Scarlet Letters

I had to read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in high school. I didn’t enjoy it. The premise sounded interesting and a bit sexy but the novel didn’t hit me in either way. I wasn’t ready for it. (There were several TV and movie versions of the novel. One starred Demi Moore as Hester. That might be the version I was hoping for in high school.

I read it again in a college course and it made more sense.  It is a truly American novel. It has strong men and women characters. Even if you never read it, you might know the basic story. It is set in Puritan Boston in 1642-1649 and tells the story of Hester Prynne. She had an affair and got pregnant and has to wear the scarlet letter A to show she is an adulterer. That situation still doesn’t sit well with American society but in the 17th century, it was almost inconceivably unacceptable. Lots of sin and guilt.

One of my favorite novelists is John Updike. He wrote a kind of trilogy of novels that bring aspects of The Scarlet Letter into modern times.

His A Month of Sundays is about a clergyman gone bad. Reverend Tom Marshfield is a Puritan Arthur Dimmesdale who is sexually disgraced and gets sent away from his parish to a desert retreat for some spiritual renewal.

The novel is a collection of his weekly journal entries about a variety of topics including his wife (the daughter of his ethics professor) and the organist he had an affair with at the parish. While in the desert, he finds himself desiring the woman who runs the retreat –  Ms. Prynne.

“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered
as to which may be the true.”  –  Hawthorne

In Updike’s novel Roger’s Version, Roger Lambert is a middle-aged dignity. professor of divinity and Roger’s version of the story is a modern version of Roger Chillingworth’s version of the love triangle from Hawthorne.

Roger, the modern cuckold, is battling a computer scientist named Dale who believes he is gathering evidence of God’s existence. Professor Roger debates Dale and is determined to disprove Dale’s evidence.

Being it is an Updike novel and related to Hawthorne, Roger’s much younger wife, Esther, ends up having an affair with Dale.

Like A Month of Sundays, there is humor and allegory here and a battle of faith and reason with a shot of revenge,

HawthorneBefore I get to Updike’s third novel, you need a bit of background. In 1841, Hawthorne became a charter member of Brook Farm, an agricultural collective founded by Unitarian minister George Ripley. It was near Boston and Hawthorne thought this farm life would give him some inspiration and time to write. It didn’t work out that way.

This transcendental sort-of-utopian commune had him cutting straw, milking cows, and shoveling manure. He left after just a few months, but he did use the experience in his 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance.

Updike’s comparable version is simply called S. He plays off both Hester’s story and some of the idealism of Blithedale which falls apart as egos clash and the idyll proves unsatisfying.

The “S”  is Sarah Worth. She is a descendent of Hester and a native New Englander.  Sarah leaves her husband and children and heads to a commune of Buddhists led by a mystic called the Arhat. At this ashram in Arizona, she tries to find salvation.

Updike’s form for the novel is Sarah’s letters and tapes that she sends to her husband, daughter, brother, dentist, hairdresser, and psychiatrist.

Updike completes his trilogy with this Hester Prynne version of the story. I liked this book but I wasn’t happy with the parodies of the spiritual pilgrims, Buddhists and enlightenment. Then again, Hawthorne also satirized the people of Blithedale, so I suppose it fits.

“The founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.”

The Diamond Sutra

Diamond Sutra

I wrote something earlier that briefly referenced the Diamond Sutra, but it’s a book that deserves its own reference.

The Diamond Sutra was printed in 868 A.D. and is probably the world’s oldest book. At least it is the oldest bearing a specific date of publication.

The Diamond Sutra is a collection of Buddhist teachings. “Sutra” comes from Sanskrit and means teachings or scriptures. The writing is presented as a dialogue between the Buddha and Subhuti, one of his elderly disciples.

The copy of the Diamond Sutra that is considered the oldest was printed with seven woodblocks. Each block was one page and the seven sheets were bound together to form a scroll about 16 feet long.

The Diamond Sutra itself is relatively short and was meant to be memorized. It can be recited in about 40 minutes, which made it popular with Buddhist practitioners.

