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Introducing….You (the “missing” Sunday post) July 13, 2021

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in Books, Changing Perspectives, Healing Stories, Life, Movies, Philosophy, William Shakespeare, Wisdom, Writing, Yoga.
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[This is the “missing” post for Sunday, July 11thYou can request an audio recording of Sunday’s practice via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

In the spirit of generosity (“dana”), the Zoom classes, recordings, and blog posts are freely given and freely received. If you are able to support these teachings, please do so as your heart moves you. (NOTE: You can donate even if you are “attending” a practice that is not designated as a “Common Ground Meditation Center” practice, or you can purchase class(es). Donations are tax deductible; class purchases are not necessarily deductible.

Check out the “Class Schedules” calendar for upcoming classes. If you are using an Apple device/browser and the calendar is no longer loading, please email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com at least 20 minutes before the practice you would like to attend.]

“Saepe est etiam sub pallĭolo sordĭdo sapientia.

[English translation: Wisdom often is under a filthy cloak.]”

– Latin proverb (associated with Socrates, Diogenes, and Cicero)

Imagine, for a moment, that you are meeting someone for the first time. It is also the very first time you’ve seen them – and maybe you are meeting them in a cold place during winter or a rainy place during the rainy season. Either way, you are both wearing overcoats. You’re also both of a certain age, whatever that means to you at this moment. So, you’re meeting not at the beginning of your stories but in the middle, maybe even at the end.

We may not think about it, but this is how we most often meet – in the middle of our stories and without being able to see what’s inside.

We exchange names and, if we know someone else with said name, we start seeing this new person through the layers and layers of previously formed ideas, impressions, and opinions. That’s just the way the mind-body works. If, however, we are each the first person either of us has met with said names, we start forming ideas, impressions, and opinions about a person with said name. That’s just the way the mind-body works.

We may not even be consciously aware of it, but there it is. Our first sense of someone is based on an overcoat, samskaras (mental impressions), whatever is happening in the middle of the story, and a name – that may or may not be their given name (or, under certain circumstances, may or may not be the name by which most people know them). The overcoat in this case is, literally, an article of clothing – and also all the external factors like the samskaras, the name, and anything else we may know or assume based on the situation (like occupation, vocation, race, ethnicity, gender, and age range).

Over time, the overcoat comes off, literally and figuratively. We make more mental impressions, maybe we learn another name, and as we move through the rest of the story we also learn (in a backwards sense) about the beginning of a person’s story: why they are the way they are; think and do the things they think and do. Over time, we go deeper.

“Pleased to meet you
But I’m quick to judge
I hope you drop the grudge
I know I’m not what you want from me”

– quoted from the song “Pleased to Meet You” by Rynx (featuring Minke)

Every practice is an opportunity to introduce (or reintroduce) you to yourself. Every pose, every sequence, allows you to remove the layers and layers of overcoats until you reach the heart and core of who you are. That’s svādhyāya, “self-study.”

Sometimes, I also use the practice to introduce (or reintroduce) people to different philosophical aspects of the practice – as I did this time last year and/or to various rituals and traditions. I also use the practice to introduce (or reintroduce) people to some of my favorite people. People like two writers who share a birthday and, obviously, an occupation. Both of these writers just happen to be Pulitzer Prize winners; have ties to The New Yorker magazine; and are mostly recognized by (first) names that are not on their passports and birth certificates.

Remember, their names are part of their overcoats.

Elwyn Brooks White was born July 11, 1899, in Mount Vernon, New York. Nilanjana Sudeshna Lahiri was born July 11, 1967, in London, England. While very different in some ways, their books prove that anyone can be the hero (or heroine) of a great story; that situations we’ve never personally encountered can be highly relatable when related by a good storyteller; and that fiction (like yoga) can be a great way to process difficult emotions.

“That’s the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet.”

– quoted from The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

“Place yourself in the background; do not explain too much; prefer the standard to the offbeat.”

– quoted from “An Approach to style” by E. B. White published in The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White

Even though most readers know him by his initials, E. B. White was known to friends and professional colleagues as “Andy.” Ostensibly, the nickname came about because of a tradition at Cornell University whereby students with the last name “White” are renamed after the university’s co-founder Andrew Dickson White.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s birth name is not known to many of her readers – and for a similar reason: her name was also “changed” at school. However, in her case, the change came because her name was unfamiliar (rather than so familiar). Dr. Lahiri’s parents migrated from West Bengal, India to the United Kingdom. When the author was three, the family migrated to Kingston, Rhode Island – where at least one teacher was unfamiliar Bengali names and unwilling to learn how to pronounce them. According to an August 19, 2003, USA Today article by Bob Minzesheimer, “[A kindergarten teacher] said something like ‘That’s kind of a long name’ and decided it was easier to pronounce ‘Jhumpa’” – her nickname.

