Archive for the ‘Self Improvement’ Category

2009 Book List Progress Report

In Book Reviews, Opinion, Reading, Religion, Self Improvement, Writers on November 11, 2009 at 10:54 am

These are the books I have left on my 2009 Book List (out of 30):

  1. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
  2. The Gathering, Anne Enright
  3. The Night Watch, Sara Waters
  4. Waiting, Ha Jin
  5. Against Interpretation, and other essays, Susan Sontag (nonfiction)
  6. The Given Day, Dennis Lehane
  7. A Beautiful Place to Die, Malla Nunn
  8. Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson (Young Adult)
  9. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen
  10. The Hour I First Believed, Wally Lamb
  11. Eclipse, Richard North Patterson
  12. House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
  13. The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
  14. The Book Thief, Markus Zusak (Young Adult)
  15. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  16. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

I made it about half-way through my reading list and then got bogged down. I didn’t slack off, though: I read a whole lot of books besides these. I just can’t believe that it’s been a year since I made this list. (See my original post.) Right now I have #1 and #6 in my possession. I started #6, but it’s not a typical Dennis Lehane book (it’s a historical novel) and I had trouble getting into it, even though I normally like historical novels.

What have I been reading instead? For one thing I got off on a tangent about Islam (and if you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I recently became a convert, which takes care of one of the items on my 2009 Project List as well). But I’ve also been reading anything and everything that comes to my attention that sounds interesting. I’ve been keeping track of them in Goodreads, so if you want to see what I’ve read, check there.

These are the books I read on my original list:

  1. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Ann Fadiman (nonfiction)
  2. Rereadings, edited by Ann Fadiman (nonfiction)
  3. Never Let Me Go, Katzuo Ishiguro
  4. The Crooked Inheritance, Marge Piercy (poems)
  5. Summit Avenue, Mary Sharratt
  6. The Terror, Dan Simmons
  7. In the Land of Invisible Women, Qanta Ahmed (nonfiction)
  8. A Life of One’s Own: A Guide to Better Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf, Ilana Simons (nonfiction)
  9. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken  (literary nonfiction)
  10. The Paper Anniversary, Joan Wickersham
  11. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski
  12. The Tin Roof Blowdown, James Lee Burke
  13. Sloppy Firsts, Megan McCafferty
  14. Paris Trout, Pete Dexter

I really liked 1, 2, 3, 6, and 9.  I’m glad I read 12 and 14. I didn’t finish 4, 10 and 13. 7 is part of what encouraged me to look more into Islam. I would have liked 8 if I had been more familiar with Virginia Woolf’s work.

Not bad for a list of 14.

I won’t get 16 read by the end of the year. Particularly because I already have a stack of books on my shelf that I want to read first. They are:

  1. Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford (nonfiction)
  2. A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore
  3. Crow Planet, Lyanda Lynn Haupt (nonfiction)
  4. Big Machine, Victor LaValle
  5. Homer & Langley, E. L. Doctorow
  6. The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists, Khaled Abou El Fadl (nonfiction)

And those are just the ones I can see from the couch! I chose 1 and 4 because they’re on Publisher’s Weekly list of the ten best books of 2009. I intend to read as many of those ten books as I can and also focus more on contemporary female authors because there was such much controversy about the fact that there were none on the ten best list. I don’t read that many contemporary books–I have a tendency to not think of reading a book until it’s been around for a couple of years at least.

One thing I’m looking forward to is seeing the movie they made out of The Time Traveler’s Wife which I read last year. I heard it wasn’t that good, so I’ll probably wait until I can get it from the library. But I still want to see how well they transferred the book to the screen. It’s a complicated book; they had their work cut out for them. What made them pick this book to make a movie out of? I suspect it had something to do with the success of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which I didn’t really care for (the movie, not the book/story).

I feel that I accomplished my goal of reading more intentionally and not reading as much “junk.” I want to continue to work on that by finding out more about the authors I read and their other work, if any. I want to work on remembering what I read. What good is it to read if you don’t remember it? That’s like eating with no sense of taste. I’d like to put my reading in perspective with my life.


A New Muslim’s Baby Steps

In Religion, Self Improvement on November 2, 2009 at 2:57 pm

It’s easy to convert to Islam. All you have to do is say the statement of belief (the Shahada) in front of witnesses. It can be in  your own home, it can be only one witness. The only hard and fast requirement is that you bear witness that Allah is the one and only God and that Muhammad is His Messenger.

