“Walking with Ramona” by Laura O. Foster

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Subtitle: Exploring Beverly Cleary’s Portland

A 3 mile walking tour of Beverly Cleary’s neighborhood, starting at the statues of Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins and Ribsy at Grant Park. The directions are easy to follow and the information is carefully researched and entertainingly presented. The neighborhood itself is full of gorgeous old houses and a quirky commercial center.

The only downside is photo captions set on the photos themselves, rather than on the white part of the page where they would be easier to read.

Recommended if you want to learn more about the Hollywood district in Portland now or back in the 30’s.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Uprooted” by Naomi Novik

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Recommended to me by: Eric Roberts

A fantasy novel based on Eastern European folk tales, but going in a direction all its own. The main character is a young woman, and there are other women with agency in the book. Unfortunately it is still a feudal social structure with a king and a male line of succession. Most of the people in power are men. There is a kickass black woman wizard, however!

There are two kinds of magic, and one of them is a follow-your-nose, do-what-feels-right, stay-in-connection kind of magic that feels as realistic to me as any magic can. I’ve never thought much of cookbook magic.

People care about each other and for each other. There is some attention to the need for rest and healing after wounds, although they do tend to be elided quickly as the action continues.

I found it entirely unbelievable that a 17 year old village girl would be completely sexually ignorant. Farm animals! Older friends! One room cottages! Listening to her own body!

The ongoing helpless suffering at the beginning of the book kicked me out, and I spent the rest of the book muttering about what the author was doing. But I did read the whole thing. There is a *lot* of violence. The narrator comments on it, is sickened by it, but the violence still continues.

I’ve been thinking a lot about evil, and where the responsibility for it lies, and where it originates. Whether there is an independent evil entity sowing evil in people. When and how we have to take responsibility for our own evil actions, and expect others to take responsibility for theirs. The book wrestles with those questions. The conclusion did not feel satisfactory to me.

I was having trouble finding words for this review, and it helped me to read this one. It’s comforting when others respond to the same issues I sensed, and can put words around them.

Recommended if story structure and plot, with some modern improvements on the social justice front, are more important to you than a lot of violence and suffering.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“The Polyvagal Theory” by Stephen W. Porges

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Subtitle: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation

Recommended to me by: Joshua Sylvae

This book is a chronological collection of Stephen Porges’ scientific research papers about vagal nerves and their functions, written in technical, medical language. Later papers summarize earlier research and even define some terms, so the book gets easier to read as it goes along.

The vagal nerve, also known as the tenth cranial nerve, originates in the brainstem and branches to the lungs, heart, digestive system, and face, independent of the spinal cord. It makes up most of the parasympathetic nervous system. It has both efferent (motor, from the brain to the periphery) neurons and afferent (sensory, from the periphery to the brain) neurons, creating a system that tends to stay in a given operating range (homeostasis) via negative feedback.

It is bilateral, one on each side of the body, and the two sides have slightly different functions, since we are not internally symmetrical, with the heart tilted to the left and the stomach on the left, etc.

As well as being bilateral, there are also two separate systems, thus “poly vagal theory”, many vagal nerves: an ancient system that all vertebrates have, and an additional newer system that mammals have. When the newer system is active, it suppresses the older system.

The ancient system is dorsal (originating toward the back of the brainstem) and unmyelinated (not sheathed).

Reptiles have this ancient vagal system, and a sympathetic system. They have a a low resting metabolic rate. Under stress, their sympathetic system speeds up heart rate and breathing. If that doesn’t fix the problem, the vagal system puts them into freeze, dropping heart rate (bradycardia) and breathing rate (apnea). This works well to convince predators they are dead, or extend the time they can stay underwater.

The newer vagal system is ventral (originating toward the front of the brainstem) and myelinated (sheathed). It controls facial expressions, vocalizations (speech, singing, and other sounds), and coordinates breathing with vocalizing and swallowing. It tightens the muscles of the middle ear to filter out low frequency sounds that might drown out speech frequencies.