Remember, names are part of our overcoats. What we call each other makes a difference in how we see and understand each other.

“SOME PIG”

“TERRIFIC”

“RADIANT”

“HUMBLE”

– quoted from the messages in the web in Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White (illustrated by Garth Williams)

When Charlotte (the spider) comes up with her plan to save Wilbur, she says, “Why, how perfectly simple.” She then goes on to use her experience (as a master weaver) to introduce (and reintroduce) her friend (the pig) in a way that makes him more valuable alive, rather than dead. Her plan is, in fact, perfectly simple: write what you know… and change the overcoat. Even through their details are different, the stories written by both E. B. White and Jhumpa Lahiri are about their own personal experiences… and what happens when we get underneath the outer layers.

E. B. White is remembered as the author of beloved (and sometimes banned) children’s books like Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, but he started off as a journalist. He also worked for an advertising agency (and in some non-literary jobs) before submitting manuscripts for the then newly-founded The New Yorker. He eventually became a writer and contributing editor for the magazine. It was during his tenure at The New Yorker that he got a blast from his (Cornell University) past when he was asked to update work by one of his former professors.

The Elements of Style (sometimes called White & Strunk’s Elements of Style) was originally composed and self-published by William Strunk Jr. for his English students at Cornell University. It contained what Dr. Strunk Jr. considered the fundamentals: “Seven rules of usage, eleven principles of composition, a few matters of form, and a list of words and expressions commonly misused [and/or misspelled]….” When it was published by Harcourt, Brace & Howe in 1920, it included eight “elementary rules of usage,” ten “elementary principles of composition,” “a few matters of form,” a list of 49 “words and expressions commonly misused,” and a list of 57 “words often misspelled.” In the late 1950’s, Macmillan Publishers commissioned Mr. White to expand and modernize “the little book” (partially based on a 1935 edition by William Strunk Jr. and Edward A. Tenney). Since its 1959 publication, White & Strunk’s Elements of Style has been reprinted three times, illustrated, and served as the inspiration for an opera and a comprehensive history.

Mr. White won a Newberry Award, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal, a Presidential Freedom Award, a Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, a National Medal for Literature, and a L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award. He was also awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation for Letters, an award that actually recognized all of his work. In 2004, the Association of Booksellers for Children (ABC) even established an award in his honor for books that “embodied the universal read aloud standards that were created by [his work].” You might think all of those accolades meant that Mr. White always followed his own advice. But, let’s be real: talking farm animals, airplane-flying mice, and Public Relations specialists who just happen to be spiders wasn’t very standard in 1945 and 1952.

“No, I have never encountered any story plot like Charlotte’s Web. I do not believe that any other writer has ever told about a spider writing words in its web. Perhaps I should ask some of the children’s book ladies who go back even further in time than I do, but I am sure nothing even remotely like this has been written.”

– quoted from a letter addressed to “Andy” (E. B. White), from Ursula Nordstrom, Harper & Row publisher and editor-in-chief, Department of Books for Boys and Girls (dated April 2, 1952, as it appears in Dear Genuis: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom)  

“It used to be clear to me, slopping a pig, that as far as the pig was concerned I could not be counted on, and this, as I say, troubled me. Anyway, the theme of “Charlotte’s Web” is that a pig shall be saved, and I have an idea that somewhere deep inside me there was a wish to that effect.

 

As for Charlotte herself, I had never paid much attention to spiders until a few years ago…. Spiders are skilful [sic], amusing and useful, and only in rare instances has anybody ever come to grief because of a spider.”

 

“I haven’t told why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told you why I sneeze, either. A book is a sneeze”.

– quoted from a letter addressed to Ursula Nordstrom, Harper & Row publisher and editor-in-chief (Department of Books for Boys and Girls), from  E. B. White (dated September 29, 1952)

The January 1948 issue of The Atlantic contained an essay by E. B. White entitled, “Death of a Pig,” which described the short life and “premature expiration of a pig” – as well as the burial and how the whole community mourned the occasion. In the essay, Mr. White said, “I have written this account in penitence and in grief, as a man who failed to raise his pig, and to explain my deviation from the classic course of so many raised pigs.“ While there is no mention of a spider in the essay – and he doesn’t specifically mention a pig dying in his September 29, 1952 letter to Ursula Nordstrom, his publisher / editor – many believed that the essay wasn’t enough and that he felt the need to write more in order to express his sorrow and regret, to process his feelings about his experiences. On the other hand, it doesn’t take a letter to an editor (or a fan) to see how Jhumpa Lahiri has also used fiction to process personal experiences.

