Books or Music?


If you had to choose between books and music — as much as you wanted of one, but none of the other—which would you choose?

Instinctively, I go for music. I listen to it throughout the day and much of the evening.  An aria sung by one of the great tenors—Placido Domingo or Juan Diego Florez—pushes my heart rate into overdrive.  Music in the key of D-minor almost always makes me want to cry. Jazz is great when I’m cooking.  The Tallis Scholars are perfect on a Sunday morning. Violin music and anything by Mozart are perfect almost any time.

Music carries me through a wide range of emotions, from the exhilarating to the heart-wrenching.  On reflection, however, I realize that music is a passive activity for me. My ear is trained to hear and interpret the notes and recognize the instruments, but I can’t “do” music.  Although I play the piano, the guitar and the recorder, I play them all badly. I can’t carry a tune, follow a beat, or sing on key. I can’t hum even the simplest melody. Once the music ends, the IMG_8010experience is over.

And so, in the end, I always come back to books, which nourish me in so many different ways.  Like music, they can entertain and often evoke strong emotions. But the experience has just begun when I lay the book down or the audiobook ends.  A good book inspires me to actively engage with the subject matter, and offers almost endless food for thought.

With fiction, I slip into the characters’ lives and compare their challenges to the obstacles in my life.  With history or philosophy, I ponder new ways of thinking about the meaning of life.  With science, I wonder how new ideas and concepts will affect my everyday existence. With biography or memoir, I try to acquire a modicum of wisdom based on the lessons others have learned.

Every book is a window into a world I might otherwise not know about.

So … books or music? Which do you want? And why?

Letting Go – Part II


IMG_7809Standing on a ledge in Bryce Canyon in Utah, it was not immediately obvious that “letting go” was the appropriate metaphor for this slender pine tree clinging tenaciously to an eroding soil bed. Indeed, it might seem that this lonesome sapling is a vestige of an arboreal species in an ecosystem long gone.  

But from another perspective, it strikes me as the perfect metaphor for letting go of outmoded and dysfunctional strategies for coping. It is so easy to just keep doing things the way we have always done them, even when they no longer work very well.  

That would certainly be the case for many of the trees in Bryce.  If the tree in the photo to the right had clung to the familiar notion that a tree should have its roots below ground and its base firmly attached to the soil, it would have disappeared down into the ravine years ago.  

But here we have a tree that has “learned” a new way of doing things.  It still has a trunk and relies on a root system that reaches into the ground and sends nutrients up the core to its branches.  But its roots are exceptionally strong and hardy enough to do double duty, both feeding the tree and holding it up.

I will try to remember my tree the next time I am struggling with something that just isn’t working.  Slow down.  Take a deep breath.  And look for another way.


Living Small – Part II

IMG_5124When was the last time you were able to live small … in a space less than 500 feet?

For most of us, it was probably a dorm room in college, or maybe your first apartment. It was not a life style I aspire to return to.

But as I read Graham Hill’s thought-provoking article in the NY Times,  Living With Less. A Lot Less, I realized what I disliked about those early days was not the smallness of the space. It was the absence of options. In fact, I admire Hill’s ability to stop being “consumed” by all the artifacts of conspicuous consumption.

I’ve been there.  For months after my husband and I decided to abandon our NY careers and go sailing, I worried about all the “stuff” we had put in storage. Would the warehouse burn down?  Would water damage or mold destroy our furniture and artwork?

The warehouse did not burn down, and everything in it was fine.  But after three years of living in less than 350 square feet and having everything I owned within arm’s reach, I often wished it had. On the sailboat, I didn’t have to worry about having my jewelry stolen or spilling a glass of red wine on my oriental rugs, because I didn’t have rugs or jewelry. I had few changes of clothes, a few books, plenty of food, and the great outdoors.  It was a wonderful life.

When I retrieved my “stuff” from the warehouse, I found many things of beauty, many things that held lovely memories.  But in the end, they are only “things” that have to be cleaned, and insured, and protected from damage.  I have often, over the past twenty years, wished my house would burn down.  With the insurance money, I could start over, with the just the basics.

Eighteen months ago, my partner and I began the process of dis-possession. Dishes we never use. Books we will never again read.  Photos of people and places we no longer remember.  Clothes we no longer wear.

I am not yet ready, like Hill, to strip down to 420 square feet, but I am moving apace in that direction.  It feels terrific!

What do you think about living small?


Forgotten Memories


How many of us rely on “forgotten memories”? 

My question was prompted by Oliver Sacks’s article entitled “Speak, Memory” in the New York Review of Books.  In it he recounts his discovery, some years after publishing his memoir, that one of his most vivid childhood memories was false.  Not false, as in he made it up, but false as in it happened to someone else.  His memory was based an extensive and moving description of the event in a letter from his brother. He “remembered” the details of the event, but he “forgot” the source of the information.

His article went on to explore the difference between plagiarism and cryptomnesia.  Plagiarism implies intentionality, a conscious and willing misappropriation of someone else’s ideas or images.  By contrast, cryptomnesia (“hidden memory”) describes ideas and images that emerge in consciousness without memory of their source.  

Cryptomnesia, according to Sacks, can be a vital factor in creativity, insofar as it allows ideas and thoughts to be “reassembled, retranscribed, recategorized, given new and fresh implications.”  But how often is that “new idea” simply a remembering of an idea whose context or source you no longer remember?

Sacks has put a name to a phenomenon that has bothered me in recent months.  As I do my own blog and write guest posts on other blogs, I am constantly on the lookout for inspiration and use Google Alerts to find new sources on topics (memoir vs. fiction, letting go, mindfulness, risk-taking) that are of particular interest to me.  

Often, my new blog builds on an idea I’ve used before.  But often, it builds on someone else’s idea, much as today’s blog does.  I make a concerted effort to give credit to the author of the idea, but I do wonder how often I use an “idea” without realizing that it really isn’t mine, that I have “forgotten” where the idea came from.

This is, I think, a distinction that writers of all stripes (not just memoirists) should be sensitive to.  Aren’t we all “cryptomnesiacs”?!