MARgINAlia

A plume with a hue

Archive for the month “April, 2021”

A-Z of books: Author I’ve read the most

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I saw this list of questions about books, one for every letter of the alphabet, and thought it looked interesting. I’m not quite sure where it originated from, but this is where I first discovered it.

https://whatsthatmarksreading.wordpress.com/2021/04/29/a-to-z-of-books/

As a child, the author I read the most was Enid Blyton. I devoured the Famous Five, the Secret Seven, Mallory Towers, St Clare’s, and the Adventure series. Although my obsession was discouraged by my teachers because she was not considered a ‘good’ writer – criminal to think a teacher would deter a child from reading! – I completely ignored this, reading and rereading them. I’ve just discovered that Enid Blyton began writing in 1920 when she moved to Chessington, Surrey, which is around 5 miles from where I live.

As an adult, I’ve read more novels by Anne Tyler than any other author. I previously wrote about my love of her work here: https://marginalia14.wordpress.com/2021/02/16/

For me, Anne Tyler perfectly captures the joy of reading:

I read so I can live more than one life in more than one place.

Taming the monkey mind

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“I’ve been thinking…”

I can hear my partner groan when I utter (and I frequently do) these words. He thinks I think too much! And he’s right: my brain never seems to stop thinking from the minute I wake up to the time I go to sleep – and 27% of my sleep last night was REM sleep so I’m not even sure it stops then.

This week (week 21) of A Year to Clear by Stephanie Bennett Vogt is all about ‘taming the monkey mind’.

My monkeys don’t stop; they jump, grab, chatter, swing, leap, grasp, screech, and constantly demand attention. I’ll be trying to focus on one thing and like unruly toddlers they will start making mischief, calling my attention away. What really gets them going is bad news; going into overdrive, the monkeys howl with fear, panicking and catastrophising, spreading anxiety: what about this? what if that? The noise gets so loud, I can’t hear myself think, as I unsuccessfully search for ways to assuage each of their fears as they clamour around me.

When I have a lot to do, each one screams ‘me first’, ‘no me’, ‘it’s my turn’, ‘over here’, until I don’t know which way to turn. I focus on one whilst the others grasp at me, tugging me away, until I give up, paralysed into inaction with their demands and noise.

I’ve tried calming my monkeys down, visualising the peace as they contentedly fall asleep – what a relief! I focus on my task, fully absorbed, but slowly, without my noticing, they wake up and creep around, gradually becoming bolder and louder until my work is forgotten and I am once again dealing with their continual demands for attention.

Even during a short yoga meditation, whilst focusing on my breath, a monkey comes along and I start attending to its needs, struggling to bring my mind back to the moment.

It feels impossible to tame these uncontrollable creatures but I will keep trying and hopefully one day they will quieten down, learn to amuse themselves, and give me some peace.

Creating space

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My word for the year is space and last month I wrote about why I have chosen this word. See https://marginalia14.wordpress.com/2021/03/17/

This month I’ve been thinking about the areas I want to create space in. I want space to think (mind), to focus (time), to listen (attention), to live (environment), to care (body) and to grow (development). Here are some of the ways I have been creating space in April.

Mind: I am working through A Year to Clear by Stephanie Bennett Vogt, which focuses not only on physical space but also on mental space. I have been attempting to quieten the noisy and frantic thoughts by introducing a daily meditation practice, independent of any meditation that forms part of yoga. I’ve meditated for eighteen consecutive days and the pause definitely helps to reset my racing mind.

Time: I’ve made greater effort to plan the week ahead and allow sufficient time to meet commitments. I still get distracted by other pulls but keep reminding myself that last minute panics are stressful and it’s far better to avoid them. However, I have committed to something, knowing when I did so that come the day I wouldn’t want to do it, and in future I need to pause before committing and take time to check in with myself.

Attention: Yoga encourages us to listen to our body and respond to it accordingly. I’m starting to recognise the days when my body feels strong and is happy to be pushed further and those when it needs to be treated more gently.

