Book Corner 2021.12

by Matt Haig

“Every life contains millions of decisions. Some big, some small. But every time one decision is taken over another, the outcomes differ. An irreversible variation occurs, which in turn leads to further variations. The books are portals to all the lives you could be living.”

Thus the premise of THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY. Nora hovers between life & death, and is given the opportunity to explore the books in the eponymous library, and live bits of some of the other lives she could have lived.

“You do realize there are infinite possibilities here?” says a fellow traveler. “… It’s not about a million or a billion or a trillion universes. It’s about an infinite number of universes. Even with you in them… [T]his is an opportunity and it is rare and we can undo any mistake we made, live any life we want. Any life. Dream big… You can be anything you want to be. Because in one life, you are.”

But the real lesson:

“[M]aybe there are no easy paths. There are just paths… And we spend so much time wishing our lives were different, comparing ourselves to other people & other versions of ourselves, when really most lives contain degrees of good & bad…

There are patterns to life… Rhythms. It is so easy, while trapped in just the one life, to imagine that times of sadness or tragedy or failure or fear are a result of that particular existence. That it is a by-product of living a certain way, rather than simply living. I mean, it would have made things a lot easier if we understood there was no way of living that could immunise you against sadness. & that sadness is intrinsically part of the fabric of happiness… But there is no life where you can be in a state of sheer happiness forever.” (  )

Book Corner 2021.11

Songs from Books

by Rudyard Kipling

We studied the poem “If” in 8th grade and I didn’t care for it because the ending was so disappointing. “You’ll be a man, my son!” Well, I’m not a man, and I’m never going to be a man, so what do you have to say to ME, Mr. Kipling? Harumph…

I’m really fascinated by the poem now because it seems to explain perfectly in two pages the entire philosophy of Stoicism, which draws me. So look out, here come my thoughts.

“If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;”

This was referred to in a book I read about poker last year, The Biggest Bluff. Professional poker players never talk about really bad hands that they’ve been dealt, or streaks of bad hands. It’s… unprofessional. You can talk about it in the context of how you played, how others played; but to just bemoan how you didn’t see a single face card all night or something like that… you don’t talk about bad luck.

That’s what stoicism is about; not talking about your bad luck, or your good luck. It’s systems thinking, vs. goal thinking. Sorry, but Weight Watchers has always been the perfect illustration of this. Goal thinking: I’m going to lose 5 pounds! Systems thinking: I’m going to try to eat only 20 points each day this week. Goal people are always winning or losing. Systems people are winning all the time, because you win merely by following the system. Maybe you lose the 5 lbs, maybe not. (If not, you think about tweaking your system.)

This is another quote from “If” that Konnikova quoted in The Biggest Bluff:

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;”

Again, win or lose, you treat everything the same: you apply your system.

I’ve always been this way. I’ve always been lost without a system, and always clung to my systems, one of the earliest being Catholicism – if ever a religion was built for me, that was it, boy. Systems out the wazoo.

I tweak the quote a lot lately:

“If you can meet with Happiness and Despondence,
And treat those two impostors just the same;”

It doesn’t matter if you’re “happy”. Apply your system.

“If you can meet with Good Sleep and Insomnia,
And treat those two impostors just the same;”

It doesn’t matter how well you slept, ya dumbass, get up and live the day.

Why don’t the outcomes matter? Because they are beyond our control. This isn’t futility. This is acknowledging that the universe is determinant. And look out, here comes my Parallel Lives schtick – it’s related. There are infinitely many lives out there. Some of them are way better than yours and some way worse. But infinitely many… which means you can’t say where yours is on the continuum. Wherever it is, there are infinitely many better & infinitely many worse. There are some lives where you’re much fatter! Others, much thinner! And here you are.

It’s not a recipe for despair and futility – you still get up every day and apply your system (which may involve dieting, though I hope not). Because things still have causes, and sometimes you’ll effect good ones.

