Our beautiful brains

When I arrived on holiday in Chicago this summer my daughter handed over the three copies of the book I had ordered from the poet Cynthia Jobin. I find it difficult to describe the pleasure with which I sank, jet-lagged, into bed that night and opened A Certain Age. I am not an orderly poetry reader, I started with the last poem Acknowledgement*, which made me laugh out loud, it is so perfectly judged a final comment – but I can’t give away the joke.DSCN8527

This poetry is both accessible and yet also of the highest intellectual standard. Cynthia knows about, and plays with, poetic forms, metre, rhythm, rhyme etc. She handles language with delicacy and certainty, yet all the machinery is hidden, we can sit back, read and listen. I do mean listen. The cream of this publication is the enclosed CD of Cynthia reading her poetry. If you doubt for a moment that you would enjoy this, just try it here, for something short and funny, or this for an observation that hits the spot. One that moves me to tears does not have a recording, so you must read it here, Without You the CatI could go on. She writes with humour, insight and tenderness about the humans and animals in her life, and with heart-aching clarity about grief.

There is no way, in this brief overview that I can do justice to contents of  A Certain Age. Go see, read, listen for yourselves.

The book itself is a treat to look at and handle; the cover, utterly appropriate, is of a tulip past its prime and yet fascinatingly beautiful [little diversion: years ago I saw a photo of an 80-year-old woman throwing a javelin and it reminded me of an ancient Greek sculpture].

You might think that there would be no connection between this poetry and my other deeply satisfying read – Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind. Daniel is a neuro-psychologist and his book is about how to harness the beautiful complexity of the brain, by understanding a little better how it works. Of course some of it is testing reading, but once again, most of it is extremely accessible. What I read has already improved my life.

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Two examples, one: Daniel interviews a very senior CEO about the problem of intractable decisions that land on his desk when his managers are effectively stuck. His job, he explains, is not to make the decision, because they, not he (or she), are the experts. He helps them to look at the problem in a different light, ‘I tell them to back up and find out one truth that they know is indisputable’. This can take a lot of steps, and this truth, once arrived at can be very simple, for instance: “no matter what, we cannot serve food that is not 100% fresh”. The managers then creep forward step by step from that point and a solution will often emerge.

the other: ‘Eat the frog’ – an expression new to me, meaning, if it’s bugging you, do it. I carry around, for days (sometimes for months), tasks that I am reluctant to undertake e.g. ringing the tech help of our Broadband provider. Clear one or more of these first thing in the morning, and boy is the rest of the day beautiful. Intellectually, I already knew this, but now I have a little internal instructor that detects my reluctance and says Eat the frog!

I am forever fascinated by the complexity, scope and skill of the organ we use to run our lives. Both these publications stimulate the sweet spots of curiosity, emotion and beauty in my brain. I hope they do the same for some of you.

*You can find Cynthia’s joke here Acknowledgement