This page contains a Flash digital edition of a book.
some real life illustrations of individuals who found new ways to think and thereby
forged some exciting and often unexpected paths for themselves.
Frame, Focus, Find
Mary Riley is an NYU-certified Life Coach and founder of MsR Life Coach-
Observations of a Life Coach
ing. Coaching is a confidential, collaborative partnership designed to assist high
By Mary Riley
functioning clients to achieve their goals. A native of New York City, she lived and
worked in the Pacific Northwest, Connecticut and New Jersey before moving to
Setauket last summer.
Think First
At one time or another, most of us have attempted to change some of our long-
Book Chats
held habits. Sometimes this effort comes about voluntarily because we think it will
make us healthier, happier and a better person overall; other times, the incentive to
Novel Picks and Passions
change comes from an external force such as a loved one, a physician or a natural di-
By Anna Katsavos
saster. In attempting this overhaul, we sometimes reach for self-help guides and often
try unsuccessfully to follow practices that have worked for others. Others’ successes
may provide inspiration, but they rarely work as a straight-out formula. Even group
efforts, such as Weight Watchers, bring about success only when individuals adapt
Unaccustomed Earth
such proven strategies to their own, personal circumstances.
by Jhumpa Lahiri
In his book Quiet Leadership, David Rock uses discoveries in neuroscience to
support the notion that people have to think for themselves in order to make transfor-
mations in their lives. Thinking—deep and serious thinking—takes a fair amount of
Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and
work and considerable energy. replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My
You’ve heard of “rush to judgment”? Well, I believe there’s also a “rush to ac- children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within
tion” that may push aside time for serious, personal reflection. Others may want to my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.
offer you advice and support, but no matter how well-meaning their actions, outside
assistance won’t provide long-term change for you. We have to make our own road
map for acquiring new behaviors in order to overcome challenges, change habits and
Unaccustomed Earth (2008), Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest collection of short stories,
forge paths to success. These road maps also should include personalized incentives
seems a perfect Book Chat selection for this month’s house and garden issue,
and rewards along the way.
which brings a seasonal burst of color to winter-weary North Shoreians, and no
Neuroscience research has done much to inform strategies in the education
doubt finds eager green thumbs deep in the dirt, busy tending seedlings, testing
of children. What’s just as exciting, however, applies to adult brains of all ages.
soil, perhaps planting summer bulbs.
Everything we do—or don’t do—begins with a thought. Even those of us who line
Lahiri, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Interpreter of Maladies and The
up on the “feeling” rather than “thinking” side in personality profiles still precede Namesake, takes both her title and her epigraph (quoted above) from Nathaniel
emotional responses with some kind of thought—no matter how brief or unnoticed. Hawthorne’s “Custom House” chapter in The Scarlet Letter, leaving us to consider
The year 2009 promises to bring both planned and unplanned changes to count- her own work’s underlying question. Do living things thrive best in places that are
less households around the world. We often have more control than we realize in familiar and comfortable if less fertile, or do they flourish better in soil that is fresh
how we plan for and experience those expected and unexpected changes. It all begins
and untested, possibly difficult to till? The answer, of course, depends on the na-
with thinking. In the same way that one might build a house, write a term paper, sign
ture of one’s connection to “unaccustomed earth,” and is revealed over the course
up for a particular insurance program or prepare a will, some preparation becomes
of 333 pages rich with pitch perfect language that is poignant to the point of tears.
necessary. Better comparisons may reside in athletic contests or other kinds of hard,
The Bengalis that inhabit Lahiri’s eight stories, most of them children of im-
physical labor. The research and/or training along the way may seem exhausting,
migrants, were born in, lived in, long ago left, regularly visit, continue to yearn
difficult to accomplish, and periodically rather discouraging, but one’s achievement
for, or try to escape from India, a place that tugs with the smells and sounds of
at the end becomes, not only worthwhile, but also self-affirming. Thinking works this
home but also nags with filial duties prescribed by custom. Restless and nomadic,
way too.
