The Bhagavad Gita

Introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran,
@ 2007, Nilgiri Press,
295 pages.

How has it taken me so long to find and read this book? It is difficult to form words around this, but that’s the whole point of posting, so I’ll try.

“Gita” means “song,” and “Bhagavad” means “Lord” or “God.” This is the Song of God.

It’s a dialog between a warrior in a desperate circumstance and the Lord, here called Krishna.

The Bhagavad Gita is a “song” and is thought to be an Upanishad that was inserted into the classic Indian epic, the Mahabharata, which I have yet to read. I gather that the Mahabharata is a big big deal Indian literature, so, of course, it’s on the list.

In Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert refers to the Bhagavad Gita several times as she describes her time in India. Apparently, her task in the ashram was to recite the “Gita” in Sanskrit daily for hours on end. This was understandably quite a chore. And, raises a hell of a lot of questions for me. Is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Sanskrit that good? Did she understand it as she was reciting it? Had she ever read it in English?

I had a different reaction to it. It blew my mind. It filled in a lot of spiritual gaps, as did the other Upanishads. I found it intense and fascinating. The idea is that God Himself is speaking. He is explaining life, death, human nature, and how to escape the endless cycle of death and rebirth so a person can be with Him eternally. Fascinating. Simply fascinating.

At the heart of the Gita’s message is to see the Lord in every creature and to act accordingly. It urges self mastery. It makes the distinction between the Body and Mind, and what is the true core Self. It discusses the process of dying and what happens to us after we die. And it gives the purpose of life: to realize God.

Meditation is key. There are also other key ways to realize the purpose of life as well.

This was Gandhi’s favorite scripture.

There’s a lot here. It’s worth a second and third read. I can’t possibly cover all the high points; there are so many.

The introduction says the Gita is a “handbook for self realization.” I couldn’t put it any better.

Eat, Pray, Love

One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia
By Elizabeth Gilbert
@2006, 12 hours, 49 minutes.
Audible version read by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Back in 2008 a coworker said, “You really gotta read this book!” She described it to me fairly accurately, and I didn’t think it would be for me. I didn’t want to read about some blond lady’s spiritual journey. I didn’t want to read about her travels across Italy, India, and Indonesia. Eating? I was on a diet!

So it’s fair to say it took me a little time to get around to this book, but it kept showing up here and there. People kept trying to give it to me. And I don’t really know what my problem was. It seemed, well, so “girly.”

The first book by Elizabeth Gilbert I “read” was her Audible version of Big Magic, and I probably would not have listened to that if it hadn’t been for her 2009 TED Talk on Creativity (which hit me like a ton of bricks) and yet another coworker sending me her podcast on Magic Lessons.

OK already, I’ll read your damn book!

Which wasn’t too bad. You know, I liked it. I like Liz’s openness to well, everything. Liz is engaging and interesting and sweet and supportive. You get the feeling that she’s the kind of person people seek out—all the time. Like she never has a free Saturday night. And this puts me off a little. It’s my issue, not hers.

She begins her book talking about how many people she’s going to offend by discussing her search for spirituality and healing, and I get that. I can easily think of people in my own life who would be terribly offended by this book. Liz looks for God on her own terms. She isn’t too sure about marriage or having children. She wants to claim space for her creativity, her own writing. She puts the breaks on her life and focuses completely on herself.

My mother-in-law would hate this book. In fact, she hates all books except for the Bible. If you’re reading a book that isn’t the Bible, there’s something wrong with you. If you can relate to my mother-in-law on the topic of books, Eat, Pray, Love may not be for you—-and, of course, you should definitely read it.

I’m not so easily offended. People can believe things radically different from what I believe, and it doesn’t upset me at all. I just think, hmm, that’s interesting. Wonder how they came to that conclusion? Liz does talk about one thing that I think, gee, why Liz? Why did you want to talk about that. TMI. TMI!

That said, Liz has a great reading voice. I think this book was probably better listened to than read.

