Middlemarch by George Eliot

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I need only one word whenever I am asked, “What’s your all-time favorite book?”

Eliot, George. Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial life. 1872. New York: Penguin Putnam, 1994. Print.

Genre: fiction (19th century British)

Summary: An idealistic young woman and a noble-minded doctor enter disastrous marriages. The consequences of their choices ripple through the wider community. Both doctor and woman might find redemption and rediscover hope if they can find each other amidst rigid class structures and isolating social barriers.

Critique: True, all print editions of Middlemarch are roughly the size and weight of a brick.[1]

Doubly true, you are unlikely to heed even my most urgent pleas and gushing recommendations to read any brick-like book.[2]

I urge you nonetheless because Middlemarch is precisely the brick we all need to come crashing through our windows.

Writers can gawk at Eliot’s tenacity. To construct the masterwork, she wove together two going-nowhere projects that chewed up countless months of her writing time. At first, there was the tale of an ambitious doctor, Tertius Lydgate, foisting modern medical treatments on a backwards British village. When that rough draft petered out, Eliot switched to a new story about the ingenuous Dorothea Brook, whose marriage to a fusty scholar twice her age does not result in the spiritual and intellectual self-refinement she desires. Once again, the rough draft stymied. While most writers might have abandoned the second project and gone on to a third, Eliot saw a connection between the two protagonists. She identified parallels in the stories and combined them.

I suppose she hit two stones with the same bird.

All readers—whether they are writers or not—can marvel at how Eliot’s narrator[3] repeatedly expands the focus out from the two heroes to the supporting cast of characters as the repercussions resulting from the unfortunate marriages rumble across the community. The more we learn about other characters and how their lives are impacted by Dorothea and Lydgate, the more we discover our untold potential for compassion.

Of course I could readily empathize with Dorothea—the pitiable young dynamo who marries an abusive nerd-turd, Mr. Casaubon. I was that young dynamo at one point in my life. I was in that very relationship. But then, the narrative shifts and presents Casaubon’s inner working. Suddenly, I discover how, at other times in my life, I have also been a nerd-turd—jealous, suspicious, and trying to mask my paralyzing self-defeating fear with pedantry. The more I read, the more I realize how many “others” I am and have been. When I read Middlemarch—which happens annually at this point—I feel my fundamental connection to all beings.

When I read Middlemarch, I feel my own infinity.

This brick-like book smashes my perception of the world made of strangers. Through the eyes of the Middlemarch narrator, we are all familiars.

[1] I am borrowing, and promise to give back, the brick comparison from Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch (2014), a memoir told through the guise of a literary examination of the novel plus a biography of George Eliot.

[2] Naxos AudioBooks produced an exceptional, unabridged recording of the novel. Juliet Stevenson’s reading is powerful. Her finesse with diverse character voices is also stunning!

[3] Jonathan D. Culler notes in his 2004 essay “Omniscience” that Eliot’s narrator is not actually omniscient, but heterodiagetic. That is to say, a person who is not directly involved in the plot or the world of the novel (AKA the diagesis), but who has elected to sift and present germane information for the reader’s consideration. Indeed, the Middlemarch narrator refers to itself as a historian making a case study of the town and its folk. (Culler’s larger point about the impossibility of god-like omniscience in any story is well worth reading.)

 

Note: As always, I do not earn commissions or other compensation for any of the books/audiobooks I recommend.

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The Anthropology of Turquoise by Ellen Meloy

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Eyes do not see; they touch. Vision evolved from skin gathering light in minute detail. The brain does not think; it smells. It evolved from a large olfactory nerve in skull. It helped us sew memories and scents together.This book will change how (and who) you are in the world.

Meloy, Ellen. The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky. New York: Vintage Books, 2002. Print.

Genre: nonfiction (nature essays)

Summary: A collection of essays explore color’s spiritual, emotional, and biological importance to humans; how our humanity has been shaped and how our impact on the planet shifts as our connection to colors diminishes.

Critique: Touch. Contact. Connection. Having a tactile experience with the physical, natural world is at the heart of each essay in this collection. Meloy demonstrates through her own adventuring how to be fully alive and awake and seduced and ecstasied in the great outdoors.

To bring readers into her experience, she converts our ability to perceive colors–especially one as slippery as turquoise–into a haptic experience. More than that, she stretches into synesthesia when she reminds us the eyes can touch and the brain can smell. It can even smell colors. Turquoise, in its hybrid not-quite-blue-not-quite-green existence is really just the scent of the wind (or so said ancient Middle Eastern cultures). Native cultures across the Americas transcribed the color into sound, one that guided souls to the afterlife.

Magical and sensual though that is, Meloy laments the modern world’s loss of color. Or, it’s increasing colorblindness to the natural world which has been dammed, funneled, paved, monetized, and commodified. Either every scrap of this planet is put to our direct use and benefit, or those scraps which will not submit to our utilitarian desires will be removed. However, this very practical and clever war-rationing approach to nature strikes Meloy as too narrow.

