Your Brain on Words

Human beings were not designed to read.

When you think about it, the act of reading is an astonishing accomplishment. It’s a complex mix  that involves:

•    Recognizing symbols
•    Relating them to sounds and spoken language
•    Extracting meaning

And we’ve only been reading for a short time (5000 years)—too short for the brain to have evolved for that purpose. The conclusion of scientists is the area of the brain (the left occipital-temporal cortex, if you’re interested) that seems to coordinate this amazing process has reorganized itself to take on the task.

We’ve known from people who have experienced brain damage, such as from a stroke, that the brain can rearrange itself, a process called  neuroplasticity. When one area is damaged, new areas can take on a task that was previously relegated to another area. Researchers have long thought that this flexibility lessens with age. But this region changes even in adults who are learning to read, showing that “this area is responsive to learning throughout life. [Italics mine.]

If you are—[clearing throat]—beyond the stage of youth, as I am, that is very cool news!

But wait, there’s more!

Reading a novel, according to cognitive neuropsychologist David Lewis, is more than an entertainment or distraction. It’s “an active engaging of the imagination as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.” In other words, when you read a novel, you become the person you are reading about in a very physical way.

Another neurologist Gregory Berns, says, “neural changes associated with physical sensation and movement systems [happen while people are reading and] suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist. . . . We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

So there’s a reason why when you’re reading that good book, you loose awareness of the present. Your mind is putting you in the world of the story!

Studies have found that learning new skills, including reading or a second language creates new white matter in the brains of children and adults. White matter acts as a kind of fast neural subway, connecting different regions of the brain to one another. It plays a role in language ability, memory, and visuo-spatial construction.  Diseases of white matter are linked to cognitive and emotional difficulties. (By the way, other activites also result in increases in white matter functioning, including meditation, weight-resistance training, and practicing a musical instrument.)

Since the beginning of time, stories have allowed us to test run situations and experience emotions without the real consequences of living them. Reading may even make us more human, enriching our skills of empathy. One study found that readers of literary fiction excelled at tests involving understanding other people’s feelings.

Reading makes us generally more intelligent. In fact, recent scientific studies have confirmed that “reading and intelligence have a relationship so close as to be symbiotic.”  Reading  increases fluid intelligence—the ability to solve problems, understand things and detect meaningful patterns. It also helps with reading comprehension and emotional intelligence.

“Reading helps you make smarter decisions about yourself and those around you.”

And here’s a final thought, going back to the idea of the human mind figuring out how to see and process written words by rearranging the organization of our brain. I don’t know about you, but that puts brains pretty high on my list of amazing things. But here’s the mind-blowing part, courtesy of scholar Maryanne Wolf—that reorganization, in turn “expanded the ways we were able to think, which altered the intellectual evolution of our species.”

I feel the honor and responsibility of writing something like Last Chance for Justice, the nonfiction story of the Birmingham church bombing case, an incident that changed the path of civil rights around the world. But sometimes I wonder if I am making any kind of difference when I write fiction, and perhaps fellow novelists feel this too. Now we know. As a writers and storytellers, we are helping to make minds healthier, humans more human, and advancing the intellectual evolution of our species.  That’s good enough for me!

T.K. Thorne’s childhood passion for storytelling deepened when she became a police officer in Birmingham, Alabama.  “It was a crash course in life and what motivated and mattered to people.” In her newest novel, HOUSE OF ROSE, murder and mayhem mix with a little magic when a police officer discovers she’s a witch. Both her award-winning debut historical novels, NOAH’S WIFE and ANGELS AT THE GATE, tell the stories of unknown women in famous biblical tales—the wife of Noah and the wife of Lot. Her first non-fiction book, LAST CHANCE FOR JUSTICE, the inside story of the investigation and trials of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, was featured on the New York Post’s “Books You Should Be Reading” list. T.K. loves traveling and speaking about her books and life lessons. She writes at her mountaintop home near Birmingham, often with a dog and a cat vying for her lap.