The hard part is what happens after that moment of conversion. At least it’s been hard for me. First of all, I had to start learning how to pray the five daily prayers. There is a definite ritual, both in word and action, and I’m only about halfway through the process. Because the prayers are traditionally in Arabic (the language of the Holy Qur’an), it’s a two-fold process for non-Arabic speakers. You have to learn how to pronounce the Arabic words and you have to learn what those words mean in your own language. It took me about a month to learn the Fatiheh, which is the first part of every prayer (and is also the first Surah, or chapter, of the Qur’an). But I still have to concentrate to recall the English meaning while I’m saying the Arabic words.

Because this isn’t exactly a smooth process, I’m trusting that I’m benefiting from the prayers even when I don’t understand every word I’m saying. God knows what I’m saying even if I don’t. And so does my soul. I believe that.

Two themes that come up a lot in the Qur’an, I’ve noticed, are patience and perseverance. I think it’s interesting that God mentions them so much because those are two characteristics that I badly need to develop. They are also interrelated; I’ve never been good at sticking to something because I get impatient and want to see results right away. Obviously I can’t do that with my prayers and my Arabic. That has wreaked havoc with my self-confidence. I’ve asked myself many times if I did the right thing. Is this just too hard? Is it too alien?

I’m lucky to have many friends who are eager to teach me the things I need to know. But that can be a curse as well as a blessing. These are life-long Muslims. The language, the customs, the beliefs, the scriptures are all second-nature to them. They’ve been very patient with me, but I feel so ignorant next to them, sometimes I want to give up.

But something keeps me going. And that something is the knowledge deep inside that I made the right decision when I decided to convert to Islam. I still feel the sense of peace and closeness to God that I felt when I first said Shahada.

Returning to Active Status

In Culture, Religion, Self Improvement on October 4, 2009 at 6:29 pm

I wrote in an earlier post that I was going through an existential crisis and I implied that the reason I haven’t been writing here is because I needed to resolve the crisis first. That is mainly true. I’ve also been having trouble writing posts in general, for any of my blogs, because I’ve been preoccupied with other activities.

I didn’t think that I’d be ready to announce what my crisis was for a while, because I thought it would take some time before I resolved it. As it turned out, though, things went pretty quickly and I’m now ready to reveal what has been keeping me from writing: I have become a Muslim.

There have been two parts to my struggle: one was deciding for myself what I believed and the other was telling others what I’ve decided. And obviously I had to tell family and close friends before I could blurt it out in one of my blogs.

I discussed it with my husband before I took the step. I don’t know what I would have done if he hadn’t been supportive, but I needn’t have worried: he’s been great. Then I told my daughters who were also accepting (if surprised). At that time I decided to say my profession of belief, or the Shahada, which is all you need to do to become a Muslim. I said it in the privacy of my own home, in front of a close Muslim friend and then finally in the mosque on the last day of Ramadan.

I had been observing Ramadan in my own way, which was to give up smoking. I haven’t smoked since August 22nd, and I don’t feel the urge to. I hadn’t had the nerve to fast, and didn’t feel that I had the right to anyway, since I wasn’t Muslim. After I made my Shahada the first time, which was about ten days before the end of Ramadan, I did attempt to fast, but I wasn’t very good at it. The Ramadan fast is a total fast (not even water) from dawn to dusk and I couldn’t do without some coffee in the morning to get me going. I wasn’t praying at that point, except for my own little baby prayers, but I still got up before dawn so that I could eat some breakfast before the fast officially started.

After I said my Shahada, it was explained to me that 1) all my sins from before were washed away; and 2) that Ramadan was a most auspicious time to make my decision. However, I recognize that celebrating Ramadan, in my feeble way, had a lot to do with my being ready to embrace Islam. The excitement level was so high and there was this hyper-awareness of the Islamic religion in the air, it was hard for me to not think about Islam. I tried to keep what I was feeling to the pages of my journal, but I finally had to talk it over with some of my Muslim friends. They answered a lot of my questions but didn’t try to push me one way or another.

I still have a lot of questions–I know nothing but the basics about the religion–and there’s a lot I have to get used to. Like praying five times a day. Deciding what to do about the headscarf  (I do wear it when I pray and at the mosque). Learning where to shop and how to cook halal (permitted) food. But those are all externals. What really matters is what’s going on in my heart.

And at least there I feel at peace.

Depressive Episode

In Mood disorders, Self Improvement on June 24, 2009 at 7:00 am

I’ve been struggling with depression lately–it’s been building for the past two or three weeks. The only thing that has changed is that my psychiatrist cut the dosage on one of my meds. That could be it–it probably is it–but I don’t want to go back on the previous dosage. Because the trade-off is that I’m thinking more clearly.

