The Italian Market

When I am travelling abroad, one of my favorite stops is always the markets and food shopping districts of towns and districts. Everything about an area, its geography, its demographics, its climate, and its economic life is in context. Children run and play, or pull their favorite adult towards the treat spot, whether it is a cart, a kiosk, or a stall. Some sellers look stressed while others smile and nod. Some even invite in a stranger like me and show off their wares and their produce. These experiences give me great pause and cause for reflection.

…Then the opposite happened. I was standing with my wife at my favorite butcher’s counter in the Italian Market in the Bronx, when the tour bus came through. I do not get many opportunities to visit my butcher in any given month and when I do make the trip, I stock up. I had a stack of chickens, cuts of beef, and a lamb shoulder all being wrapped in brown butcher paper as we waited patiently on the other side of the shoulder-high refrigerated cases with a scale perched on top.

In this great hall, the deli had a long line and no empty seats. The bar, with its long tables, was packed. The vegetable vendor was grabbing bags to weigh with blinding speed and there was a line to buy the freshly hand-rolled cigars. The place was full of happy noise. In the midst of this bustling cacophony, a bus-full of tourists came bursting in to watch and to learn.

“Huh,” I said to my wife. “So, this is what it looks like when we travel.”

At first, I was envious. I wanted to be the traveler, the one experiencing a different culture and a different people. Their questing eyes and curious looks made me look at the counters and the tables with fresh eyes, and appreciate the layers of peoples, communities, and culture that were woven into the fabric of the stalls, their employees, and their wares. After all, this is not some chichi Food Hall in Manhattan, but a neighborhood shopping district in the north Bronx.

Their guide was impatient to begin his spiel. He was waving his arms, motioning his charges to gather around and listen. I paid my bill. Picking up my heavy bags, I smiled and nodded hello, and added an “excuse me” or two as I maneuvered around the gathering without whacking anyone with my bags.

We still needed a couple of bottles of wine and my wife and I had agreed to indulge in a couple pastries. Then there was the pizza pan on display in the window and a question of whether we should buy a new one now or replace it later. The sun was bright and people were sitting outside enjoying the afternoon.

The visitors got a taste of an old neighborhood shopping district in the Bronx, which I thought was an excellent excursion. Still, their trip was just a taste because the cheese monger is a tiny storefront and there are at least a half dozen pastry shops and bakeries within two blocks of each other – and pizza, and bareks, and oysters on the half shell and a couple of decent expresso joints, and, and.

I suppose my travels abroad have helped me to appreciate what I have near to home. Even more, I have learned that there are a lot of people across the globe like me, who want to step into the day-to-day lives and cultures of other countries and just breath in the smells and sample the tastes. I may be imagining or embellishing, but when I visit such touchstones, everything seems to be delicious and worth savoring.

It was a good day.

12 Books About Spiritual Sustenance

Many webzines put out lists of must-read or you-should-have-read books that will enlighten you, expand you, or help you attain spiritual greatness. These sorts of throwaway articles, which editors often toss off to freelancers, read as if written by excellent MFA graduates who have learned an appreciation for good literature. Good literature is a wonderful, continuing wellspring that illumines our culture except that a good many readers stop tackling the more difficult reads after they leave school. In general we are not reading them.

Moreover, there are excellent books of spiritual sustenance that are non-fiction, even hard science. These texts are not on MFA syllabi because there is only so much one can cover in fifteen weeks a semester for tens of thousands of dollars plus the cost of books. Other voices have added their lists to the conversation as well to fill the gaps. While each discipline offers unique books, the lists are typically skewed to the boundaries of their studies. An enervating list of books that provides spiritual sustenance requires more than a lit. major or a spiritual leader or a doctor of psychology.

What follows is a different sort of list of books. Spiritual sustenance can take all sorts of forms depending on age, education, career, gender, and family life. Beware, lists engender an authoritarian urge to give the reader “the truth” of the matter – these are the ones that matter. Hopefully this collected list does not fall into the trap of giving answers when there are only directions to suggest.

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. One of the rules for writing fiction is “don’t tell me, show me.” Hesse’s novel is an excellent example that walks a reader through the search for a life of the spirit. You do not need to be a Buddhist to appreciate the novel.
Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne. Disney productions of the book need to be dismissed although the great blooper classic title from Disney press, Cooking with Pooh, is worth a mention. Milne’s classic of the imagination of a young boy and his stuffed animals is sublime. There is a reason why parents continue to read the stories to their children over and over.
Ecclesiastes by Kohelet. Yes, a book of the Bible (Old Testament), actually from the back of the Bible. The Bible is three libraries of books and all of the texts are over 2000 years old. Kohelet was included in the canon but a pious editor was so disturbed by the doubt and skepticism woven into the text that he wrote an additional chapter, Chapter 12, to mitigate the potential impiety of the first eleven chapters. Kohelet identifies the absurdities between belief in God and reality as we experience it. Nonetheless, he believes and that is the challenge of the book. Use the JPS or NRSV translations.
How We Die by Sherwin Nuland, a National Book Award winner. The last chapter is worth the cost of the entire book. The surgeon examines the science of how the human body expires with appreciation and fascination for the complexity of the process. The last chapter though. . .
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. He is a survivor of the Holocaust but refuses to be a victim. He dedicated his academic life to teaching students how he reclaimed his sanity and his sanctity for life after he emerged from the death camps.
The Blessing of the Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel. How did we stray from the elements of common sense when it comes to raising children? This book is as much about the art of life as its application with parenting.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Cursed be those philosophy majors who have to think everything through. The novel is a journey that forces the protagonist to even question what questions he should be answering. The enduring strength of the text is that it teaches how to think about the vexing problems that confound us.
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The children’s book that really is not a children’s book. What is selflessness and selfishness? Is there ever such a thing as giving too much?
Soul Mountain by Gao Xinjian, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This book is meant to be read slowly as the landscapes are painted in lush, exacting detail. If you find yourself wanting to rush through the text, put it down and come back when the urge has passed.
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. Margaret learns the lessons and humanity of growing up. The text addresses coming to terms with our bodies and our fears.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery. What is truly important in life and why do the answers often bring as much pain as pleasure? Another beautiful novel that shows rather than tells us the insights and lessons.
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges. A collection of short stories from the one-time librarian of the Argentinian National Library. This is a book for readers by a reader. Boundaries disappear, profundities multiply and slip away. When you look up from the text, you will never look at the world the same way again. The imagery is overwhelming.