Mammals have a high resting metabolic rate, and a high requirement for a consistent oxygen supply. The newer vagal system is a “brake” on the sympathetic nervous system, gently reducing heart rate and breathing rate and allowing a focus on social signals. Under stress, the brake is removed, giving control to the sympathetic nervous system and instantaneously raising heart and breathing rate. If that does not take care of the problem, control goes to the ancient vagal system, sharply dropping heart rate (bradycardia) and breathing rate (apnea), which can be fatal for mammals.

The vagal brake can be engaged and disengaged at the speed of thought, unlike the sympathetic nervous system which works via adrenal hormones and other circulating chemicals that take a while to clear out of the body.

When the vagal system is busy telling the diaphragm to breathe in, the heart gets less of a “brake” signal and speeds up slightly. The brake is restored on the out-breath, slowing the heart slightly. This is RSA – Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia. It can be used as a non-invasive indicator of vagal tone. The greater the difference in heart rate while breathing in versus breathing out, the more vagal tone there is.

The ancient vagal system has been partially recruited for pro-social immobility – accepting an embrace, for example.

The ancient vagal system also explains the immobility many people experience during rape. Understanding the neurological basis helps to reduce shame about not fighting back.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“The Yoga of Eating” by Charles Eisenstein

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Subtitle: Transcending Diets and Dogma to Nourish the Natural Self

Recommended to me by: a client

A compassionate, wise look at our food choices. What are we saying yes to? How can we bring more kind attention to the nurturance and nutrition our bodies need? How do our food needs relate to the rest of our lives? An invitation to allow rather than coerce.

Highly recommended.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Understanding and Treating Chronic Shame” by Patricia A. DeYoung

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Subtitle: A Relational/Neurobiological Approach

Recommended to me by: Ani Rose Whaleswan

Patricia DeYoung says that although shame feels like a one-person problem, believing “There is something terribly wrong with me,” she defines it as a relational problem: Shame is an experience of our felt sense of self disintegrating in relation to a dysregulating other. Expecting attunement or regulation, we experience fragmentation instead, and immediately push that intolerable experience out of consciousness.

Shame is healed by right-brain connection, not left-brain reasoning and affirmations.

The book is filled with both lively client stories and technical psychological theory. It’s validating to know that researchers are beginning to understand relational trauma at a neurological level. It’s even better to know that relational therapists are holding this information about shame compassionately in mind while creating a healing space for their clients.

When our clients are able to feel their shame, letting the light and air get at it, we must stay honestly present with them. We have to encourage them to feel this most difficult emotion when what we want to say is: No, you are not ugly or worthless. No, I have never experienced you as selfish or stupid. Of course we would like to convince them that they are worthy, lovable persons. Instead, we must help them push through the language of ugly, stupid and worthless to the even more painful feelings of deep shame, feelings of not mattering at all to anyone, feelings of needing someone and finding no one, and feelings of disintegration and annihilation.

(Italics in original)

There is procedural advice for therapists: how to create a non-shaming environment, how to co-create narratives that include right-brain processing, how to discuss shame directly. Oddly, for a book about right-brain healing, touch is not mentioned anywhere.

Unlike many books that skip over the disorganized attachment style, this book addresses it and its “fearful chaos” directly.

The book also discusses mutual enactment, when client and therapist trigger each other’s deep shame, and yet keep working together with underlying good intentions. The mutually stuck pattern shifts not with dramatic insights, but incrementally, yielding little by little to moments of seeing each other more as whole people rather than just threats.

Highly recommended for therapists and others willing to wade through sections of psychological theory.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“The Other Wind” by Ursula K Le Guin

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I read this back when it originally came out in 2001. I remembered the overall story arc and the spectacular image of Tehanu at the end, but none of the details at all. It was great to have a visit with Ged and Tenar and Tehanu, but the characters felt oddly distant, not emotionally engaging. It felt like they were moving through their assigned parts in the repair of their world’s storyline, but they didn’t really have a choice. I did like the careful attention to the disposition of a cat.

