February: A Month of Change

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This month’s reading list is shorter than last month’s.  We’ve been a bit preoccupied.

  1. The Lover, Marguerite Duras, for fun.  We saw a stage adaptation of this; it seemed terrible, but it strangely left me with the sense that I wanted to see it again.  Then I bought the book, and was transfixed.  This is, quite simply, one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read.  It’s an incredible meditation on life, love, family, ageing, race, and memory, told in a gorgeous style that made me feel as if I was holding the author in my head, dancing with her thoughts, and remembering things just as she remembered them, or occasionally misremembered them.  Along with The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby, this is now one of the books I’ll be reading every year, just to spend time in the author’s beautiful world.  Writing this, I want to read it again.
  2. The Art of Saying No.  One of the more useful books I’ve read in the last few years; I’ve used the strategies SO MANY TIMES since reading it.  There’s that saying that the only limits to what you can do is what you will do; I’d add that what you will do is dependant on what you won’t do.  This gives you reasons to say no to things, and ways to go about saying no gracefully; highly recommended if you’re like me and tend to overcommit yourself.
  3. Likeable Social Media.  An incredible primer on how to do social media right; it lays the foundation for setting up a company to interact on platforms.  I really recommend it – I just wish I was on social media so I could use these strategies!
  4. How to Win Friends and Influence People.  I read this regularly, probably two or three times a year, a chapter a day; the morning commutes have been great for taking five minutes to get through it again, chapter by chapter.  Again, a book that reminds me of how to act and think in a better way.
  5. Don’t Make Me Think.  I wanted to learn a bit more about how user experience impacts our interactions with technology; this came highly recommended.  A takeaway that is applicable to life, generally: there are conventions in technology that are automatic and thoughtless by this point.  You look to the top of the page, and often the top left, for the name of the website.  You expect something that is blue and underlined to be a link.  You expect something that looks like a button to be clickable.  USE those conventions – don’t try to reinvent them because you think you can do something better.  Just accept that people work in certain ways, and are conditioned in particular things, and use that conditioning for your own ends.
  6. Wherever You Go, There You Are.  “Meditation is not about trying to become a nobody, or a contemplative zombie, incapable of living in the real world and facing real problems. It’s about seeing things as they are, without the distortions of our own thought processes. Part of that is perceiving that everything is interconnected and that while our conventional sense of ‘having’ a self is helpful in many ways, it is not absolutely real or solid or permanent.”  I got it hoping to read a how-to on meditation, but it is more a series of reading meditations that put you in a better mindstate.  Another book that I got through a few chapters a day.
  7. Eric Sandy sent me this article about convenience, and how it is destroying us.

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Oh, and we’ve been distracted – we bought a flat, a huge, rambling apartment in Edinburgh’s city center, on the top floor of a building finished in 1825, with huge stone columns and a grand spiral staircase and old-style door pulls that once commanded real metal doorbells.  The kitchen is bigger than our old bedroom.  The living room is the size of our old bedroom and living room combined.  The hallway is four times the size of our old kitchen.  We have three toilets and a bathroom and a shower room and two skylights and two fireplaces and views of Calton Hill and the Firth of Forth – protected views, that can never be taken away.  I can’t say it’s glorious, but it will be glorious someday; it was owned by some sort of slum lord, who apparently rented it out to students and never upgraded anything in the flat and stiffed everyone he came in contact with.  The whole place is in a bit of a bad state, but we’re committed to fixing it up over the next few years.  

So buying, and moving, have taken up a lot of our time that might otherwise be devoted to beautiful books.

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And then a man named David Gee visited; he was the head of a house at Shrewsbury School, and is a close family friend of Alice’s family, having helped raise her brothers.  On the first night, we shared a bottle of wine and he told us about this amazing experience he had.  He used to be part of an interview panel for candidates to the priesthood.  He was responsible for interviewing them on their faith – not to catch them in any sort of “gotcha” moments and disqualify them from leading flocks of their own, but in order to make sure that they’d really thought about what it is to have faith, and the implications of faith for themselves and others.  He’d ask them questions like: “Do you believe that God literally walked in the Garden of Eden one day and found Adam and Eve hiding behind leaves?”  “Do you believe Jesus literally walked on water?  What does that mean?”  “Do you believe that Moses…Job…Saul…”  Etc.

It made me really think about three implications:

  1. There’s a massive difference between what upper class and lower class children and adults receive in religious instruction.  With the benefit of someone like David Gee’s instruction, the lucky few at a private prep school learn that the bible isn’t literally true, but contains profound truths in it that should be contemplated – much like most philosophy, or the lessons that can be drawn from stories.  What I understand as religious instruction is that, to paraphrase Stephen Colbert, “the bible is true, every word of the bible is true, and we know that it’s true because the bible says it is true.”  It certainly seems that, in America at least, the focus is on whether people believe fully or not, which keeps people from seeing as much of the implications of the bible on their life – if it is a series of stories that happened to other people, it’s harder to read lessons into one’s own life.
  2. The current debates about religion are focused more on the split between people who believe that the bible is literally true and those who don’t; if you don’t believe the bible is literally true, it’s hard to take anything else in it seriously.  But this is throwing the baby out with the bathwater; even without literal truth, there can still be good life lessons that come from a reading of the books contained within it.
  3. BUT.  What about rituals, and the pomp and circumstance around common worship?  I think this binds communities together more closely, which can be a huge advantage over people who do not have this sort of benefit.  When people do things together – particularly eating – they feel more close to each other.  No matter what age we live in, the existence of a community, and communal activities, can be a huge benefit to faith.  “We’re not friends with people who are like us; we’re friends with people we do things with.”

We spent the second day of his visit walking around Edinburgh.  He charmed the volunteers at the front desk at St. Giles, who opened the Thistle Chapel for him so he could see the crest of one of his friends who is a Knight of the Garter and Thistle; we tagged along and she told us stories of the things people steal from the chapel when they get the chance.

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Then we went to Portobello Beach, and got coffee from a van, and I had an incredible almond croissant.

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I had a business idea: a restaurant where everyone gets different menus.  What you can order may or may not be available to your dining partners.

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Finally, I touched this.  Muhammad Ali also touched it.

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My friend Carl will be out first visitor in the new flat, starting today, before he goes and records at Abbey Road Studios in London.  We’re naming the room he stays in the Baldassarre Room in his honour.

With all the changes and events, life has been incredible this month, and for that I’m grateful.

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