Back to Kipling… it’s funny to me that he seems to have a poem, “The Wishing Caps,” similar to but vastly inferior to “If”, which I’ll quote now:

“LIFE’S all getting and giving,
I’ve only myself to give.
What shall I do for a living?
I’ve only one life to live.
End it? I’ll not find another.
Spend it? But how shall I best?
Sure the wise plan is to live like a man
And Luck may look after the rest!
Largesse! Largesse, Fortune!
Give or hold at your will.
If I’ve no care for Fortune
Fortune must follow me still.”

“Live like a man” – ugh, again, speaking to somebody obviously not me. But what are ya gonna do. Follow your system and luck look after the rest. Have no care for fortune – or, care painstakingly about it – either way, it follows you still, so why waste your energy?

I’m reading a novel right now about parallel lives, so you’re in for more of this.

Book Corner 2021.10

by Robin Wall Kimmerer

This is a spiritual nature book. I don’t normally do well with nature books; and when this one devoted an entire chapter to lichen, or the different sizes of drops of water depending on their tannic content, I was glazing over. I read it for the Native American spiritual aspect, which offers some beautiful perspectives.

The best one of all came right in the introduction:

“Sometimes I wish I could photosynthesize so that just by being, just by shimmering at the meadow’s edge or floating lazily on a pond, I could be doing the work of the world by standing silent in the sun.” Such a beautiful thought! In snow-covered February in particular.

Here is another: what the earth gives to us is a gift, and consider how differently we often feel about an object when we have received it as a gift. Kimmerer tells of a dream where she walked through a vivid Andean outdoor market, and picked up a fresh bunch of cilantro. When she went to pay, she was gestured away. It turned out everything in the market was being given away as a gift. She found herself being careful not to take too much; and she found herself wondering what presents she might bring to give to the (non-)vendors the next day. We should view the earth that way.

Then there is the chapter “Learning the Grammar of Animacy”. Her ancestral language, Potawatomi, uses “he/she” pronouns for almost everything, certainly all plant and animal life; the “it” pronoun is reserved for things that truly and beyond a doubt have no life, like a piece of plastic. How might we feel differently if we called the trees “he” or “she” instead of “it”? She asked how one would feel if someone referred to her grandmother as “it”. “It is making soup. It has gray hair.” It would be kind of funny, and definitely disrespectful. It certainly makes me feel funny just to think about it. It’s wrong. She feels it is just as wrong to call a tree an “it”! Try thinking about it next time you wander and ponder outdoors. How might we be treating the earth differently if our language called the trees and plants and all growing things “he” or “she”?

The Potawatomi language is also very heavy on verbs. There’s a verb for “to be red.” “To be a hill.” And her favorite, “To be a bay.” Very frustrating to learn! But notice how it animates everything.

It may seem off topic, but things are converging to bring me closer and closer to a vegetarian lifestyle. I ponder her sentence, “I wish I could photosynthesize… doing the work of the world.” Plants do the work of the world. What parasites on them the rest of us are – without plants, we are doomed! What a gift to have so many plants to eat. To eat any higher on the food chain, to eat not the plants but the things that eat the plants… seems very, I don’t know, out of tune and needlessly complicated and far removed from the “work of the world.”

I find myself taking this to heart, the ‘gift economy’ that is the bounty of the earth, the animation of all things, and I find myself nightly thinking back over the day and, silly as it sounds, saying thank you, oats and banana… thank you, apple and grapes… And with 32 days till spring equinox, I long to see the plants return and do the work of the world; I’m sure I will see them with new eyes.

Thoughts from Just Another Household Trying to Keep Their Shit Together

X & I went for a drive to pick up more goat chow. This was a rare treat for me to be in the passenger seat. Usually I drive all over the place myself.

I looked at every house that we passed, and thought about how every house held a family trying to keep their shit together.

You never know what somebody is going through, financially, medically, or emotionally.

The facade of the house tells you nothing.

Everybody is going through something. It’s rare that life hands somebody nothing but good cards all in one hand. If you find yourself in that rare happy situation – ride it as long as you can. The weak card will come around.

This meditation has helped me today.

Of course, on another thought, meditations are like underwear. They can give you a good undergirding of support. But they need to be changed often.