Discovering Ann Patchett

I have been an avid reader all my life, from Charlotte’s Web, Anne of Green Gables, and Little Women in childhood through classic and contemporary literature in high school and college. I loved the Transcendentalists, especially Thoreau and Emerson, and that set me on a course of looking for the meaning of life through the books I read, as well as writing about it.

When I was in graduate school, the feminist movement was reaching its apex, and for many years I read mainly women writers, including Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Virginia Woolf, Doris Lessing, Simone de Beauvoir, Emma Goldman, Rosario Morales, Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, and so many others. I was part of a Boston-area women’s collective that researched out-of-print authors and wrote and published an annotated bibliography of women’s literature, past and present.

Over time, my interest in exploring life’s meaning became as compelling as feminism, and I began to focus on spiritual authors such as Thich Nhat Hanh, Adyashanti, Brooke Medicine Eagle, Gregg Braden, Yogananda, Sharon Salzberg, Sonia Choquette, Eckhart Tolle, Michael Singer, and Panache Desai. I had many profound experiences at retreats and immersions that expanded my awareness and understanding of life. Eventually I began to write my own books and a blog. In recent years, I have been writing more than reading. Then I discovered Ann Patchett.

About ten years ago, a friend enthusiastically and repeatedly recommended Ann’s books to me. At the time I was ensconced in spirituality, and fiction seemed not as interesting. Then last fall I heard Ann interviewed about her 2021 book These Precious Days, a collection of essays about her life. I loved what she said and immediately took the book out of the library and read it nonstop. I found myself laughing out loud at some of her descriptions and then moved to tears by the beauty and poignancy expressed in others. Next, I read her novels The Magician’s Assistant and Bel Canto, each one remarkable. I was amazed at her ability to so vividly depict both human connection and human loss. I am now reading all her books.

Discovering Ann Patchett’s writing has been one of the best gifts in my lifetime of reading. Her fiction and personal essays are so perfectly crafted that the vulnerability and inner spirit of every person described envelops the reader in a blanket of compassion, not only for those particular individuals but for all people. I am immediately drawn into the story lines and relationships, along with the mysteries that gradually reveal themselves. Her characters are alive to me, so much so that I miss them when I finish each book, like longtime friends who have moved away.

Hers is an extraordinary talent. Her genius and skill in bringing to life such an immense variety of people, places, and events with empathy, honesty, and humor is awe-inspiring. Last December, I visited Parnassus Books, Ann’s bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee, where I bought a signed copy of These Precious Days and another for a friend, who, as she read it, commented, “Everything Ann Patchett writes about becomes fascinating.” Yes.

“As every reader knows, the social contract between you and a book you love is not complete until you can hand that book to someone else and say, Here, you’re going to love this.“—Ann Patchett

Celebrate Difference

We are living through times of radical transformation. The reality we once knew no longer resembles what we are now perceiving day to day. Past beliefs and structures are falling away, sometimes rapidly, sometimes gradually—but undeniably. This is a good thing. The evolution of the human soul cannot be stopped. All that came before was merely a prelude. The pain of the past, in which differences separated us, will eventually educate our present. We can live with greater awareness and open-heartedness, beyond the shadows of history and what we’ve been told is possible.

The United States was born when various groups rebelled against the domination of the British crown and formed a new nation based in freedom and self-determination. Differences of religion and nationality were in theory accepted. The reality, of course, was much different. Before the American Revolution, explorers and colonists from European countries came to North America and pushed back the indigenous peoples who had lived here for centuries. The Trail of Tears that robbed them of their homes and identities spread from coast to coast, and children were sent to schools to have the “Indian” destroyed in them. Thousands of people of all ages were killed. Descendants of the survivors still face these attitudes today.

Over the centuries, right up to the present, those who came to America from other countries often found that “freedom” was an illusion. The African people who were enslaved here lost their freedom, and the American “melting pot” was meant not to accept and blend differences but to obliterate them. How do we step away from this long history of intolerance and violence against the integrity of each individual and choose another path? Can we instead celebrate difference and embrace connection on the other side of this broken past? As chaotic as the present times are, I believe that is starting to occur. This change is the so-called Great Shift. It’s a shift in consciousness—from closed minds to open hearts.

If you look around, you see the changes bubbling up everywhere. Those of different races, religions, cultures, ages, and sexual identities are coming together individually and collectively. I love to walk down the street and hear many languages, see biracial couples and those who are not identifiable as one sex or the other. This is the magic of soul flowering. Anything is possible—all is loved and celebrated. Yes, there are those who find these changes threatening and try to destroy them. Ultimately, they will not succeed. Love is more powerful than fear and hatred. Kindness is the wave of the future. Compassion and acceptance will prevail.

