The gold In the Distance: a review of Hernan Diaz’s book

IMG_0214 (1).JPGA chance wander through a museum exhibit on British Columbia’s gold rush several years ago sparked my curiosity in California’s own gold rush in a way 4th grade history class (not to mention decades of living in that state) never managed to do; over the next several months I visited a number of gold rush sites, reading countless interpretive signs, historical marker plaques, and tourist pamphlets. I even made it through a good chunk of the massive Days of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the American Nation.

But wow, the events depicted in the fictional In the Distance by Hernan Diaz bring entirely new levels of insight and compassion to the varied and challenging realities people must have faced in those times, both externally and internally.

That said, this book is about so much more than the Gold Rush. I highly recommend it.

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I decided to read In the Distance based on Roxane Gay’s review on Goodreads:

One of the best books I’ve read all year. The story, and the narrative voice is completely captivating. …the story itself and how it is told is absolutely unforgettable.

Fortunately for me, this book is part of Auckland Library’s vast e-book collection, and now I too can claim In the Distance as one of the best books I read in 2018.

Diaz_IntheDistance_Pulitzer_REV.jpgThe protagonist musters a surprising ability to face a range of often unfortunate conditions with equanimity and honor, while continuing to forge ahead with his seemingly-impossible quest. (In this sense he reminds me quite a bit of the convict in William Faulkner’s The Old Man, which I also loved, and which has also stayed with me quite strongly.) I was amazed at Diaz’s ability to convey interactions, landscapes, and objects through the eyes of someone who had never experienced anything like them before. Beginner’s Mind indeed!

Meanwhile, the author’s rich descriptions of San Francisco Bay, the the Sierra foothills, and deserts of America’s West, though unnamed and from a much different time, evoked more than a little nostalgia for places I know and love and am not sure when I might visit again.

Weeks after finishing it, this book still has me thinking about how we invent Purpose for ourselves. About the fine line (or is it attitude?) that differentiates Solitude from Loneliness. About those moments when we decide to Stop, and the moments when we have to Keep Going, even though we don’t want to. About Taking Stands when faced of inevitable suffering, and about Resignation when faced with the same. About Identities, both those that we choose, and those that get thrust upon us despite any desires we may have to set the record straight. About Learning, Curiosity, and Knowing, and how characters whose Obsessions are a few degrees more intense than our own serve as excellent mirrors. About Difference and Immigration. About unconsummated love and about that incessant Longing for something that lies just over the next horizon… if not even farther away.

My personality throughout my existences (and a new guide to business financing!)

A ritual often performed at the Auckland Buddhist Centre includes the following lines:

My personality throughout my existences…
I give up without regard to myself
For the benefit of all beings.

I’ve been thinking about my various existences because the company I work for just published a really useful resource, A guide to financing your business.

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The content is top notch, it’s beautifully laid out and illustrated, the writing is clear, the whole thing flows well, and it’s easy to navigate. While it doesn’t really take a stand on the ethics or of any of the options and I’d have loved to see some case studies, it’s far more complete than I was expecting, and I’m really impressed!

And I had absolutely nothing to do with its creation, which feels incredibly strange. I was legitimately obsessed with this topic — my expertise in that rapidly-evolving field paid my bills, I got a massive grant to write a book about it — for more than a decade. I can’t pinpoint exactly when that particular obsession ended, but it’s been a HUGE relief to let go of the need to stay on top of the latest crowdfunding legislation or alternative lending innovations or who’s launching what new community investing fund… thankfully, we’ve got people like Jenny Kassan and Amy Cortese all over those 🙂

This shift in my attention makes me think of all the different identities I’ve embraced and then drifted away from over the years: Continue reading “My personality throughout my existences (and a new guide to business financing!)”

Gordon Walters and another attempt to ride the Möbius strip out of dual thinking

When I was a kid, my dad showed me a symbol he had come up with during his days in Berkeley in the 70s. It’s confusing either way you hold it:

IMG_20181126_171308     IMG_20181126_171314

To my great delight, a similar image started showing up all over Auckland back in July:

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Gordon Walters, Painting J 1974
Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
Courtesy of the Walters Estate.
Source: The Auckland Gallery website, accessed 26 November 2018

I loved the Gordon Walters exhibit at the Auckland Art Gallery, aka Toi o Tāmaki; I went twice (the museums here are free for New Zealand residents!) and bought the catalog to add to my collection of art books addressing the spiritual in abstract art. I also thought the Gallery did a good job of describing the cultural-appropriation controversy the artist found himself in the middle of, not to mention the fact that Walters and his friend Theo Schoon apparently appropriated artistic ideas from Rolfe Hattaway, a patient in a mental hospital?!

