Are your books talking about you?

Do your bookshelves contain a story about you as well as the stories within their covers? What could a stranger walking into your home learn about you from the titles she saw there? I asked myself these questions when I came across this banner in front of the Latvian embassy:

Latvian embassy (1)

Apparently it’s a thing for Latvians to make gentle fun of themselves for being so introverted. But it totally makes sense that a nation of introverts would also be a nation of writers and readers. Introverts, after all, like to have plenty of alone time and prefer to think things through before speaking them out loud. And what better way is there to spend solitary time than with a book or pen?

When I review my bookshelves, I see someone who has some favorite authors (Amy Tan, Chris Bohjalian, Ann Patchett) and nerdy interests (“The Gene,” “Longitude”), but also a healthy supply of the classics, plenty of biographies, and a sizeable collection on stress, spirituality and wellness. There are books for every mood – whether it’s a desire to escape, a curiosity about the world, or a quest for answers about life. Sometimes I deliberately search for a specific book, other times I read whatever is available. But no matter what, I read.

Here’s what I’ve recently been enjoying:

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak. This is a beautifully-written novel about love and loss by the author of “The Book Thief.”  It’s the story of five brothers living near Sydney, Australia who have to deal with the death of their mother and the abandonment of their father. The story goes back and forth in time so that we get a full picture of each character and what drives them. I was slow to be drawn in, but by half-way through, I couldn’t stop reading. I only wish they wouldn’t categorize this book as “young adult” in my local bookstore, because so many fewer people will find it.

The Extraordinary Life of Rebecca West by Lorna Gibb. I’ve been a fan of Rebecca West’s ever since reading her magnum opus, “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon,” many years ago, before visiting Yugoslavia for the first time. While this biography is not particularly well-written, it is fascinating all the same for its in-depth look at this formidable 20th century British woman. West was ahead of her time, breaking ground as a writer, journalist and literary critic. She was well-known for her coverage of the Nuremberg trials and for her long relationship with H.G. Wells.

November Road by Lou Berney. What if it was the mob who killed JFK? That’s the premise of this novel about a low-level fixer for a New Orleans mobster who has to flee when he realizes he knows too much. When he meets a woman and her children on the road, he uses them as a convenient cover until he realizes that he actually cares for and wants to protect them. Don’t try to guess the ending of this one.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson. This might qualify as “summer reading” if I believed in such a thing, although it would be misleading to characterize this book as “light.” It is a sweet romance about a young woman who comes to teach school in a small English town right before the onset of the first World War. But it doesn’t shy away from the horrors of that war, and it also addresses topics such as sexism, classism and homosexuality in a typically genteel British way.

Louisa May Alcott once said that “Good books, like good friends, are few and chosen; the more select, the more enjoyable.” I suspect that Alcott was an introvert, as am I, but I don’t see the need to be as selective about books as I am about friends. Ranging wide and choosing eclectically can, after all, lead to so many surprising discoveries. I was puzzled a while back when a neighbor asked me what kinds of books I collect (he liked certain types of history). Why would I “collect” just one genre or topic when the whole world is out there?

What do my bookshelves say about me? That I prefer a feast to a single course, a saga to a short story, a journey rather than a day trip. And speaking of trips, if you’re planning one, be sure to grab a book on your way out the door.




Books + beach + baby turtles = respite

Sometimes we need a respite more than we need a vacation, or even before we can be fully present for a vacation. What’s the difference between a respite and a vacation? The dictionary tells us that a respite is a short period of rest or relief from something difficult or unpleasant, while a vacation is an extended period of recreation. When I left my home in Washington 10 days ago and headed for the beach,  I was fleeing from a stressful and frustrating situation. What I didn’t foresee was how many days it would take before I really felt like I was on vacation.

I knew I had to lower my stress level, and so I set some intentions from the start, the most important being to limit my email. I turned the mail function off on my devices and decided to only turn it on twice a day to check for things that were important. The rest of the time, I vowed not to check it at all.

Here are my other intentions:IMG_2188

I had been neglecting my yoga practice at home. In addition, I needed to spend some time learning how to use my new camera and updating my continuing education credits, as well as this blog. But it turned out to be many days before I could focus on the more mentally-tasking intentions.

