Maria Konnikova’s “An Antidote for Mindlessness” on The New Yorker’s Science and Tech “Elements” blog
If you practice yoga and meditation, you know the word: mindfulness, and if you’re like me, it strikes terror. Sprawled on the mat, you’re supposed to focus on your breath but all you can do is imagine the pizza maker, whose shop shares the building with the yoga studio, beating his crusts to death, or what the woman looks like who lives above the studio and creaks across the floor to answer her phone, or who is crashed out in the ambulances whose sirens scream through the streets. Not to mention the detritus trickling in from your day: Why did that colleague snap at you, and why hasn’t your mother called yet, and when will you have time to pick up those snowshoes you had restrung?
Well, as Maria Konnikova tells us, the monkey mind is more than frustrating. It hurts us. And learning to calm it through breath work and meditation heals us. Citing a slew of erudite scientific and psychological studies (taken from her book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes), Konnikova shows how practicing mindfulness reduces stress and strengthens neural structures in the brain, all of which improve memory, work performance, emotional equilibrium, and — this one is important — lifespan.
Sandra Steingraber’s “The Talk-Around” on Orion Magazine’s Lay of the Land
Mindfulness takes practice in meditation, but I wonder if reading “mindful” writers also helps by taking us into the present moment of their essays. I find Sandra Steingraber’s piece mindful in a couple of ways. First, she’s incredibly observant, which takes you, the reader, into the imaginative present: the essay opens with her standing in a barbershop — of all places — staring at two men in mirrors, one getting a haircut before going off to summer camp for the first time, the other getting a shave after his release from stroke rehab. I found these images — the sound of the clippers, the blonde hair falling, the slurred speech of paralysis — meditative in their status detail and crisp contours. The two men, Steingraber confesses, are her son and husband. Even so, she’s out of place in the intensely male barbershop: “Hanging out in a barbershop was like walking into a men’s restroom” she writes. “There was some unspoken code of conduct here that I didn’t get.”
This insight gets me to the second way her essay evokes mindfulness: she brings an ordinary walk around a neighborhood to a heightened, concentrated pitch through rhythm, aphorism and switching momentarily to third person. “How come we only got ten years between strollers and strokes?” her husband Jeff asks. And then she adds:
Except that, because of the aphasia, he didn’t really say it.
Behold, declared the falling arm.
Why? asked the palm of the hand.
“I don’t know,” replied Jeff’s wife, who lifted his arm and kissed his hand.
In this small scene, meaning, like breath, flows through the reader.
I recently watched Sarah Polley’s brilliant documentary Stories We Tell, which should be mandatory viewing for students of memoir and creative nonfiction. The film tells a powerful and gripping story in a collagistic style, piecing together the memories and the observations of both key and peripheral characters, all the while problematizing the telling of the story and its essential “truths.” It questions the meaning of memory, the stability of memory, and the constructed – not factual, indefinite – nature of all stories, as well as their necessity in our lives. Polley recreates scenes from her and her mother’s life to illustrate anecdotes shared by her interviewees, and in those reconstructions we see the way in which memory takes on the nostalgic, off-kilter, grainy quality of Super 8 film, the way in which it zeroes in on certain faces, certain moments. We also see how, ultimately, the memory is filtered through the storyteller’s aesthetic: Polley’s choice of angles, filters, voiceovers, clips.
With that film still strong on my mind I read Dani Shapiro’s open letter to a disillusioned reader who accused her of fictionalizing her memoir, Slow Motion. With the aggravated patience of a mother explaining something for the upteenth time to a recalcitrant child, Shapiro highlights the difference between autobiography and memoir: essentially, the latter is not meant to be a dossier of the writer’s entire existence, organized around a timeline of facts and a cataloguing of incidents. Shapiro points out that “[t]he memoirist looks through a single window in a house full of windows,” and the most salient memoirs often focus on only one aspect of a writer’s life: “William Styron’s depression. Vivian Gornick’s relationship with her mother. Tobias Wolff’s boyhood.” She also signals the fact that readers want a story, which doesn’t mean that writers must invent alcoholic escapades but rather that writers choose the events, moments, and characters that carry the most weight, that haunt and move them the most, and explore those in depth, as opposed to including every single last dinner at Applebee’s with Aunt May because that happened in between event B and C.
Writing, always, is about making decisions: slowing down time in certain places, speeding it up in others, rendering coherent what, as Shapiro points out, is in life a “random, merciless jumble.”