Recent Reads: A Sanctuary in the City by Annu Subramanian

“Life in a city can be electric, fast and crowded. Whenever we step out of our urban homes, we join a network that’s packed with opportunities. The chances to grow and expand can feel endless, even if at times we can hardly stretch our arms out across the sidewalk. The flip side to having the city’s untapped wonders at our fingertips is that its energy can be exhausting and leave us craving a slower and quieter pace, one where we can roam unencumbered or savor a meal without a waiter asking, “You still working on that?”

Instead of shunning one mode of energy in favor of the other, we can learn how to perch in the middle ground with the quiet hum of our sanctuary in one ear and the blaze of an ambulance siren in the other. Some may call it compromise, but it’s best to consider it a kind of balance in contrasts.

Building a slow lifestyle in a fast-paced city feels all the better for its incongruousness, kind of like how stepping into a hot shower is much more satisfying when it’s cold outside.

Finding a bit of provincial solace in a city-bound home doesn’t have to mean solitude, though. Instead, we can partake in the long-table lore of country life in our own living rooms, even if that means a few people wind up perched on trunks or milk crates. Take note of how your conversations change when they don’t take place over expensive cocktails and urban din. Joining friends in their homes can make for evenings that move according to their own timetables without the presence of hovering servers silently nudging you to pay the check.

Best of all, crafting a rustic lifestyle brings calm into our own sanctums. It diffuses the pressures of the outside world so that we feel relieved as we cross the threshold into our homes. We can’t control everything that happens outside — from the lengthy bus delays to angry sidewalk-sharers — but we can find some peace and perspective in our spaces. Whether we come home to fall asleep or tackle a to-do list as tea cools beside us, we find joy in a serene space that prepares us for our next departure into the outside world.

The opportunity to have a slower domestic lifestyle within the city allows us to appreciate the streets’ hectic and intoxicating pace even more. By introducing a quieter, less hurried routine to our urban setting, we may achieve the best of both worlds: We can just as quickly visit a museum, pick up fusion cuisine from a food truck and rush to a swing-dancing party as we can spend an afternoon simmering stock and writing letters. We might not have the best view of the stars, but we can still look out at the bright lights of our skyline and feel content.”

Recent Reads: And Books on the Shelf

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I used to never give up on reading books that I’ve started. Call it stubbornness or pride. The thinking was two-fold. Firstly, I didn’t want to stop reading a book because I would not be able to add half-finished books to my list of ‘Books I’ve Read’, and what a “waste of time” that would be. Secondly, I didn’t want to be known as someone who didn’t have the GRIT to see to the finish line something I started. I wasn’t so concerned about knowing the end of the story as I was with the reflection of not finishing the book. Now that I’m older and a much different person, less concerned with other people’s perception, I have an easier time with letting these things go. My perspective has changed on the matter. I find that finishing a book for the sake of finishing is now what I consider a “waste of time”. I am more concerned with time well-spent over a list of accolades to brag about. I recognize the value in enjoying a book (perhaps only for the first half) and allow for the entertainment or the education that that book provided to be worthy enough of the time I spent reading it. Once things lose my fancy, there’s no use hanging on. And so I say farewell to Anna Karenina. 4 books of appreciation, but my heart is now elsewhere, and there’s nothing wrong with listening to your inner workings and abandoning all else. Anyone feel the same way?

Whenever we travel, I can’t help but be attracted to bookstores and libraries. It seems that whenever we walk by one, there is a lustful calling and I just have to step inside. Our recent trip to Seattle was no different. Out of it came a list of books that I am dying to read. Hence the need to thank Anna Karenina, let go, and move on.

Books On The Shelf:


Moonwalking with Einstein


Recent Reads: The Circle by Dave Eggers

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Reading The Circle was like looking in a mirror, and realizing that you’ve become the person you most hate. There was only one truth, and it was nauseating to uncover. We live in a world where a particular system has been set into motion, one that makes it not only easy to cede our most personal information, rights, and freedoms, but also one wherein it’s almost expected of us to do so, in order to be considered normal, social beings.

Empathy is apparent even after a child is born. The way babies try to mimic other human’s emotions, the way children easily reflect another’s suffering or joy, these are evidence of the fact that our connection with other humans are a large part of who we are. Unfortunately, that social need is being used as a façade, underneath which a flurry of our most personal information is being exchanged, made public, and made known. We are voluntarily giving up our information in return for appearing social. We tag who we are with, where we are located, can track our closest friends, take videos of what we are doing, update our emotional and mental statuses, share our finances, and so on and so forth.