I noticed that before the depression set in. Dr. S cut my dosage because I complained that my thinking was fuzzy. I couldn’t think of words or think things through. I would forget things as soon as I thought about them. I couldn’t stay on task. Hell, I couldn’t get myself  “on task” to begin with.

But with this depression I’m having trouble thinking and acting for different reasons. My thoughts are obsessive: about how much I dislike myself, about things that could go wrong. All I want to do is escape from my thoughts. So I read all the time and when I’m not reading I fall asleep. I “nap” two or three times a day some days. I never jump out of bed and get going. (Although I’m not a morning person at the best of times.) The only writing I’m doing is for my blogs–and that’s been like pulling teeth. Nothing else appeals to me. I haven’t even been studying my Arabic.

I feel desperate but I’m hanging in there. Because I really want to try to work things out for myself. That could be an exercise in futility. But if my only option is to go back to fuzzy thinking, I’d rather use the brain power I’ve gotten back to figure out ways to fight this depression. What can I do to make myself feel better about myself? How can I reassure myself that the worst is not going to happen?

I haven’t been praying, but then I never have prayed much. I do direct thoughts “at” God and hope that He is aware of what’s going on with me. I’m just not sure how much He is willing to intervene. That makes Him sound so removed. And I’ve always drawn comfort from the concept of a personal God. But I’ve never believed that we can ask Him for things and then willy-nilly He’ll make them happen.

Besides, it’s not more faith in God that I need. It’s more faith in me.


In Culture, Opinion, Religion, Self Improvement on May 16, 2009 at 6:41 am

My husband and I watched Bill Maher’s movie “Religulous” the other night. I had a pretty good idea what itwould be like: Maher drilling holes in the beliefs of religious people. I know his style from his stand-up comedy. You could say that he’s the epitome of irreligious. He’s also pretty darn irreverent. Some of his act is just that: an act. But I got the impression that he was serious when he argued with and at times ridiculed the people he was interviewing.

He was asked by a couple of people in the film: “What if you’re wrong (about not believing in God)?” One time he answered, “Well, that’s a pretty lame reason to believe in God.” (I’m paraphrasing; I don’t remember what was said word for word.) Another time he asked back: “What if you’re wrong?” I don’t think he thought that through. If a Christian is wrong, it’s not like he is going to have something bad happen to him. He’ll just die and that’s it. But if an unbeliever is wrong (about the afterlife), he’s going to be mighty unhappy about the outcome.

I agree with Maher that that’s not the most ideal reason to believe in God. That’s not true faith anyway; that’s just fear. I suppose that’s not the worst reason to believe in God: because you’re afraid of Him. But as a Christian, I don’t believe that’s what God intended. He wants us to do what we do out of gratitude and love. I’m not going to get preachy here. I have my own doubts. And in that I agree with Mayer: having doubts is a sign of maturity.

If we believe out of fear, or habit, or only because we were raised in a particular faith, our belief system will be weak. It’s only when we have thoroughly examined God, our church’s doctrine and our own beliefs that we can consider ourselves grown-up. Anything less is for babies. That doesn’t mean that we won’t be immature sometimes, especially when we’re first starting out. But hopefully, we will allow room in our souls for honest inquiry.

True Leadership

In Culture, Politics, Self Improvement on May 7, 2009 at 7:18 am

“A true leader does not take the public to where the public happens to be, because the public is already there. A leader takes the public to where the public should be, according to that leader’s view of the society’s highest ideals – ideals that the public shares but which have not yet been realized.”

So says Robert Reich in a post this morning on  This is one of the best definitions of a leader that I have ever read.

Only time will tell if this definition applies to Obama, but so far he seems to fit the criteria. There have been many examples, but one that strikes me the most is his stance on gay marriage. He hasn’t said overtly that he is for gay marriage, but he has been totally supportive of gay rights, and ultimately those rights include the right to marry. Since he’s been in office, several states have either changed their laws to allow gay marriage or are in the process of revisiting them. But before Obama became President, the states seemed to be influenced by the Religious Right and conservatives in general.

Even so, there has been a relaxing of this society’s antipathy toward homosexuality over the past decades. Witness shows like “Grace and Will”, movies like “Philadelphia” and the acceptance of Ellen Degeneres, an “open” lesbian, as a talk show host. And these are but a few examples. Acceptance has been slow but steady. It is only a matter of time before most of the states recognize the validity of gay marriages. But it has taken a true leader to give the public the encouragement it needed to follow its instincts.