On a recent trip to Moab, I marvel at a stone’s skin.

Instead of using the world, why not enjoy it? Marvel at it? It is a place we can revel in. Get lost. Drown. We can be bedeviled. Seduced. Overwhelmed. Ignored. All these things, and more, the world can do to us if we only let it. But why allow it to take such liberties with our bodies and souls?

Because it cracks us out of our slumbering shells. It enables us to live in a constant euphoric state of quivering, goose-prickled tingles.

Even better, enjoying the world enables us to be what we truly are, rather than what we think we are. And what we are, according to brilliant biologist E. O. Wilson, is a species of biophiliacs. Forget sapiens! Biophiliacs are insatiable lovers when it comes to nature.

“Our sense of wonder grows exponentially,” Wilson writes, “the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery and the more we seek knowledge to create new mystery.”

Or, as Meloy phrases it, “Lives without access to sensation are lives that edge out the earth’s raw, pervasive sweetness, that deeply biophilic connection to all life.”

But these essays come from an almost gentler, more idyllic time: the late 1990s and early 2000s. Back when we were taking our first baby-steps into sustainability and renewable energies. Today, we cannot be sure the EPA will survive the current White House administration. We cannot be sure our public lands will remain in our hands or wind up so privatized that in order to enter them (let alone enjoy them), we will first have to download and accept a standard EULA.

Now more than ever is the time to read this book and feel the world in a whole new way. Now is our best chance to confront the essential questions: are we locusts or lovers to this natural world? And, given the savage, ravenous course love takes, is there any difference between those roles?

Myths Across the Map by Yours Truly

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We know what happens when entire nations cannot stymie their collective fears. We know what happens when whole civilizations select a scapegoat for inexplicable suffering. History maps these trends.

Throughout the Myths Across the Map series (now available through Gareth Stevens Publishing), I chronicled 4 of the 6 major global myths. I tracked down the beasts, the monsters, and the marvels universally recognizable to all people everywhere.

Why does everyone know and recognize a vampire? How did dragons creep into the skies, wells, caves, and rivers of every inhabited continent? Why are the symptoms of werewolves the same whether you are in Russia, South America, or Louisiana? And just how many ancient kingdoms did zombies mob before noshing on our modern metropolises?

Our currently fraught geopolitical landscape may have us all hoodwinked when it comes to fear. Fear, the pundits claim, adds to our isolation. It divides us. It shuts down communication. However, history indicates that shared fears actually unite us. They give us a common language and a way to communicate across boundaries and borders. What is more, they give us good reason to work together and defeat a common threat (such as a deadly disease).

What better time than now to get young people navigating and debating the nature of mankind’s fears and the power of humanity’s myths?

When the Words Breathe

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A five-week beginner meditation class? Right now? In the middle of letting go…processing loss…the death of my wildest dreams?

Yes, please!

For the first class, I and fifty other beginners settled on the zafu cushions at the local Dharma Center and listened to the instructor’s lectures on mindfulness, the Four Noble Truths, accepting the inevitability of suffering as a path to ending pain, and loving-kindness. I spent solid hunks of hours, eyes closed, mind quiet, awareness focused solely on the body and the breath. I knew only the contours of the present moment.

Inhale.
Exhale.
Notice: I am breathing.
Repeat.

Meditation was a cinch!

At the end of class, we novices received a homework assignment: meditate every day. For as many minutes as we wanted. At any time of day.

A week passed and we beginning meditators congregated at the Dharma Center yet again.

“How was the practice going at home?” the instructor inquired.

We all shrugged, hoping to pass off guilt as nonchalance because hardly anyone actually did the homework. Or maybe we did for a day or two, but then…well, a million factors fouled up repeat attempts. A nagging voice owled in the back of the head insisted: there wasn’t time, and besides, what good would it do, and wouldn’t it be more satisfying to binge The Grand Tour?

That was certainly my experience. Meditation didn’t fit in the morning routine. It didn’t slide anywhere into the afternoon. And before I knew it, 11pm haunted the clocks and no way was I going to stay up even later to sit and breathe.

Tomorrow. I’ll do it tomorrow! Cross my heart.

And then…tomorrow’s 11pm arrived with no meditation accomplished.

I marveled at my wild, insatiable inability. Didn’t I feel fabulous after meditating in class? Yes. Didn’t I find a stronger, swifter ability to identify my negative, self-defeating thoughts and habits and work through them? Without a doubt.

So why couldn’t I make the practice happen? Why couldn’t I get it to stick? And why did this mystifying resistance feel so familiar?

Oooohhhh, riiiiight. I had the same trouble, the same reluctance, establishing a reliable daily writing practice.

Plenty of writers struggle with what the pros call “B-I-C,” or butt-in-chair” time. And just like the meditation practice, writing habits suffer from those myriad competing factors.

Time. Work. Family. Pets. Time. Add to all that the inner voice—the one made of turpentine and bolt rust—which hisses: What’s the point? It’s not like you’re any good. No one’s going to bother reading that drivel. Published anything lately? Or…ever?