So, yes. This was an interesting book. Liz’s problems are not my problems, though, so I wasn’t saying, oh yes, I really get you. Rather I marvel at this woman’s life. I marvel at her success and her freedom. I marvel at her ability to travel and her ability to pursue her dream because my dream has always seemed so hard to pursue. The small issue of money has always presented a barrier to me. I am only just conquering it, and even as I say this I’m not terribly sure that’s true. I mean “future me” probably is going to hate “past” and “present” me.

But Eat, Pray, Love. Should you read it? Yes, I think so. I think it is an important book of our time. I think it taps into women’s issues and gives a picture of the female condition that is very accurate for a large number of people. I think it’s historically and culturally significant.

Plus, Liz’s contemplation of meditation and yoga is very interesting. Yoga and meditation are becoming more important to me lately. My husband got some really bad news back from a test the other day. His ability to concentrate was judged to be under the 20th percentile with his working verbal memory measured just above the 1 percentile. So yes, I’m talking a range from 1 to 100. Does this mean dementia? We still do not know. But it does confirm brain damage. Well, duh. The 40 plus lesions on his MRI told us that. I mean really, what do we pay these doctors for?

But—I digress.

The point is this. Meditation could help my husband improve his cognitive function as long as he doesn’t have dementia. It can help with focus and concentration. Meditation is simple the practice of focusing your attention, of paying attention to what’s happening, right now. The act of bringing your mind back once it starts wandering is like lifting a weight and your ability to control your mind becomes stronger just as weight training makes your muscles stronger.

And as Liz discusses, there are all kinds of ways to do it because meditation has been explored by ancient cultures like India for a very long time. And by a long time, I mean for more than five thousand years. These cultures have the information, in other words.

Liz’s accounts of her heartaches rang true, but her account of her love story in Bali, while I get her excitement, seemed like she was holding back. So I think Liz nailed the “Eat” part of her story as well as the “Pray” part. But the “Love” part, I think she didn’t quite do it. I felt empathy. I felt relaxation. I felt her peacefulness. But I didn’t feel love. Love being a very complicated topic indeed.

Liz laments constantly: was Eat, Pray, Love her greatest work? Is her best work behind her?

Here’s my advice to her. Explore the concept of “love” and I mean this exploration to go beyond the Western one-word “love.” Explore love in Greek terms. Explore love in Middle Eastern terms.

As if I should be giving advice to Liz Gilbert! I should be giving advice to myself! Where’s my advice? Where’s my journey?

But alas, I have a gift for seeing what others must do, and Liz, your best work is not behind you. Best work does not equal most recognized work. Is your most recognized work behind you? Well, that’s anyone’s guess.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing
By Marie Kondo
Tantor Media, Inc.
@2015

The Konmari method is an organizational and decluttering method devised by Marie Kondo. Marie’s central claim is that “tidying can transform your life.”

And I believe it!

“When you put your house in order,” she says, “you put your affairs and your past in order too.”

I find that listening to the audiobook version of this work is very inspirational. I’ve been doing this while I take shortcuts here and there with Marie’s method. She would not be happy.

That said. I do like her method and think it’s a good one. I just don’t think it works when clutter has gotten so very out of hand, as my case was. I also have to have a way of clearing the mess away while I get back to my work week. Advise such as take all your books off their shelves and put them on the floor, just doesn’t work for me. I would have no floor space left!

I do like her advice to touch each book to see if it brings you joy. This helped me get rid of about 50 books last weekend. And I feel so much better! Just admitting that I am not going to read those books and if I really want to, I can check them out of a library made me feel so much better.

Marie lives in Japan. A web search reveals that the average size house in Japan is about 1,310 square feet. Apartments average at around 250 square feet. My house is 545 square feet. This seems so small. I can’t imagine living in less. But as I clear out the things I don’t love and don’t use, I’m finding that I really don’t need to hold onto all of these things. I would much rather have the space than to have the objects.

“Surround yourself only by things you love.”

This is a great way to live too. I’m not quite there yet, but with Marie’s help, I am getting closer.

“Tidying must start with discarding.”

I like her advice to sort by category, not by location. And you can subcategorize if you need to. The idea is to gather every item in the category you are working on and put them in one place, such as the living room floor. That’s where you start work. What to keep? What to discard?

