decades of scientific research to getting us addicted to processed foods with just the perfect “bliss point” of fat, salt, and sugar.  Like the cigarette companies before them, they buried smoking-gun memos that exposed their intention to create widespread addictions.  One snack food, they crowed triumphantly, successfully canceled out consumers’ ability to feel they’d eaten anything of caloric value!  We could eat this sugar-salt-fat delivery system forever, our bodies tricked into not signaling when to stop.

On a personal level, we know the kind of effort it takes to understand opposing views, say, among two friends or close relatives.  How much listening, weighing of another person’s life history, struggles, family influences, successes and failures, loves, losses and (most stubbornly concealed) sources of shame.  Try as we might, we can miss the real reasons behind seemingly irreconcilable differences.  But because we care about these individuals, we keep trying–observing, storing information, pondering.  One could call this reflective attention.  Some mysteries do seem to open up in time.

Because of the recent revelations about how food industry giants have done their utmost to get us to eat more often and in larger more fattening proportions, I recently gained insight on a long-ago disconnect with a former friend. The last time I’d socialized with her was years ago in the late afternoon, at her place, when her daughter came home from middle school saying she was hungry.  My friend offered the already overweight girl a large box of cookies, and returned to our conversation.  Her daughter stayed with us, and I must have shown concern–never mentioning it, of course–that the child was eating her way through the entire box–at least 20 cookies–and her mother was not even reminding her that they’d be having supper soon.

After that my friend became distant.  She and her husband were both seriously obese, and might not have been able to teach their daughter to restrain from overeating when they couldn’t control their own food addiction.  From studying alcoholism, which runs in my family, I learned that addiction changes our brain chemistry.  When addicted, our brains still know the right thing to do, but the chemical switch that enables us to take action, or to stop ourselves, gets turned off. And because our mind knows it’s right and can’t make us do it (without a lot of help and moral support, such as 12-step programs), guilt and shame result.

It wasn’t that my friend stopped liking me, it was that she didn’t want to feel guilty when I noticed her not dealing with her family’s obesity problem.

The obesity epidemic, thanks to the scrutiny (a first-rate version of attention) of content providers, now has a fighting chance of moving toward a cure.  So – three cheers for real content and the journalists that provide it, and three more for the attention we hope it gets!