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Archive for August, 2017

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The Soul of an Octopus, by Sy Montgomery, makes for a wonderful introduction into the world of cephalopods. From the very beginning, we learn that Montgomery herself “knew little about octopuses,” and we get to accompany her on a very personal, albeit not very scientific, discovery into the world of the New England Aquarium. Montgomery does a fantastic job of accurately portraying a behind the scenes look at what goes on at such a large-scale aquarium as this one, located in Boston. She does such a fine job, in fact, that I found myself boiling over at times, indignant at the thought of a place that keeps wild animals in captivity: breeding them, swapping them with other zoos and aquariums, transporting them, bumbling about until they manage to keep them alive for an extended period of time—only to shake up the whole system by performing a major and disruptive remodel that stresses out all the animals. Such is the lucrative world of animals as entertainment.

But I digress.

I very much enjoyed reading about the author’s interactions with the many successive octopuses that find themselves being held at the Aquarium. It was thoroughly entertaining, and gave wonderful examples of how these incredible creatures can vary in personality and temperament. She brings out the highlights of many of the other animals in the aquarium, giving vivid examples of how fish and lobsters and even starfish can become personable, if you get to know them well enough. And she does proper justice to the amount of love and care given to these individuals by their caretakers and their admirers.

I didn’t learn much in the way of cold hard facts from the hours I spent reading this book. The author makes no “surprising exploration into the wonder of consciousness,” as is promised within the subtitle. But she did manage to make me care, even more than I already did, about these animals, and all sea creatures, as individuals (my outrage at their exploitation notwithstanding). And that is a feat in and of itself.

Sy Montgomery’s memoir about her adventures with octopuses is an easy, fresh, somewhat naive look into the world of captive sea creatures. If you think you might want to learn the basics about cephalopods, this would be a great place to start.

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It’s Been Awhile

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“It’s been awhile.”

I start many of my journal entries this way, partly as an atonement and partly as an explanation (to the imaginary reader) as to why I may seem to be skipping over so many important events in my life and getting down to the bare-bones of what has been guiding my thoughts and actions. Here, in my blog that I have neglected for over two years now, I offer the same vaguely apologetic salutation. It has, indeed, been awhile, but rest assured I still have been here behind the scenes, living and waiting for the right time to return.

A couple of months ago I wasn’t doing so great, and was barely getting by in survival mode. As I came out of the worst of my grief, I found myself stabilizing and coming back to center. I stopped having unmanageably difficult days at work. I stopped sleeping in until the last minute every single day and showing up to work a few minutes late and feeling grumpy and disheveled. I’ve started cooking for myself again. I’ve started eating healthy foods again and exercising. I have found pleasure in reading once again. I feel like I have found my balance, and I want to start taking it further, slowly but surely. I have gotten myself into some pretty great habits lately, and I want to continue this trend.

I want to find again the habit of writing. It is something that comes naturally to me (as opposed to all this talking nonsense), and something that I feel the need to do, but like any muscle it becomes lazy with disuse. My interest in getting back into a habit of writing stems mainly from a desire lately to slow down my life: to be more reflective of what I have achieved each day, and more mindful of each moment as it happens. So often I allow myself to breeze through each day on auto-pilot, forgetting events almost as they happen, both good and bad, and when it gets to a point when someone inquires as to how my day/week/life is going, I find myself drawing a blank. My memory is already waning, and if nothing else I want to be able to catch those moments, no matter how mundane, so that I can look back later and see what my life has been. I want to become addicted to writing again. I want to feel that need on a daily basis, so that I can glean the rewards of being more mindful, more thoughtful, more curious, more present, and, let’s face it, more interesting to others. I want to do this for myself. I want to do all of these things, and I am confident that I can do so with some time and patience and persistence.

A good example of the way in which I have been letting time slip through my grasp lately: my reading habits gone haywire. I wanted to develop a good habit for reading, and I have certainly done so. I have read over three dozen books in the past seven months. Some of these books were excellent, and I devoured them whole, while others were mediocre or downright unpalatable and I rushed through them, trying not to taste them or feel their texture. The common denominator here being speed of consumption, I think back and wonder if maybe I shouldn’t have taken more time with some of these stories. Yes I let myself become immersed completely in the stories— I have no doubt about that. But did I live with the characters in a meaningful way? Was I patient with them, letting their quirks unfold day by day as I would when getting to know a new friend? Did I stop often enough to admire a well-written passage, maybe reading it out loud, underlining the phrase, dog-earing the page for a later contemplation? If nothing else, did I make any notes in the margins, or collect any new quotes or vocabulary words?

I did let myself be fully present for these books I have read, but looking back, I wish I had made some more effort to let them know that I appreciated them, or didn’t appreciate them, as it were. How often did I stop to be grateful for the opportunity to take in all those words and sentences, and to interpret a meaning from them? How often do I stop to reflect upon my life in general, and my loved things in particular, to internalize the depth of the gratitude that they deserve? Hopefully, by sitting to write on a more daily basis, I can help retrain my mind not only to be able to recall and reflect, but also to be more aware in the first place.

I have recently finished reading a novel called Plainsong, by Kent Haruf. The book defines a plainsong as a “simple or unadorned melody or air”, and that is exactly what this book has turned out to be.  The image on the front of the book is reminiscent of the plains states, with its massive skies, flat expanses, and rolling hills out in the distance. And indeed, this story does take place among the plains of eastern Colorado, a place I can conjure easily due to the many times I have made the seemingly endless drive through. That country in itself is a plain song, in the sense of the unadorned beauty that can be found there, and in the amount of introspection it invites upon the viewer/reader/traveler.

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Plainsong has solidified my notion of a kind of genre, newly conceived of in my own mind, of a quiet and unassuming story about a small town world and the inconsequential lives of the people who exist there. It has become a type of book or story that I crave now, and when I find one that is well-written, as I have already several times this year, it fills me with a sense of peace and contentedness, as though my own plainsong is becoming validated among the telling of other simple lives. When I read about those places and these people, I feel at home in a very profound sense, and I feel as though I can be happy with being likewise obscure: being no one and not wanting to be anyone.

When I think back on Plainsong the novel, I have a recollection of some uncommonly insightful small-town people that I might never have befriended, but whom I would have gladly and curiously watched from a distance. Their lives and tiny dramas are intriguing in a very quiet way, only big to those who are in the middle of it all, and easy for me to step outside that drama and view from a safe distance. It is the kind of story that I would write about myself and my own world, if I had the patience and the confidence to sit down and do it. It is not at all the type of story (or life) that suits every mind, or even most minds, but it happens to suit me very well. And that is the satisfaction inherent.

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