As someone who often sees the world in terms of the potential for quilt top patterns, the show gave me all sorts of inspiration for some appropriation of my own. As of this writing I’m seriously considering a Möbius quilt, just to ensure it’s entirely impractical and complicated. And nerdy and fun.

I’m really liking the Möbius strip as a symbol for non-duality:

[T]ry to choose an “up” and a “down” on a Möbius band. When you slide along the band, you eventually wind up at the same point you started at, but “up” has become “down.” … Its storytelling potential is clear: you travel around something, only to end up back where you started but disoriented.

Thanks to Evelyn Lamb over at Scientific American for that quote. It reminds me a lot of having once been a California girl driving North up Australia’s East Coast, on a different Highway 1, behind a steering wheel on the right side of the car, my car on the left side of the road, as the sun set over the hills, not over the ocean, and the entire world felt inside-out.

Up / Down. Both / And. Wherever you go, there you are… wherever that is.

Choosing to walk my own path: the beginning

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Group X, Altar paintings #1. Hilma af Klint (c) Hilma af Klint Foundation

I keep thinking about the months of January through June of 1998. I struggle with how to label this period, because to say something like “this was a massively influential time for me” or “it was the most pivotal inflection point of my life” feels like an understatement.

Looking back, I genuinely believe that choosing to leave the life I had known up until that point allowed me to begin to discover who I was. And because I was, for the first time in my life, evaluating the world around me based on my own lens / my own value system / an expanded sense of what might be possible, I discovered several practices and perspectives that have been with me ever since.

What happened (in a nutshell)

Two and a half years into a Bachelor of Science degree at McGill University, I had become disillusioned with science as a way to explain the world. I fell into an existential crisis that called my entire approach to life into question: Why was I working toward a degree that reduced everything I loved into numbers and statistics… particularly when all the trends seemed to show that everything was doomed?

More importantly: Why was I in university at all? I certainly hadn’t made a conscious decision about the matter. Twenty years into my life, I suddenly realized I had been blindly following the path that had been laid out for me, with little regard for what I actually wanted to do, much less who I actually might be.

Then “Ice Storm ’98,” one of the worst national disasters in Canada’s history, hit…. right at the beginning of McGill’s winter semester. Continue reading “Choosing to walk my own path: the beginning”

The power of commitment

One of my Buddhist teachers, Guyhasiddhi, shared this quote in a class a few weeks ago:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”

In tracking down an internet source for the quote (I knew it was from The Scottish Himalayan Expedition by W. H. Murray), I discovered that this character had quite a fascinating life:

  • He was an influential Scottish mountaineer who was taken prisoner during World War II (but charmed his initial captor, apparently);
  • While in captivity (for three years!) he drafted an entire book on the topic of mountaineering in Scotland… on toilet paper;
  • This manuscript was discovered and destroyed by the Gestapo, so he started it all over again… and this version was eventually published;
  • He was active in protecting wild areas in Scotland, including a successful campaign to prevent construction of a hydroelectric dam.

What an inspiration!

Thanks yet again, Wikipedia, for coming through with the backstory.

The Well of Grief, a poem by David Whyte

Every time a crack appears in the dam that keeps my sea of grief at bay, I am reminded of this David Whyte poem:

The Well of Grief
David Whyte

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,

turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering,

the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.

Source: David Whyte’s Facebook page, accessed 6 November 2020.

You can watch a video of the poet himself reciting the poem here (also from David Whyte’s Facebook page, accessed 10 January 2022).

I love hearing him tell the deeper story about the bottom of the well, and how he repeats certain lines, certain words, and then the entire poem in entirely different ways!

Every weekend can be a three-day weekend: my journey to a four-day work week

As of this week, I officially work Tuesdays through Fridays. Standard eight-hour days, but only four of them. Every weekend is now a three-day weekend, and I am thrilled!

This wasn’t a decision that I took lightly, and the process revealed a few surprises. It took several months from the time I started thinking about it to actually make a formal request, and a couple more months for it to be made official. Here’s some of what I learned over the course of those months (about myself, about my relationship, and about The System), and what it took to make it happen. I’m writing this all out in hopes that it might serve as inspiration for anyone else who is thinking of reducing their working hours, and also provide some perspective that’s a little deeper than what can be conveyed in a headline.