Oddly, for a book by Le Guin in the 21st century, the main actors are men. Yes, women are involved and consulted and even central to the storyline, but I was left with the sense that they were pushing their way in from the sidelines, and the men were awkwardly surprised to see them.

Recommended if you want a visit with Earthsea.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“Hold Me Tight” by Dr. Sue Johnson

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Subtitle: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love

Dr. Sue Johnson, creator of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, applies attachment theory to adult relationships, and everything suddenly makes sense. Attachment relationships provide an anchor and sense of safety in the world. They feel just as essential to our survival as attachment relationships do to children, so it makes sense we fight or flee when they feel threatened.

The seven conversations are:

  1. Recognize Demon Dialogues – look underneath for attachment fears, and see how both people contribute to patterns.
    • Find the Bad Guy – casting blame for distress
    • Protest Polka – one person withdraws, the other makes demands, in a cycle
    • Freeze and Flee – both people withdraw, and the relationship is on its deathbed
  2. Find the Raw Spots – identify triggers for attachment longings and fears.
  3. Revisit a Rocky Moment – talk through a past conversation that didn’t go well, taking into account patterns, raw spots, and deeper emotions.
  4. Hold Me Tight – emotional attunement, accessibility, responsiveness, and engagement. Each person tunes into their own emotions and shares what they are most afraid of, and then the attachment longing that is live in that moment. Hopefully the partner turns toward them and fulfills the longing, creating a new bonding experience. The person who usually withdraws goes first.
  5. Forgiving Attachment Injuries – relationship traumas, usually involving some kind of abandonment, need to be healed, not ignored.
    1. The hurt partner speaks their pain as openly and simply as possible.
    2. The injuring partner stays emotionally present and acknowledges the wounded partner’s pain and their part in it.
    3. Emotionally connect around this, start rebuilding trust.
    4. Injuring partner takes ownership and expresses regret and remorse.
    5. Hold Me Tight conversation centered around the attachment injury – what is needed now to bring comfort and closure. Hopefully the injuring partner fulfills this.
    6. Create a narrative that captures the injuring event and how it is being healed.
  6. Bonding Through Sex and Touch – bring emotional connection, communication, and trust to touch and sex.
  7. Keep Your Love Alive – name ways to reconnect when a Demon Dialogue crops up, celebrate the positive moments, discuss attachment needs and issues, make rituals for separation and reunion, create an ongoing story of the living relationship, create a vision for the relationship in the future.

There is more than one gay couple in this book! And one couple of Asian descent. Women and men are individuals, not stereotyped caricatures. The client stories are realistic, practical, and encouraging.

Despite the pop-psych title and Overuse of Capital Letters, this book is solidly researched and makes a lot of sense. Highly recommended.

Available at Powell’s Books.

Also read Dr. Sue Johnson’s more recent Love Sense, which covers a lot of the same material, with more information about the neurochemistry of attachment. Oddly, she leaves out the disorganized attachment style entirely. There is an extended example of a couple repairing their relationship.

“Your Body Knows the Answer” by David I. Rome

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Subtitle: Using Your Felt Sense to Solve Problems, Effect Change & Liberate Creativity

This is a gentle, step by step introduction to Focusing, with exercises for each section and personal annotated examples of Focusing sessions. David Rome calls his approach Mindful Focusing. He explains how to be with ourselves in a Focusing way without a Companion to hold space for us.

It starts with GAP, Grounded Aware Presence. Settle into the support of your chair, or the ground if you’re standing. Notice the sights and sounds of your environment. Sense into your heart and breathing, right in this moment. I like the quick simplicity of that.

The second exercise is friendly attending, being with whatever comes the way we would be with a shy frightened creature, available, observant, warm, allowing it to approach when it’s ready.

The book continues with gateways to the felt sense (mind, body, emotions), and working with felt senses in the context of specific situations. The second half talks about finding actions steps, deep listening with others, and working with conflicts.

There are a lot of words about how to find a felt sense and how to interact with it. I’m still not sure when I’m in contact with one and when I’m in contact with something different (but what would that be). It seems to be part of Focusing for me to be uncertain if I’m doing it right.