Marie says that for people who have problems being tidy, there are three types: The can’t throw it away type. The can’t put it back type. And the can’t throw it away/can’t put it back type.

I am in the “can’t throw it away type.” But over the last six months, I have been throwing plenty away. Maybe I’ll conquer that soon.

Tidying consists of two essential actions: discarding and deciding where to put things. Marie says to not put anything away until you’ve decided what to keep.

Tidying should only be done once.

What?

Once an for all—within a specific period of time. Quickly, where “quickly” means about half a year. (I am a little behind schedule.)

Do not put your things away until you have finished the work of discarding (for half a year???). Once you get rid of everything you don’t need, then you can put things away.

Touch each thing to figure out how you feel. “Does this spark joy?”

Some categories are harder than others. Things that bring back memories, such as photos are not a good place to start. Start with the easy stuff.

Things have value in terms of function, information, emotional attachment, rarity.

The correct order for tidying?

  1. Clothes.
  2. Books.
  3. Papers.
  4. Komodo.
  5. Misc.
  6. Momentos.

My favorite tip: “Don’t let your family see.”

It hurts people to see you throwing out stuff they gave you or to see you throwing out things that are still useful. It’s just better to make these personal decisions by yourself.

I loved this book. But like I said, I live in such a small space that I have to have a large chunk of time available to throw it all on the floor at one time. Maybe Marie’s right, but so far I can’t do it. I have given away books, but I might be able to give away more books. I have given away clothes, but I could give away more there too. Right now I am working on papers. Her advice on papers? Throw them all away.

I just love Marie!

A Hero of Our Time

English: A portrait of Mikhail Yurievich Lermo...
English: A portrait of Mikhail Yurievich Lermontov by Pyotr Zabolotsky, painted in 1837. This reproduction is in color. Русский: М. Ю. Лермонтов (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Mihail Lermontov, @ 1839, 141 pages.

There’s nothing like being required to read a particular book that makes you want to read something else. I am supposed to be reading War and Peace, but I am compelled to read A Hero of Our Time. So finally, I gave in.  Besides, I had to read the book after I found out that Lermontov’s early poetry was too explicit for young ladies to read.

A Hero of Our Time is written as a travel journal and takes place in the Caucasus. It concerns the anti-hero, Grigori Alexsandrovich Pechorin. My translation was done by J. H. Wisdom and Marr Murray in 1854 and was verified and corrected by Alexander Vassiliev in 2010.

The view from Elbruz West Summit 5642m
The view from Elbruz West Summit 5642m (Photo credit: twiga269 ॐ FEMEN)

A Hero of Our Time is a very interesting read. I felt transported to the Caucasus. I could almost see the landscape. I marveled at the strange cultural traditions. And the character Pechorin is a man at his worst—a character I have encountered in various forms in my life. I can’t believe this guy is still around:

Mine is an unfortunate disposition; whether it is the result of my upbringing or whether God created me so—I know not. I only know this, that if I am the cause of unhappiness in others I myself am no less unhappy. Of course, that is a poor consolation to them—only the fact  remains that such is the case. In my early youth, from the moment I ceased to be under the guardianship of my relations, I began madly to enjoy all the pleasures which money could buy—and, of course, such pleasures became irksome to me. then I launched out into the high society—and that, too, soon palled upon me. I fell in love with fashionable beauties and was loved by them, but my imagination and egoism alone were aroused by their love; my heart remained empty….Then I grew bored…Soon afterwards I was transferred to the Caucasus; and that was the happiest time of my life. I hoped that under the bullets of the Chechens boredom could not exist—a vain hope…”

We learn about Pechorin through his friend Maksim Maksimych, who is treated heartlessly by Pechorin upon an unexpected reunion. Maxim is quite hurt by Pechorin’s lack of enthusiasm upon seeing him again:

“Of course we were friends—well, but what are friends nowadays?…What could I be to him? I’m not rich; I’ve no rank; and, moreover, I’m not at all his match in years!…See what a dandy he has become since he has been staying in Petersburg again!”

and

“I’ve always said that there is no good to be got out of a man who forgets his old friends!…”

It is sad when one’s memories of old friends are not supported by reality.

