Our Relationship to the Have Nots & the Novel Preparation for the Next Life

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I read this because of the book review in the NYT on 11/13/14. The reviewer’s last sentence: The final chapters of this indelible book pulled my heart up under my ears. caught my attention.

I will never look at a homeless or poor person again without noticing how worn their shoes are because of reading this book. This novel changes your perspective, that rare gift of terrific writing by Atticus Lish. He writes with a real respect for the struggles of a PTSD suffering vet & an undocumented immigrant & their love story.

I read it during the week that Congress was trying to pass a bill that would dump the McCain-Feingold 2002 campaign finance law. Nancy Pelosi said that the measure (supported by Obama) will “drown out the voices of the American people & massively expand the role of big money in our elections.”(USA Today 12/11/14). Ordinary people losing power & respect is becoming an ordinary story not just in Russia, but here in the USA.

I used to live in an insulated “have” neighborhood because of the public school district, where I was the only one I knew to buy a used car. I am relieved to live in diversity, in a working class area where many people drive Chevy cavaliers. Being insulated can be mind-numbing & lacks empathy.

The two lovers in the story push themselves to be physical and the details the author captures make you feel as if you are pounding the pavement right along by their side. Their relationship builds & layers in a very authentic way that combines both dread & happiness for them as they move towards the future.

It’s a book where the characters stay with you after you have finished the last page, which is my favorite kind of art within a novel.

It’s hard to believe this is a first novel for the author, because it is so well crafted. The words soar off the page. The details of owning so little, eating terrible food and barely getting by carry a truthfulness that makes them stick to your heart.

Already, I look forward to the next novel by Atticus Lish.


Forgiveness, Betrayal & the novel Shantaram

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Never have I read a book where I bent so many page corners to remember the wisdom that lies within. It is rich in texture & authenticity from the very first page. The 3rd sentence mentions forgiveness of the prison guards he is being tortured by.

Gregory David Roberts is honest in describing his own betrayals of others as well as those (we are surprised to discover) who have betrayed him. It is 933 pages that literally fly by because his life was so exciting, full & interesting. I finished & found myself wishing it was longer because I hated to end all the relationships.

Of all the books I’ve read about India this is the book that gave me the feeling of knowing a new place & discovering the hearts of the people. One character says “This is India. This is the land of the heart. This is where the heart is king…” Reading this novel, helps you understand how true this really is.

There is a real power to his thoughts on forgiveness. He says it is forgiveness that characterizes the human race. I’d add the inability to forgive ourselves or others. The human race is characterized by both polarities.

The author also acknowledges how bad it is loving someone you can’t forgive. I’ve been a witness to that truth many, many times over the decades. People work with me to understand they have part of the responsibility, in the sin of their silence. It’s not enough to lead to repair.

There’s not enough heart to work at restoring trust because people are buried under layers of unspoken betrayal. Betrayal is always about the lack of hard truths between people who are loved. This impacts everyone in the novel.

There is a lot of authenticity that he brings to the pages because it’s about his life living in a slum, surviving prison, escaping from prison in Australia, starting a medical clinic, working for the Bombay Mafia, going to war in Afghanistan & being hugged by a bear.

I loved how three-dimensional he is; smart, afraid, foolish, stuck, brave, open & with hard-won wisdom about life and his own mistakes. It is a glorious moment when he forgives someone who admits their jealousy of him because he recognizes they are the same; for he was very jealous of this man for a very long time.

When he is able to forgive himself he becomes so much more able to forgive others. Isn’t this true for all of us?

Gratitude & the novel Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Gratitude, Thankful, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Acceptance

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it’s about gathering and gratitude. I’m in the business of self-reflection and taking time to think about what’s enough seems really important. We are too often frantic; grasping for more stuff to reassure ourselves that we are successful & secure.

Everyone gets some of the pieces of the pie; no one gets them all.

I read an interview with Matt Damon who said Brad Pitt envied his not being in the public eye which Matt attributed to the fact he married a civilian instead of a celebrity.

Everyone struggles in some decade of their life. Some of us get the happy childhood, some of us get to have kids, some of us marry well…………… some of us go decades without finding the right person, some of us miss out on grandchildren, some of us have jobs that are not satisfying and only offer a paycheck, some of us work two jobs and don’t make ends meet, some of us die of cancer at 32.

The best way to appreciate what we do have is to read Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. She won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book award for nonfiction. It’s about a neighborhood that lives on a trash heap near luxury hotels in Mumbai,India. This book is an extraordinary work of art because she helps you see differently.

The last sentence of her book is about a ledge that is dangerous to climb to: “But for now, eleven cans,seven empty water bottles and a wad of aluminum foil rested on a long spit of concrete, awaiting the first child with the courage to claim them.” You close the book understanding how lucky that child will feel with their find.

Accepting the pieces of the pie you don’t get is one of life’s greatest struggles.

Martin Seligman does a lot of research on happiness and he says people who are lucky enough to have gratitude as one of their top character strengths lead happier lives. It’s also one of the basic guiding principles of recovery for Alcoholics Anonymous.