You could argue that the public doesn’t know what it wants, but only follows the lead of those at the top. But that argument underestimates the public’s ability to rock the boat when its leaders set a firm course toward a destination it does not desire. Most people are not activists. They prefer to stay in the background and to preserve the status quo. It has been easier for the past eight years to follow the path set by Bush and his ilk, partly because he led by fear-mongering: fear of change, of challenging traditional values, of breaking with the past. However, that doesn’t mean that the majority actually believed the same way Bush did.

I believe that most people believe in their innermost beings that being tolerant is the most important characteristic to have if we are to solve our societal problems. They demonstrated their tolerance when they voted Obama into office. If you would have told me right after 9/11 that we would, a scant eight years later, elect a president whose middle name was Hussein, I would have said you were crazy. I never expected to see a black president in my lifetime. People were ready for change, not so much because they embrace it (most people don’t), but because Obama provided what they had been needing: a leader who will bring out the best in them.

For the past eight years we have been locked into a mentality that chafed us. We didn’t want to be racist, to be a nation of xenophobes, to go to war, to turn our back on the most unfortunate in our society. We wanted to be open and accepting–that has always been the American way. Yes, I know that there are still plenty of bigots and isolationists who would be happy to turn things back to the ’50s. But most people would rather look ahead and explore a world that has been waiting to be born.

And thank God, we have a leader who is ready to assist in the delivery.

Vacation Debriefing

In Home, Self Improvement, Travel on April 13, 2009 at 11:36 am

I feel like I have a vacation hangover. This is the second full day since I’ve been back and I still can’t get into my daily rhythm (whatever that may be). It’s not just that I’m tired, because I don’t really feel that bad. It was a hectic week, though, what with three full days at Disney parks and a sixteen-hour straight-through drive home at the end of it.

Vacations can be for all kinds of purposes–relaxation, reflection, education, new experiences, excitement, for example–but I think all vacations cause you to reassess what you normally do with your life when you’re not on vacation. You ask yourself: if I enjoy this so much, why don’t I do more things like it when I’m home? Or you find out that you prefer your every-day life and location. You may even discover a new direction for your life: a move, a change of vocation, new friendships or relationships.

I didn’t meet anyone new on my vacation, and I’m not ready to move to Florida. Nor do I want to go to amusement parks periodically (in fact, I probably would never go to another one if it weren’t for my grandchildren). But I did enjoy getting outside more, getting some fresh air and exercise and rediscovering some muscle groups that I’d forgotten I had.

I also feel a little younger for having gotten out of my usual cocoon and having an adventure. My daughter swears I looked younger after riding the roller coaster that I was so afraid to go on. And I went on two of them! Did they take me backward in time a little? Maybe. It did feel good to shake it up a bit and prove to myself that I’m capable of something new.

I’m glad to be home again, but I don’t want the glow of this vacation to wear off too quickly. I don’t want it to seem as if it never happened. What’s the good of experiencing something new if it doesn’t change you in some way (hopefully for the better)? I do feel like it’s going to take me some time to come to terms with what this vacation meant to me. Not because it was so earth-shattering. But it did shake me up a bit, and I’m anxious to see how I handle the after-shocks.

Things I Can’t Give Up

In Health, Reading, Self Improvement on April 3, 2009 at 5:14 pm

I’m going to jot down a few things that are going on with me today. I suppose I should be doing this on Facebook, but frankly, I get a little bored reading other people’s comments and figure no one wants to read mine. At least if I put them all here, they can be ignored all at one time.

I’m supposedly getting ready for our trip to Orlando, but in reality, I’m sitting here writing this post and futzing around on the Internet. Rebecca Traister of just wrote a post about some new software called “Freedom” because it prevents you from spending too much time on the Internet and thus frees up your time for other things. I also read a two-year-old post of hers about what has happened to her body since she stopped smoking.

My reaction to both posts was much the same. I rebel against the implication that I should quit smoking or surfing the Net just because she did. I happen to like both activities and usually pair them together. This reminds me of the time I worked through Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way (web site here), and she prescribed a week of not reading in order to free up your brain or something like that. I just couldn’t do it. I can’t even imagine not reading for a day, let alone a week.

I can go without cigarettes or the Internet much more easily–and have. But I keep coming back to them. I like the way they make me think. Smoking can be a meditative act; if it weren’t for the fact that it’s bad for you, it might even take off as a meditative tool. And the Internet aids my thinking process. When I get on the Net, I can snatch some of the crazy things that swirl around in my brain and bring them down to earth by looking up information or opinions about what I’ve been thinking about. That often helps me to lay some of my ruminations to rest. Or gives me an idea for my writing. Or even leads me to some kind of action.