This novel employs two different devices. The first device is a travelogue in which we hear about Pechorin from someone who has known him. Then our narrator is able to get hold of Pechorin’s diary. From that point on, we hear about Pechorin’s innermost thoughts and feelings as well as his exploits from his point of view.

Pechorin seems at times almost like a sociopath and yet I felt sorry for him. I also recognized his sad ideas and was surprised that so little has changed with the stereotypical bad boy, even across cultures and more than a hundred years.

Here is Pechorin’s view on friendship:

“Of two friends, one is always the slave of the other, although frequently neither acknowledges the fact to himself. Now, the slave I could not be; and to be the master would be a wearisome trouble, because, at the same time deception would be required.”

Throughout the novel, Lermontov pays attention to and appreciates nature:

“Whatever grief oppresses my heart, whatever disquietude tortures my thoughts—everything is dispersed in a moment; my soul becomes at ease; the fatigue of the body vanquishes the disturbance of the mind. There is not a woman’s glance which I would not forget at the sight of the tufted mountains, illumined by the southern sun; at the sight of the blue sky, or in hearkening to the roar of the torrent as it falls from cliff to cliff.”

Always smug:

“On making a woman’s acquaintance I have always unerringly guessed whether she would fall in love with me or not…”

And all games:

“To arouse a feeling of love, devotion and fear towards oneself—is not that the main sign, and the greatest triumph, of power? To be the cause of suffering and joy to another—without in the least possessing any definite right to be so—is not that the sweetest food for our pride? And what is happiness? Satisfied pride.”

He goes on to say that passion never lasts forever.

Some people are just better talkers than others:

“You are a dangerous man!” she said to me. “I would rather find myself in the woods under a knife of an assassin than under your tongue…In all earnestness I beg of you: when it comes into your mind to speak evil of me, take a knife instead and cut my throat. I think you would not find that very difficult.”

Harsh words from a princess. And even though she was on the right track, Pechorin later observes her weakening:

“Compassion—a feeling to which all women yield so easily, had dug its talons into her inexperienced heart.”

Before I dare to wonder too much about Lermontov and this book, here is what he has to say about his intent in writing it:

“The Hero of Our Time, gentlemen, is indeed a portrait, but not of one man only; it is a portrait composed of the vices of our whole generation in their full-grown development. You will tell me again that no man can be as bad as this; and I shall tell you that since you have believed that all the villains of tragedy and romance could exist, why can you not believe in the reality of Pechorin?…This must not, however, be taken to mean that the author of this book has ever proudly dreamed of becoming a reformer of human vices….He has simply found it entertaining to depict a man, such as he considers to be typical of the present day and such as he has met—too often, unfortunately for the author himself and for you. Suffice it that the disease has been pointed out: how it is to be cured—God alone knows!”

I really enjoyed this book and definitely recommend it—and I especially recommend it to young women.

Russian literature always seems to dig deep.

(This post is also available on my portfolio blog.)

The Night Before Christmas

Night before Christmas GogolBy Nikolai Gogol, New Directions Books, 73 pages.

Nikolai Gogol was born in Ukraine in 1809. He died of starvation (and possibly depression) when he was nearly 43 years old. Gogol is best known for his book Dead Souls and for his short stories, “The Overcoat,” “The Nose,” and “Diary of a Madman.” He also wrote Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, which I would now like very much to read.

I have long heard of Gogol but until recently had never read anything written by him. I am excited to discover him because he is so very very different and refreshing.

The Night Before Christmas was a fun read. It begins as a witch flies into the sky and fills her sleeves with stars. The devil has a plan to get back at a blacksmith/painter for an unflattering painting the blacksmith has done of him. The blacksmith is in love with the most beautiful (and spoiled) girl in the village and travels all the way to Petersburg to ask Catherine the Great for her slippers.