Recommended for people interested in exploring Focusing, especially those already familiar with mindfulness practice.

Available at Powell’s Books (half-price on remainder as of 12-Mar-2016).

“The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk

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Subtitle: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma

This book is intense to read. I dipped in and out, wanting to read it, but not wanting to get overwhelmed with the dramatic abuse stories that are included. There is a lot of great research on trauma here, lucidly and understandably presented. I was happy to notice that I already knew about most of it, partly because I took a two day seminar with Bessel van der Kolk a few years ago.

The one treatment that was new to me was Albert Pesso’s and Diane Boyden-Pesso’s psychomotor therapy with “structures”, where one person, the protagonist, places other people from the group in a 3-D representation of their internal landscape. It’s reparative, including ideal parents as well as parents as they actually were. The therapist makes witnessing statements and carefully tracks the physical and emotional reactions of the protagonist, helping them feel safe and seen. Pesso Boyden System Psychomotor Therapy

This book talks about the most extreme effects of trauma. Adults who can’t feel their bodies at all. Kids who act out and get treatment rather than quietly going to school. It also talks about intensive interventions by skilled practitioners. It feels both daunting and tantalizing.

At the same time, it’s reassuring in a sense. If I don’t have all those dramatic symptoms, maybe I’m doing something right all this time.

I had Opinions about some of van der Kolk’s statements. His organization focuses on treating traumatized children, because that gives them the most leverage. On the one hand, yes, that makes sense. On the other hand, way to tell a whole lot of traumatized adults that we don’t matter – again. My sense is that both are equally important, even from a leverage point of view. Those healing children need healing adults around them.

He also thinks research is more important than “deep, subjective resonance.” Yes, research is important, and I’m glad he’s doing it. At the same time, my body says deep subjective resonance is more important for healing.

Recommended as an overview of current scientific thinking on trauma mechanisms and healing.

Available at Powell’s Books.

“I Love You But I Don’t Trust You” by Mira Kirshenbaum

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Subtitle: The Complete Guide to Restoring Trust in Your Relationship

This book really is what it says on the tin. Mira Kirshenbaum is a couple’s therapist who shares both her own and clients’ stories to illustrate the stages of responding to betrayal and rebuilding trust.

  • How to evaluate whether the relationship is worth investing in
  • How to manage the anger which is a natural response to betrayal
  • The need for evidence that the betrayer cares
  • The need for the betrayer to see the situation from the betrayed person’s point of view.
  • Reconnecting with the good aspects of the relationship
  • Discuss root causes without (hearing) blame
  • Discuss needs and how to meet them
  • The (eventual) decision to forgive

The book is compassionate to both sides. Yes, big mistakes happen. They are sometimes not forgivable. The betrayed person naturally feels a strong need to re-establish safety, and may not use the most skilled techniques to achieve that.

There are no “shoulds” about leaving or staying. While the book naturally focuses on relationships that are worth rebuilding, there are also clear call-outs for danger signs, such as people who are power-seeking for its own sake, or people who are suspicious for its own sake, or relationships that don’t have enough good in them to be worth the work.

Small ongoing betrayals such as unreliability are addressed, as well as big betrayals like affairs or squandering shared money. Ongoing power imbalances can also be a source of mistrust. There is an in-depth discussion of differences in being open or hidden causing mistrust.

I winced at the section title, “Sleeping in a Nazi’s bed.” As a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, I am emphatically not a fan of metaphorical Nazis. But the author meant real Nazis! Her mother was a German Jew who survived the Holocaust, and brought her safely out of Germany afterward. When she went back to Germany to visit as a young adult, a sudden illness caused her to accept the hospitality of kind strangers who were admittedly Nazis during the war. She talks about how trust can make sense, even though we have reason to be mistrustful.

Sadly, all the couples in this book are heterosexual, and there’s no indication they’re anything other than white. And it was published in 2012! On the positive side, the men and women are depicted as having a variety of frailties and strengths, and a variety of relationships together.

Recommended for a better understanding of trust, betrayal, and relationship dynamics.

Available at Powell’s Books.