Environment: I’ve been going through my wardrobe and having a cull and reorganisation. I’ve almost completed the first round of this task but believe there is further to go with the culling. In those odd moments when I’m waiting for the kettle to boil, I’ve been going through a section of a kitchen cupboard or cleaning a shelf in the fridge. It’s getting the job done, slowly I’ll admit, but I’m getting there without feeling I’ve spent any time on it. I also want to make more use of our outside space so I’ve ordered some comfortable patio furniture and have bought a bubble tent so my daughter and I can sit outside and spend some cosy time together even when it’s a bit chilly.

Body: Aside from creating space in my body through yoga, I’ve now gone for sixteen days without eating sweets, cakes or biscuits and although I didn’t set out to stop drinking alcohol, I haven’t had a drink this year.

Development: This month I’ve tried some new things, such as ‘attending’ the Cambridge Literary Festival, and have just begun a Critical Reading course with the University of Oxford.

These are some of the ways I have been trying to create more space in my life during April.

Top 5 graphic novels

If last week’s prompt from Top 5 Tuesday (top 5 debut novels) was difficult for me because there were so many to choose from, this week’s is equally difficult for there being too few: only one, to be precise!

There is some controversy over what constitutes a graphic novel: is it a novel told in comic strip form or is it an illustrated novel and where is the line drawn? For a more detailed analysis of this subject, see https://www.britannica.com/art/graphic-novel.

Anyway, the only graphic novel I have read is:

One: In Search of Lost Time: Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust. The only reason I read it is because ‘a graphic novel’ was a previous 52 Book Club Challenge prompt. I chose it because I doubt I’ll ever read Proust and this seemed a manageable way of having some kind of relationship with the text.

Having experienced this form, I don’t think graphic novels are for me. I find the combination of words and pictures quite distracting: I skim the text, scan the pictures, and don’t seem to absorb either in any meaningful way. However, if I were to read other graphic novels, I would choose texts that seem daunting and challenging. Here are some possibilities.

Two: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Three: Odyssey by Homer

Four: Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Five: If the definition is extending to illustrated novels, then I would choose to read The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charles Mackesy, and indeed hope to at some point in the future.

Top 5 Tuesday is hosted by https://meeghanreads.com/category/top-5-tuesday/

Intentions: review and setting (week 17)

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Another successful week of mindful intentions has been achieved, thanks to the Streaks app.

Meditate: A daily meditation now feels well-established. It has become easier to allow a short period of time to sit quietly without thinking I should be getting on with the next thing.

No phone after 21.45: This has also become a habit. The past few nights I have been sleeping better; whether this is linked or simply a coincidence, I don’t know.

No Twitter: This also feels established, although I have drifted to a UK newspaper’s site to keep abreast of what’s happening. It’s not enhancing my life though so this needs to stop too.

Work through The Listening Path: I have been making progress with this programme by Julia Cameron and have almost finished week 3.

No sugar: After fourteen consecutive days of no sweets, cakes or biscuits, I can feel the desire slowly subsiding.

Daily yoga practice: I did nine yoga sessions last week on six out of the seven days. Wednesday was a particularly busy day and there just wasn’t time.

This week, I’m going to continue with these mindful intentions so won’t set any additional ones. However, each week, I also set other intentions based on five areas. Here are my intentions for this week.

Health and wellbeing: Before everything shut down last year, I used to do a variety of exercise. I visited the gym around three times a week for pilates, yoga, zumba or whatever other classes I felt like doing, and I also did around ten hours of ballroom, Latin and modern jive dancing every week. Whilst I’ve developed a regular yoga practice over the past year, I don’t do any other exercise apart from walking. I now want to reintroduce some variety into my life so am going to plan other forms of exercise.

Personal development: This week I start a Critical Reading course with the University of Oxford. The introductory notes should be sent out today so I will plan my time and complete week one’s materials.

