Saturday, May 24, 2014

Blog Hiatus

This blog will be on hiatus from May 24, 2014 to June 17, 2014. Thank you.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

2014 TBR Reading Challenge: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

As part of Wendy Crutcher's 2014 TBR Challenge, here are my brief comments on The Prophet by the Lebanese poet and philosopher Kahlil Gibran.

The Prophet has been continuously in print since 1923. My copy is the 120th such printing. Having read it, I feel so blessed to have been born in a time period when something like this was written and available for me to read.

The book is a series of 26 prose poetry essays. The prophet, Almustafa, has lived in the city of Orphalese for 12 years, waiting for the ship to arrive that will return him to the home he has always longed for.

When his ship finally arrives and he's about to depart, the seeress, Almitra, requests him: "Now therefore disclose us to ourselves, and tell us all that has been shown you of that which is between birth and death." At this Almustafa wonders: "Shall the day of parting be the day of gathering? And shall it be said that my eve was in truth my dawn? [...] If this is my day of harvest, in what fields have I sowed the seed and in what unremembered seasons?" And then he proceeds to tell them in words what he knows they already know in their thoughts and in their souls.

He talks to them about: love, marriage, children, giving, eating and drinking, work, joy and sorrow, houses, clothes, buying and selling, crime and punishment, laws, freedom, reason and passion, pain, self-knowledge, teaching, friendship, talking, time, good and evil, prayer, pleasure, beauty, religion, and death.

I am certainly not qualified to analyze this work in its entirety—I don't even understand it all. So I'm going to offer you little sips of this boundless ocean of knowledge, the parts that reverberated with me and that I comprehended.

Of Good and Evil

We always worry about appearing weak instead of strong, of bad instead of good. We worry about the face we present to the public and of people's perception of us. He addresses that thusly: "You have been told that even like a chain, you are as weak as your weakest link. This is but half the truth. You also as strong as your strongest link. [...] That which seems most feeble and bewildered in you is the strongest and most determined. [...] You are good in countless ways, and you are not evil when you are not good." So Almustafa says don't value only what you perceive are the good things about you and discount what you perceive are the bad. Learn to appreciate both, because both are your strengths and both are your weaknesses.

"To measure you by your smallest deed is to reckon the power of the ocean by the frailty of its foam." Isn't that gorgeous imagery? And then here's what I find completely beautiful and inifinitely encouraging: "And though in your winter you deny your spring, yet spring, reposing within you, smiles in her drowsiness and is not offended." This brings to mind something that Albert Camus wrote in his essay Retour à Tipasa (1952): "Au milieu de l'hiver, j'apprenais enfin qu'il y avait en moi un été invincible. (In the midst of winter, I learn finally that there is within me an invincible summer.)"

Of Children

With small children of my own, I was deeply interested in his thoughts on children. What he had to say is especially relevant in today's culture of helicopter parenting and tiger moms. "You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls. You may strive to like them, but seek not to make them like you."

Of Beauty

There's that tired phrase: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This is how Almustafa puts it: "Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. But you are eternity and you are the mirror." You are beautiful. In the absolute. Internalize it, own it.

Of Houses

Of houses he wrote that your place of dwelling should not be a place of comfort. That's shocking, isn't it? After all, home is synonymous with comfort for many of us. And yet, he says: "Have you only comfort [...] that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes [...] a master? Verily, the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul." When we surrender our souls to comfort, we become sluggish, dependent, unthinking, un-striving. We become less, rather than more. Instead, his vision of a house is thus: "[It] shall not be a glistening film that covers a wound, but an eyelid that guards the eye." A house should nurture the striving passion of the soul, not hide what you may perceive are your failures and hurts.

Of Marriage

What he has to say about marriage is not anything new or on the scale of an epiphany. And yet it has great impact in its concise sparseness. "Love one another, but make not a bond of love. Let there be spaces to your togetherness. [...] Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone." In other words, don't cleave to the other person. A marriage doesn't create a single unit, two halves of a whole. Rather, each person remains an individual and the joy is in the recognition of that and the sharing of that.

Of Giving

Don't we all wish for this?—"It is well to give when asked, but it better to give unasked, through understanding." Well, we wish to be in position of the givee, if you will, not necessarily seeing ourselves as the giver in that equation. Especially from our loved ones, we wish that they would give us our heart's desire or even the ordinary kindnesses without our having to ask for every one of them. But Almustafa turns that desire around. Why wouldn't you want to be in the position of being the giver of this largesse? For as he sees it: "All you have shall some day be given [away]; Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors'."

