Alas! With the Labor Day holiday now come and gone, our summer days have now passed us. The last three months away from school has given me a lot of time to rest and do more of the other activities that I enjoy outside all of the academic work.
One such activity is reading books. This summer, I read seven books, and I wanted to highlight some of the more noteworthy ones here.
Dazzle Camouflage by Ezra Berkley Napon
In the interest of transparency, I actually know the person who wrote this book as well as a few of the people whose work are documented within. This book chronicles theatrical styles of grassroots activism that have been carried out in various regions of the US. If you are interested in the type of activism that extends beyond the usual protests, rallies, and boycotts, this book provides a striking view of the ways to incorporate performance art, satire, and unconventional artistic expression into all kinds of public advocacy work. The writing is easy to understand, and the historical anecdotes give clear examples of how this kind of activism can be done.
The Secret Piano by Zhu Xiao-Mei
I was drawn to this book primarily because I actively seek out books about pianos and pianists. Needless to say, this historical fiction and autobiography certainly met that criteria and then some. This story shares the struggles of a young pianist who has to survive the harsh conditions of a work camp along with the ravages of the Chinese totalitarian Communist regime that sent her there. It shows how her love for playing piano sustained her spirit during the tumultuous and dehumanizing cultural revolution in China.
Well–paced and thoughtfully written, there is a delicacy and sweetness to this story that makes the whole saga purely satisfying to read.
A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles
Simply put, I loved this book. It has the makings of classic historical fiction. The book’s central character Count Alexander Rostov is an endearing and enigmatic man of many passions. I could not help but cheer for him as he lives a simple but rich life living under house arrest in Russia’s iconic Metropol Hotel in Moscow. There are flashes of whimsy, intrigue, romance, and sheer delight in this fantastic narrative. The writing displays the author’s commanding gifts in the arts of storytelling and descriptive prose. I would emphatically recommend this book to anyone looking for a well-written and dynamic story. This is the best fiction I have read so far this year.
Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport
I have been making changes in the way I engage with social media and the digital aspects of modern life. This book has inspired so many ideas for me that I wrote about it in a recent blog post:
I have read many of Newport’s books and follow his blog. This book finds him in top form dispensing thoughtful ideas and practices toward combating the perils of modern technology (like cell phones and texting) and addictive social media usage. For anyone trying to live a life that is more engaged with actual human beings and the physical world around us and less entrenched in corporatized technology and websites, this book is for you.
Now that fall has more or less arrived, I have a set of new books to explore as the weather gets cooler and the beautiful fall colors start to arrive in my forest neighborhood. If you have any great book recommendations, let me know.
Find a wonderful book to settle into, and open up your world to limitless possibilities!
This past Wednesday (on my birthday), I released my short film YUP on Youtube! It was one of several film projects I worked on in the past year and a complete departure from anything I had ever done in the past. This week on my blog, I wanted to share a few of my thoughts about the project:
If you have not seen it yet, here it is:
Maybe you have a bunch of questions. Such as . . .
Where are the Chihuahuas?
What do the gym members drink when they enter the space just before getting slapped?
What is the code?
Why is Minerva besieged at the end?
I will tell you now that every detail of this little film serves some purpose. I put a lot of thought and intention behind the script and visuals. Entry into the space where everything happens is only granted by at least one swallow of the mystery liquid and a violent slap on the face. The answers to all of the other questions relate what happens further down in the story. If and when the sequels are made, all will be revealed.
When I was developing this piece, I had a few goals I wanted to accomplish:
I wanted to be bold and adventurous with the story. This meant creating a narrative that, in the long run, would not be linear in a traditional sense. There are a few elements that seem random, but this is by design.
I wanted to work with the immensely talented artists in my community here in middle Tennessee. Out of their willingness to help me tell this story, there was a synergy that bonded us together. It was magical.
I wanted to experiment with movement and dance. Again, I chose to express this in a non-traditional way. The stretching, the “reach for Satan”, the Versatile dance, and the “sinister approach” by the three spies near the end all reflect my ideas in this regard.