Reading: My aim is to finish The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara for my No Book No Life book club.

Creativity: For the past three weeks, I have been attending the London Writers’ Salon Writers’ Hour on Wednesday mornings. This week I want to write the ending of a short story, which I’m stuck on at the moment, and begin to edit and revise it.

Organisation: For the past month or so, I have been organising my wardrobe, getting rid of unwanted items and organising the remainder. I have one more area to work on before this task is complete so I will go through underbed storage.

Although this might appear a lot to achieve, three of my mindful intentions involve not doing something! Therefore, I am hopeful.

Five things I learnt from George Saunders

I recently bought A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders and so when I saw he was appearing at the Cambridge Literary Festival, I purchased a ticket. Here are five things I learnt.

One: He had many varied jobs before obtaining an MA in Creative Writing and becoming a professor at Syracuse University. Out of 600-700 applicants, only six are awarded places on his course. His novel Lincoln in the Bardo won the Booker Prize in 2017.

Two: He believes that every writer has to accept that they’re not as great as they aspire to be, which I find simultaneously depressing and encouraging. You can make mistakes in your writing today but come back to it tomorrow, and need to have faith in your ability to revise and rewrite.

Three: The workings of the mind operate in the same way as a novelist: it drafts, edits and revises. This is encouraging that it suggests that writing is not some different, magical process that needs to be learnt, but something that we automatically do every day.

Four: It is a fallacy that every writer sets out with an intention because, as you write, the story provides surprising moments. Writing can be a linear process with a series of micro-decisions along the way. This suggests that he is yet another successful writer who does not intricately plan his work in advance. I would disagree that writers do not have an intention in mind at the outset; however, I suspect that it is highly like that their finished work takes a form or course that they did not originally intend.

Five: Reading and writing aren’t separate activities but a communication between two different minds. I agree wholeheartedly with this; I believe reading and writing are two sides of the same coin.

George Saunders is an interesting person to listen to, who speaks with honesty about the reading and writing process.

My reading week: 16/52

Currently Reading

My main read is for my No Book No Life online book club’s May choice, The Adventures of China Irons by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara. I would definitely never have picked this one up if it hadn’t been for the book club – that’s why I love book clubs: you read novels you otherwise would never come across. I think I’m enjoying it so far.

My nocturnal read is We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. I’ve had this on my Kindle for ages and started it a while ago but didn’t get very far. I don’t know why as I’m very much enjoying it. I wish I had the ‘real’ book version as I’d like to promote it to a daytime read!

Recently Finished

Having had a disturbed night’s sleep, the first book I finished was Flex by Annie Auerbach. It centres on ways of organising your life to achieve greater balance and avoid burn-out. There are various useful suggestions, some of which would be far easier to achieve than others as they depend on the co-operation of your employer and/or partner, but it does provide food for thought on how you can work to align the life you are living with the life you want to live. It’s both interesting and easy to read, a great combination.

I also finished The Space Between Us by Zoya Pirzad. I struggled with this novel about resistance to Armenians marrying Muslims, following the span of Edmund’s life, beginning with his friendship with Tahereh, the Muslim daughter of the school janitor, and following through to the time when his own daughter wishes to marry a Muslim. I didn’t not enjoy it, but I wasn’t as wild about it as I felt I should have been. It’s a short novel so perhaps I should read it again because I feel I’ve missed something important.

My final completion was Washington Square by Henry James, which forms part of my Reading Lolita in Tehran course. It’s not the kind of novel I would usually choose but it was better than I anticipated and James deploys considerable, delightful wit in his presentation of his characters. It centres around Dr Sloper, his daughter Catherine, his sister Mrs Penniman, and Catherine’s ‘unsuitable’ suitor Morris Townsend. Dr Sloper believes Morris wants to marry Catherine for her money and threatens to disinherit her; Mrs Penniman is encouraging the union; Catherine is trying to please her father. James takes the reader on a merry-go-round of confusion as the characters come together to manipulate and plot, in a novel that seems to raise more questions than it answers. I’m looking forward to the discussion as it will be interesting to hear other people’s opinions on this one.