Raising a Teenager

(Every year I have at least one of these students, intelligent, bright and possessing a colorful vocabulary.)

Reasons Why Teenagers Should Not Swear

  • Whatever you say immediately afterward will be ignored
  • You will be cataloged as impulsive and immature, whether the label is justified or not.
  • The Law of Unintended Consequences
  • Swearing is just lazy and boring.

So, Mrs. Able is a bitch. The accusation means nothing except that you, the oracle of Mrs. Able’s character, are angry. The statement uttered is meaningless. If said woman is malicious, feckless, tyrannical, or vicious, then there is a story to tell. Further, calling someone by a curse is the same as giving the conclusion before giving the argument. If someone has done you wrong, there is a story to tell. “I can’t believe what just happened . . .”

Tell the tale up unto the last detail of the encounter and let your listeners give their judgment. If they decide Mrs. Able is a bitch, then they did your swearing for you. Instead of being ignored, your listeners hold on to every word. While a story may have impulsive elements, a storyteller is rarely considered impulsive. Moreover, there are times when your judgment is faulty and your conclusions may be mistaken. In such a case, you become what you labeled (libeled) others.

The Law of Unintended Consequences is that stuff happens that no one can predict no matter what comes out of your mouth. When cursing one can reliably predict “nothing good” will emerge even if the listeners are sworn to secrecy. If one sticks to the truth while avoiding certain nouns and adjectives but also avoiding stretching certain elements for the sake of looking good, then one can mitigate the outcome.

Some people are difficult, narcissistic, sadistic, haughty, or condescending. Some people go out of their way to make others miserable. They deserve all the condemnation and scorn one can conjure. The worst mistake of the scorned recipient or the witness is to imitate the antagonist by stooping to name-calling when a description of the contemptible behavior is the best communication and puts the speaker in the best light as well.

Swearing is a lazy and an easy habit to adopt. Even among your peers, it is one of those habits that sets you back rather than taking you forward.

Philosophy of Learning 4 (active listening)

  1. לִשְׁמֹֽעַ – (to hear) active listening

Active Listening is often reduced from a method of learning to a technique for success in business and diplomacy. Psychology textbooks teach active listening as a tool for diagnosing patients. More than one popular “success in business” text blithely offers this method as a skill. However, in the Eastern understanding of active listening, the Chinese character for the phenomenon captures the complexity that the West so often dismisses as mere technique or skill.

Active Listening Chinese

The symbol above is a sophisticated combination of characters. The senses of the eyes and the ears are both employed as the mind focuses and the heart analyses the conversation. The U.S. Department of State teaches this Chinese lesson explaining that to listen, the diplomat must use both ears, watch and maintain eye contact, give undivided attention and be empathic.

Ideally one is listening to a monologue more than participating in a back and forth. When I am conducting a eulogy interview, I ask an open ended question such as “Tell me about your loved one,” which is the colloquially correct way to ask, “Teach me about your loved one.” The words may issue forth in a monotone but the face and the body will often with emotion, whether it is a furrowed brow of pain or gesticulating arms of excitement.

Active listening is the opposite of asking questions to elicit answers. While psychologists may be correct that active listening is a technique for discovering the issue or the trauma, the method offers so much more to learn. When questions are asked, they are open ended ones or requests for clarification, or in my personal language, “Tell me more.”

This type of learning may also be the most ancient, the oral tradition of passing down knowledge. Unlike all the other forms of learning, this form is first and foremost aural. Learning is comprehending words spoken and words not spoken; silence has the power to teach in this method. The absence of words, the people, events, and issues not mentioned are powerful lessons.

The point about active listening is that it is not about you, the listener. Active listening is not a conversation after all; it is receiving, organizing and analyzing. When I start a discussion of a eulogy, I put away my pen and paper. I will write it down later in the car soon after I depart the house of mourning. The writing afterward is the analysis and synthesis of the teaching, in this case of learning the events, circumstances and essence of one person whose life is now complete. One gains the knowledge of relationships, of human success and folly, of history and philosophy.

This is knowledge that novelists attempt to capture in words and this is their most powerful method for capturing the emotional turmoil of their characters. They listen.