Meditation can help you with that

The late, great Kurt Vonnegut once wrote that “the feel and appearance of a book when combined with a literate person in a straight chair can create a spiritual condition of priceless depth and meaning.” He was referring to the experience of reading. After a foray into Transcendental Meditation (TM) in the 1960s, Vonnegut realized how similar reading and meditation are. “When I read an absorbing book,” Vonnegut wrote, “my pulse and respiration rate slowed down perceptibly, just as though I were doing TM” (Vonnegut, Fates Worse Than Death, 188). Any avid reader can attest to this effect, even if they’ve never experimented with meditation, and any academic will tell you that the experience of writing produces similar results.

Within the last couple of years I’ve begun meditating and doing yoga on a regular basis, at first in a desperate search for a cure to my insomnia and now for regular stress relief, peace of mind, and increased concentration. While I wouldn’t characterize writing as “scuba diving in lukewarm bouillon” (which is how Vonnegut described TM), I would say that the experience of quieting the mind via meditation and via writing are similar. The practice of each reinforces the other and it takes quite a bit of practice to become adept at either. I have several favorite guided meditation routines–here are a couple I highly recommend if you have trouble with insomnia–but if you’ve never attempted meditation and want to test the similarities between the experiences of reading, writing, and meditation try this simple routine for five or ten (or twenty) minutes:

  • Sit or lay in a quite room in a comfortable position.
  • Consciously relax your body and close your eyes.
  • Try your best to pay attention to nothing but your breathing. Focus on how the air feels cool as you breathe in, and warm as you breathe out. Feel the air travel from your nose, down your throat, and into your chest. Feel how your chest rises and falls with each breath in and out. Concentrate on nothing but your breathing.
  • Recognize that your mind will wander but that you can control whether or not you follow those thoughts that skitter across your mind from time to time. As soon as you notice your attention drifting, refocus on your breathing. Imagine you are breathing a mist of relaxation into your body and exhaling any thoughts. Continue for as long as you like.
  • Over time, try to increase the length of your meditation practice.

Over the next couple of posts I’d like to explore the craft of writing and examine other (professional) authors’ best methods for consistently producing writing of high quality and clarity. I’ll be especially interested to see what advice is offered for cultivating healthy writing habits and writing in a manner that engages a wide variety of audience types. Below is a list of works I’ll be focusing on. Please feel free to make additional recommendations. Thank you to my colleagues Jason Heppler and Brian Sarnacki for their suggestions.

  • Writing Well: The Essential Guide, Mark Tredinnick
  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King
  • Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within, Natalie Goldberg
  • On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, William Zinsser
  • Thinking Like Your Editor: How to Write Great, Serious Nonfiction–and Get It Published, Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato
  • How to Write History that People Want to Read, Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath
  • The Elements of Style, William Strunk and E.B. White

The past was a rather smelly place, part 2

A baby skunk
This skunk may not have anything to do with this post, but it sure is cute.

Western standards of hygiene became a bit less pungent in the centuries after the Renaissance. As discussed in part 1 of this post, by the mid-seventeenth century clean linen was established as the European epitome of cleanliness and good personal hygiene. Displaying a hint of clean linen undergarment was a way to say to the rest of society, “Look at me. I am genteel and modern.” It did not, however, guarantee the cleanliness of the body beneath the linen, as most Europeans still viewed bathing as dangerous. Indeed, as Katherine Ashenburg writes in The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, “clean linen was not a substitute for washing the body with water–it was better than that, safer, more reliable and based on scientific principles” (Ashenburg, 106). These “scientific principles” argued that dirt protected the body from infection and disease by sealing the skin’s pores. Only after the Renaissance did water resume a prominent role in cleanliness and hygiene.