Reading Next

I have a few gems waiting on my TBR pile. For the week beginning 10th May, I need to read Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami for an online book club that focuses on Japanese literature, and The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue for the Cambridge Literary Festival book club. I have the latter on pre-order and it should arrive next Thursday.

My quotation this week comes from Washington Square and demonstrates Dr Sloper’s attitude towards his daughter and his sister:

Dr Sloper would have like to be proud of his daughter; but there was nothing to be proud of in poor Catherine. There was nothing, of course, to be ashamed of; but this was not enough for the Doctor…He had moments of irritation at having produced a commonplace child…Catherine was not wise enough to discover that her aunt was a goose.

Five books from my TBR pile

I generally don’t let my TBR pile get too high. Here are five books chosen at random from it.

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. I constantly see people mentioning this book and my daughter has lent me this copy. The protagonist, a Hollywood icon, chooses an unknown magazine reporter to write her story.

Oracle Night by Paul Auster. This is one of my all-time favourite novels but I only had an electronic copy and much prefer a ‘real’ book so I picked one up second-hand last month. It tells the story of novelist Sydney Orr who buys a blue notebook, which has a strange effect on him.

Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami. I recently discovered an online book club specifically reading Japanese literature, a current obsession of mine. This is their May read, which is said to be ‘part murder mystery, part metaphysical speculation’.

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud. I read a novel from One World Publications earlier this year (Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa) and they had a list of their other published novels in the back. This was one of them. It tells the story of the Arab killed by Meursault in The Outsider by Albert Camus.

Things We Left Unsaid by Zoya Pirzad. Once again, this was on One World Publications’ list. It is about Clarice and the Armenian family who become her neighbours in an Iranian suburb.

These are just a few of the novels I currently have waiting to be read, all of which sound fascinating.

London Writers’ Salon writers’ hour: it’s crazy but it works

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Last year, during the first lockdown, I discovered the London Writers’ Salon Writers’ Hour. I did it once, then promptly forgot about it. Recently it was mentioned in a New York Times’ article and I revisited it. I’ve now been taking part for a month. What is it?

The Writers’ Hour is what it says: an hour that you spend writing. There are four Zoom sessions a day from Monday to Friday to cover various world time zones. I’ve been attending the Wednesday morning 8 o’clock London session (and occasionally an additional session). You log in, along with approximately 250 other writers, introduce yourself in the chat and say what you’re planning on doing during the session, hear an inspirational reading suggested by one of the attendees, and then settle down to write for 50 minutes. Basically, you are sitting at home (or wherever you are) on your own and writing – which you could do without logging into the session – except would you? When the time is up, you feedback via chat on what you have accomplished, a couple of attendees are invited to speak briefly about what they are working on, and the session closes.

Basically, you are sitting at home (or wherever you are) on your own and writing. As you could do this without logging into the session, I initially couldn’t see the point – except after four weeks I have almost finished the first draft of a short story and I know for sure that without having attended these sessions, this short story would not exist.

The range of writing is amazing; in fact, I hadn’t ever considered how many types of writing people do. But anybody who has something they need to put down on paper or screen obviously finds these focused sessions extremely helpful in getting the job done. They write their morning pages, work emails, a scene in their novel, a business proposal, a poem, a script, an outline, an essay, an MA dissertation, college notes, a to-do list, and many, many more amazing ideas.

On Wednesdays, there is the added bonus of staying online for a further 20 minutes or so and mingling with other writers in breakout rooms before returning to the main room where people comment in the chat about the people they were talking to and one or two are invited to speak to the group about their experience of the ‘mingle’. Each week I’ve planned on remaining online for this, and each week I’ve chickened out: how can an ‘imposter’ writer like me mix with all these people who have great ideas and know exactly what they’re doing? And each week I’ve been angry at myself for hitting the ‘leave meeting’ key before I’m put in a break-out room!