On my first morning, I went to a yoga class and felt some of the stress begin to lift. On my second morning, I began a week of going out with other volunteers to monitor sea turtle nests on the beach. Each day at sunrise when we would begin our walk down the beach, a feeling of complete well-being would come over me and I would utterly relax. When we released some straggler baby turtles near the ocean one day, and people gathered to cheer them on as they made their way, I was filled with gratitude to be part of something so simple yet so much bigger than myself.


The remainder of my first four or five days was spent reading books. I couldn’t seem to bring myself to do much more than that. Overcast weather justified my couch potato tendencies a bit, but if I’m honest I admit that I just didn’t have the energy or interest to do more than that. I finished three books in rapid succession, and would have read more if they had been available. Other people’s stories have always felt like a refuge for me when I needed one.


By the fifth day, the sun came out, and with it my readiness to be “on vacation.” I finally felt like I could enjoy the recreation part of my stay — the swimming, boating, biking and other fun. I took my camera out and experimented with its different settings. I spent the hot part of one afternoon doing an online class to fulfill my CE requirement. I went kayaking with my husband, and enjoyed that wonderful feeling of physical tiredness that comes from exertion. It was such a welcome change from the mental and emotional exhaustion I was feeling a few days earlier.

Thich Nhat Hanh says that,

The purpose of a vacation is to have the time to rest. But many of us, even when we go on vacation, don’t know how to rest. We may even come back more tired than before we left.

I feel lucky that I had enough time to give myself both that respite and a vacation. But what I learned is that I need to build in more respites for myself at home, and probably more boundaries to keep myself from getting to the point of so much stress. Time to set more intentions!


5 Books to Read This Summer

Nothing gave me so much contentment in childhood as curling up somewhere with a good book and losing myself for a while. And if one good book was a pleasure, then summer reading – book after book after book – was a feast.

In that spirit, I made a list of the best books I’ve read this past year – a feast of summer reading for you:

(In no particular order)

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr – Will we ever run out of stories to tell about World War II? The sheer number of books and films in this genre speaks to the importance of telling a story from multiple perspectives, whether in fiction or real life. Doerr’s novel is a great addition to the shelf. Beginning in the 1930s and continuing to the present day, it tells the story, in parallel narratives, of a French girl and a German boy. Both of them damaged in some way, and struggling to survive the war, they touch, and even save, each other’s lives in improbable ways, over space and time. It is only rarely a happy read, but is amazingly touching, poignant and captivating.

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride – This piece of historical fiction by the author of The Color of Water is a new twist on the tale of abolitionist John Brown and his ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry. The fictional “Onion”, a boy Brown plucked from slavery, narrates the story many years later. Onion is at first a reluctant traveling companion to the God-fearing, Bible-preaching Brown, but he comes to love him, and his observations of the foolhardy, yet brave, abolitionist are sharp, yet funny and warm. It took me a while to get absorbed in this book, but I was glad I stuck with

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — This best-selling novel is both a love story and an immigrant story. Nigerians Ifemulu and Obinze are soulmates, but after Ifemulu leaves for school in America, they are separated for years. Not able to join her, Obinze goes to England on a visitor’s visa and stays after it expires. Both of them struggle to adapt to the new cultures in which they find themselves; perhaps the best part of this book are Ifemulu’s observations on Americans and American life, as seen by an outsider. [The author also has an interesting TED talk about the danger of telling a story from only a single perspective.]

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands by Chris Bohjalian – Bohjalian is the only male writer I know who can write believably in a woman’s voice. This time he does it from the perspective of a teenage girl, one who becomes a runaway after a devastating nuclear accident in which both her parents are implicated. We feel her struggles with whom to trust, what choices to make and how to come to terms with all she has lost. Bohjalian is not a “feel-good” writer – there is always loss in his novels – but he tells a compelling story.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo – This is the non-fiction entry on my list, but it reads like a novel.  Boo takes us into life in a Mumbai slum situated right beside the international airport. Juxtaposing the clean and glittery approach to Mumbai that visitors see, with the grim and gritty life of those scratching out a living at its edge in Annawadi, she tells the stories of Abdul, Asha and other residents trying to get ahead, or at least get by. Winner of the National Book Award, this is a story told with great humanity even as it deals with seemingly hopeless situations.

The poet Kyle Dargan has said that, “..being a poet means I notice stuff for a living. To write is to first see or hear some element of the world and then attempt to render it with language.” The books on my list do indeed have poetry in them, and their writers are masters of noticing, rendering and presenting us with the gift of story.


My summer reading club

The local library was one of my favorite places during childhood. Even today, when I enter a library and get a whiff of that familiar smell of books, glue, and something undefined, I feel at home. It was, and is, a place of quiet discovery.

During every summer growing up, I was an avid member of the library’s summer reading program. The end of the school year didn’t signify a break from books to me – instead, it meant that I could dive into even more. I loved going into the cool, silent library (so different from the heat and noise outside!) and coming out filled with anticipation of what awaited me between the covers I held in my arms. Whatever the program entailed – number of books, stamps or stickers, charts or check-offs, I didn’t hesitate to sign up. Not only did I love the reading, my competitive nature kicked in as my book count got higher each week.books3

Those lazy days of reading for hours on end are mostly gone from my summers now, except for a few days at the beach each year. My reading takes place at odd moments here and there – subway rides, waiting rooms, or the time it takes me to fall asleep at night. Nobody but me is tracking the number of books I read – I’m in a book club of one. I’ll receive no stickers or prizes. My name won’t go on any list. Nevertheless, I feel richly rewarded.

The characters I’ve met this summer have invited me into their lives and made me care about what happens to them. Their stories are sometimes funny, but often sad; some of them are clever, others bizarre; most of them end with hopefulness, others with just a bleak sense of resignation. But all of them teach me something about life.

archerThe importance of breath came into play in two novels I read. In The Garden of Evening Mists, a damaged young woman is learning archery, while in The Sojourn, a teenager becomes a sharpshooter during World War I. Both learn to “Feel your body expanding as you breathe: that is where we live, in the moments between inhalation and exhalation.” I loved the images of connecting breath and movement, just like yoga. No matter what we are aiming for, the breath is what takes us there, and the space between breaths is like a doorway.

My passion for books was affirmed by reading Will Schwalbe’s  The End of Your Life Book Club. Schwalbe and his mother, both keen readers all their lives, formed an informal book “club” while she was undergoing treatment for cancer. They would read and discuss books as they sat in waiting or treatment rooms. Schwalbe’s loving memoir chronicles the time by connecting it to the books. He remembers his mother’s friendships with people she had met around the world, and her insistence “that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal.” She was passionate about getting a library built in Afghanistan before she died. About one novel, she said, “That’s one of the amazing things great books like this do – they don’t just get you to see the world differently, they get you to look at people, the people all around you, differently.”

I may never visit Malaysia or Sri Lanka, settings for three of this summer’s books, and I can’t relive the World Wars which featured in others, but reading about them has given me an expanded view of what those places and times are all about. I’m so grateful that reading has given me eyes to see the world, increasing my compassion for and connection with people everywhere. That’s the power of summer reading!

Emotions: Too close for comfort?

Does expressing emotions scare you, or make you feel somehow weak? As much as we over-communicate these days, we often keep our emotions in check or hide how we really feel. Perhaps cultivating greater emotional awareness can help us express our emotions more often and more constructively, and lead to more fulfilling relationships at home and at work.

Psychologist Paul Ekman has written that “Without emotions there would be no heroism, empathy, or compassion, but neither would there be cruelty, selfishness, nor spite.” He has studied how our facial expressions convey emotion, and written extensively about paths to a more balanced emotional life.

Interestingly, we might not be expressing emotions in writing as much as we used to. A group of British researchers analyzed a database of over 5 million books and found that words with emotional content have declined over the past 100 years. They looked at the frequency of mood words — those that expressed anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness or surprise. The one exception to the declining trend was the emotion of fear, which has actually increased. The use of different mood words also tracks closely with historical events such as World War II, when there was a notable increase of words expressing sadness and a decrease in words connected to joy.

While written works don’t necessarily reflect actual behavior, how we tell stories to our children is a behavior with important outcomes. Listening to how we express emotions helps children develop emotional skills. A recent study published in the journal Sex Roles showed that mothers are better at this than fathers. The mothers in the study used more emotional words and elaborated more when reminiscing with their children about past emotional experiences, both good and bad. By doing so, they let the children know that their perspectives about a situation, and their feelings, were important.

Dads shouldn’t feel bad about these results, or leave the reminiscing to moms, though. Emotional awareness can be learned and enriched. The problem is that emotions, especially the negative ones like guilt or anger, sometimes make us uncomfortable, so we push them deep down inside us. In Japanese Morita therapy, people are taught to accept and co-exist with uncomfortable emotions; since the feelings can’t be controlled, opt to change your behavior instead. Go ahead and do what frightens you instead of letting fear hold you back.

Another way to become more aware of emotions is through writing. James Pennebaker, who developed the “writing to heal” program, had a group of people who were laid off write for 20 minutes a day, for 5 days, about their emotions and what they were feeling. After the study ended, 65% of the people who wrote about their emotions found new jobs, versus 26% in the group who didn’t write. The writing, a form of mindfulness practice, helped people clarify what they were looking for.

Putting yourself in another person’s shoes, imagining what they are feeling, is another way to build emotional awareness. Chade-Meng Tan, who developed Search Inside Yourself, has a practice called “Just Like Me” meditation. It serves as a reminder that most of us want the same basic things out of life, such as happiness, and that all of us suffer sometimes. It is a profound way to feel more connected to others.

Improving emotional intelligence isn’t a task with an end point though. Just as athletes and musicians continue to practice, even after reaching the big leagues, we shouldn’t stop refining our emotional abilities. Richard Davidson, who studies the neuroscience of emotions, says that “There are many sources of destructive emotions in our culture, and … constant barrage of stimuli…” We “need to keep practicing to effectively maintain the gains achieved.”

Thanks, I’ll walk

Walking meditation, says Thich Nhat Hanh, “is really to enjoy the walking – walking not in order to arrive, but just to walk. The purpose is to be in the present moment and, aware of our breathing and our walking, to enjoy each step.” Instead of being on the way to someplace, it is the act of walking itself that is the purpose.

I’m in the middle of a book that inspires me to contemplate walking as meditation. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, is about a recently retired man who gets a letter from a friend he hasn’t seen in 20 years, telling him that she is dying of cancer. The letter disrupts the unhappy inertia of his life, and on the spur of the moment, he decides to walk hundreds of miles across England to see her before she dies.

When I started reading, I thought that this book would be just a lighthearted, quirky story. But it has turned out to be engaging, thought-provoking and touching. Harold changes on the journey, not only from being physically unprepared to being fit and able; but also in the way he views his life. At first he is tortured by memories of the past, and he doubts what he is doing; but the walk transforms him into someone who has hope.Pt Reyes Natl _03

Walking is the most recommended physical activity in the world, because it is accessible to almost everyone, and offers many health benefits. Among them is an increase in “well-being” in people who walk regularly. Walking promotes clear thinking, and gives people an opportunity to notice their thoughts and feelings. Its ability to integrate sensory experience, motor skills and brain activity make it a part of psychotherapy for some mental health practitioners.

While it is possible to walk mindfully as you walk for exercise, walking meditation means paying attention to the walking itself: the sound your feet make as they touch the ground, the rhythm of your steps, the sound of your breath. Gradually you might find that your breath becomes regular and paces itself with your footsteps, for example 3 steps for each inhale and 4 steps for each exhale. Jon Kabat-Zinn says about walking meditation, “The challenge is, can you be fully with this step, with this breath?”Labyrinth-with-Pilgrim

Another way to do a walking meditation is to walk in a labyrinth. Labyrinths have been used for thousands of years as a way to clear the mind and find answers to questions. They are often found on the grounds of churches or other religious centers, or in places of health and healing. A labyrinth consists of concentric circles leading to a center; you walk around the spiral to the center and then retrace your steps on the way out. It is a metaphor for the spiritual journey inward. At the labyrinth near my house, there is a quote from St. Augustine: “It is solved by walking.”

I don’t know yet if Harold Fry will solve the unhappiness of his life by the end of his journey, or the end of the book. While I wonder what will happen, I’m savoring each chapter as I go. I do know that what he has learned already is this: He doesn’t need to be in a hurry to arrive at his destination, because at each moment of the journey he is arriving somewhere.

Reading for a better life

Reading for pleasure has always held a central place in my life, but I’ve long realized that it’s not so for everyone. In spite of the evidence however, reading does seem to be alive and well, at least in wonky Washington D.C. People packed the various tents at the National Book Festival this weekend, listening to authors read from their works and checking out resources to encourage reading, especially for kids.