More info at TKThorne.com. Join her private newsletter email list and receive a two free short stories at “TK’s Korner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Women: Not So Mere

Who knew? The women’s movement to win the vote in the United States (which didn’t happen until 1920) began with book clubs!

In my life, “feminism” has been a word often expressed with a sneer, the struggle for equality  seen as an effort to shed femininity and be man-like. Burn your bra at the peril of rejecting your womanhood. But my role model, my mother, was as feminine as they come and yet stood toe to toe with men in power. She never finished college, having to quit to care for her ill father, but she continued to learn and read and surround herself with other women who used ideas and knowledge to challenge the status quo, a legacy that began long ago.

Despite the pressure on women to focus on family and household matters, women throughout history have organized to read and talk about serious ideas, even in the early colonial days of American history. Anne Hutchinson founded such a group on a ship headed for the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1634. Reading circles or societies spread throughout the 1800s, including the African-American Female Intelligence Society organized in Boston and the New York Colored Ladies Literary Society. The first known American club sponsored by a bookstore began in 1840 in a store owned by a woman, Margaret Fuller. In 1866 Sarah Atwater Denman began Friends in Council, the oldest continuous literary club in America. In the South, blacks slaves were punished if they were found even carrying a book, although some surely passed books and abolitionist tracts in secret, despite the terrible risk.

Mandy Shunnarah recently wrote about research she did on this subject in college, sharing how the turn-of-the-century women began with classical ancient history and gradually became informed about political and policy issues of the day. The clubs created opportunities for connection and community and provided a conduit for organization and action. Undoubtedly, progressive organizations like the League of Women Voters, which formed in 1920, were an outgrowth of those clubs.

My mother, Jane Katz, was a longtime League member and a lobbyist for the state League. I have memories of her sitting at her electric Smith-Corona and typing away at tedious lists that tracked status and votes on legislative bills of interest to the League—education, the environment, constitutional reform, judicial reform, ethics reform, home rule.

I remember her taking me to a site to show me what strip mining actually looked like when a coal company was finished ravaging the land. She worked hard for the Equal Rights Amendment, which had as much chance of passing in my state (Alabama) as a law against football. I followed her to the state legislature while she talked to white male senators about why a bill was important and I will never forget how they looked down at her condescendingly. It made me angry, but she just continued to present her points with charm, wit, and irrefutable logic. The experience turned me off to politics, but gave me a deep respect for my mother. I know she would be saddened that many of the issues she fought for have yet to come about, but she would be proud of today’s many strong women’s voices speaking up for the values she so believed in and fought for. She and my grandmother began my love of reading and books. Today, it’s estimated that over 5 million book clubs exist and 70-80% of the members are women.

A special childhood memory of my parents chuckling over a New Yorker cartoon my father cut out and showed to friends—Two stuffy businessmen are talking quietly. One says, “But she is a mere woman!” The other replies, “Haven’t you heard? Women are not so mere anymore.”

I’m not a politician. I’m a writer. My mother died decades ago, and sometimes I feel guilty not following in her footsteps. But I think she would have been proud that the women in my books are not “mere.”

It is a gift and a closing of the circle connecting me with my mother and all her predecessors to know the heritage of feminist activism—the striving for a society where women’s thoughts, ideas, and work are equally respected—began with a group of women, perhaps a cup of tea, and a book.

T.K. Thorne’s childhood passion for storytelling deepened when she became a police officer in Birmingham, Alabama.  “It was a crash course in life and what motivated and mattered to people.” In her newest novel, HOUSE OF ROSE, murder and mayhem mix with a little magic when a police officer discovers she’s a witch.

Both her award-winning debut historical novels, NOAH’S WIFE and ANGELS AT THE GATE, tell the stories of unknown women in famous biblical tales—the wife of Noah and the wife of Lot. Her first non-fiction book, LAST CHANCE FOR JUSTICE, the inside story of the investigation and trials of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, was featured on the New York Post’s “Books You Should Be Reading” list.

