Sunday, 10 June 2018

8 books to appreciate how beautiful life really is

I live in a beautiful part of the world, in the heart of the Swiss Alps. My surroundings are stunning, but in any place – no matter how incredible – sometimes we just get caught up in our own thoughts.

Here are some of the books that have reminded me of just how spectacular life can be. I turn to them for a bit of bibliotherapy when I'm experiencing difficulties or feeling a bit disillusioned.

Reading beautiful writing (and enjoying beautiful illustrations) is one of my best tools to get back to where I want to be; often, back out into the world with mindfulness. I hope they can benefit you too.

My views in Meiringen, Switzerland. Winston Churchill climbed the Wetterhorn (on the right) in 1894, aged 19. 

1. The Waves by Virginia Woolf

The Waves is in close contention with Mrs Dalloway for my favourite novel by Virginia Woolf. It's a beautiful book, layering six voices in monologue; moving from morning until night, from childhood into old age. All against the backdrop of the sea.

The Waves helped to create modern fiction, and it's a book for all of us who love language.

I am made and remade continually. Different people draw different words from me.

2. A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

A book that will move you to tears – and then make you want to turn back to the beginning and read it again.

It's a story of the simple life of Andreas Egger, who knows every path and peak of his mountain valley in the Austrian Alps. It's a beautiful, heartbreaking book about what life is really made of; both the little and the big. 

Choose whether you'd like to read it in a couple of sittings (like I did on a snow day) or try to savour it for longer. Or read it twice and do both.

You can buy a man's hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment. That's the way it is.

Another book by Robert Seethaler is The Tobacconist, which is still on my reading list: "a tender, heartbreaking story about one young man and his friendship with Sigmund Freud during the Nazi occupation of Vienna".

3. Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernières

Captain Corelli's Mandolin is another lovely collection of different voices, like The Waves (and also All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr).

It's a warm, vibrant novel, both in setting – Cephallonia, an island west of mainland Greece – and its various personalities. It's a book that will warm your heart.

Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.

4. The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

I think this is one of the very best mountain memoirs out there, written by a woman in a sea of men. Robert MacFarlane, another of my favourite nature writers, echoes this in Mountains of the Mind and also in his brilliant introduction to The Living Mountain.

Each chapter is focused on a different aspect of a mountain experience; water, frost and snow, air and light, being. And each chapter is divinely written.

Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.

Another favourite quote of mine, from Nan Shepherd's first book The Quarry Wood: “It’s a grand thing to get leave to live.” This quote is also now featured on some Scottish £5 bank notes.

A little green bee-eater, during an adventure in Sri Lanka.

5. The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker

A celebration of slowing down and listening closely; of getting to the meaning beneath the surface. For the price of the book, you get a ticket for one on a stunning inner retreat to Burma. Enjoy the journey.

"When a successful New York lawyer suddenly disappears without a trace, neither his wife nor his daughter Julia has any idea where he might be…until they find a love letter he wrote many years ago, to a Burmese woman they have never heard of. Intent on solving the mystery and coming to terms with her father’s past, Julia decides to travel to the village where the woman lived. There she uncovers a tale of unimaginable hardship, resilience, and passion that will reaffirm the reader’s belief in the power of love to move mountains."  (From the publisher).

And so there must be in life something like a catastrophic turning point, when the world as we know it ceases to exist. A moment that transforms us into a different person from one heartbeat to the next.

6. Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver

Because Mary Oliver truly gets to the beauty of life. She's one of the finest poetic ambassadors for the natural world of our time. I love how humble her poetry is, how there are no wasted words: "Watch, now, how I start the day / in happiness, in kindness".

I have the following poem on the wall of the landing of my house, next to a map of Switzerland with a green line of the route I've walked across. I see it every morning, and it reminds me to get outside and see the world.

The Old Poets Of China
Wherever I am, the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.

Alpenrose in the Swiss Alps, on one of my day hikes on the Via Alpina trail across the country.

7. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The book that reinforced my belief that Elizabeth Gilbert truly is a wonderful writer – and a beautiful soul. It's a story of love and its challenges, the vibrant history of botany, and of footprints left around the globe.