In the past, we have often allowed our beliefs to divide us, thinking that those who disagree with us are misguided and should be “corrected.” Wars, both political and religious, have been fought for this purpose. Can we finally get beyond polarization, separation into for and against, right and wrong? This world was created by an infinite Intelligence that “knows” much more than we do about how the universe evolves and expands. We are part of an interwoven tapestry of light, within which seeming opposites will finally come together in balance, and each of us will see clearly that every single piece of this planet is here for a greater reason. We are integral to that evolution, that rising harmony. Celebrate your uniqueness and that of others. Embrace the diversity and fluidity of life itself.

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”—Rumi

Peaceful Spaciousness

How do you describe emptiness? How do I wrap words around the peaceful space I have been opening to since being diagnosed with breast cancer last August? Language seems inadequate to translate something so vast and limitless. My experience has been one of emptying out, sometimes called “dying unto yourself” in spiritual traditions. The dissolving of past identities, opinions, questions, expectations, fears, hopes, disappointments. All the parts of our selves that we accumulate over a lifetime and don’t even realize we carry around with us. Gradually, day by day, week by week, pieces fell away. No grief was involved; it was a lifting off, a lightening. Space opened up within me. I felt increasingly empty, but with no sense of loss or regret. In many ways, it was like opening the door to my soul, which was a room without walls filled with nothing but light. I observed all this without any particular emotional response. It was just happening, peacefully.

And it continued to happen, weeks past the end of my treatments. The emptiness endures, neither greater nor smaller, just present. I find I have stepped away from busyness—doing, thinking, trying. Being is my home now. I remain quietly in Presence much of the time, often alone in Nature, which is the part of my life that is most essential to me, perhaps because that is where Presence is strongest. The silence in the natural world aligns perfectly with the silence within me, that vast empty spaciousness that human language names God, or Spirit. But emptiness has no words; it just is.

There is an invisibility to this experience. No one sees this empty space within me; no one knows I am there unless I tell them. And resting silently, invisibly, in emptiness is a spiritual practice that brings me home effortlessly to my soul. In my breath, in the wind in the trees, in the song of a sparrow, I connect to consciousness itself, which holds everything and nothing at the same time. My soul embodies that consciousness, and when I live my life aligned with it, I am one with peaceful spaciousness. I am in a form but also beyond it.

This has been our human destiny, throughout the ages. We are born to a physical form but eventually return to formless being as we journey through our lives. Infinite consciousness, Presence, is the seed of all life. It incarnates to have the experience of becoming aware within physical form—and then returns to formlessness. There is an expansion and evolution of Spirit within all of this. We can’t know the meaning or the depth of it because it is unknowable by the human mind. This is the Great Mystery, the soul’s journey through bodily form and its return to a Oneness that encompasses all. You may come to this “empty” awareness through cancer (as I did), or through any life crisis or challenge. Or it may come to you at the last split-second of your life (“life review”). However or whenever, it is meant to fill you and empty you at the same time. It is the essence of all life, death, and eternity.

Why do I write about this if it is indescribable, unknowable? I don’t know (of course). The words arise within my soul. It seems that part of my life’s journey is to share through language what I am experiencing, even when it can’t be completely expressed. Each of us is here to express our unique beingness in the world—through words, through silence, through art, through music, through connection with others or Nature. However we live our lives is exactly what we’re meant to bring to the experience of life on Earth. We came here to embody both humanity and divinity in a vast array of colors and light. Our differences are perfect; our lives are perfect. Within the peaceful spaciousness at the core of All That Is exists a love that we each express in our own way. As you come to awareness of this, you recognize that soulful space in others, in yourself, and in the world.

Is Your Mind on Overdrive?

The mind can be a useful assistant, helping you to organize your life and complete tasks. It can also be a nag, constantly bothering you with worries and reminders. If not balanced with the calming energy of the heart or the breath, the mind can run amuck, always on high alert, looking for lists to make and problems to solve. Caffeine, in the form of coffee or tea, can exacerbate this. Meditation and deep slow breathing are helpful for slowing the mind down. This takes consistent practice, however. Meditators sometimes struggle to control their thinking instead of allowing thoughts to just pass through and disappear into emptiness. The mind can rebel by frantically running a commentary something like this: “What are you doing?! Stand up! Close the window. Take your vitamins. Make a grocery list. Do the laundry. Don’t just sit there!” Often lists will start forming in your head, and the mind will urge you to write them down immediately lest you forget. It requires an ongoing commitment to peace in order to relax your mind into accepting slow, quiet breathing and empty mental space. Being instead of doing.