these hyphenated Americans travel from one end of the globe to the other, search-
Experts in creativity often write about how solutions to problems come from
ing from Park Slope to Pike Place, Cambridge to Phuket, for a patch of earth
mysterious places in the mind, perhaps from the subconscious. They have discovered
where they can start anew, grappling always with cultural pulls that threaten to
how shifts in perspective or focus—both voluntary and involuntary-- can bring about
breakthroughs in new thinking. Preparing to shift one’s thinking doesn’t have to be
uproot, maybe undo, them, time and again. They try out an assortment of dwell-
as serious as it sounds. I think it works best if it includes some fun and whimsy.
ings—hotel rooms, studio apartments, college dorms, sprawling ranches—inhabit-
A first step in preparing one’s mind to think better involves clearing some space
ing accommodations that force them either to dig in their heels and settle down or
for this new and expanding project of improved thinking. Begin by accepting the
scramble and make a run for it.
fact that what works for others may not work for you. No two individuals have the
In the title story (my favorite), we are invited into the Seattle home of Ruma
same brain. Examples of what works for some people often starts with identifying
and her non-Indian husband, Adam. An American born and educated attorney,
for yourself something new, completely different and preferably inexpensive. Choose
Ruma, now pregnant with her second child, grows anxious when her widowed
things that do not occupy your life at this time.
father comes to visit. Will he move in permanently? Should she convince him to
They might include long, solitary walks, completely new choices in reading ma-
stay? And what will she do if he does? These are the questions that fester along-
terial, spending time with animals or nature, listening to music, looking at a work of side the blooming relationship between her toddler son Akash and his grandpa.
art, taking an adult education class or volunteering in an unfamiliar field. The generic Most memorable is the garden scene in which the little boy is “crouching over the
goal that you can customize for yourself consists of making some space in your mind ground just as her father was, “ planting into a small patch of earth “a pink rubber
for new thinking. Your new laboratory for these thinking experiments represents a ball, a few pieces of Lego stuck together, a wooden block etched with a star,” fully
process for moving toward change. Don’t confuse the experiments with end results
expecting that they will grow. And who’s to say they won’t? But, no plot spoilers
you eventually want to achieve. Smart goals and their accompanying activities occur
here. Suffice it to say that the ending of this story both satisfies and surprises.
later. First comes new thinking that informs your new behaviors and points to previ-
The remaining sketches (the last three so intricately woven they constitute a
ously unimagined directions, opportunities and solutions. Old, unwanted behaviors
novella), are sprinkled with lyrical gems detailing mixed and arranged marriages,
diminish as the new ones become stronger.
nuclear and step-family dynamics, and the consequences of displacement. In each
One shouldn’t force the kind of quiet needed to foster new thinking. For ex-
case, Lahiri’s characters, whether they thrive and prosper or get choked by weeds
ample, individuals inexperienced in meditation sometimes find this ancient practice
of tradition and inflexibility, are so well-realized that you want to shout out to
too difficult to use as a starting place. If your back hurts and your mind wanders,
them with neighborly advice or simply reach over their backyard fences to give
new space for thought may take longer than you want to spend, and you could lose
them each a hug. Resiliency and adaptability end up as key elements to survival,
your incentive to continue. Formal meditation may contain great value as a later
essential characteristics that ultimately determine whether or not one’s seedlings
step. Remember to select what works for you. Also, you may have to try several new
strategies before you identify something that really resonates with you. How will you
take root in foreign land, perchance to propagate hybrids of all sorts--which, my
recognize if it’s right for you? You will just know because it will bring mild excite-
friends, can be a very good thing.
ment, a small insight, perhaps a feeling of quiet or of peace. Don’t give up. Some
As far as I’m concerned, home is where you plant your garden. Happy plant-
find it useful to record these trial and error experiments to encourage mental reflec-
ing. Happy spring.
tion. If you don’t normally record your thoughts, this may provide clues to support
enhanced perspectives. Sometimes, when you look 24 hours later at what you have
Dr. Anna Katsavos, Professor of Literature and Women’s Studies for over 20 years,
written, your thoughts may have become clearer, changed completely, or provide
is currently facilitating writing workshops and book discussion groups on Long
focus for more thinking. I urge you to give it a try. In future columns, I’ll provide
Island, and working on her memoir, The Kitchen and the Church: Notes of a Good
Greek Girl Gone Bad. Email her at
Improper Northshoerian April 20019 19 4/2/2009 10:22:31 AM
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