“In Bengali the word for pet name is daknam, meaning, literally, the name by which one is called, by friends, family, and other intimates, at home and in other private, unguarded moments. Pet names are a persistent remnant of childhood, a reminder that life is not always so serious, so formal, so complicated. They are a reminder, too, that one is not all things to all people.”

– quoted from The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Despite having conflicted feelings associated with her name and schooling, Jhumpa Lahiri went on to earn a B. A. in English literature from Barnard College of Columbia University and four degrees from Boston University. A few years after completing her doctorial thesis, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies became the seventh collection of short stories (in 82 years) to win the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. (There have now been only nine collections to win the award in over 100 years.) Several years after her award-winning debut, The New Yorker published her short story entitled, “The Namesake.” It was the story of a Bengali boy living in a strange land with a strange name.

The story became a book and then a movie and, in the process, “Jhumpa Lahiri” became a household name.

In addition to winning a Pulitzer Prize, Jhumpa Lahiri’s accolades include a PEN/Hemingway Award, a Frank O’Connor International Story, and the National Humanities Award. She has also been a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Award for Fiction. Her second collection of short stories, Unaccustomed Earth, debuted at number one on The New York Times best seller list – an achievement one book editor associated with her “newfound commercial clout,” but an achievement (I would humbly suggests) actually rests on the beauty and clarity of her storytelling. As one critic put it, “There is nothing accidental about her success; her plots are as elegantly constructed as a fine proof in mathematics.”

Unaccustomed Earth was also named number one by the editors of The New York Times Book Review’s “10 Best Books of 2008.” Perhaps, even more telling is the fact that when the collection won the Frank O’Connor International Story award that same year, there was no shortlist because, as reported by The Guardian on July 4, 2008, “The jurors decided that Unaccustomed Earth was so plainly the best book that they would jump straight from longlist to winner….” The Frank O’Connor award was one of the world’s richest awards for short story collections and normally had a longlist of approximately 60 books and a short list of three or four.

“In so many ways, his family’s life feels like a string of accidents, unforeseen, unintended, one incident begetting another…They were things for which it was impossible to prepare but which one spent a lifetime looking back at, trying to accept, interpret, comprehend. Things that should never have happened, that seemed out of place and wrong, these were what prevailed, what endured, in the end.” 

― quoted from The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri is a polyglot who speaks Bengali, English, and Italian. She, undoubtedly, also understands a little bit of Spanish (and maybe Greek). Not only has she written and translated work in (and out) of all three of the languages she speaks, in 2015 she wrote an essay for The New Yorker stating that she was now only writing in Italian. Since 2015, she has published two books in Italian and edited and translated at least two collections of work by Italian writers.

Dr. Lahiri’s love of language is obvious not only in the languages she speaks and writes, but also in the connections that she makes through her writing. Both The Namesake and Unaccustomed Earth have ties to two of her literary predecessors: Nikolai Gogol and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Some people might be confused by her success with the “masses,” because she is so clearly erudite. However, above and beyond anything else, what a reader finds in Jhumpa Lahiri’s books are regular, everyday people navigating the spaces between two worlds and two identities – just like she does. (Just like E. B. White’s characters do.)

“Writing was also an escape [for Jhumpa Lahiri]. Growing up brown and ‘foreign’ in a town where white was the predominant theme had its challenges. There was the persistent feeling of other, not American enough, not Indian enough, of constantly straddling fences, stretching identities. She is amused, and slightly annoyed, by Indians who immigrate to the United States and eagerly embrace a Caucasian identity, excitedly reporting to their Indian friends that they’d moved into an all-white neighborhood, where there were no blacks. Thanks to her parents — her mother would often retort to these friends, ‘What do you think you are?’ — she said, ‘I was never into any sort of denial.’”

– quoted from The Washington Post article entitled, “The Writer Who Began with a Hyphen” by Teresa Wiltz (dated October 8, 2003) 

Sunday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. [Look for “07112020 An Introduction”]

”His family name was Bashmachkin. It is evident from the name, that it originated in bashmak (shoe); but when, at what time, and in what manner, is not known. His father and grandfather, and even his brother-in-law, and all the Bashmachkins, always wore boots, and only had new heels two or three times a year. His name was Akakii Akakievich. It may strike the reader as rather singular and far-fetched; but he may feel assured that it was by no means far-fetched, and that the circumstances were such that it would have been impossible to give him any other name; and this was how it came about.”

– quoted from “The Overcoat” (as it appears in The Overcoat & Other Short Stories, Dover Thrift Editions) by Nikolai Gogol (story translation by Isabel F. Hapgood)

[Last year’s post for July 11th is linked above. Here’s different post related to the naming of things.]

### “Juliet: ‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;” WS ###

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