“As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space
an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble
a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning
view all created things like this.”
(Buddha speaking in the Diamond Sutra as translated by Red Pine)

The Buddha declares that the sutra will be called “The Diamond of Transcendent Wisdom” because wisdom can cut like a sharp diamond through illusion. In the sūtra, the Buddha has finished his daily walk with the monks to gather offerings of food, and he sits down to rest. Elder Subhūti comes forth and asks the Buddha a question. What follows is a dialogue regarding the nature of perception.

The Buddha often uses things that later in Zen Buddhism came to be known as koans.  For example, he says “What is called the highest teaching is not the highest teaching.”  It is generally thought that he was trying to help Subhūti and his followers “unlearn” preconceived, limited notions of the nature of reality and enlightenment.

All conditioned phenomena
Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, or shadows;
Like drops of dew or flashes of lightning;
Thusly should they be contemplated.

It is said although The Diamond Sutra looks like a book, is really the body of the Buddha.

The book was discovered in a series of caves near Dunhuang, China which came to be known as the “Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.” I have written separately about the discovery of the caves.

Looking Inward With Hesse

Hesse statue in Calw

July 2 is the birthday of Hermann Hesse. The writer, poet, and painter was born in Calw, Germany, in 1877. I have written about him before and I have read a number of his novels and some of his non-fiction. But the part of his life that continues to interest me the most is the trip to India he made in 1911. It led him to begin studying Eastern religions, ancient Hindu and Chinese cultures.

His study and travels certainly inspired his novel Siddhartha, about the early life of Gautama Buddha, but it also influenced his other writing that explore an individual’s search for authenticity, self-knowledge and spirituality.

Hesse’s books were inspired by India and influenced by the inward-looking philosophy of Buddhism and theosophy. Hesse’s grandfather was a missionary who lived for many years in Tellichery in Kerala, India.

Siddhartha was more than 40 years past its publication when it had a renaissance with readers when it was adopted by the 1960s counterculture movement. It turned on a number of young people who saw themselves as the same kind of seeker as the young Gautama Buddha. It led some to embrace some form of Buddhism – or at least think they were embracing some form of Buddhism.

“Hesse didn’t live quite long enough to see what the sixties made of him, but he had seen similar cults before, and he didn’t trust them. ‘I often have cause to get a little annoyed at schoolboys reading and enthusing over Steppenwolf, he wrote, in 1955. ‘After all, the fact is that I wrote this book shortly before my fiftieth birthday.'”

Hesse’s path was not a straight one. He said early on that he wanted to be “a poet or nothing at all.” He attended a number of schools in his journey to become a writer. He fell into a deep depression at the age of 15 and attempted suicide.

“The world had caught him; pleasure, covetousness, idleness, and finally also that vice he had always despised and scorned as the most foolish—acquisitiveness. Property, possessions and riches had also finally trapped him. They were no longer a game and a toy. They had become a chain and a burden.” –  Siddhartha

Hesse moved from Germany to Ticino, Switzerland. There he wrote some of his most important works, including Steppenwolf, Demain and Narcissus and Goldmund. In 1924, he became a Swiss citizen

Hesse was opposed to the Nazis as they took control of Germany and throughout the war he supported German refugees, including Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, as they fled the Nazi regime. During WWII, he wrote his last great work, The Glass Bead Game, which won him the 1946 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Mother of the World
“The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces… Even the hour of our death may send us speeding on to fresh and newer spaces, and life may summon us to newer races. So be it, heart: bid farewell without end.” – The Glass Bead Game  (Image: Mother of the World via Wikimedia) 

Writing About Writing

There are almost as many books about writing as there are writers who have published books. Well, maybe not quite that many books on writing but there are a lot of them.

Here are three that are on my shelf.

Stephen King has sold more than 350 million books. Obviously, he knows how to write what sells, but does that mean he can tell you how to write? I had my doubts when someone recommended and handed this book to me. It very pleasantly surprised me.

There are real insights into the creative process. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft has some of his life story mixed in with what he has learned. I like the section on his editing process. It also has a good reading list if you want to go deeper.

