Review: The Buddha in the Attic

The Buddha in the Attic
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

Otsuka tells the stories of “picture wives,” who traveled from Japan to the United States in the early 1900s to marry and start new lives. High hopes (inflated by future husbands who deceived them about the lives they would lead in America) were quickly dashed by the realities of hard farm labor or domestic servitude. Otsuka’s style, a chorus of voices, is highly effective. At times, she blurs together common experiences, and at others, she presents an endless diversity of hopes and disappointments, joys and suffering.

The women in this book are faced with unjust treatment at every turn. They are continually objectified– worked to exhaustion and even death in the fields, coerced into being sexually available to husbands and white men, subject to the indignities of racism and fetishization by white employers. Most endure a hard life of poverty and years of back breaking labor. They work to give their children all they can and are heartbroken when these efforts never seem to be enough to open the doors to mainstream American life.

As WWII begins, fear and panic set in. All are constantly on guard, preparing for the inevitable day when husbands will be taken away. They sleep with their clothes and shoes on. They wonder what exactly they did to be seen as traitors. Some of the most poignant moments are those of the last day. As families are evacuated to camps, stores are closed and houses left to be raided, all that they have worked for is simply torn away. This is an important book that makes us look more critically at a cultural obsession with Americanness and the fear of suspicious “outsiders.” It’s a recurring story, sadly, and Otsuka even draws some lines right out of a 2001 Rumsfeld speech. It’s too easy to look away and think some other group’s marginalization doesn’t concern “us.” This book is clearly still relevant, it’s almost a fable, and the saddest part is the way it’s a history that continues to this day.

Review: Writing a Woman’s Life

Writing a Woman's Life
Writing a Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun

Though published nearly 30 years ago, Writing A Woman’s Life is a compelling feminist argument that still has value today. Heilbrun argues that there are far fewer narratives of women’s lives available to us than there are narratives of men’s lives. Why does this matter?

“We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or chanted, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives.”

We make sense of our lives through narratives, and we make decisions about what is possible in the context of whatever stories are available to us. In this sense, narratives of women’s lives– biographies, autobiographies, memoirs– serve as road maps, showing us what kind of lives can be lived. They can open up the world or close it down.

One of the most interesting distinctions Heilbrun makes is between romance stories (often ending in marriage) and quest stories. This is a useful distinction, because it calls attention to the patterns of difference between women’s and men’s lives. Quest stories are exciting. They emphasize self-determination and agency. Men on quests pursue their passions and strike out on their own. In contrast, women’s romance stories are closed loops. They operate all in the service of finding a man to dissolve into, the goal being to lose oneself, as opposed to constructing oneself, becoming a whole person. Obviously, much has changed since this book was written, and a major shift occurred when the writing of working-class women and women of color became more widely accessible. But it is still worth considering to what degree this argument is still applicable today.

“We must stop reinscribing male words, and rewrite our ideas about what Nancy Miller calls a female impulse to power, as opposed to the erotic impulse which alone is supposed to impel women. We know we are without a text, and must discover one.”

This is the kind of book that I crave– a strong feminist voice that asserts women’s right to personhood, to leading a full life and developing to one’s greatest potential. It chips apart commonplace assumptions about what kind of lives women and men are allowed to live, and for that, I’m definitely grateful for this book.

Review: A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt–And Why They Shouldn’t

A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt--And Why They Shouldn't
A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt–And Why They Shouldn’t by William B. Irvine

Honestly, I picked up this book for advice on handling those moments of being verbally knocked down and walked over (which seem to be happening all too often in my life recently– thank you, food service work!). The first part of the book is mostly just entertaining– amusing historical examples of people who knew how to sling some nasty comebacks at the drop of a hat. Most interesting to me though is Irvine’s discussion of the social uses of insults, how they establish or reinforce hierarchies, but also help us bond with each other through good-natured teasing.

I can’t help but think about this dual nature of insults in relation to microagressions. An insult can be interpreted differently by those involved, and the insulter might think they are doing nothing more than harmless teasing, making a joke that might even draw people together. In this way, the insulter doesn’t have to face the implications of their words and how those words might reinforce systems of oppression. Then, this dynamic makes the person who has been insulted doubt themselves and the validity of their interpretation. Derald Wing Sue talks about the pain of this doubt in Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation (which should be required reading for every human). The psychological and emotional strain of seemingly small, everyday slights can profoundly shape a person’s experience, and ultimately, their life chances. This is also part of the everyday, lived experience that contributes to a sense of double consciousness.

