Nevada COVID Diaries, Day 2

Dear Diary: March 20, 2020. Have you heard the theory that sun showers are good luck? Rain is a rare occurrence here in the desert, but relatively speaking, sun showers are not quite as unusual. We often get tiny little pockets of rain, a single heavy cloud or two that pass overhead while the rest of the sky remains blue and bright. Such was my experience today, while driving home from grabbing a large no sugar added mocha latte from a Coffee Bean & Teal Leaf drive-thru. Lana Del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” played hauntingly through the speakers and the rain cloud seemed to hover just above my car, though all the world around my path shone azure. I needed the pick-me-up following my latest doctor’s appointment. The call started with good news: your chest x-ray is normal! But. Yes, then the but. They wanted me to come in to “discuss a few things in your bloodwork.” Ominous, no? I had a feeling, I’ve had a feeling, that much of my problems with lethargy might be related to an iron deficiency. It seems I wasn’t far off base. Severe anemia. But the doctor, who walked in and called my lab results “very strange,” isn’t satisfied with all my problems being the result of an iron deficiency. She indicated that there are actually three deficiencies noted and that when those three happen in combination, they’re typically the result of one of three problems, all of which are very severe. So, we’re off to more testing! I returned a half-hour later for more blood work (my lord did they take a lot of blood!) plus urine samples, stool samples, and ultrasounds. “But, could it be COVID?” They’re not even testing me for it. Doesn’t that seem strange? It doesn’t make sense to me, all things considered. Anyhow, I’m very likely immunocompromised, which means I need to do my best to be even more socially distant.

Currently Reading: I made just a little progress with The Princess Bride yesterday. It’s really a hilarious book, super meta, and a parody almost on par with Cervantes’ Don Quixote, though Goldman is having much more fun with layered narration. It’s quite a trip, really, and I’m eagerly looking forward to watching the movie to see just how they managed to capture these depths of storytelling and the complicated relationship between author, fictive author, narrator, and fictive narrator, and then of course all of that and the truth. I did not tackle any other reading yesterday, though, so I need to find some time this weekend to make more progress with In the Time of the Butterflies. I might focus, tonight, on my current poetry collection, Cohen’s Book of Longing. It seems like a good day for poetry.

Currently Writing: Ironically, after posting about Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel yesterday, PEN announced a new interview with Chee today. Maybe that’s some kind of serendipitous sign telling me to tackle it after all. Well, if one believes in that sort of thing. Sort of like sun showers, isn’t it? My sleep and tiredness problems have kept me from waking up on time lately, so I haven’t gotten nearly as much writing or submitting done as I’d like to. Hopefully that changes soon.

Currently Listening To: Billie Holiday Lady in Satin (1958). “For all we know this may only be a dream / We come and go like a ripple on a stream / So love me tonight, tomorrow was made for some / Tomorrow may never come, for all we know.” How’s that for an upper? It’s hard to deny the power of music in my life. Everything I do or feel or remember has some connection to a particular song or album or genre. Yesterday, I note, in feeling a bit rebellious and a bit jaded by the lack of seriousness with which people are taking the pandemic, I was diving into Nirvana and thinking about the could have beens, if we were a better people. Today, as my health news apparently continues to worsen and as this crisis also grows, I sink into the Blues, quite literally, and wrap myself in the warm lush embrace of Holiday and Del Rey. They seem to feel just as deeply as I do, and that’s not nothing.

Teaching Updates: I think my students are slowly moving into the routine of the semester. I’m hearing from some of them, and others are quietly doing their work. As for me, I’m reaching out as much as I can but trying not to overwhelm, either. At the moment, I’m responding to a set of essays in one class and to a set of reading responses in another class, and interacting in discussion threads with three others. My attention is all over the place, which is the nature of teaching, to be frank; but what makes it difficult is that each of these types of interactions is different. They require different kind of responses from me, so I’m constantly flipping switches in my brain so that I can move from one rhetorical situation to another. Reading responses get personalized responses; discussion boards get a mixture of individual and classroom response (my responses are meant to address a specific student’s post but in a way that the entire class can benefit from); and essay responses are highly instructive. It’s a bit of a juggling act, and I’ve never had to do it for five online classes simultaneously. But I see these students showing up and communicating with one another, and with me, and that’s all I need. As long as they’re learning and succeeding, I’m keeping on.