Actually, it seems to me that transparency is imminent, which can be good, but which also paves the path for potentially surrendering our most basic freedoms. What was so unsettling about reading this book was not the realization that the extreme, dramatized world that Eggers created is so close to our reality, but rather, the realization that we may be too far gone. The gut-wrenching part is that we, ourselves, are voluntarily helping to create this world every day, and I’m not sure we can stop it.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from The Circle by Dave Eggers.

“First of all, I know it’s all people like you. And that’s what’s so scary. Individually you don’t know what you’re doing collectively.”

“We are not meant to know everything, Mae. Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day? Young people are creating ever-present daylight, and I think it will burn us all alive. There will be no time to reflect, to sleep, to cool.”

“It’s not that I’m not social. I’m social enough. But the tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying. It improves nothing. It’s not nourishing. It’s like snack food. You know how they engineer this food? They scientifically determine precisely how much salt and fat they need to include to keep you eating. You’re not hungry, you don’t need the food, it does nothing for you, but you keep eating these empty calories. This is what you’re pushing. Same thing. Endless empty calories, but the digital-social equivalent. And you calibrate it so it’s equally addictive.”

“And worse, you’re not doing anything interesting anymore. You’re not seeing anything, saying anything. The weird paradox is that you think you’re at the center of things, and that makes your opinions more valuable, but you yourself are becoming less vibrant. I bet you haven’t done anything offscreen in months. Have you?”

“Here though, there are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes. And you willingly become utterly socially autistic. You no longer pick up on basic human communication clues. You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom are looking at you and trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen! Searching for strangers in… Dubai!”

“Under the guise of having every voice heard, you create mob rule, a filterless society where secrets are crimes.”

“If things continue this way, there will be two societies – or at least I hope there will be two – the one you’re helping create, and an alternative to it. You and your ilk will live, willingly, joyfully, under constant surveillance, watching each other always, commenting on each other, voting and liking and disliking each other, smiling and frowning, and otherwise doing nothing much else.”

We all know what’s happening. There is an awareness of the ways in which social media is eating us alive, swallowing our very beings, trapping our souls onto little screens. But we allow for it anyway. The far reaching consequences, the approaching implications, all of these are being masked by the jubilee we feel for being seen, heard, and known. We are made to believe that significance is more important than being free. 

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Recent Reads: A Baker’s Year by Tara Jensen

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Sometimes in your life, you come across a kindred spirit. Usually, it’s at a time when you least expect it, and in the most unusual of characters. Fictional, for example, or in people who you have never met. Despite these peculiarities, you just know that they are of the same spirit and mind as you, even if they are miles away. Tara Jensen is one of these kindred spirits. When I picked up her book and sat it across my lap in a hidden, dusty corner of Barnes and Nobles, I was not expecting to meet anyone kindred that day. But after the first few words, I just knew. Her book, A Baker’s Year, “chronicles twelve months of baking and living the simple life at the Smoke Signals Bakery”, smattered with a few recipes and baking techniques, which is what roped me in in the first place, but it was her story that made me stay. Better yet, she was able to summarize a collection of very deep-rooted feelings that even I was not able to bring to the surface until her words dug them from their graves, feelings which all too entirely shape the view that I have of the world today, as well as drive the actions that I choose to take in my daily living. I think everyone could benefit from her words, even if they are not interested in baking bread for their communities. Below is an excerpt from the book that struck a chord with me so many times over the course of two pages (!!). Below is the story of Camille. 

“Camille came to Madison County in 1972 with her husband, Dave. Dave’s father had grown up here, moving to Detroit at the age of nineteen for a better life. He couldn’t believe Camille and Dave wanted to return to what he remembered as a desolate region with nothing to offer. They were warned not to come, but their minds were set on it. Enraged by the Vietnam War, they wanted to be as self-sufficient as possible and learn directly from those who could still teach the way of the land. Less income meant minor tax payments, resulting in fewer dollars toward war machine. They took on cows, chickens, rabbits, sheep and a garden. “A farm is a big name for what we had,” she says.

What was big was their ambition. It had to be. It was up against a lot. War was a symptom of an entire broken social system fueled by overconsumption. Refusal of business as usual was crucial to Camille. “I know we have to live,” she pointed out, “but we don’t need to do it at this level – we don’t need to destroy.”

Camille had already experienced the horrors of war. In 1944, her childhood home in Normandy was bombed, and although everyone was safe, the devastation left only a corner of the original house. Her family first took refuge in a nearby graveyard, surviving only on milk. There her father decided they would take the two-day walk to his parent’s farm, where he was certain food could be found. In the summer, they returned home to rebuild.