I have to read something as soon as I get out of bed. It almost doesn’t matter what it is: the paper, a magazine, a book I’ve just picked up and read only a few pages of.  I read with my breakfast, my coffee, in between my spells on the Internet. my lunch, my afternoon coffee. I know I should take some of the time I spend reading to do other, more productive things, like exercise. But I need to keep my brain busy. If I don’t, I get bored and/or anxious. I have considered getting books on tape to listen to while I exercise, but I doubt I’d exercise long enough to get through much of the book. Besides, the books on tape go too slowly. I tend to read pretty quickly–I do a lot of skimming–and the pace of a recorded book drives me nuts.

Here’s an idea: why not make exercise tapes or DVDs where poetry or prose is being read along with all the exercising? I mean, they do it to music; why not to words? Okay, I know that the beat is the thing, but there’s a rhythm to reading, too. You just have to find it.

Maybe when they find ways for me to surf the Net, check my email, read, write and smoke, I’ll be able to stick with exercising. For now, it’s one of the things that I can easily give up.

Arabic Lesson

In International, Self Improvement on March 20, 2009 at 11:30 am

I had my first Arabic lesson the other day. I didn’t know what to expect. I guess I thought we would work on conversation, but instead my tutor started me out right at the beginning: with the alphabet. What did I think of it?

  • Some of it was easy to pronounce, especially those that correlate with letters and sounds we have in English.
  • Some of it was impossible to pronounce. I dread when these sounds will come up in conversation.
  • Some of the letters sounded exactly alike to me, so I know I’m not getting it. I don’t have an ear to hear the difference.
  • When you break the letters down one-by-one, most of them seem very easy to write. Until, that is…
  • I was overwhelmed by the fact that you have to learn three ways to write every letter, depending on whether or not it is at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a sentence.

I can’t imagine ever being able to read Arabic, but I guess I’m going to give it a try.  I would love to learn to write it (it has a beautiful script), but I doubt that I’ll be able to do that any time soon. I’ll count myself lucky if I can learn to carry on a limited conversation.

So far I can say: Hello and good-bye (three different ways), How are you?, I’m fine, Thank you, Excuse me (or you’re welcome), Do you know English? (to a man or a woman), I don’t know Arabic, I know only a little Arabic, and I am an American (which ought to be obvious).

I think I’m a little crazy taking on this project. But it beats doing crossword puzzles (at least in my estimation).

Speaking in Tongues

In Friends, International, Self Improvement on March 15, 2009 at 12:05 pm

I practiced it a hundred times before I finally tried it on a real person.


Dr. Okash looked surprised.

“Did I say that right? Is that how you say hello?” I said quickly.

“Yes, but it sounds a little more like this.” He demonstrated. Then he asked, “Are you trying to learn Arabic?”

I’m not sure what I’m doing. I work peripherally with many students from other countries, the majority of them Arabic-speaking. Some of them have asked me how to say something in English or what an English word means, and it occurred to me that I should be making some effort to learn their language. Americans are so arrogant about learning other languages, figuring that it is the foreigner’s responsibility to learn English.  I figured that learning to say hello and goodbye was the least I could do.

I tried out my new phrases on a few more of the students and soon had them correcting my pronunciation and adding new words to my vocabulary list. The next thing I knew I had sent for a set of CDs for learning Arabic. I was surprised at how excited I was as I put them in my CD player and began practicing even more new phrases. If you would have asked me a few months ago if I would ever consider learning Arabic, I would have said you were nuts. What a difficult language that must be! And what would I ever use it for?

Sometimes you just have to follow your instincts. Since I learned how to say hello, goodbye, how are you, I’m fine and so on, the students I’ve practiced on have opened up more about  their countries and themselves. I’m not carrying on conversations in Arabic, but the fact that I’ve made the effort to learn a little of their language has broken the ice. I think they feel more welcome and I feel more connected to the larger world out there.

I had the same sensations and reactions when I started teaching myself German about ten years ago. The mere act of attempting to learn a new language is mind-expanding. And I found that the more I learned of the language, the more I got a sense of the people who speak it. I still can carry on only the most rudimentary conversations in German, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ve tried. And in many ways I’ve succeeded. I can watch a German movie and understand a good deal of what’s being said without looking at the subtitles. I can eavesdrop on my husband when he’s speaking on the phone to his family members in Germany. I can tell my husband that I love him in his own language.

My husband’s English is so good and he is so used to speaking in me in English, I never get much of a chance to practice German with him. And I doubt that I will ever carry on long conversations in Arabic with the students I work with. But the fact that I’ve made steps in their direction means that I’ve tried to understand them and not just expected them to do all the work of understanding me.

I feel good about that.