Current Status: I haven’t seen any new numbers related to the cases in Nevada, not since yesterday when we were near 100. My area of Las Vegas (which, by the way, is home to about 1/3 of the entire state population) has, as far as I know, just one drive-thru testing center, and that center was absolutely overwhelmed. No surprise. The latest news is that they’re going to shut down temporarily because there aren’t enough medical professionals available to keep up with the demand. There’s also a further tightening of restrictions in southern Nevada coming, as suggested by the CDC. At the moment, restaurants and cafes are still open but for carryout only. My understanding is that, sometime around 7pm tonight, only drive-thru locations will be allowed to continue operating. There’s still a great deal of confusion about that, though, so I’ll await specific news reports tonight. Perhaps another address by our Governor. I will say, I’m extremely annoyed at how the news is talking about California (and sometimes even New York) being the first state to implement a full “stay-at-home” order. No, my dears, it was Nevada. We led the way and we deserve the credit for that, particularly considering how much our economy depends on tourism in Las Vegas. Shutting down the world’s most notorious 24-hour city was no small feat. Wake up, journalists, and give credit where credit is due. The people of Nevada deserve to be seen. Edit: 20-minutes after writing this, our Governor announced that ALL non-essential business are now ordered to close and that all the help we have requested from the Federal government, including requests for test kits, is on “indefinite hold.”

Positive Thoughts: Despite this semester becoming quite overwhelming, both physically and mentally, and due to both health issues and professional issues, some really wonderful things do remind me why any challenge is worth it for me. At least as an educator. I wrote earlier about responding to student reading notes. I received one from a student today that had me nearly in tears. It reminded me just how important the things I do can be, and more specifically, the choices that I make in my teaching methods. I won’t get into detail about what the student said, because that should remain private, but it provided me a much needed boost. It’s probably something I’ll never forget.

Nevada COVID Diaries, Day 1

Dear Diary: March 19, 2020. It has been just over 24-hours since the state of Nevada became majority quarantined. We crave pizza, but carryout is an abomination. Also, the internet, which keeps me employed and entertained, has failed. I can live without grading papers, but without my Bon Appetit cooking shows? Six rolls of toilet paper remain. We welcome the giant asteroid prophesied for April. 

Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic. It is eerie seeing Las Vegas so significantly shutdown, though. Some people are taking it seriously and some are still refusing to do so; I wish they would grow up. It’s mostly that American anti-authority “cowboy” mentality that drives these people, and I can’t help but find it tragically juvenile. I’ve nothing positive to say about these people who are risking other’s lives and risking a much lengthier pandemic process because of their ego and arrogance, and ignorance. So, I’ll say nothing more about it. Most of the city seems to be in this together, though, as the cover of today’s Las Vegas Weekly suggests. I also drove by a sign outside one of the larger off-strip casinos today that read, “Closed Doors. Open Hearts. Vegas Stronger.” What a beautiful sentiment. It reminds me of the atmosphere this city built following the 1 October tragedy of 2018. I wrote an essay about that event that was published in Brave Voices Magazine. Las Vegas is much more than outsiders realize or give it credit for. 

Recently Read: Green Lantern Legacy: A Graphic Novel by Minh Le and Andie Tong. This is such a delightful story, beautifully illustrated. The traditional Green Lantern tale gets a much-needed update. The treatment of this story from an “own voices” writer and artist is particularly appealing. Essentially, young Tai Pham, the son of Vietnam immigrants, inherits the Green Lantern jade ring from his grandmother. As he comes of age and comes of power simultaneously, he must learn what it is to be not just a superhero, but a good person, and he discovers the real dangers and enticements of power. The story is funny and fresh, though it does sometimes resort to traditional superhero origin tropes that have become a bit tired. Overall, though, this was a beautiful, deep, and human story deserved the rich and delicate treatment Le and Tong provided. I’m so glad DC gave them the platform to do this. It’s a graphic novel I’ll definitely keep in my library and return to at some point. 

Currently Reading: I’ve found that I’m always in the process of “currently reading” at least three texts simultaneously: fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. This has been my habit since the start of the new year and I’m quite enjoying it. Somehow, the different genres feed different parts of my soul and my intellectual appetite at once, which is helpful particularly in times like this. They can also inform one another in different and surprising ways. Right now, though, I’m actually reading four books at once. For fiction, I’m reading The Princess Bride and In the Time of the Butterflies. These are two novels I’ve assigned in my literature classes, so I’m reading them along with my students right now. For poetry, I’m reading Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing. It’s definitely not what I expected. He writes an awful lot about sex and women. I picked it up because he’s Leonard Cohen. “Hallelujah.” Right? I also picked it up because the title stood out to me very much in the moment and because Cohen illustrates the collection himself, and I found the drawings endearing. Some of them are poems themselves. For non-fiction, I’m still reading The Age of Atheists. My reading of this one has slowed a bit as the semester has ramped up, but it’s really quite brilliant and I can’t wait to make more headway with it. 