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (also available as an audiobook) is also about writing and about being a writer. The two things are inextricably connected.

Readers of the book often say they like her acceptance of “sh@#ty first drafts” in order to get to “good second drafts and terrific third drafts.” This book is often humorous but it takes writing very seriously.

I read the book first 25 years ago after having been writing for much longer but still not allowing myself to feel like I was a Writer.

The odd title is explained in this way: “Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’”

That is good general advice about doing many things – weeding the garden, cleaning out the garage, hiking a long trail, writing a poem.

If a more stern approach is needed to get you writing, then On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction might be a better choice. Non-fiction is sometimes viewed as “more serious” than fiction or poetry. That is not true, but William Zinsser’s approach is more instruction manual. It is rarely funny – even in a chapter about writing humor. (I discovered in a college course on humor that humor is not comedy and often not funny in the sense of laughter.

I’m making this book sound too stern. Zinsser is a writer, editor and teacher and all three show in the book. He began as a newspaper writer, went on to magazines and has written books on baseball, music, travel, and those and other genres are covered, including people, places, science, technology, business, sports, the arts and memoir.

I read this book before using it as a text in teaching a writing course. It is probably consider a classic by now, much like The Elements of Style which was standard book to have on the syllabus fifty years ago.

If there is any of the writer’s life that he mixes with writing, it might be that he feels that “clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other.”

The best advice to become a better writer is still two simple things: read widely and often, especially in the genre you want to write; stop reading and start writing.

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There. That is a great title. And good advice. It is the title of a non-fiction book about conducting your own mindfulness retreat.

It is difficult to define a mindfulness retreat because different people and groups define it differently. You’ll see the term meditation retreat or even yoga retreat used interchangeably.

A search online will turn up retreats at various centers that are very different from what Sylvia Boorstein’s book is suggesting. One web post on the “best retreats” at well-known retreat centers offers mindfulness retreats where you can experience anything from Pranayama breathing lessons along with stress-management classes, facials, massages, and private yoga sessions. The center nearest to me offers two-night single cabin room accommodation packages with three meals a day, an arctic plunge pool, mud lounge, Scotch hoses (huh?), infinity pool, and services such as acupuncture and life coaching. The menu is not Spartan and includes fresh, raw, organic foods, juices, and smoothies as well as Mediterranean cuisine but also hamburgers and tater tots. Most of these “best” retreats are around $1000 for a weekend. That alone would cause me stress.

Sylvia Boorstein’s approach is a much more down-to-earth guide. The book guides you through a three-day retreat plan and also includes lessons on how to achieve through meditation practices some serenity and focus.

An important caveat is that you need a 3-5 day stretch where it will be possible to step away from your life. You need the time and a place, but the time is more important and possibly harder to obtain.

This rainy Memorial Day 3-day time would have been a good choice for some people, but it takes planning. For me, I had a variety of things on the calendar. None of those things were recreational or meditative. There were scheduled good things (meeting friends; an art gallery talk), obligations (dealing with my older sister in a nursing home), and the unexpected (a burned-out condensate pump on our air conditioner that flooded the basement). Life intrudes on Life.

Boorstein says that any place will do, but I think most of us would like something out in nature – the mountain cabin or the ocean beach – but a backyard works too. Solitude is important. Being distracted by people, including a partner who is not retreating or kids, will not work.

Other than that, you don’t need much besides the book. Maybe a mat or blanket and a chair or bench. Even those are optional if you’re good with sitting on the ground. You need to eat and drink but maybe this is the time to go with water and wise, minimal, healthy food too.

I was attracted to Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There by that unexpected title. It also reminded me of the first time I did some serious meditation days. My wife asked me what I was supposed to do. I said, “Just sit and empty my mind.” She replied, sarcastically, “You should be great at that.”

Of course, it is not easy. What seems to most people to be “not doing anything” is actually doing something quite difficult. Try to stop thinking. It is probably impossible, but you can get closer with practice.

