Friday, July 31, 2015

On Meditation and Mindfulness

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I suppose that over the years I have taken up meditation a multitude of times. My efforts have lasted days to weeks to...well, maybe a month. I really don't have trouble sitting still, the trouble has always been setting aside a specific time to sit still. Eventually something knocks me off schedule and the practice loses out to other interests.

But for the past ten months or so, based on an off-the-cuff comment by my yoga instructor, I have tagged a 20-minute meditation session onto my 20-minute yoga-ish session in the mornings. 

This has worked. One practice just flows into the other and I find I have been very consistent in doing this. I started taking what I call Old Lady Yoga about five years ago and soon worked up my own morning routine. But it was only recently that I thought to add the meditation bit along with it.

This is not religious or Woo-Woo stuff for me. I don't sit in an uncomfortable position on the floor. I don't light candles or incense. I simply sit in a straight-backed chair in my kitchen. I set a timer for 20 minutes, throw a light shawl around my shoulders, and close my eyes. I try to concentrate on my breath - in, out, in, out - but my mind is much like a free-range chicken. It pecks at this thought then that one, then quickly darts over to another corner and starts pecking there. 

Actually, I have come to enjoy this playtime for my mind. I think my brain needs a break each day to just wander where it will. So even though I may not get an A in Meditation Practice, that is how I do it.

I know there are hundreds of books on mindfulness and meditation and I have read many of them. My favorites, though, are as follows:

Meditation by Eknath Easwaran. I first read this book, upon the recommendation of a friend, in the early '90s. It is the first book I have ever read that once I came to the last sentence on the last page, and without missing a beat, I immediately started over again with the first word on the first page. The book was subtitled A simple eight-point program for translating spiritual ideals into daily life. The first point is meditation. It is so clearly written and personal. The author, who died in 1999, is the founder of Blue Mountain Retreat Center and Nilgiri Press in northern California. The book has been reissued with the title Passage Meditation. I don't know what changes have been made to the original text, but I see that the second edition, the one I read, is still available. Highly recommended.

Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. At one time I owned this book then loaned it to a friend who returned it with the addition of multiple coffee stains and wrinkled pages. (I tried to meditate a bit so as not to get a resentment, but I don't think it worked. I finally gave the book away.) However, I recently re-read it - a library copy with no stains - and found it to be entertaining and helpful. Its short chapters/essays include practical ways to practice mindfulness and meditation within the busyness of our everyday lives.

Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana. Actually, I am just beginning this book written by a Buddhist monk whose name I cannot pronounce. The cover tells me this is The Classic Bestseller and I have no cause to doubt that. From the preface: In my experience, I have found that the most effective way to express something new in a way people can understand is to use the simplest language possible. I am all for that.  Chapters deal with: meditation - why bother; what meditation is and isn't; how and when to sit; what to do about distractions; mindfulness; and loving friendliness.

If you meditate or have ever tried to, I am sure you have your own book to recommend and I would be happy to hear from you.


Friday, July 24, 2015

The Body in the Convent

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Catherine Aird's works recently appeared mysteriously on the ebook library shelves. As this was soon after I finished attending the library's History of Mystery class, I am wondering if perhaps this is a happy coincidence.

Ms. Aird (whose real name is Kinn Hamilton McIntosh) is a British crime fiction writer. She was born in 1930, in the midst of the Golden Age of mysteries, and has so far published more than twenty crime novels and a few collections of short stories. 

I am reading her first effort, The Religious Body, which was published in 1966. Here she introduces the detective duo of Chief Inspector C.D. Sloan and his young assistant Constable Crosby. The book opens with Sister Mary St. Gertrude making her morning rounds and knocking on bedroom doors to waken the sisters in the Convent of St. Anselm. One nun, Sister Anne, is not in her room and is later discovered dead at the bottom of the cellar steps. Although at first it seems she died from an accidental fall, it turns out that the real cause of death was a blow from the ubiquitous 'blunt instrument'.

