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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

The wings of compassion

I was trying to learn in Chicago in around 1920 and was searching for the unnoticed things that made emotions, such as the way an outfielder tossed his glove without looking back to where it fell ... These were the things which moved you before you knew the story.
Ernest Hemingway, interviewed by George Plimpton for Writers at Work, Second Series, 1963

Two subjects I’ve read about off and on for years, always returning to them and finding inspiration, are Hemingway’s approach to writing and the Buddhist practice of mindfulness, or simple attention to what’s happening now. I’ve just lately seen a connection between those two — one that to me at least is illuminating, and that I’ve never thought of before.

Some recent writers on mindfulness, like Tara Brach in Radical Acceptance and Christopher Germer in Mindfulness and Self-Compassion, have suggested that simple mindfulness is only half of what we can practice to bring ourselves into a healthier relationship with our world and ourselves. The other half is compassion. If we can bring this in, we’re bringing warmth to our noticing, rather trying to practice a detached attention; and we can learn just to be with our more difficult emotions, instead of always turning, or running, away from them.

As Tara Brach puts it:

As we lean into the acceptance of the moment — releasing our stories and gently holding our pain or desire — Radical Acceptance begins to unfold. The two parts of genuine acceptance — seeing clearly and holding our experience with compassion — are as interdependent as the two wings of a great bird. Together, they enable us to fly and be free.

For years I didn’t get this. At all. I tried to practice mindfulness, but I was seeking to train myself to practice observation in some cool, dispassionate way, as journalists often need to do; and this never truly took hold, because I wasn’t engaging all of what I could. The idea of practicing a mindful attention that is warmed by compassion, that leans toward what’s hard or scary or painful, opens up a new world of possibilities, and of well-being in being more aware.

As a working writer I’ve also tried to observe, again with only fitful success — and I think the warmth is what I was missing here, too. Hemingway speaks not just of learning to observe as a clinician might, but of seeking to spot the “unnoticed things that made emotions.” If we can open up to a looking and listening that not only includes feelings but spots the connections between what we observe and what we do feel, then maybe as writers we can bring this to our work. And maybe, just maybe, something we write might come to mean something more to a reader.

To me the perfect expression of this is in what must have been one of the most painful descriptions Hemingway ever wrote. In A Moveable Feast, the memoir of his time in Paris in the 1920s with his devoted first wife, Hadley, and their very young son, Hemingway closes the book by telling how he betrayed Hadley for the woman who would become the second of his four wives. Hadley had been waiting for him in Austria, where they had been skiing before Hemingway had to leave for New York “to rearrange publishers.”

I did my business in New York and when I got back to Paris I should have caught the first train from the Gare de l’Est that would take me down to Austria. But the girl I was in love with was in Paris then, and I did not take the first train, or the second or the third.

When I saw my wife again standing by the tracks as the train came in by the piled logs at the station, I wished I had died before I ever loved anyone but her.

In that plain describing of a trusting soul standing by train tracks is a lifetime of pain and late-night regret. Reading it, I know it, just as if it had happened to me.   

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