I wanted to use rich jewel and neon tones in the costuming and make-up. There needed to be bold splashes of color in as many shots as possible.
I wanted to take a stab at creating music made exclusively for this film. “WAWA” was the direct result of this. It was the first thing I worked on before filming, and I connected with my friend (and producer) Rob Tonini to record it shortly after filming wrapped.
I wanted to be creative with the dialogue by building frames through the movement of the arms and body.
Mostly, I wanted the film to be quirky and swim against the tides of convention. The opening sequence features what appears to be a man with a purse and wearing a tutu. A woman named “Laxatavia” wears strange make-up and seems to have violent tendencies. Another woman has the name “RaRaaa Kaka Kaka!!!” and uses kitchenware as a weapon. And then, of course, you have the “gently abrasive exfoliating skin creme”. What’s up with that?
Originally, this film was an assignment for my Single Cam II class at my university in which I simply had to film a conversation of any kind. I let my imagination run wild with this piece, and I gave myself permission to delve deep into dance and movement, make-up and costuming, and comedy well beyond the actual conversation in question.
I understand that this film was a creative risk. It may certainly be an acquired taste for some more than others, but I am okay with that. I was (and still am) vastly more interested in the creative process and development of this piece than its reception.
Sometimes, you simply have to create purely for the sake of creating. I am happy that I did just that.
It was late in the sweltering afternoon. The day was Thursday, August 8, 2019, in Washington, DC. I was lucky to find a street vendor who sold cups of ice cream. I ordered my favorite flavor, cookies and cream, and sat down on the steps of the Department of Agriculture building nearby.
I needed that ice cream. I needed it more than I usually would. I needed it because I had just spent most of the entire day taking in the exhibits at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
If you have never visited this place, you should know that it is almost entirely devoted to the mass killings of millions of Jews (along with quite a number of gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, political prisoners, and homosexuals among them) at the hands of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi German forces during World War II. There is a palpable, almost surreal, sadness about this place. This is what separates this museum from the Smithsonian and other attractions in our nation’s capital.
You will not find delightful enjoyment here. What you will witness is a sobering account of how hatred and evil can manifest themselves in a real-world scenario and how resilience and compassion still bloomed against impossible and incomprehensible odds.
The first part of the museum I experienced was a section called “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story.” Pages of a diary that a boy named Daniel had written introduce each part of this exhibit. We essentially see the world of the holocaust through a child’s eye. You walk through a replica of the small and downtrodden home he shared with his sister and his parents. With each step, you gradually get to understand the intense severity of his life.
Yet, despite such desperate and meager circumstances, there is a child’s innocence that resonates in those diary pages and in those spaces. I thought this exhibit, which seemed to be tailored for much younger patrons, was incredibly clever, tastefully designed, and very rich. As an adult, I thought it was particularly heartbreaking, but maybe a child would not think so.
Up next, I went into the auditorium. The museum had invited a holocaust survivor named Kurt Pauly for its First Person Speaker Series to share his stories and answer questions on this day. For over an hour, I got to hear about what it was like to be a Jewish child growing up in that era and what his father had done to get his family out of Germany.
Afterward, I got to meet him, ask a question, and get a portrait taken with him by the professional photographer on site. (As soon as I get that photo, I will update this post to feature it.)
Finally, after leaving the auditorium, I headed toward the sliding doors that took you into the main event. The permanent exhibit winds itself around the building in a way that makes you go up and down different levels. It certainly feels like a journey as you travel through and the darkness of it all slowly unravels.
I cannot speak for anyone else, but at every turn along the way in the museum’s permanent exhibit, I felt waves of sorrow crashing into me. Just when you think it could not possibly get sadder, you walk over to the next part of the exhibit from where you were, and it does.
There are historical details that are shared along with numerous stories about the sheer hopelessness and devastation of it all.