How the police and the nuns are going to get on together in the solution to this murder promises to be an interesting read. DCI Sloan has a sly sense of humor that his more naive constable does not often understand. The detectives also are getting assistance from Father MacAuley who seems anxious to help. Or hinder, as the case may be.

So far, I have enjoyed Ms. Aird's  lively writing. It is always a bonus when both the prose and the puzzle are entertaining.

I was thinking about other books I have read that take place in a convent. Here are a few titles I came up with:

Good Behavior by Donald Westlake - In which professional burglar John Dortmunder, in an effort to escape the police, falls through the roof of a convent and agrees to help the nuns rescue one of their own who has been kidnapped by her disapproving father. Very funny.

A Nun in the Closet by Dorothy Gilman - This story, by the author of the Mrs. Pollifax series, doesn't really take place in a convent, but it does involve nuns, a bunch of money, gangsters, and murder. I wrote about it here.

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden - The story of a middle-aged professional woman who joins a contemplative order of Benedictine nuns. No crime here, but if I remember correctly it does contain a mystery. And there is plenty of insider information concerning what goes on behind the convent walls.

I find it fascinating to read about what life is like in these closed communities, murder or no. Do you have any Nun Stories that you have enjoyed and would like to recommend? 

Friday, July 17, 2015

In Which I Make My Report on Art Journals and Little Free Libraries

Last Saturday I attended two events at local stores featuring local folks. Here, as promised, is my report.

Art Journal demo with April Martin
This was a 90-minute, free demonstration on keeping an art journal. April's journal is more a layering of bits and bobs on the page than it is keeping a diary with drawings. She has hacked a Moleskin notebook and filled its pages with color and quotes and cutouts. Very creative and fun to look at. 

She said she almost always starts with a quote or a printed image and then lets her feelings guide her as she adds color with inks and paint and chalk. She uses stencils and crumpled papers and stick-on letters to add texture. She lets her muse - and her feelings - be her guide.

There was no drawing or sketching involved as I thought there would be. It was all glue and gesso and quite messy but messy in a good way. April showed us how to add pages of different papers to the basic notebook. How to distress the pages for a vintage look. How to add texture and layers and just to have fun with it. 

Her message: You can't do it wrong. And if you make what you think is a mistake, there is always a way to change a mistake into a happy accident. 

She was a lively presenter. This was her first demo and it was quite well attended - there were maybe 25 of us. 

Below are some shots of the process:

Here April is adding pages to her basic Moleskin journal.

She began with the image of the couple and went from there.

This is closer to the finish. You can see that she has done some stenciling and distressing on the pages. She also added a quote which she stretched across the gutter.

Below are random photos from her art journal. She kindly gave me permission to use them.

Although there was no book connected with this event, here are a couple of titles I found that seem to fit the type of visual journal that April demonstrated:

The Art Journal Workshop by Traci Bunkers
Stash and Smash: Art Journal Ideas by Design Originals

Little Free Libraries
This small event was held at the local, independent bookstore. Three people presented. The first to speak was a woman who was instrumental in getting 30 or so little free libraries installed in a poorer neighborhood in Louisville. She reported that they were kept well-stocked with donations and well-used both by children and adults.

Another woman had gotten one of these little structures for her birthday and it was installed in front of her house. She is a publisher's representative and so has quite an inventory to draw on to keep her free library filled.

The fellow who rounded out the panel was a carpenter/woodworker who had made one of the libraries for a client using recycled and leftover materials. He said that once the library had been installed, the client had an ice cream social and invited his neighbors to introduce them to the new 'kid' on the block. I thought this was a grand idea.

Copies of The Little Free Library Book by Margret Aldrich were on hand. It contains a history of these structures, offers a list of construction materials and plans, and offers up lots and lots of photos.

What I learned from this presentation, though, was that while I really like the idea of the Little Free Library I don't want one in my yard. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

On Art Journals and Little Free Libraries

I feel like such a slacker. I am not reading anything new. I don't read book reviews. My To Be Read list is languishing. My shelves of Books to be Read stand forlorn and untouched. 

Instead of reading, I find myself working crossword puzzles. At least that activity has to do with words.

But, there are two events on tap this weekend that I plan to attend that will perhaps get me out of this slump. One has to do with art and the other with little libraries.

First up is an Art Journaling demo. I am excited about this one because an art journal combines words and images. It is a diary with drawings. I am sure I will get new ideas. I have read quite a few books on this way of recording one's life, but seeing someone actually work on a art journal is a better way to learn.

This is a free event sponsored by a local, independent art supply store. The store regularly holds these free demonstrations and I recently took one on using watercolor pencils. The store also hosts all sorts of art classes and I have taken quite a few over the past couple of years. I do have a weakness for art supplies (which probably doesn't surprise anyone).

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The second event is being held the same day at our local, independent bookstore and concerns Little Free Libraries. In case you are not familiar with these, they are little neighborhood libraries on the street.  Some are quite elaborate (like the one above) and some are just a box filled with books to be shared with neighbors and passersby. There will be a woodworker in attendance who has built a couple of these Little Libraries and a report from a woman who received a Little Free Library as a birthday present.

"Take a book, return a book" is the motto. I see on the website that there are already two of these libraries in my neighborhood. Here is the website: Little Free Library

I will take copious notes and be back next time to regale you with stories about keeping an art journal and setting up a Little Free Library. Many of my neighbors are quite bookish and I am sure we would all be glad to have a library of our own to use as a book exchange.

Friday, July 3, 2015

In Which I 'Read' a Marathon

I mentioned recently that after meeting that dear fellow Alexander McCall Smith I was going to reread all the books in his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. I am on now on Book 11 - The Double Comfort Safari Club.

I am reading them on my Kindle Fire. I finish one and just download the next one from the library's ebook collection. I read for 30-45 minutes or so each night before I go to sleep. 

Now, because I am reading on a screen, I feel as if I am reading one long book. There is no sense of beginning and ending. Since each volume averages maybe 250 pages, that means I am enjoying a 2500-page book (so far).

I have a friend who quit reading so many books on his Kindle because he said he never felt like he was making any progress.

Now I know what he means. I just keep reading and reading and reading...but so enjoy being in this world created by Mr. McCall Smith.

Bingeing on these books all in a row gives me such an appreciation for the philosophy of living that comes through in Mma Ramostwe's thoughts and actions. If one is looking for a North Star to follow in order to live A Good Life, these books offer a shining one.

The characters do often muse on the dangers of everything from adultery and other trashy behaviors to witchcraft (not the things one would want to incorporate into his or her life). But, more importantly, the reader gets a dose of the old Botswana ways of being honest, taking care of family, being kind, being thankful, respecting one's elders, revering the wisdom of one's ancestors, and above all drinking many cups of tea. 

Drinking tea gives one a chance to slow down and think. To let one's thoughts wander where they will like the Limpopo River that flows through Botswana on its way to the Indian Ocean. And a slice of cake with one's tea is also good for the soul. That is a well known fact.

Of course, these principles are universal and not original to Botswana. I am sure most of us were taught them growing up. I know I was, but I may not have always followed them to the the books are a gentle reaffirmation of these ideals.

The natural world of Botswana is almost another character in the stories. The weather plays a big role in these tales. The weather is something one can do nothing about. It is either dry or wet; hot or cold. These conditions offer a lesson in developing patience and an attitude of 'this too shall pass.' 

These books are perfect for a reading marathon. They are humorous, entertaining, and offer good examples of dignified living. Even though I have read them before, it is fun to be delighted anew. 

Have you recently 'read' a marathon? If so, what were the books or the author you enjoyed and how did it feel when you crossed the finish line...or in this case, read the last page? 

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Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Greenbrier and a Short Reading List

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The Greenbrier

Don't you just love slowing down and being catered to in a fine hotel? I do, and I just returned from a three-night stay at one of the finest: The Greenbrier in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia.

America needs more places like The Greenbrier with its genteel, subdued atmosphere. I was totally spoiled. There are spacious lobbies filled with comfortable chairs and sofas for chatting or resting. Afternoon tea is served every day at 4. The Victorian writing room's desk is filled with hotel stationery inviting one to sit and pen a note to a friend. There is a ballroom, a spa, a private casino, and many shops. The outdoor types (of which I am not one) can enjoy tennis, golf, swimming, horseback riding, skeet shooting, and croquet. Even falconry lessons can be had.

The Greenbrier is also the location of the government's once top secret emergency fallout shelter built into the mountainside in the 1950s. It was where members of Congress were to be sequestered in the event of a nuclear attack on the country. 

The Greenbrier has quite a history. Since the late 1700s, folks have been taking advantage of the property's regenerative sulfur springs. Its location, in the Allegheny Mountains, was originally filled with cottages built by wealthy Southerners in order to escape the summer heat. Then came a hotel and more cottages. During World War II the hotel served as an army hospital and relocation center. In 1948, it was reopened once again as a hotel by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway and totally redesigned and redecorated by Dorothy Draper. The resort fell on hard times and in 2009 it was bought by local billionaire James Justice who just recently announced his candidacy for governor of West Virginia.

Many U.S. presidents, British royalty, golfers, tennis pros, and celebrities galore have stayed at what is touted as America's Resort. And now, I can add my name to the list.

Sigh. The worst part of leaving The Greenbrier is that I have to turn down my own bed at night...

In thinking about grand places to stay, I came up with a few books that feature hotels and their guests and even a murder or two.

At Bertram's Hotel by Agatha Christie - Miss Marple revisits London and Betram's Hotel and becomes involved in a crime. Actually, Ms. Christie wrote several mysteries that take place in a hotel.

Eloise by Kay Thompson - The adventures of a clever young girl who lives with her Nanny at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.

Hotel by Arthur Hailey -  This story of a fictional hotel in New Orleans was made into a movie and a television series.

These Foolish Things by Deborah Moggach - This is the book that the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is based upon. (I wrote about the book here.)

The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving - I haven't actually read this one as I am not a John Irving fan, but the title came to mind so I'm listing it as well.

Do you have a favorite grand hotel to recommend? Can you think of any other books to add to the list?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

British Library Crime Classics

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Knowing that I am always on the lookout for a new/old mystery to read, Tullik, one of my most erudite and sharp-eyed readers, sent me a notice about the British Library Crime Classics series. All on the heels of the History of Mystery class that I have been attending.

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The series includes Golden Age mysteries that the British Library has rediscovered and republished. The covers alone are worth the price of the book (each paperback costs about $12). You can order them from the BL although I don't know how long it would take for them to arrive in America. I do see that some are available in the US from Amazon (of course), and others are due to be available in the next few months. They are or will be available for Kindle but then one wouldn't have the lovely covers to gaze upon.

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In further news, on June 20, the BL is having a conference, The Bodies From the Library, with all sorts of discussions and sessions on the greats from the The Golden Age: Allingham, Christie, and Carr. You would want to attend if... like puzzles - the body found in the middle of a snow-covered lawn with no footprints, the corpse found in a room locked from the inside; unbreakable alibis and unexpected murders; books with floor-plans of the manor and timetables of the suspects' movements; surprise solutions on the last page, the last paragraph, the last line.

Oh, yes. I love all of that and I do so want to attend, and would be thrilled to buy the entire series from the British Library, but it is short notice and airfares are quite high. Alas, I suppose I will have to wait and enjoy the books from my own armchair.

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There are 20 or so books in the series, of which I have only given you a sampling of the colorful covers. You can see them all here.