This week, as the main session was ending and the break-out rooms were being set up, the host acknowledged that some of us would find the idea of the ‘mingle’ daunting but not to worry, everyone was really friendly and it was a great experience, so I took a deep breath and stayed online.

I entered a room with three other women, one an American living in the UK, one from Dubai and the other from Australia, which is amazing in itself. There I am in my living room on a Wednesday morning speaking to strangers from around the world – surreal! We chatted about what we were doing, which encompassed a published poet working on a non-fiction book, a novelist drafting a second novel, a new (as yet not published) blogger pursuing a passion to write, and me. These women were truly fascinating, and we were genuinely interested in each other. The conversation flowed and we were still going strong when we were thrown out of the room! It was an inspiring and uplifting experience, and felt great to ‘meet’ new people in these unnaturally isolated times.

I realised that although I see myself as an imposter, others wouldn’t. Their perception of me is probably that I know what I’m doing. I blog, write poetry and short stories, have written the first draft of a novel, journal daily, create teaching materials for reading and writing, tutor in English, have had two business articles published, and have attended writing masterclasses with Louise Doughty and Madeleine Miller. I sound like the expert that I’m most definitely not. I’m simply someone who feels putting pen to paper is as necessary as eating and breathing, and who enjoys playing with writing.

The London Writers’ Salon is an amazing community of writers and I feel blessed to have been welcomed into their Writers’ Hour.

Find out more here: https://londonwriterssalon.com/

Five benefits I’ve gained from a year of regular yoga practice

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I’ve practised yoga on and off for over 30 years, more off than on until the past year. During the last twelve months, I’ve averaged eight yoga sessions a week, which equates to around 400 sessions, the equivalent of approximately 16 whole days. Here are five benefits I’ve gained.

Strength, Flexibility and Balance

There are poses I couldn’t do a year ago that I’ve gradually become more able to hold. For example, I couldn’t maintain a plank for any length of time as my arms felt too weak. Now I can do so without worrying that my arms are going to give way and I’ll smash my face on the floor. Also, without force, I am able to go deeper into poses. This has been another slow journey, which happened without my noticing. Suddenly I realised I could take a bind or a fold with greater ease. I’ve always been reasonably stable when balancing on my dominant right leg but would wobble like a blancmange when on my left. Now I am almost equally balanced on both legs; in fact I sometimes feel more steady on my left. Often it’s just the right guidance that assists. I couldn’t lift both legs for more than a couple of seconds in crow pose. When guided to look slightly in front of me rather than down, the position became achievable.

Patience

It’s easy to give up on any activity when it’s harder than we anticipate and doesn’t produce instant results. I’ve learnt to be patient: yoga isn’t a means to an end; it is a way of life. Over time, imperceptible changes accumulate into something much bigger. This has seeped over into other areas of my life; I no longer rush for results but slow down and allow things to take a more leisurely and natural course, thus easing pressure and its resulting stress.

Body Awareness

The body we woke up with yesterday is not the same one we got up with today, and tomorrow it will feel different again. Yoga has made me much more in tune with the subtle day-to-day differences in the way my body feels and responds, and has increased my kindness and patience with it.

Body and Mind

Yoga isn’t simply about exercising the body; it is about bringing the body and mind together so they can work in harmony. They are not individual entities functioning independently. Each one has a profound effect on the other and yoga joins them symbiotically.

Sanity

This past year has been challenging and I have suffered mentally and emotionally from the absence of everyday events and activities that feed and soothe my soul and give my life meaning. There have been many days when an hour on the yoga mat has been the only moment of release and tranquility during my day. Without yoga, I would have fallen apart.

These are just five of the benefits I have gained from a year of undertaking a regular yoga practice: benefits which have had an enormous positive impact on my general wellbeing.

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