According to the National Education Association, children who read regularly at home are more successful in school. Parents who want to give their kids that head start were out in full force at the festival, taking advantage of booths sponsored by PBS, Scholastic and other purveyors of kid fare.

Scholastic’s slogan for its global literacy campaign is “Read Every Day, Lead a Better Life,” a simple but profoundly true statement. Their research shows that kids who grow up in homes where there are lots of books tend to stay in school longer than children who don’t have that advantage. Plus, the more you read, the better reader you become, which has important implications for us as a society. cites statistics that 43% of the people with the lowest literacy live in poverty. Low literacy also leads to increased health care costs, including a 50% increase in risk for hospitalization. Low literacy reduces our national productivity, and leads to lower civic engagement. While adult literacy programs are very important and effective, getting young children hooked on reading is really the key to turning those statistics around.

Every state was represented at the festival, promoting humanities and literacy, touting notable books about their states, and celebrating famous authors who hail from their states. Programs like “One Maryland, One Book 2012”, a statewide community reading program, were also on display.

When I visited, Sandra Cisneros was reading from her book in the Literature tent, while Douglas Brinkley was discussing his new biography of Walter Conkrite in another. Meanwhile, people were waiting in line outside the huge Barnes and Noble tent, just to get in so that they could buy books!

The great thing about reading is that it offers such a world of possibilities. We can learn about the lives of actual people, we can read fantasies about worlds that don’t exist, we can experience the rhythms of poetry, or we can enjoy the exploits of superheroes. There truly is something for everyone inside the cover of a book.

For me, reading is a distraction from stress, a journey into other lives, a source of ideas, and at times, pure joy. I read every day, and I think I have a better life because of it.


Sometimes I tell people that reading saved my life. Yes, but it also made my life what it is.

When I was growing up, I was a shy child in a big family, and my parents had other problems besides the six of us. Reading was my escape from the stress of the household, from my fears, and from the world. Whenever anyone was looking for me, they knew I could be found with my “nose in a book” somewhere.

Reading opened up new worlds for me. I delved into adventure, mysteries, career women, and love stories. It showed me the possibilities that were out there for me if I could just be brave enough to go after them. Reading also comforted me, making me realize that other people had problems too, bigger than mine, and that they were not insurmountable.

Reading doesn’t really qualify as a relaxation technique in stress reduction, as it tends to activate and mentally arouse people most of the time. But reading for pleasure is a form of play or recreation. In that context, it serves to distract from stressors and give us a break from whatever else is going on in life. It turns out that reading for pleasure can allow people to either dull or heighten consciousness.  So if someone has a lot of fear or anxiety, reading can block some self-awareness; while if a person is in a more positive mental state, reading can heighten consciousness and allow more self-exploration.

Life is just better if you are a reader. A National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) report from 2007 called reading “transforming”, saying that it “awakens people’s social and civic sense” and that reading “correlates with measures of positive personal and social behavior”. In fact, people who are regular readers go to more concerts and theatre, exercise more, play more sports, and are twice as likely to volunteer.

Reading gives people a way of connecting to others, both through the empathy it arouses and by providing topics of conversation, ideas and common ground.

Studies on reading show a correlation between reading ability and more time spent reading; but it’s hard to say whether one causes the other. What we do know is that while reading ability continues to rise at the elementary school level, it declines in the teenage years. Time spent reading is down among both teenagers and adults; and both reading ability and the habit of reading for pleasure are declining in college graduates. It is not hard to guess one of the reasons why this is so. The drop in literary reading has correlated with the rise in Internet use.

Why be concerned? For one thing, reading less, and the lower academic achievement associated with it, are also correlated with less success in the job market. High-level reading and writing skills are highly sought by employers, and one of the biggest problems they cite in hiring. Reading ability helps us process an increasingly complex society, from understanding our health care options to knowing how to handle our finances. As the NEA report put it, “Reading is an irreplaceable activity in developing productive and active adults as well as healthy communities.”

Summer seems like a good time to begin or re-discover the habit of reading. (I have fond memories of the summer reading program at my local library.) Marcel Proust said, “There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book.”  Why should that end with childhood?  Pick up a book today and see where your imagination takes you.