Then there is the mind’s forte: problem-solving. Perhaps this skill is left over from our collective past when survival from dangers in the external world was of primary concern. Today, centuries later, the mental search for problematic issues to resolve is almost constant if not held in check. And if the resolution doesn’t come quickly enough, worry and agitation set in: “Why did I receive this incorrect billing? What does it mean? I have to call the billing office…but it’s closed now. What else can I do about it? What if the electricity is shut off?” The mental movement from concern to anxiety to outright distress can be rapid. The red warning lights go off, and the emotions and body are alerted. If this happens after dark, rest is impossible. You can be up worrying all night—because of one particular aspect of the mental process: night mind.

Night mind exaggerates every problem to the point of imminent danger and eventual disaster. It thrives on “what ifs.” Those inner questions can lead you down a path of increasing disquiet and finally alarm. Such questions also arise in the daytime, but at night they take on an amplified power. High drama prevails to the point that your body and emotions may feel like they are in a life-and-death situation. How to respond to this scenario? I’ve found that recognizing and naming it helps: “Oh, that’s night mind again.” If you can laugh about it, it breaks the spell. Remind yourself that everything will work out eventually; you just have to be patient. You can make your phone call (or other action) in the morning. Take deep breaths and envision a relaxing scene in Nature. Let go of trying to control your mind, and it eventually calms down enough for you to sleep.

In the daytime, recognizing the mind’s tendencies and determined work ethic helps. Thank it for its contribution. Reassure it that all will be resolved peacefully. Introducing peace into your life through meditation or quiet walks in Nature can be a tremendously effective way to calm the mind and allow it to function at a slower pace, with rest spots along the way. Thinking is an essential human attribute, but at times it can be a hindrance to your overall well-being. With each breath or each step on a quiet natural path, slow down and allow everything to be just as it is in that moment. Resting in the heart’s energy of loving-kindness is helpful too. Whatever solutions and actions that need to be implemented will come to be in their own time.

The key is to trust your life, to trust the unfolding of each moment, each day. In fact, time is irrelevant when you step into the spaciousness of a quiet mind. The heart and soul move to the forefront of your consciousness and reassure you that nothing is really a problem, that everything is part of the flow of life, perfectly orchestrated beyond your ability to understand or control it. If we each can surrender to this ancient truth, our minds begin to work harmoniously with us to bring balance and peace to our lives. So let go of trying so hard; remind your mind that something greater is in play and it can relax and be a quiet observer. All is well. Really.

Without a Label

A good friend of mine recently told me that she loves my writing but doesn’t necessarily relate to the God references. She said she believes in something but doesn’t really have a label for it. She’s not alone. So many of us (myself included) have felt exactly the same at one time or another in our lives. And truthfully we don’t need a label–often language misses the point entirely. Some people and traditions prefer to leave the idea of a creator-being unnamed. Many Native Americans use the words “the Great Mystery.” Makes complete sense to me. I wasn’t raised in a religion, and I used to be put off by the groups who would go around house to house proselytizing about God. That word remained a negative trigger for me right up into adulthood, when I began my own spiritual exploration.

My first attempt at explaining how I thought of spirit at the time was the word “meaning.” I believed there was meaning in the universe because I could feel it in my heart. That’s as far as it went for a while. Eventually, I came to see that the word or description didn’t matter as much as the experience itself. I lost most of my objections to words and labels like God or Divinity. Still, I try to be low key about using them when I write because I know many people are uncomfortable about naming something that is in essence nameless. And it’s unnecessary. The deeper I dive into my soul, the more words fall away entirely. I experience a beingness or oneness that defies description.

So how do you write about that? How do you talk about it? Perhaps the best response to the mysteries of the universe is silence. Within that, everything arises. Immersion in something greater than language fills you. Nature shows me this more than anything else. Every time I am outdoors by myself I am deeply connected to the entire cosmos without a single word being spoken. This is why I prefer to be alone with Nature. Silence prevails. In the stillness, language is irrelevant. And mental naming is only a distraction. If you can walk slowly and quietly, or stand motionless, the natural world continues as if you weren’t there. You hear the birds singing, the wind in the trees, chipmunks and squirrels calling. You smell the earth and the foliage, and you can feel the living energy vibrating all around you.

This is Presence: being, without a name or label. Humans invented a language to describe what they were experiencing. Such descriptions can often be poetic and magical, but wordiness can diminish the essence of what is essentially a silent soul exchange. I am a writer so I know the power of expressing what is pouring through me to be shared, a divine connection to something wondrous. This is why I write. Yet, I also know that what ultimately allows that connection is an empty space of stillness, an openness to what some have called universal consciousness. Another name for God. We try, we humans, to express the inexpressible, to name what has no name. Within that trying is a sweet vulnerability that holds hope and loving awareness in it.

When we stop trying, however, when we stand in silent reverence without language or labels, the grace of something beyond expression pours over and through us. That is what we came here to Earth to experience and know deeply. And there are no words that can describe that miracle. Only profound gratitude comes close to touching the core of this meeting of Heaven and Earth in the human dimension.