One beautiful space (among many) displays hundreds of photos of families. These portraits are mounted on the walls and go all the way up into a high skylight. You can see entire families in their daily lives, children with bright eyes and warm smiles, friends among friends, tender moments with laughter, and quiet moments of dignity. It crushed me to know that all of the people in these photos were cruelly decimated and wiped out of existence for simply being who they were.
I could go on and on about the rest of what I saw, but that is not a story for me to tell on my own. I hope that, by writing this post, I have planted a seed of interest in you, my dear reader, to someday make a pilgrimage to visit the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. It is not an easy place to experience, but it is completely worthwhile.
I took my time going through the entire exhibit, but there were still several components that required closer attention. I could easily spend another day combing through everything. Even all that I have shared with you in this post is but a small fraction of what the museum has to share.
I’ll leave you all with a question that I have an answer to.
Was it all hopelessness and devastation?
Amid the ruins that are laid bare are stories of scrappy, gritty survival and countless stores of heroism and compassion by people who did not stand idly by. People from all walks of life carried out covert operations to save Jewish families and children across Europe. These people, despite the danger to themselves and their own families, did all they could. They were extraordinary.
I have seen Schindler’s List and Sophie’s Choice, and I’ve read The Diary of Anne Frank. I thought I knew enough about the Holocaust. I was wrong. Here is a short list of what I took away from my day learning about the holocaust:
Nationalism, when it sweeps over an entire nation, will be blind to the danger it presents against those who deviate from its demands.
Question and defy anyone who teaches you to disrespect and devalue another human being.
Adolf Hitler was the epitome of evil.
One cannot imagine how truly terrible it was to live in a Nazi concentration camp. Try to do so, and the truth was worse than that.
The holocaust did not end with the demise of Nazi Germany. It is still happening against various ethnic groups across the world to this day.
My heart goes out to the survivors. To know that the lives of their loved ones were taken in such a cruel, inhumane, and heartless way is simply soul-crushing. They carried this hurt in their hearts for the rest of their lives.
The United States government could have done more to stop the World War II holocaust from happening, but they did not. This is infuriating.
The US government, despite knowing what was actually happening, turned away Jews from coming to the US to escape persecution and death.
The country of Denmark secretly transported 7,800 Jews (along with almost 700 non-Jewish spouses) by small boats and across the sea over to Sweden, thereby safeguarding their lives against the Nazi’s and their concentration camps.
RAOUL WALLENBERG. Find out who he was, and then carve out a small space in your heart to remember his name.
It might surprise you to know that my visit to the USHMM was an item on my life’s bucket list. I am extremely happy and grateful to have been able to do this. Thank you to my friends Rob and Preston for unknowingly helping to make this happen.
So yeah, ice cream. I sat on the steps of the Department of Agriculture building that stands across the street from the museum. Most people look happy and content when they eat ice cream. I was a total sad sack, and I must have actually looked quite pitiful. My energy was depleted, and after all that I had seen that day, I felt so sad. The flavor of that ice cream started to draw me out of that dark place.
At the end of the exhibit, patrons are invited to write on sheets of paper and share thoughts about what they learned from it all.
First, I expressed gratitude for the careful and thorough attention paid to every detail. I believe that the exhibits at the USHMM are of the highest quality. They are tasteful, poignant, unsentimental, and honest.
Lastly, I wrote the words, “Compassion must guide us, all the days of our lives.”
In the natural world of forest and ocean ecosystems, there is a well-documented phenomenon called keystone species. This term refers to specific animals whose existence and practices have an enormous and enriching effect upon the environments in which they live.
The beaver had previously been hunted for its furs and considered a nuisance due to the flooding it creates from the damns it builds. Both of these considerations primarily grow out of the selfish and less wholesome needs of human beings.
As far as the rest of nature and the earth goes, the beaver is an absolute godsend. Those dams that we complain about support numerous salmon and fish populations. They help to purify water by trapping sediment. and perhaps the biggest impact is that they create wetlands. Wetlands, in turn, can store carbon pollution for hundreds of years, provide buffer zones for storms and wind, facilitate flood control, furnish fertile farmland for rice and various crops, and mitigate sea level rise. Because of their unique locations bordering salt and freshwater ecosystems, they serve as a sanctuary for hundreds of different species, both endangered and otherwise.