Here is a quote from early in the story:

“Meanwhile the devil stole silently up to the moon and stretched his hand out to seize it, but drew it back quickly as though he were scorched, sucked his fingers and danced about, then ran up from the other side and again skipped away and drew back his hand. But in spite of all his failures, the sly devil did not give up his tricks. Running up, he suddenly seized the moon with both hands; grimacing and blowing, he kept flinging it from one hand to the other, like a peasant who has picked up an ember for his pipe with bare fingers; at last, he hurriedly put it in his pocket and ran on as though nothing had happened.”

The book also has some very funny parts regarding the witch’s suitors hiding in coal sacks. All in all, The Night Before Christmas is a fun entertaining read with some insights on what it was like to live in Ukraine in the early 1800s.

Rules of the Game

Amy Tan, author
Amy Tan, author (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Amy Tan, @ 10 pages (1989).

Rules of the Game is a story about how a young Chinese girl living in San Francisco’s Chinatown discovers something she can take pride in and how to temper that pride.

This story is a breeze to read. It flows and carries you along with it. Its theme and promise are contained in the first sentence: “I was six when my mother taught me the art of invisible strength.”

All of a sudden, I want to learn more. What is invisible strength? What is its art? The mother must be very wise. We know that this is a story about a mother-daughter relationship. What a great first line.

Later, we see the protagonist, the daughter, learning how to get what she wants, tapping into invisible strength:

A man who watched me play in the park suggested that my mother allow me to play in local chess tournaments. My mother smiled graciously, an answer that meant nothing. I desperately wanted to go, but I bit back my tongue. I knew she would not let me play among strangers. So as we walked home I said in a small voice that I didn’t want to play in the local tournament. They would have American rules. If I lost, I would bring shame on my family.

‘Is shame you fall down nobody push you,’ said my mother.

During my first tournament…”

I love Amy Tan. Must read more! 🙂

The Overcoat

English: A frock overcoat (front and back view)
English: A frock overcoat (front and back view) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Nikolai Gogol (1842)

Silly me. Nikolai Gogol is not to be confused with Maxim Gorky. I have a collection of stories by Gorky, so when I decided to read Gogol, I went to that collection, only to find a Soviet writer! Bah. No Gogol wrote many years before the revolution; he lived from 1809 to 1852 and was of Ukrainian/Polish decent.  Wikipedia says he was a surrealist and I agree. I’m thinking I like this guy Gogol! [slight spoiler alert below]

Gogol’s Overcoat, to my great amusement and surprise, was a  zombie story? Wow!

Ok, yes, I am being a little extreme. It wasn’t a zombie story the way you and I think of zombie stories, but still. Are the roots of zombie stories here? I don’t know. Hmm.

I thought “The Overcoat” was a great read, and Gogol is definitely on my list of authors to read more of. I don’t want to be an extreme spoiler, so I won’t comment on which parts nearly tore my heart apart, but I was especially gratified and surprised by the ending.

I learned several things too. I learned what a marten was. I was thinking of martins, the birds I grew up with, which are not the same at all. Martens are cute little mammals with beautiful fur, which trappers collect and sell to be contribute to the fur on coats. In the story, an adequate marten substitute is a cat. Gasp.

Our protagonist is Akaky Akakievich. The note says that this is a play on the on the word “kaka,” which means defecator. I thought this was interesting given the translation of the Spanish word, caca. Is this a sign (pardon the pun) of a Latin influence on Russian? Or, the other way around?

Another thing I found interesting was the smell of the stairs that led up to the tailor’s apartment. They were ammonia soaked.Why would they be ammonia soaked? I am almost afraid to ask—or ponder this.

And, I learned that serfs were called only by their first names. Only when they were freed, were they called by first name and patronymic. I had always wondered about that.

Lastly, I found an insight into the “name day.” But I’m still not sure how this works. It seems that the name day is the day on which the mother (or family) decides on the name of their newborn child and the child is Christened. In this story, a calendar was taken out and several dates were examined to see what names were associated with them. When Akaky’s mother didn’t like any of the proposed names (from the calendar), she decided to simply name Akaky after his father, and hence he was Akaky Akakievich.

This was an interesting story. I enjoyed it. And I especially liked the weirdness at the end.