Currently Writing: At the moment, I’m mainly working on poetry. I’ve sent a mini-chap collection in to some publishers for consideration and continue to write poems in a similar theme. I’ll actually be submitting a few poems to another publisher in the next week. I’m not working on my YA novel right now because the manuscript currently sits with three beta readers. I await their feedback, after which I plan to dive into revisions and see what’s what. I might dive into memoir again sometime soon, but I’d like to read Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel and Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay. That might be wishful thinking right now, though. 

Currently Listening To: Nirvana’s Nevermind (1991). “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous / Here we are now, entertain us / I feel stupid and contagious / Here we are now, entertain us.” How appropriate is that right now? I don’t think I could’ve planned it better. In truth, I just listened to “All Apologies,” which makes me think about Cobain’s issues with gender, illustrated most clearly in In Utero (1993), and his groundbreaking vocal support for LGBTQ+ people before it was “cool.” I really wonder what Cobain would have accomplished had he lived, or what he could have been had he lived today. I’m watching people like Harry Styles, who is championing the destruction of gender constructs regularly, and wonder and wonder. 

Teaching Updates: This semester was already a strange one for me because all five of my classes were scheduled online. I’ve never had that situation before. On the plus side, it meant my courses were already designed and prepared for this distance delivery. However, I am now locked out of my campus office, where I did most of my work. I also have a number of students, maybe most of them, who are struggling with all sorts of new issues related to the pandemic and this statewide shut down. Some have lost their jobs already; some now have childcare or sibling care to think of. Some did not have a computer at home and were relying on the public or campus library access. It’s been a “let’s roll with this, come what may” kind of semester, and I think it’s going to be that way all term. I’m relaxing on due dates, though not on overall expectations or outcomes. I’m trying to keep my classes, at least, as consistent as possible so that something stays “normal” in their world. This might mean that a lot of them drop because of the workload. But it might also mean a lot of them find a place of stability and structure that could be desperately needed in a very uncertain time. I’ve also been checking in, though, and providing all sorts of “mental health break” activities; these are fun things they can do from home/online that are free, like virtual museum or zoo tours, concerts and Broadway shows that have been placed online, meditation techniques and interesting podcasts, etc. I got the idea from some of the brilliant online teacher groups (like “Pandemic Pedagogy”) that popped up in the last couple of weeks as teachers all across the country have been working to migrate to an online format. Teachers are amazing, really. I wish we had more teachers in government. 

Current Status: As of three hours ago (11:00AM on Thursday, March 19th) the Nevada Department of Health reports 95 cases of COVID-19. What does that mean? Well, not much, considering testing remains nearly impossible. I was at the doctor on Friday 3/13 for a chronic cough, which I’ve been dealing with since November 2019. I have other persistent issues, which I believe are allergy related, so I thought I’d get it all checked at once. I suppose a pandemic brings out the paranoid in a person? To be fair to myself, it’s not paranoia. I’ve been sick for a long time, I just don’t know what the problem is. In any case, they ordered a chest X-ray (completed Monday 3/16), blood-work (completed Friday 3/13) and an allergy test, which I declined because it was going to cost $350 after insurance. I’ve gotten no results from the blood test or x-ray, yet, and feel the same. Coughing, sleepy, foggy head. It’s been this way every day for four months, now. 

Positive Thoughts: I’ve seen a lot of posts from teachers who are migrating to online instruction, many of them for the first time every. Naturally, these updates are often about “failures” or “bloopers” the teachers have experienced. I’ve heard from friends about the partner who walked in during a live stream, wearing nothing but boxer shorts; I’ve heard from a colleague about how she accidentally burped just seven short minutes into her first recorded lecture; I’ve seen videos of teacher friends whose cats jump up onto their keyboard mid-lecture or whose kids come screaming into the room. I know a lot of these teachers have felt frustrated, anxious, and embarrassed by these unexpected and typically uncontrollable events. But I’ve never felt such joy as when hearing these stories or seeing the results myself. These simple little mistakes aren’t mistakes. They’re insights into our lives. They’re ways we can continue to connect with one another in genuine ways, while necessarily staying apart physically. They show me the very human side of what it means to be alive and surviving and, eventually I believe, thriving in a difficult, ever-changing, anxious state of affairs. Thank you, teacher friends, for doing what you do for your students. For rolling with the punches. For allowing yourselves to be human so that you can continue to give your best to your students. Guess what? Your best is you