A rise in the popularity of mineral spas and the Romantic Era‘s glorification of the sea gradually increased Europeans’ use of water to promote health and cleanliness. While spas and springs remained largely inaccessible to all but the upper class and aristocracy throughout the seventeenth century, the medical community’s endorsement of the salubrity of mineral water helped make water in general a little less scary. Enlightenment figures such as John Locke began recommending regular bathing via immersion in water, and by the eighteenth century Western doctors assured society that the opening of the pores during bathing was healthy, natural, and desirable. The Greek and Roman view of water’s role in hygiene was once again popular and became increasingly widespread, but fear of water did not dissipate quickly.

The poor remained the most difficult segment of the Western population to convince that regular bathing in water was both safe and healthy. Lack of access to bathing facilities posed at least as much of an obstacle to public cleanliness as the old ideas about dirt as protective. Until the early twentieth century, or even as late as the mid-twentieth century in some regions, regular bathing was simply not possible for most members of the working class. By the early nineteenth century, reform-minded middle and upper class folk grew anxious enough about the spread of disease not only among the poor, but also between the poor and the upper classes that they began to frame cleanliness in moral terms and advocate the construction of public bathhouses. But it was not until they had baths at home that the working class began to bathe regularly.

Reformers forged alliances with city health officials and wealthy philanthropists to construct more public bathhouses in major cities. The United States had an easier time installing the era’s most advanced water and sewage systems than Europe: most U.S. cities were either relatively youthful or still being developed. Europe faced more complex challenges when attempting to update the infrastructures of its cities, some of which possessed layers of development accumulated over hundreds or even thousands of years. America took pride in its innovation and newness, cultivating an international reputation as a nation of unparalleled modern convenience. Cleanliness grew increasingly linked with notions of status and civility–often to the detriment of foreigners, the poor, and others who lacked the ability or the desire to meet the new, ever more pervasive standards of hygiene.

Nationalist and cultural emphasis on cleanliness, as well as the emergence of modern advertising and no small amount of classist fear of the great unwashed masses, gradually led to more frequent bathing by men and women at all levels of society. Throughout much of the nineteenth century greater numbers of men than women utilized the public bathhouses, which retained a residual association in the popular mind with immorality and unrespectability. Only when both the bathtub and soap became more affordable did most Westerners embrace regular immersion in water as a personal habit and virtue. By the early twentieth century, the private home bathroom was established as the “new totem of bourgeois life” (Ashenburg, 239). By 1940, roughly fifty-five percent of all American houses had a complete, modern bathroom. Although much of Europe continues to confront challenges in updating infrastructures linked to public hygiene, it too has encountered great pressure to conform to a new global culture of cleanliness

Productivity is tricky

Being consistently productive is a balancing act. Sadly, my best intentions to maintain a robust and active blog fell prey to the oft overwhelming forces of the dreaded end-of-semester chaos. First there were papers to write over spring “break” (as I always refer to it). Then I traveled to Milwaukee for the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians (OAH), paired with a research trip to the Wisconsin State Historical Society in Madison. And before I knew it, the end of the semester was at hand. My life became a series of seemingly endless meetings with students fretting over their course grades and the impending final exam, followed by evenings of reading, writing, and grading, and several weeks of less exercise, less sleep, and a far less clean apartment than I generally prefer.

After all of this, of course, came the inevitable desperate race for the finish line: a final paper, final meetings, the final exam, hours of tedious grading, decisions about final grades, my last meeting as HGSA president, and…the glorious conclusion of the semester. Then came the reward of (gasp!) several nights of decent sleep as well as the now traditional brain drain/layabout/revitalization break. My husband and I managed to take the second vacation of our adult lives. My routine is back on track, I have significantly reduced the ick factor of our apartment (AND made a few bucks on eBay while decluttering), my history mojo is restored, and I’m looking forward to the steaming through my final couple of years of graduate school.

Although I have remained productive in other ways, I will be bumping up my efforts to write and post regularly. My next post will conclude my blogging on my research into the history of hygiene. I am also looking forward to sharing a few insights I took away from the 2012 OAH meeting, delving into the craft of writing, and sharing the pain of my preparation for my comprehensive examinations. Here’s to the balancing act.