Gratitude is something that should spring into your head at a moments notice. If you were to die next week what would you be grateful for? When we hold hands and go around the table saying what we are thankful for, too often the smell of the food entices us to hurry through our words. So try taking a few minutes when you are overloaded on turkey to answer that for yourself.

Lopsided Love Relationships & the novel: The Woman Upstairs

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Relationships in love usually start out lopsided – someone loves the other more, it is the nature of relationships. The great achievement in relationships is when love evolves to be mutual and this begins with respect as the first building block. Over the long haul respect is more important than love because it leads to personal growth & longevity.

Even though I adored this great book, I found myself wincing a lot reading The Woman Upstairs because Nora is an overly generous woman who is so enchanted by a family of three that she has no instincts for self protection.

Women who give too much need to embrace their self-protectiveness more. When they don’t, there is often betrayal and on some level they (& Nora) have allowed it. Even though I knew I was reading fiction I found myself saying to Nora, “What about your art?” “Where are your boundaries?” “Ask her to help you instead of always helping her.” I read onward with many misgivings.

I loved the vitality of Nora’s anger in the first chapter and in the very first sentence. This marvelous book is about her journey to finding her anger. Anger can be life enhancing because it is a part of learning to be self-protective.

Anger is a demand from your soul to factor yourself into the equation. Nora finding her anger is deciding she matters. We often misjudge anger because those who are best at it use it too often to demand they are important. Then there are those who are lopsided in selflessness who swallow their anger and don’t use it at all.

Nora never got angry along the way with Sirena. She was happy to be the moon in quiet orbit of Sirena’s earth. Nora never says, “Hey, it’s my turn now.” She is easily satisfied with the crumbs tossed her way.

Nora recognizes she plays a part in her betrayal. The lies she tells herself with her creative imagination and the love affairs she plays out in her mind are rich in denial.

Nora is single, never married and easily dismissed by the culture at large. Unmarried women without children are often invisible. The author really understands how deeply hungry they are to be seen and recognized.

Over many years I’ve had profound empathy for these women that society shunts aside. There is a deep injustice that translates into them dismissing themselves because of their experiences layered over time. The author, Claire Messud gets it right.

Therapy is often about reality checks that no one wants to hear. Her best friend Didi is gay and offers her unwanted doses of reality. Nora ignores her wisdom because it doesn’t fit in with what I call the ‘Star Trek Parallel Universe’ that she has created in her imagination.

The ‘Star Trek Parallel Universe’ is the story we love to tell ourselves whether it is true or not. The book begins and ends with Nora’s newly discovered anger. Anger is a rocket ship that can propel you out of denial & self pity and into the fire of action. People often use their anger to start a new life after divorce, death or betrayal.

This is a moving book because you grow to care for Nora, even while you know she is doomed. At the same time her life might have continued to be mediocre if she hadn’t had hopes of being a part of her new friends success.

It’s her anger that she’s now earned that will help her take the risks she’s avoided until being so badly hurt. Often in life when something terrible happens it can be a new beginning that is indeed transforming.

The Novel Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter & the Loneliness of Being Unknown & Suffering Betrayal

                                                                                               Loneliness, stories of betrayal, betrayal of trust, betrayal, dealing with betrayal, ostracized, Crooked Letter Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter Crooked Letter review, lonely people, lonelier, what is loneliness

Crooked Letter Crooked Letter is an exquisite novel about loneliness, betrayal and being ostracized as an outsider. No one goes unscathed in life. We all know these experiences intimately in one way or another.

One of the best things about yearly Christmas letters is when my friends make book recommendations. This was mentioned by someone I trust and it was high on my list for 2013.

People decide who we are without knowing us. It reaches an initial peak in high school which is why it’s such a painful time for so many and we never really leave it behind. The world is full of people making critical judgements that isolate us from each other. We also isolate ourselves with harsh beliefs about others and ourselves.

The high price of disconnection and the profound pain it causes are brought to life in this novel of boyhood friends in the South. People decide who you are & it’s a box you don’t have a choice about leaving behind if you are poor & live in a small community. I believe this happens in small ordinary ways to all of us on a daily basis.

Therapy is often an invitation to return to locating new possibilities within, even when the world has given up on you.

The book is about Larry who is at the center of only extremely lopsided relationships; and he naively allows himself to be used by others for their own purposes. No one values his essential goodness. This same pattern is experienced by so many in the struggle of dating because it is very difficult to sort out where are the good guys????

The power of race is another layer of this crime novel. It shuttles back in time to the forbidden friendship in childhood of Larry who is white and Silas who is African-American and then returns to the present when they haven’t seen each other in two decades.

The reader grows to care deeply about their relationship which is touched by the magic of transformation. A novel that includes depth of character, lyrical prose & transformation what more could anyone want??

The writing is rich in details which begins with the title, crooked letter is the S in Mississippi which southern children are taught in how to spell their state name. The old saying that the first sentence should grip the reader & not let go also applies to the author Tom Franklin.

Betrayal of self, betrayal with intention and the distinctly different betrayal through neglect are both delineated with great care & attention.