Cleanness by Garth Greenwell

About the Book: Sofia, Bulgaria, a landlocked city in southern Europe, stirs with hope and impending upheaval. Soviet buildings crumble, wind scatters sand from the far south, and political protesters flood the streets with song. In this atmosphere of disquiet, an American teacher navigates a life transformed by the discovery and loss of love. As he prepares to leave the place he’s come to call home, he grapples with the intimate encounters that have marked his years abroad, each bearing uncanny reminders of his past. A queer student’s confession recalls his own first love, a stranger’s seduction devolves into paternal sadism, and a romance with another foreigner opens, and heals, old wounds. Each echo reveals startling insights about what it means to seek connection: with those we love, with the places we inhabit, and with our own fugitive selves. Cleanness revisits and expands the world of Garth Greenwell’s beloved debut, What Belongs to You, declared “an instant classic” by The New York Times Book Review. In exacting, elegant prose, he transcribes the strange dialects of desire, cementing his stature as one of our most vital living writers.

My Reaction: First, I must admit that this book caught my eye when another review for it crossed my Twitter timeline. I noticed a few choice words in that review which piqued my interest enough to order the book and read it right away. That’s not unusual for me, but what is strange is that I didn’t read the book’s description (above) nor had I read anything else by the author before, including his debut novel, What Belongs to You, which is apparently closely related to the story in Cleanness. 

The novel has a delicate ferocity. It is quiet, mostly, even in its most intense moments. This is one of its strengths, to be sure; for example, it treats the most delicate and often-taboo’d sexual appetites and encounters in a way that is both sensitive and sensual. Those encounters have a decided violence to them, yet Greenwell’s narrator gets to the heart of the psychology and emotion of such experiences and desires in a way that few writers, particularly those in contemporary mainstream literature, have either dared or managed to do. There’s an honesty, here, a making-real of gay sexuality (but no, not just gay sexuality, despite the cast) and the demystifying of it that we should be grateful; it is a refreshing approach. 

Thematic successes aside, the story is also interesting and well-told. I was particularly intrigued by the setting, Bulgaria during the revolution. I have to admit I haven’t read much about this place or this time at all, so seeing it through the eyes of a narrator whom I could understand (an American professor teaching abroad), was helpful and rewarding. On the other hand, I didn’t respond as well to the episodic construction. Non-linear storytelling can work, of course, but I found it a bit difficult to follow this one smoothly. I think I was so impressed by the honesty and sensitivity of the subject matter that I was hoping for the structure itself to be just as straightforward. Instead, it is a bit more modern in its construction, simultaneously cerebral in its construction but decidedly every-man in its exploration of humanity and the everyday experiences that make us who we are, behind the masks we put on in public. 

One of the later scenes, which involves a youth who essentially wants to be destroyed, reminds me very much of the kind of themes explored by Dennis Cooper. The pathos is raw and surfeit without being superficial, like a raw nerve in your tooth that you can’t help but press your tongue against. It is a stark contrast to the narrator’s own position and desires portrayed at the start of the novel, and to the mysterious romance at the heart of it, which unfolds itself only in snippets and snapshots of the narrator’s complicated affairs. 

I’m looking forward to getting a copy of What Belongs to You soon; I hope to read it and then read Cleanness again. It demands another visit. 

Notable Quotes:

“I wanted to ruin what he had made, what he had made me, I mean, the person he had made me.”

“That’s the worst thing about teaching, that our actions either have no force at all or have force beyond all intention, and not only our actions but our failures to act, gestures and words held back or unspoken, all we might have done and failed to do; and, more than this, that the consequences echo across years and silence, we can never really know what we’ve done.”

“You can call out for anything you desire, however aberrant or unlikely, and nearly always there comes an answer, it’s a large world, we’re never as solitary as we think, as unique or unprecedented, what we feel has always already been felt, again and again, without beginning or end.”