This kind of practice and retreat doesn’t have to be attached to philosophy or programs, though it often is associated with one. I began my mediation practices in college because I met a girl who said she was a “Zen Buddhist” and I wanted to get closer to her. I became more attached to the practice than her. I drifted away from regular practice and being in a group after college. I reentered it in a more serious way when I met a man who is an American Jesuit priest, professor of theology, psychoanalyst, and Zen rōshi in the White Plum lineage.

Retreats, even if labeled Buddhist, are usually open to persons of all religious and non-religious affiliations. Weejend or weeklong retreats I have attended usually mix zazen (seated meditation in half-hour plus periods), kinhin (walking meditation, my favorite), chanting, dharma talks, and daisan (one on one interviews with a teacher), and beginners instruction. Sometimes they are silent. Sometimes they involve work at the center.

Though religion and philosophy do not have to be part of the retreat or your intention, my second serious reentry into meditation and mindfulness came when I went to talk by Robert Kennedy. His talk was, and his book Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit is, about the intersection of Zen Buddhism and Christianity.  Kennedy says that “What I looked for in Zen was not a new faith, but a new way of being Catholic that grew out of my own lived experience and would not be blown away by authority or by changing theological fashion.” He would say that God is in the Zendo.

For a time I attended his zendo sessions as they were not far from my home. But I have never been a good group member and organizations, membership, facilities, and fees all feel wrong to me.

And so, Sylvia Boorstein‘s book seemed right for me. In some ways, she is like Roshi Kennedy. Boorstein is a respected teacher of Buddhist Insight Meditation and has also remained an observant Jew.  One of her other books is That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist where she writes about how she resolved these two aspects of her life in a complementary way.

The lesson from both of these teachers is that mindfulness and even Buddhism do not replace your religious beliefs or is it a way to convert you. I haven’t come across any atheist retreat centers but they probably exist. Certainly, completely non-denominational retreats are available.

In Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There, she writes:

"I've noticed license plate frames that say "I'd rather be sailing" or "I'd rather be bowling." Sometimes I think it's fun to see the rather-be-doing frames because they are a hint about the driver. Other times I start reflecting about the fact that preferring to be doing something else always diminishes the present moment. I imagine starting a business that produces license plate frames that read "I'm totally content right now."

I attempted Boorstein’s retreat once before when my wife was away for a few days. I did it at home and I was too distracted. If I do it again, I really do need to “get away.” The basic schedule is to arrive, sit, walk, sit, tea, sleep, etc.

The book is intended to be read in sections with some time taken to reflect. My first reading of it was a sit-down-in-a-chair with my tea reading, not a retreat. Of course, armchair mindfulness is not the intention., but you could also do that.

Mindfulness cultivates the habit of being able to deal with life when things aren’t happening in the way we’d like. Mindfulness instruction is deceptively simple: pay attention. That is attentive sitting and alert walking. You can be in the moment when you’re weeding the garden or shoveling the snow. The practice becomes a part of your everyday life – not unconsciously, but consciously.

I doubt that he was a Buddhist or meditator, but Paul Revere had the words “Live Contented” inscribed on the wedding ring he gave to his spouse.

I took some ideas from the book that seem like little lessons, aphorisms, or koans.

Feel all of your body.
Slow is not better than fast, it’s just different.
Nothing is worth thinking about does not mean that Nothing is worth thinking about
There are no in-between times. 
Eat slowly. Taste it fully
Consider the interconnectedness of all things.
Discomfort comes from clinging to an experience that can’t continue. Discomfort also comes from wanting an experience to end before it is over. When clinging and aversion are absent, you experience freedom.

Morning Star Zendo (Robert Kennedy)

Looking for Dog-eared Pages

dog-ear page
Dog-ear (and marginalia) in my copy of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets – The Dry Salvages that I must have folded back in college.

The turned-down corner of a page is known as a dog-ear. The term comes from the idea that the ears of many breeds of dogs flap over and that you can often sense a dog’s mood based on whether or not its ears are forward, upright, or back.