T.K. loves traveling and speaking about her books and life lessons. She writes at her mountaintop home near Birmingham, often with a dog and a cat vying for her lap.

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Einstein, Oz, and Ms. Poppins

This glorious spring, scientists finally took a “real” picture of a black hole. All the ones we’ve been seeing have been artists’ renditions because black holes are really not visible. They swallow light. Creative astrophyicists used a multiple array of telescopes hooked together to get an image of light bending around the massive gravity pit, just as Einstein predicted!

Einstein was right about so many things—space/time, gravity, quantum physics, even a big something scientists of his day scoffed at and he decided he was wrong about—the cosmological constant. Okay, he was a little off, but the concept was not, and modern physics has gone back to it. Albert used math, but first he used something we all have and think too little of—imagination.

Einstein visualized what-if’s.  What if I could ride on a wave of light? What if I were inside a plunging elevator? All in his mind.

“The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”—Albert Einsten

It makes you wonder if we are so busy stuffing knowledge into children, we are neglecting to teach them to use their imagination. But children are born with creative genius. The better question is, what are we teaching them that stifles that creative thinking and problem solving?

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.”—Einstein

I’m not going to admit how old I was when I finally accepted that I would never be able to cross the Deadly Desert and find Oz. I cried my heart out, believing that I had lost something precious and irreplaceable.

But I was wrong.

What was the Deadly Desert really, but that pesky voice that says, “No you can’t,” or “That’s impossible.”

If anyone ever told Einstein it was impossible to ride a beam of light, it’s an awfully good thing that he didn’t listen. And neither did the scientists who took a picture of nothing. Maybe, instead, they both listened to Mary Poppins, who said:

“Everything is possible, even the impossible.”


T.K. Thorne’s childhood passion for storytelling deepened when she became a police officer in Birmingham, Alabama.  “It was a crash course in life and what motivated and mattered to people.” In her newest novel, HOUSE OF ROSE, murder and mayhem mix with a little magic when a police officer discovers she’s a witch.

Both her award-winning debut historical novels, NOAH’S WIFE and ANGELS AT THE GATE, tell the stories of unknown women in famous biblical tales—the wife of Noah and the wife of Lot. Her first non-fiction book, LAST CHANCE FOR JUSTICE, the inside story of the investigation and trials of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, was featured on the New York Post’s “Books You Should Be Reading” list.

T.K. loves traveling and speaking about her books and life lessons. She writes at her mountaintop home near Birmingham, often with two dogs and a cat vying for her lap.

Join my private newsletter email list and receive two free short stories at “TK’s Korner.”

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What is “Normal”?

When I was writing my historical novel, Noah’s Wife, I realized my central character had Asperger’s Syndrome (on the autism spectrum). At first, I rejected the idea, but a wiser part of my mind prevailed, and I let her be who she was. I added researching the condition to my digging into the ancient Mid East culture, geology, and archeological findings that shaped the background for my novel about the wife of Noah.

Na’amah’s disabilities turned out to be strengths I never suspected, and I wrote in the author notes that I thought it was possible we were looking at this condition from a prejudiced and skewed perspective. Maybe we all carry genes that can express these abilities and difficulties in various ways, and they are part of our evolutionary inheritance. I thought I was going out on a limb, so stumbling on this video (link below) about neurodiversity was of great interest. Maybe we need to take another look at how we define what it means to be human.

 

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An Unexpected Dream Come True

It’s not something I talk much about, but for many years I was in the closet as a writer. I collected so many rejections, I could have wallpapered my house with them, or at least, my bedroom. Everyone said short stories were the way to break in, but my stories kept getting turned down.  If I dared admit I was a writer to anyone, their next question dashed me down—”Oh, what have you published?” I could only imagine what it would be like to be a real author, signing books for my fans, having a best seller.  I felt like a failure, but I’m pretty stubborn, and I just kept writing and submitting. I wrote five novels before one was published.

When I held that first book in my hands, I cried tears of joy.