 

Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo

If you’ve kept up with the hoopla surrounding the American Dirt release and are looking for an alternative, “own voices” book to read that covers similar issues (immigration, the U.S. southern border, living undocumented in America), then you might want to get your hands on a copy of Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s memoir, Children of the Land.

Castillo is a critically-acclaimed and award-winning poet and his memoir reads like the story of a poet. He is also an undocumented immigrant, whose parents brought him and his siblings to the United States from Mexico when he was very young. He went on to become the first undocumented student to graduate from the Helen Zell Writers Program at the University of Michigan.

His memoir reads serendipitously, or perhaps expectedly, like the confluence of these two things: poet and migrant. It is somehow both searingly direct and beautifully imaginative. He manages to balance the difficult and the wonderful, the extraordinary and the commonplace, in language that reflects a deep reflection and in-touchness with self that, as the reader will discover, was hard fought and hard won. It also expresses the pain of a boy at long odds with his father and of a man without a country. Those two realities, being essentially fatherless and essentially homeless, are reflected in the anchor-less he describes; it makes sense that he has found his home in poetry.

Some of the most profound and affecting moments from the memoir, for me, are the ones that are the most ordinary and American. He writes, for instance, about being an English professor and about how he learned to work with students coming out of high schools with “earned As” but who, really, couldn’t write well at all. The exhaustion, confusion he felt about this, and the love he he had for his subject despite the fact that he couldn’t seem to give enough of himself to his students, resounded deeply with me. Equally substantive, though, are the insights he provides about the immigration experience. He illustrates the way immigrants have been and continue to be treated at our borders, as inherently inferior and even diseased people. Now, as the world deals with this new pandemic, this strikes painfully. The way we fear the other, the way we scapegoat them, is an unconscionable tragedy. Reading a first-hand account of a family that has experienced, supplemented by the history of Federal policies that propped-up and perpetuated such stereotypical hatred, was painful but illuminating.

Two of the most moving elements of his memoir, though, are the way he describes never being “quite enough.” Not quite American enough; not quite Mexican enough. He shares moments in his life when he felt he was losing his language, when his English was too good for someone like him, or when he felt his Spanish slipping away so that he had to stumble through conversations with neighbors, family members. That swaying, that rudderlessness, is haunting, particularly when we understand just how many people in the United States must feel like this all the time, whether they’re in limbo at the border or going about their daily lives all around the country. The second powerful section is his portrayal of the immigration system and just how difficult and time-consuming it is, even for those who are following the rules. Castillo shares his experiences working through the immigration process for both his mother and his father, and it’s eye-opening to say the least. Even laws specifically established to help people like his mother, for example, whose case was a special one (I won’t say more than that), are ultimately made to be toothless by the people who work the system and choose whether or not a person’s value is enough.

Children of the Land is not an easy or enjoyable read. There are moments of beauty, both thematically and from the writer’s perspective about life and the world, and beauty in the language and style; but it is a difficult story, not just for Castillo but for his entire family. Being reminded that his is just one story of millions amplifies the discomfort and helplessness one might feel when reading it; but ultimately, that’s the point. There is a helplessness and a desperation that consumes entire groups of people, entire families, and that influences them for generations. Castillo’s memoir illustrates this brilliantly and damagingly.

Notable Quotes:

“I ventured to believe that the function of the border wasn’t only to keep people out, at least that was not its long-term function. Its other purpose was to be visible, to be seen, to be carried in the imaginations of migrants deep into the interior of the country, in the interior of their minds. It was a spectacle meant to be witnessed by the world, and all of its death and violence was and continues to be a form of social control, the way that kings of the past needed to behead only one petty thief in the public square to quell thousands more.”

“I tried to hold the words of my poems inside me like the sounds of snow, but they were nothing like snow, they disappeared as soon as I wrote them” (124).

“He is screaming as if he has seen the future already and knows the past” (357).

“What seemed like hope at first turned into almost an embarrassment. How could we be so naive as to think we could fix this?” (243).

“We needed to ease our way back to him, the way you wade into frigid water, slowly letting your body get numb enough from the waist down to take the dive.” (240).

“I didn’t want to tell people I was a poet because I didn’t want to explain (mostly to white people) what lead me to writing, which would be followed by something like ‘I bet it was a great outlet of expression for such a hard life you lived'” (90).

“Apa always said time stood still out there, like it was broken and would never work again no matter how many watches you wore, which meant that one step was no different than another–they were going nowhere” (41).