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The company I work for was not the barrier. Xero has verrrrrry flexible policies when it comes to working hours. They even have a series of internal publications showcasing people’s flexible work arrangements. People have reduced their hours for reasons as varied as wanting to avoid rush-hour traffic, to wanting to spend more time with their kids (temporarily or permanently), to training for and representing their country at international sporting events. (We’re hiring, wanna move to New Zealand?! Or Singapore or Melbourne or Denver or…? Let me know if there’s a role you’re interested in and I can send you the internal referral link!)

Benefits weren’t a factor. Everyone who lives in New Zealand, either permanently or on a visa that’s longer than 24 months, is covered by the national health care system, and all other benefits (vacation, sick time) would be prorated according to my new schedule.

I worried a bit about letting my team down, but the truth of the matter is that my working fewer hours would bring our workflows into much better alignment, as the person who does a lot of the post-production on the videos we make together is also on a four-day schedule! Without exception, everyone on my team cheered me on as soon as I told them what I was hoping to do.

My partner wasn’t holding things back, either. Quite the opposite, Scott’s been encouraging me to reduce my working hours for ages. Continue reading “Every weekend can be a three-day weekend: my journey to a four-day work week”

If the Buddha wrote a bio

If the Buddha Dated.jpgYou might have seen these books: If the Buddha Dated, If the Buddha Married? I loved the section in If the Buddha Dated on writing a dating profile that might attract an appropriate mate. Author Charlotte Kasl takes the reader through the various versions that you might write, starting with one that’s basically a laundry list of all the qualities you are seeking in your would-be partner. As she continues, the profiles get a little more “enlightened” and more and more interesting, and you start realizing that perhaps describing your values, and asking questions, might be more effective than presenting an impossible checklist of criteria and scenarios that might not ultimately lead to a mutually-fulfilling relationship, anyway.

The final sample profile simply reads,

Who are you? Who am I?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this because it’s now been exactly 27 days since I was asked to write a bio for the Order members of my Buddhist community, or sangha, as Buddhist communities are known.

Now I am nothing if not a writer, and I have no problem writing bios; I’ve written gobs of them. Bios for online dating profiles (at least four different ones I am sure about, and probably more, all partially inspired by Charlotte Kasl, if decidedly more verbose). Bios for speaking gig programs. Bios for job applications, for teaching yoga, for the inside of my book, for websites, for fellowship directories, for high school and grad school alumni journals. 20 word bios. 120 word bios. 250 word bios, one-pagers. The list goes on and on.

So why is this one stumping me?!

The thought process goes something like this: “I’d better do this one properly. Wait, no, I’d better make it seem like I wasn’t worried about it at all, that’s more ‘spiritual.’ Continue reading “If the Buddha wrote a bio”

Aimless Love: a poem by Billy Collins

Aimless Love
by Billy Collins

This morning as I walked along the lake shore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.

In the shadows of an autumn evening,
I fell for a seamstress
still at her machine in the tailor’s window,
and later for a bowl of broth,
steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.

This is the best kind of love, I thought,
without recompense, without gifts,
or unkind words, without suspicion,
or silence on the telephone.

The love of the chestnut,
the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.

No lust, no slam of the door—
the love of the miniature orange tree,
the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower,
the highway that cuts across Florida.

No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor—
just a twinge every now and then

for the wren who had built her nest
on a low branch overhanging the water
and for the dead mouse,
still dressed in its light brown suit.

But my heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.

After I carried the mouse by the tail
to a pile of leaves in the woods,
I found myself standing at the bathroom sink
gazing down affectionately at the soap,

so patient and soluble,
so at home in its pale green soap dish.
I could feel myself falling again
as I felt its turning in my wet hands
and caught the scent of lavender and stone.

Original source: Billy Collins, Nine Horses, Pan Macmillan and Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2003, accessed via Pan Macmillan on 9 August 2018. Continue reading “Aimless Love: a poem by Billy Collins”

The Journey: a poem by Mary Oliver

Here is a poem that Spring Washam included in her 2017 book, A Fierce Heart: Finding Strength, Courage, And Wisdom in Any Moment. I love how it dovetails with William Stafford’s The Way It Is:

The Journey
by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice —
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations —
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voice behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do —
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Continue reading “The Journey: a poem by Mary Oliver”