I am awed by this all. There's so much, much more in that work to mine for goodies, nuggets and tracts to treasure. I am sure I shall be reading it many more times, and each time, I shall come away having learned something new.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Monday, May 12, 2014

Oldest Piece of Paper in Oxford from 1335

According to Merton College, the oldest piece of paper in Oxford University dates from 1335. It had been discovered in the nineteenth century but had been lost in the archives due to inadequate record-keeping. In addition, it had gotten mixed up in a large collection (think: thousands) of medieval documents. Luckily, conservators Jane Eagan and Andrew Honey found it during their preparation of items for the college's spring library exhibition, Merton 1264, to commemorate the college's 750th birthday this year.

Since paper-making wasn't introduced to northern Europe until the late fourteenth century, the paper itself is suspected to have come from Italy, France or Spain, or perhaps even the eastern Mediterranean.

What does the document say? "It is one of a number of supporting documents attached to the account roll of John de Viliers, bursar in 1334-5, and comprises a list of luxury foodstuffs, including rice, sugar, spices, and dried fruit."

Below images are copyrighted by the Merton College of Oxford University and used with permission. Click on each image to see if you can decipher any words. Look for gynger and raysins.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Hay-on-Wye Bookstores and Book Festival

The Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye has become famous for its secondhand and antiquarian bookstores. Currently, there are about thirty major bookshops in that small town. Some of the bookstores are listed here.

The town is also home to the well-known Hay Festival. Hay is, in Bill Clinton's phrase, "the Woodstock of the mind." The festival runs from May 22 to June 1 this year. The full program is available here.

Here's a description of the festival: "Hay gathers people together to think about the world as it is and to imagine how it might be. It's a big conversation about discovery and intellectual adventure. We share stories and ideas with great international writers and thinkers, film-makers, historians and novelists, philosophers, environmentalists, poets and scientists. And at night we like to party with the greatest comedians and musicians. It's a bunch of mates hanging out in a field with time to think, finding the inspiration to re-imagine the world. Let’s celebrate the power of language and the pleasure of debate."

Monday, May 5, 2014

John Cleese: 5 Factors to Make Your Life More Creative

"Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating." So saying, John Cleese lays down the methods you can incorporate into your life to invite creativity in. You can't guarantee anything, but this handy-dandy how-to guide is a way to inspire creativity within yourself.

Before getting into the details, what is an open versus a closed mind needs to be clarified. "We need to be in the open mode when pondering a problem, but once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it. Once we’ve made a decision, we are efficient only if we go through with it decisively, undistracted by doubts about its correctness." Thus, the open mind phase is the creativity phase and the closed mind phase is the implementation or action phase.

Writing is an inherently creative activity, and thus writers need to operate in the open mode all through their period of production. Paradoxically, writers dread entering that zone. Once there are in it, though, they usually enjoy themselves, but they love it best after they've exited that mode. Writers, famously, don't like to write, but like to have written. If, however, creativity is a learned skill, then the more you practice it, the easier it'll get to descend into the creative mode.

Without further ado, here are the five steps...

Creating the Oasis

1. Space — "You can’t become playful, and therefore creative, if you’re under your usual pressures, which would dictate a closed mode. Seal yourself off. Make a quiet space for yourself where you can be undisturbed."

2. Time — "It’s not enough to create space; you have to create your space for a specific period of time." To add to that Johann Heisinger says, "Play is distinct from ordinary life so as to its locality and duration. It's secludedness, it's limitedness."

Using the Oasis

3. Time — "Give your mind as long as possible to come up with something original, and learn to tolerate the discomfort and anxiety of pondering time and indecision."

4. Confidence — "Nothing will stop you being creative so effectively as the fear of making a mistake." Alan Watts adds, "You cannot be spontaneous within reason. You have to risk doing and saying silly, illogical drivel."

5. Humor — "The main evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else. It is an essential part of humor. Laughter bring relaxation and humor makes us playful, and neither make the important and serious things any less important or serious. They allow you to puncture egotism and ceremonious pomposity to get to the underlying creativity."

A corollary to the presentation is that a problem is more likely solvable if you simply stick in the discomfort zone of unsolvability for a long enough amount of time. Thus, you need all five of the above steps in order to have the tenacity to find a solution or write that fight scene or that final symphonic movement.