My fourth book recently came out and it was still exciting to open that box and hold it in my hand.

Then a few days later, it made its debut at an elegant downtown Victorian mansion. I signed copies read fromg the book, and shared my big night with friends. A dream come true.

Hassinger Danies Mansion B&B, Birmingham, AL

While I was signing books, something else was on my mind. Earlier that day, I had taught a creative writing class (as a volunteer) at Maranathan Academy, a non-profit school that takes “critically at-risk students from a variety of challenging circumstancess—bullying and abuse victims, juvenile offenders, poor academic performers, and the health challenged/chronically ill. Students enter Maranathan wounded and looking for a place to belong.” [MA website]

I started the class three months prior, nervous, afraid I’d just taken on something else to fail at, and that I had nothing to offer these kids. I’d never taught poetry, never taught youth, let alone students with the kind of challenges these faced. That first day was hell, and I almost quit. But something made me go back. The students had no idea how to express themselves or even how to sit still. Every class was a struggle, but, gradually, the students started listening and participating.

Something amazing had happened in class the day of my signing. The students had written poems that touched on their deepest pain, something I could not have imagined them doing when I started.  Nor, I believe, could they have imagined doing so, much less sharing it with the other students and faculty. Not only had they learned to write poetry, but they felt safe enough to open the door to their true selves.

It was wonderful to be at my long-planned book launch party, don’t get me wrong, but my mind kept drifting back to the classroom and those kids.  Then I looked up and saw three members of the school faculty in line with books and one of my students!  I jumped up and hugged her.  “You’re my inspiration,” she whispered in my ear.

That gave me more joy than signing my books or making a best seller list or winning writing awards. That was a dream come true that I hadn’t even known to dream.

Chinese proverb:

“If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.”

T.K. Thorne’s childhood passion for storytelling deepened when she became a police officer in Birmingham, Alabama.  “It was a crash course in life and what motivated and mattered to people.” In her newest novel, HOUSE OF ROSE, murder and mayhem mix with a little magic when a police officer discovers she’s a witch. 

Both her award-winning debut historical novels, NOAH’S WIFE and ANGELS AT THE GATE, tell the stories of unknown women in famous biblical tales—the wife of Noah and the wife of Lot. Her first non-fiction book, LAST CHANCE FOR JUSTICE, the inside story of the investigation and trials of the 1963 Birmingham church bombing, was featured on the New York Post’s “Books You Should Be Reading” list. 

T.K. loves traveling and speaking about her books and life lessons. She writes at her mountaintop home near Birmingham, often with two dogs and a cat vying for her lap. 

 More info at TKThorne.com. Join her private newsletter email list and receive a two free short stories at “TK’s Korner.

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Murder, Mayhem . . . and a little Magic

When Officer Rose Brighton chased a suspect down an alley in Birmingham, Alabama, she had no idea the next few minutes would land her in the middle of every cop’s nightmare—looking down at the body of someone she shot . . . in the back. He’s dead and she’s alive, and now she has to explain it, which is going to be a problem because what happened was so strange, she doesn’t understand it herself.  It challenged her definition of reality and her conception of who she was. In the next few days, she would learn that she was a witch of one of three ancient Houses, the prey of one and the pawn of another.

Let’s get something straight—this happens in my new novel, and I’m a retired police captain, but I’m not a witch . . .  at least on my good days.

black cat, House of Rose, Magic City Story

Courtesy of Hannah Troupe on Unsplash

I don’t remember who first said this about writing, but the words have stuck and provide comfort during those days where plots are elusive and the end of the writing tunnel is dark—“You never know what a story is really about until you finish it.”

Does that sound odd? I think most people have the concept that a writer knows what she’s doing from the get-go. I’ll be honest, when it hit me that I wanted to write about a police woman who finds herself in the above situation, I had no idea what the story would entail or where I was going with it.