Irvine breaks down the many possible responses one can give when insulted, outlining the pros and cons of each approach. Ultimately, he takes cues from the Stoics, who sought a sort of inner equanimity that could not be swayed by insults (or praise). While reading this book, I had a strange sense of coming across this argument before. And yes, as it turns out, I was actually remembering another book by Irvine I had read several years ago, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.

I see so much overlap here with Buddhism. One of the major goals of my own practice is to become mindful of (and able to deal with) the pull of sense perceptions. The mind is like grass blowing in the wind, pulled whatever direction perceptions and emotions take it. If we become solid, like the unmoving log, we are not thrown around so easily and suffering is lessened. The same principle is true of maintaining both inner and outer composure when insulted. The takeaway: when in doubt, just say “Thanks!” and move on with your day. Useful advice indeed.

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Review: A Philosophy of Walking

A Philosophy of Walking
A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros brings together biography and an exploration of the history and meanings of the simple act of taking a walk. Gros pulls together an interesting selection of philosophers, writers, and leaders who all used walking to stimulate ideas and some even to push for social change.

On a personal level, I really do love taking walks through different cities, and that is what drew me to this book to begin with. Being able to spend the entire day just exploring, crossing bridges over a river, or stumbling upon a neighborhood I didn’t even know about… These are all experiences that allow me to clear my head and feel like I fully inhabit a place. Also, as a runner, I find that going out and doing this repetitive, sometimes monotonous and exhausting activity, allows the chatter in my mind to quiet down and a clearer perspective to emerge. Ideas often strike when I am up and out, moving around, engaged and really seeing the world. Going for a walk can be the best way to get out of whatever mental rut you find yourself in.

I suppose the most glaring omission for me is the sociological side of this story. How do power and inequality shape the movement of people through public space? How does race, class, and gender influence a person’s access to public spaces, to a sense of safety, to reaping all the benefits of being able to just go out and take a stroll? This would of course be my interest, but these aren’t Gros’s questions here and that’s a different book altogether.

One of the most intriguing parts of the book is a discussion of the history of pilgrimages and the spiritual aspects of walking. On some level, fatigue from walking can be purifying. Gros writes about how walking strips away our social roles. When I am out walking by myself, I am not my occupation or my relationship to others. These roles fall away and I am that more basic, fundamental self, that core of me that just exists and does not need to justify or defend or impress. I think this is an important aspect of spiritual life, or as Diane Ackerman calls it, “deep play.” I am really intrigued by those moments when we are engaged in whatever activity it may be that pulls us closer to…. whatever you want to call it. It could be “Buddha nature” or “God” or something else that doesn’t quite get at it either. Anyway, this is a good reminder of the importance of contemplation and solitude and walking, and overall, an enjoyable and quick read.

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J.K. Rowling’s Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination

Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of ImaginationJ.K. Rowling’s Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination is a transcript of a graduation speech she gave at Harvard in 2008 in a charmingly illustrated, tiny book form. I picked it up mostly because of the tagline. Why of course I could use some advice about failure and imagination! Thanks, J.K.

And I actually found it to be better than expected! There are moments in life when it is really, really helpful to have the upsides of failure pointed out to you. It is comforting to be reminded that other people have been in similarly lowly situations, and to see how they have, as Rowling puts it, used rock bottom as the solid foundation on which they’ve rebuilt their lives. Cute imagery there.

But what I was surprised to find out is that sales from the book have benefited Lumos, an organization Rowling founded to end childhood institutionalization. I am not totally versed in what this organization does, and honestly, I didn’t buy the book and don’t have a whole lot of desire to know more about J.K. Rowling’s activism. But, as imperfect as I’m sure this organization’s work is, I was happy to find out that her intent with the book was greater than just cashing in on some individualistic tale of overcoming adversity. I am OK with that.

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Fall 2015 Reading Recap

612siddharthaWell, I’ve taken a few months away from blogging, but find myself back here as 2015 is coming to an end. I wanted to write a bit of a recap to catch up on some of the books I’ve been reading. I’ve found myself diving head first into a variety of works on spirituality and Buddhism in particular. Living through a difficult year personally, this reading has helped me a great deal.