And yet, in order to succeed (master writing skills, complete a project, or revise a story), the writer must create a solid writing habit. Likewise, if the novice meditator is to ever acquire equanimity (or just a smidgeon of enlightenment), she must develop the practice.

“Even the Dalai Lama practices meditating every day,” my instructor kindly coached.

With only a couple classes left and no still no devoted practice in place, I weaseled the conundrum, ripping it open to find the solution in its guts. Showing up to class was easy. I never missed it. Of course, I had paid for the class; whereas, I paid nothing to meditate at home. Was the solution a penalty jar to which I would pay a fine each time I failed to meditate? Probably not. It hadn’t helped the writing. Pay to take a writing class—hell, go in debt for an entire graduate program—but when the course is over, no one and nothing is around mandating you sit down and write…at home…for free.

What else made attending class so easy? What other factors made the act of showing up to meditate one night a week so intractable?

Well, the “classroom” in the Dharma Center always had the essential supplies set out and ready for use. A cushion was there waiting for me. Also, the instructor always had a topic to explore, a purpose for being there, a technique to try during the guided meditations. Finally, each class always concluded with a spoken reminder—an invitation—to return for more practice. “See you next week. Same time,” the instructor said.

As an experiment, I replicated these classroom facets at home. I set up my little meditation space: a cushion, a blanket, and a timer were now waiting for me. I then considered the purpose of my at-home meditation. I pondered the technique or focus I could apply. Then I designated my class time: the next day at such-and-such time. I spoke the invitation aloud. When the appointed time rolled around, to my delight, I showed up, I sat down, began to breathe, and listened as the bolt rust voice gurgled up and did its best to dissuade me.

I was neither surprised nor discouraged. The voice arose in the actual meditation class, too. The instructor knew it would and told us novices to simply notice it and return the attention to our breathing. As time expanded, the voice diminished. The timer dinged and I voiced the invitation to return, “Same time tomorrow.”

It’s been a few weeks since class ended, but my daily practice continues. It has solidified into my routine. And to my fellow writers, I offer this approach if you are struggling to pin down your own regular writing practice. Set up the writing space and set out the supplies. Make sure a chair, paper, and pen are always there, waiting for you to arrive. Plan your “lesson.” Consider what you will do when you arrive at the writing space. The purpose can be open (I will write) or specific (I will write chapter one). Or, you can experiment using an exercise from a craft book. Then appoint the “class time.” Tomorrow at 6 a.m. or 10:30 p.m. Maybe plug it into your calendar, as you might a real class.

Finally, when the time comes, arrive at your space. Take your supplies in hand. Notice the turpentine talk, and without buying into its narrative, simply write.

Write one word.
Write another.
Notice: I am writing.
Repeat.

Let the words flow as effortless, as limitless, as essential as breath.

Images (from top to bottom): “Meditation” by Worlds’ Direction (PD); “a bit clumsy” by Vicki DeLoach (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); “Meditation” by Scott Schumacher (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); and “Pen” by Jorge Letria (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Pick Up Sticks by Yours Truly

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Can we convince young people to enjoy failure as much as they enjoy play? Can we teach them that the two are inseparable travel-mates on the path to success?

“Pick Up Sticks: How One Toy Became a Space-Exploration Robot”—my latest article appearing in the April 2018 issue of Muse—confronts these very questions. Like all scientists, the NASA engineers and researchers I interviewed dealt with failure throughout their project development. Turning a baby toy into a cutting-edge, all-new type of intelligent, supple, muscular robot able to shake, rattle, and roll across unknown surfaces on the planets and moons on the fringe of our Solar System is no easy task. Trials and errors are practically programmed into the experience.

But lead investigator Vytas SunSpiral and lead AI programmer Adrian Agogino did not shy away from failure. Whenever a motor or sensor failed, whenever the SuperBall Bot fumbled an obstacle course, whenever a computer simulation warned that what they sought was impossible, SunSpiral and Agogino celebrated. For them, a flub was a chance to ask more questions. A chance to learn. A chance to grow.

As they see it, the entire scientific process is a chance to play—get creative with problem-solving, think upside-down thoughts, tinker, toy, enjoy, and take lightly the darkest moments.

I dunno about you, but I did not have this kind of relationship to failure when I was growing up. I avoided failure. Dreaded it. Worked tirelessly to prevent it. Contained my whole existence in a kind of scalding, suffocating steam-press just so failure’s wrinkles might never arise. No matter how supportive and praising my personal circles, I was convinced that if I failed to any degree I would be a blight. A disgrace. To myself. To my friends. To my parents. To anyone.

And I know I was not unique in this regard. Other children I grew up with shared this revulsion. Kids and young people I work with now exhibit the same anemone’d response to failure’s shark-like shadow.

How did I (or any of us) acquire this skewed view of reality? Probably the same way a mind turns intractable on monsters under the bed.

The more salient question is how can we reverse the paradigm and make failure fun? Can we make it a tantalizing outcome—an alien world begging for exploration?

Purchase Muse online or check your local library for the latest issue!