Reading it made me want to buy a big book about plants and flowers with huge hand-drawn pictures. (Note: I haven't found one yet – does anyone have any recommendations? I did buy the next book on this list, however).

All I ever wanted was to know this world. I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than I knew when I arrived. Moreover, my little bit of knowledge has been added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history-- added to the great library, as it were. That is no small feat, sir. Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life.

8. Winter Birds by Lars Jonsson

I received this lovely little hardback last Christmas, after seeing it in a bookshop in Zurich and not being able to stop thinking about the drawings. In recent years, I've fallen in love with birds a little (is this what adulthood looks like?) I listen to the song of the birds that live by my house, and I notice their comings and goings as I work. I like to be in tune with nature, so this new interest seems to suit me well.

If you love nature drawings, look up Winter Birds: it's Lars Jonsson's celebration of Sweden's best-loved winter birds. Each one of the forty birds is illustrated beautifully, with text on its identification, cultural history, and the author's own personal observations.

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Sunday, 3 June 2018

12 calming books to help you take a deep breath and relax

Sometimes we just need to take a deep breath and relax – but it's not always that easy. Strangely enough, it can be difficult to recognise when you're most stressed out. But carving out reading time with a well-chosen book (even if you have to force yourself to sit still) can help you get back on track.

Note to self-improvement junkies: business books, most self-improvement books, and anything else that gets you all worked up isn't calming. I love these books, but I know they'll make me want to start a new project and feel bad about sitting doing nothing. They don't help me to wind down before bed and sleep soundly, so I save them for my morning reading time and any other breaks during the day.

When we need to chill out, including before bed, we can choose books to slow our heart rate down and help us to check in with ourselves. My selection below is a mix of fiction, memoir, non-fiction, and poetry. I hope you can find a greater sense of calm through them too.

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1. The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down: How to Be Calm and Mindful in a Fast-Paced World by Haemin Sunim

This was one of my most-recommended books in 2017. In this book (one that you'll want to return to again and again), Haemin Sunim, a Buddhist meditation teacher born in Korea and educated in the US, shares his advice for wellbeing, mindfulness and joy in eight areas, including love, friendship, work, and spirituality.

The book is beautiful, and not just for its writing: it contains over thirty full-page colourful and calming illustrations to help us slow down. To best enjoy these, get the little hardback edition if you can.

Haemin Sunim also has another book coming out in December 2018, Love for Imperfect Things: How to Be Kind and Forgiving Toward Yourself and Others, which I am very excited about.

2. The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga by Sylvain Tesson

I mention Walden, or Life in the Woods by Henry David Thoreau a lot on this website. I had a lot of fun writing my article On living like Thoreau (or creating your modern version of Walden). Walden is easily on my shortlist of calming books to help me relax.

But what about other books that talk about escaping into the woods and leaving society for a while? My top vote is The Consolations of the Forest by Sylvain Tesson, "a meditation on escaping the chaos of modern life and rediscovering the luxury of solitude".

Sylvain Tesson takes it to the extreme: he exiles himself to a wooden cabin on Siberia’s Lake Baikal, a full day’s hike from any neighbour, with his thoughts, his books, a couple of dogs, and many bottles of vodka for company.

Writing from February to July, Sylvain Tesson celebrates the ultimate freedom of owning your own time, recording his impressions, struggles and joy in the face of silence.

As long as there is a cabin deep in the woods, nothing is completely lost.

3. Collected Poems by William Wordsworth

When you're feeling stressed, take a step into the world of the English Romantics. Join them in marvelling at the powerful natural world – and take a big deep breath. Alongside W. B. Yeats and Edward Thomas, Wordsworth will always be one of my go-to poets; I find so much magic in his writing.

I've also memorised a few of his poems to mull over on train journeys, while beholding a beautiful view, or when I need a time out – I think there are far worse ways I could use up my mental space.

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety

4. How to Love by Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hahn has a selection of these "Mindfulness Essentials" – also including How to RelaxHot to Sit, and How to Fight – and I think they're brilliant.