I hope that you get the point. If you remove the beaver from this equation, you threaten the stability and longevity of vast stretches of coastal lands and ecosystems. That is a reality I cannot even imagine.
African elephants, wolves, and grizzly bears, among other animals, all share the noble distinction of being keystone species.
All of this has gotten me thinking about the concept of a keystone in my own life. What is a habit or action whose short and long term effects are far-reaching? What daily act is exponentially greater than the sum of its parts? What are the simple things I can do that basically improve everything else in my life?
There are five practices that I have established as keystone habits. I have determined that the pursuit of all of these disciplines every day vastly improves everything else.
Bullet points please . . .
Yes, water. I drink lots of it these days. Of course, you can drink any variety of fluids that could work just fine, but I always go back to water. Other than low-key being the universal solvent, it has that uncanny characteristic of having no calories, sugars, caffeine, or carbs. They say 8 glasses a day is a good start, but I just keep a cup of water nearby at all times while chugging away as much as possible.
This means my skin stays smooth and hydrated. I have more energy throughout the day. Water helps with digestion and regularity by keeping everything flowing. It can satiate hunger without adding fat and calories. It clears toxins from the body, thereby strengthening your immunity. Throughout the day, it regulates your body temperature. Improved breathing, better heart and kidney health, and physical performance boosts are among the other benefits of regularly drinking this simple fluid. (Getting up to pee often can be annoying, but the added physical activity this forces is a good thing.)
With an average lifespan of 15 years (numerous breeds can live well over twenty), they say that cats have nine lives. Sure, I can agree with that, but is it purely a coincidence that they sleep upwards of 16 hours per day? The benefits of sleep have been well documented.
For myself, a good night’s sleep, and various naps throughout the day, help me stay energetic and alert. Sleep affords a mental and physiological break for my brain against the onslaught of multi-sensory information coming in from all directions. Sleep gives my body a chance to rest so that it can do everything else better. I try to get at least seven hours of sleep at night, and I take brief naps during the day whenever I feel tired.
Incidentally, I have questioned the inclusion of sleep on this list because it is already a biological function of the body. I decided to keep it on this list by regarding it as a priority practice, as opposed to treating it nonchalantly as we do with “pooping” or “sneezing”. Being more intentional and aggressive about when and how one sleeps reaps dividends.
There is so much about mental health that is intangible. Because it is experienced in fluctuating waves of feelings and emotions, it is often hard to quantify what is actually worth alleviating. For years now, I have engaged in a daily practice of expressing gratitude. This involves saying what I an thankful for out loud and saying the words “Thank You” as often as I possibly can to anyone everywhere.
I am still grasping the effects of this daily practice, but I have found that I am more resilient when faced with setbacks. I linger longer on the pros and the positives of most scenarios. I smile more often. I value and deeply appreciate what I have. Overall, I am a more pleasant person who other people like to be around (as opposed to a miserable lump of flesh that complains about everything and feels constantly victimized). Daily gratitude has vastly improved my mental health. Exponentially, it has upgraded how I feel about my life.
Pursue Sacred Mindfulness
This is the newest keystone habit I have pursued. The concept came to me from this blog post by Leo Babauta. This means that EVERYTHING I do involves single-minded focus, reverence, and presence of mind. Imagine the most precious object in your life. You handle it with the greatest care. You are methodical with every movement because it holds immense value and is sacred to your entire existence.
Now, imagine applying that to EVERYTHING that you do all day long. Your brain will be firing on fewer cylinders. You will have a stronger awareness of how you feel. Your day will flow more calmly, and as I have continued to discover, you will actually get more done.