For me, writing—and reading for that matter—is about the character. I will never forget Harry Potter, Paul Atreides, and Bilbo Baggins, but I’d be challenged to recall all the things that happened to them. Both of the women in my previous novels—Noah’s Wife and Angels at the Gate were so real to me, I went into a little funk when I finished their stories. I missed their voices. Rose was the same way. It felt as if she wrote her own story. I was a side-kick figuring out what kind of trouble to put her in, but she responded on her own.

The sensation of being co-pilot is not limited to writing.  An athlete feels it when she is “in the groove” or “in the zone,” where all cylinders are firing and she is so focused, she can’t miss a shot. An artist feels it, lost in her project. It happens in all our endeavors where we are truly engaged. Time warps. Hours feel like minutes. This is a real physiological state, as measured by fMRI (functional MRI scans) where the resources of the brain are so dedicated to whatever we are doing, there’s not enough processing power in the conscious mind to deal with things like perception of time, discomfort, anxiety, or energy levels.

As I wrote in “3 Steps to Engage the Secret Smartest Part of Your Brain,” our conscious minds are infantile in terms of processing ability compared to our subconscious, what I term our “deep intelligence.” It’s our common perception that our conscious mind (the “I”) generates thoughts. Science, however, is discovering that is an illusion.  Thoughts arise from different modules of the brain before they register in the area associated with consciousness.

This is a little unsettling. If “I” am not thinking thoughts, who is? Like Rose, this fact challenges our conception of reality and who we think we are. The conscious mind evolved, at least in part, out of a need to conceptualize the future and make a plan, so it does have some control functions. What consciousness actually is and how it works, however, is still one of the mysteries of existence. But science is pecking away at it. (Both of these great books talk about consciousness, how it evolved and what we know about it: Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Enlightenment by Robert Wright and The Big Picture: On the origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself by Sean Carroll.)

So science may actually support the statement that we writers don’t know what we’ve written until it is finished. Perhaps the same can be said of our lives, although that is a scary thought. When I think about what my life has meant and what I have touched that might endure beyond me, I flash to my children and my books. I hope there are more ways I will have left the world a little better, but those two things are more than likely what I will think about when I am taking my last breaths. So what I’m writing about means something.

I’ve just finished the third book in Rose’s trilogy. I thought I was writing a fun, intense story about a cop in a deep South city—about murder, mayhem, and a little magic. But stepping back, I realize there is more. As someone who discovers she is “different,” Rose has the opportunity to explore just what being human means, what we are capable of—the darkness and the light.

Maybe that is what all books are ultimately about.  Maybe that is what life is about.

House of Rose, A Magic City Story, T.K. Thorne

Click to order on Amazon.com

House of Rose is now available for preorder at online retailers and from bookstores. If you would like a to write a review, send me an email at tk@tkthorne.com

You can read a short excerpt at The Stilletto Gang where I post on the 4th Fridays with a group of terrific writers.

You are also, of course, invited to the book launch party!

 

 

 

 

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10 Words in April

April is my birthday month. We’re not going to talk about exactly which one. It’s been a hectic month that included working with my editor on my new police witch book, House of Rose. April also is the month for Holocaust Remembrance Day, and in between working on my book, I had the privilege of playing a small role in helping to host “Violins of Hope” in my city of Birmingham, Alabama. It was a unique and amazing experience.

Amnon Weinstein, a violin maker in Israel came to Birmingham this month with his family for a week of concerts and educational programs. Like his father, Weinstein dedicated his life to making and repairing violins. As a child, Amnon never heard his parents speak much about the Holocaust. The trauma of losing hundreds of their extended family was too overwhelming to give it voice, but one day after Amnon’s father had died, a woman came into his shop with a violin that had been through the Holocaust. When he opened it, there were ashes inside. The woman explained that it’s owner had been forced to play it inside a concentration camp while prisoners were marched to their deaths.

Amnon in his workshop with a restored violin Photo courtesy of AICE

Shaken, Ammon looked with new eyes at the numerous violins that had been brought to his father in Israel after WWII because people didn’t want anything that was made in Germany or associated with that country, and he decided those violins had voices that needed to speak and stories that needed to be told.  Some of the instruments, he learned, had kept people alive during the Holocaust, others brought the beauty of music into a dark place and time, and so, they were not just violins of tragedy but violins of hope.