 

Of course, I am wary of accepting philosophies wholesale; I am grappling with these ideas and picking them apart. But so far, the reading I’m doing and the meditation practice that I’ve started have helped me shift my focus towards gratitude and generosity and to find a measure of peace in this messy life. I am admittedly in the earliest phase of this whole new turn in my thinking, and I don’t necessarily espouse any of this to anybody! It’s interesting to know about nonetheless. Here’s some of the highlights:

  • Essential Spirituality: The 7 Central Practices to Awaken Heart and Mind by Roger Walsh – Excellent introduction to the topic. Walsh does a great job boiling down the world religions to their core ideas and practices. I am especially interested in the psychology inherent in spirituality. In my own experience, it’s been extremely difficult to “control” my mind– or at least learn to grapple with the way it can run off the rails– if I don’t also have my heart in the process. This aspect of heart is an essential lesson that Walsh and others bring to the fore.
  • A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life by Jack Kornfield – The more I read and listen to Jack Kornfield (his podcasts are great, too), the more I seriously love him. He’s the most gentle and thoughtful guy. Reading a book like this is different from reading a novel or some interesting nonfiction. It’s something you work with, jump to the most relevant chapters, come back to certain parts as life keeps moving forward and new challenges arise. It’s a process rather than a discrete reading. This is new for me, but I love the experience of coming back to something I’ve read previously, but for whatever reason, whatever new situation I’ve encountered since the first reading, I will just “get” a particular point in a way that I didn’t at first glance.
  • Opening the Lotus: A Woman’s Guide to Buddhism by Sandy Boucher –  One of the more difficult aspects of starting to study Buddhism has been parsing out the political implications. Does an emphasis on acceptance require me to accept things I would not normally accept? How does one go about balancing compassion for others and compassion for oneself? What are the implications of these ideas for social change and resistance? Opening the Lotus is a good introduction to the ways in which gender has been relevant through the history of the religion and how it operates today in various settings, especially in Western Buddhist circles. Some of the most interesting parts are those about Buddhist goddesses like Kwan Yin and Tara, who I had no idea about.

This reading, along with Ram Dass and Sharon Salzberg podcasts, has shaped the way I am thinking these days. I can’t say I will always be this caught up in these particular ideas, but they seem to be right there when I need them at this moment. Life keeps moving, and we all keep changing, continually. I look forward to investigating this more, though, and especially being able to relate it back to my interests in feminism, psychology, and social theory.

Reproductive Justice & Katha Pollitt’s Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights

I have to confess, I have been slow on the uptake when it comes to realizing how absolutely crucial reproductive justice is for a more free society where all people can develop to their fullest capacities. As a feminist, this gap in my thinking is terrifying! I believe my shortsightedness up to this point reflects mainly two things. First of all, there’s my privilege. As a white, middle-class woman, living in mostly blue states, I haven’t had to personally face many obstacles to accessing healthcare. And second, it illustrates just how successful the anti-abortion movement has been in shaping the conversation surrounding reproductive rights, even for people like myself who are strongly pro-choice.

In Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, it becomes apparent that the abortion issue, at the heart of it all, is about the power to control, subordinate, and punish women. And in particular, poor women and women of color. Katha Pollitt does an excellent job untangling the rhetoric and revealing the ways in which anti-abortion arguments mask the issue at hand. She argues that even while abortion opponents claim to care about women, children, and families (aw shucks…), the movement to restrict access to reproductive healthcare punishes women for having sex (in ways that men just aren’t punished for) and devalues motherhood (hey, anybody can raise a child, even a fifteen year old girl with no job and life experience). Not to mention the movement’s indifference towards– or efforts to straight up take money away from– policies meant to ensure the well-being of children that actually already exist.

Pollitt’s argument isn’t exactly a new one, but it’s an extremely important one. And this is especially true right now, as abortion opponents are gaining a great deal of ground in restricting access. Some of the most interesting parts of the book are Pollitt’s discussion of the real world implications of criminalizing abortion, as well as the chapters that delve into this issue of personhood. Is a fetus a person? Is a woman a person?

What strikes me most though is this question: Why should the course of a woman’s life be drastically altered by a zygote? And to push this one step further, would we expect a man to give up an opportunity to go to college, to have a career, or to take better care of his already existing children, if there were other options for him? No. A man’s (a middle-class, white man’s, that is) right to self-determination is a given in a patriarchal society. Women, in contrast, are still reduced to nothing more than potential baby-makers and are advised to live their lives in accordance with this fate. I am now coming to see how reproductive justice must be central to any liberatory project. The anti-abortion movement’s success in restricting access to reproductive healthcare, and the pro-choice movement’s failure to highlight the positive aspects of access to abortion, are scary and damaging developments that affect everyone, not just women. I definitely recommend Pollitt’s book, especially if you find yourself somewhere in the middle ground on the issue.