Normal weekly rituals ensued, one of which was a trip into town for bread. One afternoon, her sister returned with more than a sack of loaves; she also bore toys she’d found scattered on the roadside. Thin metal rods, like long pens, with a coil wrapped around the middle. They played with them for days, knocking them on rocks like drumsticks. But they weren’t toys. They were cast-aside detonators, and while her mother was busy with the wash, one exploded in Camille’s hand, causing the loss of her right arm at the age of two.

A decade into their life of resistance, Dave was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The long list of daily chores became difficult to maneuver. The cow jumped the fence. The sheep ran away. The dog chased the chickens into the woods. They allowed their responsibilities to dwindle, eventually eating the cow. “It was part of the economy,” Camille explained, a firmness still in her tone. Despite changes in physical comfort and energy, they were as true to their original intentions as they possibly could be.

After Dave passed, Camille carried on the design of their home and land, every nook and cranny meticulously thought out and crafted. Stairwells fashioned after the golden spiral, massive mosaic projects, wood scraps and windows everywhere: ideals for a gentle society radiate from the walls. “I never had a course in building,” she said, “just an interest. I could look at an old building, I would see that it was still standing, and I would think, That is good.” Although Dave is gone, his presence remains, amidst a host of new and radical projects.

Never short on determination, Camille hired a carpenter to frame a door into a dirt wall so that she might dig herself a basement. Rigging up a bucket, a shovel, and a wheelbarrow, she chipped at the top of the wall, directing the dirt downward into the bucket. When the bucket was full, she’d take it to the wheelbarrow and empty it. When the wheelbarrow was full, she’d haul it outside and dump it in the gully. She kept at the work for days and months until rumors began to surface.

Her apprentice who frequented the local bar came to report back on the widespread speculation about what exactly Camille was up to. “You’ll never believe what they’re saying about you, Camille. They say you are digging out your basement single-handedly with a spoon!”

She chuckled. “Well then, let them think just that.”

I spoke with Camille recently. We wondered if it was even possible for future generations to go back to the land. There is increasingly less land to go back to, and the old-times who knew the plants and the ballads are passing each year. Besides, living the rural life isn’t for everyone. It seems that each spring, a new crop of young homesteaders arrive bursting with ideas, and only some of them make it to the next year for one reason of another. Many leave when they have children, and divorce is common under the stress of poverty. I like living here because it is so unchanged, and yet sometimes I forget there is a world past the blown-out streetlight. This landscape is a jungle that does not bend to human will easily. Some like the challenge. Some don’t.

Yet what we lack in finery we make up for in freedom. We have a choice. We can choose the detonator or the spoon. What will you leave behind? What will your legacy be? Free, gentle, and diverse is the culture I want for myself, my community, and my bread. Be an instrument for peace. Choose the spoon.”

To learn more about the nuances of simple living, or to learn about baking bread, please do go on and read A Baker’s Year. Our society can benefit from her words in more ways than one. 

Recent Reads: Small Great Things by Jodie Picoult

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A belated ode to Equal Pay Day.

There’s a statistic that women are making 79 cents to the male dollar, but there’s a hidden factor, which is that when we speak about this, we are specifically referring to white women and white men. What is hidden is the fact that a black woman makes 63 cents to the dollar, a native American woman makes 57 cents to the dollar and a Hispanic woman makes 54 cents to the dollar. What we don’t talk about (never talk about?) is race.

In honor of Equal Pay Day, a few of my favorite quotes from my most recent read, Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult.

“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are. —BENJAMIN FRANKLIN”

“Active racism is telling a nurse supervisor that an African American nurse can’t touch your baby. It’s snickering at a black joke. But passive racism? It’s noticing there’s only one person of color in your office and not asking your boss why. It’s reading your kid’s fourth-grade curriculum and seeing that the only black history covered is slavery, and not questioning why. It’s defending a woman in court whose indictment directly resulted from her race…and glossing over that fact, like it hardly matters.”

“You say you don’t see color…but that’s all you see. You’re so hyperaware of it, and of trying to look like you aren’t prejudiced, you can’t even understand that when you say race doesn’t matter all I hear is you dismissing what I’ve felt, what I’ve lived, what it’s like to be put down because of the color of my skin.”

“True confession: The reason we don’t talk about race is because we do not speak a common language.”

And more.

I cannot recommend this book enough. There are very few books that hit me hard, but this was definitely one of them.

Currently Reading:
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman