summer nights

From sweltering to blissfully cool... this is the norther midwestern summer.  Humidity is low, sunshine is bright, everything is leafy and alive.  What better time to read on a screened porch?

I've just finished The Great Gatsby after seeing the recent movie adaptation in St. Louis with my friend Ellen from 7th grade.  Who is also an English professor.  The movie was close enough to the book that it's a bit like re-reading with the images already in my head.  What I notice from the language alone is how very shallow the connection between Daisy and Gatsby really seems to be.  As a teenager, I infused her coyness with my imagination of depth, but if you read the words on the page they are surprisingly flat.  It's obvious from the first moment that Daisy comes to the cottage that she's used to (and thrilled by) people falling in love with her, a chaotic penchant if there ever was one.  Ultimately, it strikes me that the phrase "first world problems" perfectly describes Tom and Daisy.  And I can see why teachers thought high schoolers would get this ("I was thirty. Before me stretched the portentous, menacing road of a new decade.")  Except that no high schooler can imagine what it will mean to be thirty...

Also just finished: watching the first season of Orange is the New Black on Netflix, based on a prison memoir by a woman who was briefly involved with a drug cartel via her girlfriend.  I heard about this story first on the Moth ( and I've placed a hold on the memoir of the same title that it's based on.

Speaking of memoirs, I read two on either side of my trip to Seattle:

Oranges are Not the Only Fruit and Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? both by Jeannette Winterson.  The first one she wrote when she was only 26, and the post-traumatic distraction of her writing comes across as poetry.  She was adopted into a family with a domineering mother whose Evangelical beliefs were unusual in England at the mid-century time period.  Even the other Evangelical folks saw her mother as crazy, and she was.  Things went from bad to worse when Jeannette grows up to be a lesbian, and various church exorcisms and abuses are followed by her permanently leaving home.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? offers a later-in-life look back, filling in some of the gaps about her father and also about her own approach to claiming her life, albeit with some real damage in her ability to sustain lasting intimacy.  At the same time, her mature reflections on life lived and damage survived are poetic in their own right, with a depth of clarity and presence that her earlier memoir lacked.  There are too many wise quotes from this book to capture them all here, but I know I'll revisit them on my kindle copy.  The title itself is a quote from her mother.

Finally, a dear family friend had a stroke recently, just a month after we were all working together to clear out Elizabeth's grandmother's home in Urbana. He looks poised to recover, thankfully, but in the meantime I've been enjoying the memoir/brain anatomy book...

My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor, which starts out with an overview of brain anatomy before interspersing brain hemmorage pictures with Taylor's own story of left-hemisphere stroke survival.  The brain works in odd ways, obviously, and who can say if her recall of the stroke event is influenced by her neuroanatomy training, by adrenaline, or by some other factor.  In any case, it's a startling clear picture of what happens when someone has a stroke.   Most fascinating, and this is what gained her TED talk status, Taylor describes the sense of sacred oneness with everything that was generated by her right brain once her left brain was disabled.  The chapter "Finding Your Deep Inner Peace" presents concepts familiar to anyone who is familiar with Buddhist ideas, but frames it within left/right hemisphere understandings that connect to Western science.  It's a fascinating dance that she does between these ways of understanding.  As Taylor says:"Although many of us may think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, biologically we are feeling creatures that think." (p. 19)

She also writes about her choices in life now, to ignore some of the old anxiety-producing loops that her left brain would take her through and focus on that right-brain sense of being and connection. "Since the stroke, I steer my life almost entirely by paying attention to how people, places, and things feel to me energetically.  In order to hear the intuitive wisdom of my right mind, however, I must consciously slow my left mind down so I am not simply carried along on the current of my chatty story-teller.  [...]  I simply listen to my body and implicitly trust my instincts." (p. 168)

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