How to Relax would have been a more obvious choice to include in this list, but How to Love has got to be my favourite. I think Thich Nhat Hahn's writing will always be calming, and I especially enjoy when he's talking about our connections with others.

Our true home is inside, but it’s also in our loved ones around us. When you’re in a loving relationship, you and the other person can be a true home for each other. In Vietnamese, the nickname for a person’s life partner is “my home.” 

5. A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver

One of my favourite podcasts is On Being with Krista Tippett, and there is a lovely episode with poet Mary Oliver called "Listening to the World". I would recommend giving it a listen and then diving into the universe of her poems.

But in any case, I'd encourage you to get a copy of Mary Oliver's anthologies and head outside, find a lovely spot to sit, and take in her words.

I Go Down To The Shore
I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall—
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

Mary Oliver

6. Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed

Brave Enough is Cheryl Strayed's "mini instruction manual for the soul", compiling more than one hundred of her quotes and thoughts, each one on a single page.

Whether you have enjoyed her other books (most famously, Wild) or if you're new to her writing, I hope you too will enjoy flicking through this book. Pick it up when you need a moment to recentre, gather your thoughts, and replenish your capacity for love and forgiveness – both for yourself and for others.

7. The South by Colm Tóibín

This is my favourite Colm Tóibín novel. Like Brooklyn, it's a real self-discovery story. In 1950, Katherine Proctor leaves Ireland for Barcelona to reinvent herself as a painter. There she begins to build a life with Miguel, an anarchist veteran of the Spanish Civil War.

Katherine begins to leave her past behind until she meets a fellow Irish émigré in Spain, Michael Graves, who forces her to reexamine her relationships: with Miguel, with her art, and with Ireland. If you have wondered whether you belong in a place, or about the line between love and freedom, The South might speak to you.

8. A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul by Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy considered this book to be his most important contribution to humanity, a compilation of "daily thoughts to nourish the soul" with one page of wisdom per day.

Tolstoy gathered, translated, abbreviated and expanded on quotations from a huge range of sources, including the New Testament, the Koran, Greek philosophy, Lao-Tzu, Buddhist thought, and the poetry, novels, and essays of both ancient writers and contemporary thinkers. It's Tolstoy's spiritual guide and collection of the quotes that formed his mind, but it leaves enough space and variety to help us to form our own.

A Calendar of Wisdom is a superb book to have lying around ready to be picked up, instead of hidden away on a shelf.

9. Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki

"Fumio Sasaki is not an enlightened minimalism expert or organizing guru like Marie Kondo―he’s just a regular guy who was stressed out and constantly comparing himself to others, until one day he decided to change his life by saying goodbye to everything he didn’t absolutely need. The effects were remarkable: Sasaki gained true freedom, new focus, and a real sense of gratitude for everything around him". (From the publisher)

Want to know how to make yourself instantly unhappy? Compare yourself with someone else.

Goodbye, Things

10. Bashō: The Complete Haiku

There's just something about haikus to help you slow down and rest your mind. I keep a collection of Bashō's poetry near me when I'm working, and often read a haiku or two when I need a break.

Sitting quietly,
doing nothing,
Spring comes,
and the grass grows, by itself.

11. Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness by Dr. Qing Li

How much time do you spend in nature? Do you have a forest near you that you can escape to?

Written by Dr. Qung Li, who specialises in forest medicine, this is his definitive guide to the therapeutic Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or "forest bathing": the art and science of how trees can promote health and happiness.

Like The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down, it's another book with lovely photographs, in this case showcasing the beauty of trees and the natural world.

Another tree-celebration: The Hidden Life of Trees: The International Bestseller – What They Feel, How They Communicate by Peter Wohlleben.

12. Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

From the master of aviation writing, this is one of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's best-loved books – after, perhaps, The Little Prince. It's a great little book to take with you when travelling, or it can be the source of another adventure – sitting at home and leaping into a book.

I can't help but feel calm when I read his descriptions of the natural world:

When I opened my eyes I saw nothing but the pool of nocturnal sky, for I was lying on my back with out-stretched arms, face to face with that hatchery of stars. Only half awake, still unaware that those depths were sky, having no roof between those depths and me...

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