The practice of dog-earing a book page is generally frowned upon by people who want to preserve books and by librarians when you’re doing it to their collections. Reference books often have dog-ears.

I first discovered dogears on library books and I wondered what was on that page that someone wanted to mark. This was especially interesting to me when I was reading fiction. Was it simply a bookmaker of where they left off reading? Probably not, since there were multiple dog-ears and you could undo a fold as you read further to be less damaging. So, what was on that page? Was it a great passage? Maybe it was a sexy part of the novel.

One dog-earring reader has written that:

“Dog-eared pages are a sign of love, the physical manifestation of the connection between the reader and his book. Leaving a dog-ear on a book you’re reading is like kissing your partner goodbye. It’s a promise to return and continue the romance. And that’s not a shameful thing.”

Dog-earing other people’s books is not right but I do it to my own books. I don’t usually do it as a bookmark. It’s easy enough to grab a scrap of paper nearby for that. For me, it is to mark a page I might want to return to later. I see them in poetry books marking my favorite poems. I used to put pencil marks on the table of contents but that seems even more of mistreatment.

When I find them made by previous readers, I don’t think vandalism. I think of it as a less-damaging marginalia note to future readers, a sign of a deep reader paying attention to the text.

I’m not a big fan of reading on screens but I do have a tablet and I know that Kindles and such allow for highlighting and marking and in some cases, you can see those left by other readers. These do no damage. But in the same way that I still like to hold a book in my hands, I like to see the folded page corner.

Dog-ears can range in size just as real dog’s ears vary in size. The tip of the page is standardized, but I have seen a quarter or half a page folder over. That seems extreme, though someone showed me once how they fold so that the point directs attention to a particular line. I only half fold magazine pages as a progress marker knowing the magazine will end up recycled anyway.

Multiple dog-eared pages (especially on successive pages) can make a whole section of the book bulge even when viewed from the side. This leads me to a tributary of the dog-ear – the broken spine.


A broken spine, caused by folding back the entire open book, is real damage. A librarian friend told me that it often happens in books that patrons flatten in order to make a photocopy. This is not a good practice but I know that in my youth I would sometimes hold open in my palm a copy of something like Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence and that spy in the house of love, Anais Nin, in the library to see where the pages had been (if not dog-eared) opened intensely. It wasn’t always the “dirty parts.”

In Nin’s writing, I find: “When he first stepped out of the car and walked towards the door where I stood waiting, I saw a man I liked. In his writing, he is flamboyant, virile, animal, magnificent. He’s a man whom life makes drunk, I thought. He is like me.”

In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it might open up to: “Then as he began to move, in the sudden helpless orgasm, there awoke in her new strange trills rippling inside her. Rippling, rippling, rippling, like a flapping overlapping of soft flames, soft as feathers, running to points of brilliance, exquisite, exquisite and melting her all molten inside. It was like bells rippling up and up to culmination. She lay unconscious of the wild little cries she uttered at the last. But it was over too soon, too soon, and she could no longer force her own conclusion with her own activity. This was different, different. She could do nothing.”

When I borrowed a copy of Jeffrey Eugenides’s not particularly erotic novel, Middlesex, it opened to: “So that was our love affair. Wordless, blinkered, a nighttime thing, a dream thing. There were reasons on my side for this as well. Whatever it was that I was best revealed slowly, in flattering light. Which meant not much light at all. Besides, that’s the way it goes in adolescence. You try things out in the dark. You get drunk or stoned and extemporize. Think back to your backseats, your pup tents, your beach bonfire parties. Did you ever find yourself, without admitting it, tangled up with your best friend? Or in a dorm room bed with two people instead of one, while Bach played on the chintzy stereo, orchestrating the fugue? It’s a kind of fugue state, anyway, early sex. Before the routine sets in, or the love. Back when the groping is largely anonymous. Sandbox sex. It starts in the teens and lasts until twenty or twenty-one. It’s all about learning to share. It’s about sharing your toys.”

please commentDo you dog-ear books. If so, why?
Do you look for dog-ears in borrowed books?
Have you discovered a passage, book, or author from a dog-eared page?