I was moved because one character makes amends to the other without any words, in the more meaningful way of taking actions. This book has the infrastructure that helps the reader feel the pain in both the journeys of Larry & Silas. The conclusion felt so authentic that it left me wanting to hang out in the kitchen eavesdropping on their next conversation.

We have all experienced someone deciding they know us without any evidence, of being betrayed by those we thought were our friends, of feeling profound loneliness and we’ve all betrayed ourselves. These are the universal themes that are explored in this amazing book.

Anger, Shame & Silence @ the core of PTSD & the novel The Garden of Evening Mists

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The Garden of Evening Mists was short listed for the Man Booker Award. It is a glorious novel that takes place in war-torn Malaysia after the Japanese occupation which resulted in 100,000 deaths. It captures all the layers of PTSD and the power of traumatic experiences.

It is a marvel to me how this author knows the inner workings of trauma. He even gets the triggers for flashbacks right. I learned from my clients in 1980 when my sole focus for 3 1/2 years was the ravages of incest and there existed a conspiracy of silence all over the country.

This is what made the Sandusky secrecy so painful to me because it’s still an active part of our culture (and Gov.Corbett in starting a legal battle does not seem to understand that the sanctions are about the victims, not the money).

The story evolves, slowly layering the details of the life of Yun Ling who is a distinguished judge who retires and those she worked with are surprised to learn that she was a prisoner of war held by the Japanese in WW II. Like the victims at Penn State she kept her secrets for years.

Experiences are our most powerful teachers. Traumatic experiences are complicated with all kinds of feelings deeply etched on the soul. Shame & silence are often at the very core hardened by an outside layer of the most powerful anger which pushes too many others away.

Anger is important because anger is determined to prove “I DO MATTER”. Trauma is almost always about feeling erased. Anger is about feeling powerful after feeling impotent. Traumatic anger is all about the walls staying in place which is revealed in the depths of this story.

This kind of anger can last for years and leak out on the people you love the most because trauma is a big deal.

When the walls get stuck you can end up unconsciously maintaining your victim status because you prevent connections.

Dealing with trauma is important and Yun Ling silently stumbles around with it like most people do. Shame often adds an especially ugly twist that can keep the trauma & anger alive. “It’s my fault someone is dead” is one that few people live with & emotionally survive, whether it’s true or not.

Yun Ling unlocks her bitterness slowly over the years by learning about exquisite gardening from Aritomo, who was the emperor’s gardener before the war. The author Tan Twan Eng paints such a memorable world in this garden that I googled to see if I could visit one day even though I knew it was a work of fiction. I was still hoping to find it because it’s beauty was etched in my soul while reading.

Yun Ling heals slowly over time and learns to allow connectedness with the help of the Japanese gardener which ultimately is exactly what healing from trauma is about. I felt connected not only to Yun Ling, but to the 5 important members of the supporting cast of characters and to the country of Malaysia. What a gift to be alive & read this lyrical, lovely novel!

Silence When Tragedy Strikes & the novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

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This novel reveals the terrible impact of silence upon a couple after tragedy occurs. Silent grief feeds blame & resentment which destroys any ability to communicate. When hard things remain unspoken between people then the distance grows exponentially.

One of the beautiful parts of this book is that it is about an ordinary man who decides to listen to himself & do something unusual for a friend dying of cancer. The story of his mistakes, success & determined choices is about his process along the way & how he changes and affects changes in others.

He has tremendous resolve and he is terribly discouraged as anyone is who does something courageous. He decides to walk over 500 miles to his friend. It’s the truth of this journey that captures the reader;  from the band aids (plasters) & sore feet including his denial that she’ll recover because of his pilgrimage.

As Harold walks he reflects a lot on his life. The actual tragedy is not revealed until the end. The way their silence piles up in impossible layers is the second tragedy that still might be repaired……or not, which is true of so many couples. It is powerful to read about the wife’s struggle to think kinder thoughts, and not be able to squeak the words out because of her habit of anger.

The purpose of anger is to create distance and says “I’m important.” It can be a very useful tool. Harold’s wife demonstrates that a habit of anger is an entirely different story and leads to the lonely path of bitterness. I often caution those who start down this path because it is such an awful choice for the soul. Bitterness becomes a comforting prison that’s hard to leave.

Harold makes the mistakes of those who are kind to a fault. I found myself wincing and wishing he was more self protective, but that’s the point; he has to find his way despite his strengths & weaknesses (just like we all do).

Silence has the power of erosion on a relationship. It seems so impossible to say what’s real about who we are and what we feel on our insides. It is a tragedy when two people grow apart without the words that can create an understanding.

Tragedy has this effect on people. This includes our recent experience with Hurricane Sandy on the east coast. It really matters that families take time to ask each other: “What was the hardest part for you?” Don’t let the silence of grief keep you encapsulated in your aloneness. Struggle to share the words that are trapped inside.

My favorite literary award is the Man Booker out of England & this novel made the long list of 12, though not the final list of 6. This is a first novel for the author & actress Rachel Joyce.