Sacred mindfulness is a form of meditation. You simply focus on the actual thing that you are doing right in front of you and nothing else. You give that act the respect and care it needs. I have been more calm and productive in all aspects of my life because of this daily meditative practice. Try it. You’ll see.
I play piano. (AKA Engage in a creative flow.)
This keystone habit is specific to my life, but it can be adapted to other scenarios. I have been playing piano for years, and when I do so, this is the place where I can mentally block everything out and easily find my own creative flow. I literally just let go of everything, and my music sings, unencumbered and full. If you can create a space in your life in which there is some kind of creative flow, it will deepen any other work that you do. For some people, this takes the form of dance or drawing. Other people paint or knit. Some people garden while others sing songs or write.
The art that you happen to create is actually not the point entirely. The goal is the synergy that happens between what your brain is thinking, what your hands are doing, and the emotions that you are experiencing. Active creative expression will make you feel alive and joyful. I play piano as often as I can (as well as a couple of other instruments). The creative flow that my body feels and projects as a result is both mysterious and thrilling.
If you haven’t found a creative outlet yet, please know that the formative time of learning the craft will feel difficult and challenging at first, but keep at it every day. With patience and persistence, you will start to feel the flow in time.
Life without any of these keystone practices would be much more difficult than it needs to be. Life with them feels more rich, calm, and fulfilling.
Maybe your keystone practices are different from mine. That’s okay. The point is that you pursue them. One keystone is a master key that opens many doors.
The experience of solitude gets a bad rap. Perhaps it is because it bears the same first few letters as the term “solitary confinement”, or maybe most people simply equate it with loneliness. Either way, we impose limitations upon this term by only thinking of it in those ways.
I utilize solitude in my life differently from what those associations imply.
I actively choose solitude to be an integral part of my life. It is not involuntary in any way, such as being the result of irrepressible depression or anxiety. Instead, it is a tool I employ to combat sad feelings.
Solitude can be physical space and slow time for me to be alone with my thoughts and to clear space in my head to focus in on a question or conflict I need to confront.
Solitude is my time to be alone with no one else’s needs to address but my own.
Solitude is a forum in which I can openly express my feelings such as anger, sadness, grief, disappointment, or joy. There are no judgments and dismissals from other people in my solitude.
Solitude creates valuable moments for reflection and contemplation.
Solitude is stillness. The chaos and disarray of modern life fall outside of its calm and peaceful territory.
So, how do I incorporate solitude in my life?
Honestly, there is not much to it. I basically seek out moments in which I can be by myself.
When I am driving my car by myself, I turn off the radio and any music. Only the hum of my car’s engine and my speedy tires create a soundtrack to the quiet stillness inside my car and in my head.
I go on walks by myself. I am lucky to have a driveway that is half of a mile long and surrounded by trees and hills. I also walk as much as I can pretty much anywhere.
I sit on a bench in a park or at a desk in a library and put my headphones on. Usually, my headphones are not attached to any devices. They effectively tell everyone around me that I cannot be interrupted, and they suppress the daily sounds of an outside world.
The bathroom is often a sanctuary for solitude. I am alone and relaxed.
I lie down on my bed or on a sofa when no one is around and let my thoughts wander.
Perhaps you get the picture by now. Every life, person, and situation is unique. Wherever and whenever you carve out time to be by yourself is your prerogative.
There are, however, some simple rules I follow when I experience solitude.
I turn off all cell phones and digital devices. This includes anything that can play music.
I take at least a couple of deep breathes at the beginning. Deep breathing gets me to relax significantly.
I go to quiet places. They are most conducive to solitude. It is not always necessary, but I find that having fewer distractions around enhances the experience.
Within the continuous juggling act of my daily life, I carve out moments of solitude so that I can find clarity and stillness. This gives me the silent space to look around and take a proper inventory of my life and my struggles. Most importantly, it gives me time to be alone with my feelings and to sit with them. They often have much to say, and I need to listen.
Do you have time and space in your life for solitude?
You have an entire universe of your own making to explore with one gentle and surefooted step at a time.
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