Becoming Bodhisattvas

Recently, my mother gifted me any course of my choice from the Great Courses catalog. The timing was perfect, as I had just finished reading Pema Chodron’s edition of The Way of the Bodhisattva, which she has titled, Becoming Bodhisattvas: A Guidebook for Compassionate Action, Living the Way of the Bodhisattva in Today’s World. (Extremely long title aside, the book is wonderfully accessible for beginners like me.)  I was so excited to choose a course on Buddhism, which includes 24 lectures, a guidebook, suggested readings, and more. I’m still waiting on the course to arrive, but after finishing Chodron’s book, I await it most eagerly.

About the Book: The Way of the Bodhisattva has long been treasured as an indispensable guide to enlightened living, offering a window into the greatest potential within us all. Written in the eighth century by the scholar and saint Shantideva, it presents a comprehensive view of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition’s highest ideal–to commit oneself to the life of a Bodhisattva warrior, a person who is wholeheartedly dedicated to the freedom and common good of all beings. And it has inspired many of the tradition’s greatest teachers, providing a remarkable source of insight on the means by which we may heal ourselves and our troubled world. These essential teachings present the core of the Buddhist path, from cultivating deep-seated confidence to infusing one’s life with selflessness, joyfulness, kindness, and compassion.

This particular edition is in fact a “guidebook,” as the title suggests. Almost every verse or section of verses is supplemented by Pema Chodron’s wonderful insight into what the verse means, both in context of the time it was written and for practitioners today. I found myself wondering, sometimes, if I could have just read the original Way of the Bodhisattva, which is much shorter than this guidebook, by itself. While it’s true that some of the verses are straightforward, others require a much deeper understanding of the intentions behind some of the guidance Shantideva gives, particularly when it seems to conflict with contemporary understandings about Buddhism. For example, in some verses he writes about excluding women; without Chodron’s explanations, I would have taken great offense to that kind of instruction, but she explains that part of a Buddhist’s practice is to respect the culture while trying to live that compassionate and joyful life; at the time Shantideva was writing, and in the particular place he was sharing his message, he would have caused enormous offense by suggesting certain (Buddhist appropriate) modifications to customs, such as educating women. To do such would be to lose the audience entirely and thus make no progress in educating any of the people in the ways of the Buddha. A tricky needle to thread.

So, I am very grateful to have picked up this guidebook as opposed to the original text because, in this publication, I get the best of both worlds. The original text is there, beautifully translated, and can be read with or without the commentary; but, for those like me who are just entering into this practice, Pema Chodron’s expert knowledge and wonderful voice are there to help. She also treats the text from a contemporary perspective, which means she is straightforward, precise, direct, and even funny in her explanations. The original tackles issues of sexuality, greed, betrayal, love, hatred, nutrition, exercise, and pretty much every other imaginable part of human life, and Chodron’s elaborations on them all are thoughtful and beautiful.

Some of my favorite ruminations are on the verses that deal with “the klesha urges;” in other words, vices such as addiction. One such verse is as follows:

Therefore, from the gateway of awareness

Mindfulness shall not have leave to stray.

And if it wanders, shall be recalled,

By thoughts of anguish in the lower worlds.

It would be easy to think that “the lower worlds” might refer to a Christian vision of hell, particularly for a western reader raised in and surrounded by Christianity. But Chodron provides context here, as in so many other places, that help a western reader understand what Shantideva really meant. “Emotional chaos,” she writes, “can do us more harm than any ordinary bandits. With mindfulness, however, we can catch the klesha urges while they’re small and disarm them before they harm us.” The lower worlds are essentially states of mind, times when our lack of awareness causes us to get swept up in momentary pleasures that cause eventual pain, rather than acknowledging the pull of some enticement and choosing to create for ourselves a different world, one where we will not cause ourselves to suffer for our own poor decisions.

At least, that’s my understanding of this one small portion of the great text. I’m still very new to the philosophy, but the more I read, the more eager I am to learn and the more right it feels for me, personally. To live a life of joy and service, of mindful action, that seems the summation of anything I’ve tried to articulate about myself in the past. My reading is thus far limited, however, to this text, as well as The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching and Living Buddha, Living Christ. I’m looking forward to the Great Course in Buddhism to help me understand some of the history and context, and terminology, better, and to guide me toward additional readings.

About the Author: Pema Chodron is an American Buddhist nun in the lineage of Chogyam Trungpa and resident teacher at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in North America. She also wrote When Things Fall Apart and Living Beautiful, both of which I hope to read soon.

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