Many Jews in Eastern Europe played the violin, as reflected in the movie Fiddler on the Roof. It is said that the violin is the closest instrument to the human voice and also that it is the easiest instrument to pick up and run with. Professional musicians, called klezmers, traveled from village to village playing for weddings and other events.

Amnon and his family came to Birmingham, a city with its own story of violence and repression of a people who loved music. In April—the season of azalea, dogwood and redwood blooms—the restored violins were displayed and played by students and professional musicians. Youth who had been studying the Holocaust heard Amnon speak and the violins sing. Their voices honored those before, those who who had held them and loved them and drew beautiful music from them, those who had lived and those who had died. I expected to be touched by the music of the violins, and I was, but it was the words that gave shape to the music’s power—that explained the unexplainable.

Amnon’s wife, Assiel Weinstein, spoke at the commemoration of Yom Ha Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Though she did not play the violin, with ten words, Assi changed my understanding of the meaning of Israel. Assi’s father had been a partisan in Eastern Europe during the war, one of the famous Bielski brothers who escaped to the surrounding forest and waged guerrilla warfare against the Germans who were murdering the Jews of the villages and taking them away to death camps. At the same time, the Bielski brothers established a refugee camp deep in the woods, harboring those fleeing the Nazis, many of whom were old, weak and sick. Assi’s father, who was in charge of food and raiding parties said, “Let the Russian partisans do the fighting. It is more important to save one old Jewish woman than to kill ten Germans.” Hungry, sick, clinging to survival through harsh winters, the group became a community and kept their humanity. The movie Defiance was based on this historical event.

Assi speaking to students Courtesy of Joyce Spielberger Birmingham Holocaust Center

Toward the end of the war, in August of 1943, the Germans gathered enough soldiers to surround the forest, determined to flush out the partisans, the Bielski brothers and their camp of refugees.  Inexorably, they closed in. There was no escape. “All the people wanted to run in different directions,” but Tuvia Bielski, their leader said, “No we stay together. If we die, then we will die fighting, but we’ll do it together.”

Miraculously, two Jews, a forester and a peddler told the brothers that they knew a path through the swamp to an island. Hundreds of men, women and children followed them, as their ancestors had followed Moses, through the swamp to a small island where they hunkered down in absolute silence, waiting while the Nazis came closer and closer. For hours, they were still and quiet, even the children. Assi’s mother was among those who huddled, terrified, on the island, listening to the sounds of shouted orders and bullets flying overhead as the Germans searched all around them, certain they would be discovered and killed at any moment. But they weren’t. At the war’s end, 1,200 Jews walked out of that forest.

After the war, Assi’s mother insisted on immigrating to Israel. She told her daughter, “I came to Israel because I will never run again.”

I knew, of course, that people fled to Israel for safety, but those words were not those of a woman seeking shelter, but a place to fight from and to fight for. She would take her stand there. And with those ten words, I realized that is what Israel is, not a safe haven to hide, but a place to make a stand and a home for Jews, so they never have to run again.

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Remembering the Birmingham Church Bombing

Today is the anniversary of the 16th St Church bombing. In light of all the terrorism in the world, is it still relevant to remember this event? Many more than 4 young girls have been killed in school massacres, movie theaters, the Twin Towers. What about that particular bomb planted in the dead of night at a black church in 1963 makes us pause in our busy days . . . and remember?

I’m not sure I can answer this fully. I do know that it is important to remember the awful cost of hate in any form it manifests and that remembering one incident does not mean forgetting others. But that said, this bombing symbolized the cost of hatred in a way that brought to light how it had festered in our midst for so long and made us face that as a nation, opening a path for real change.

A chance encounter made me think about this:

I’m in beautiful Charleston, SC and stop at a shoe store. Great shoes in this city! Am wearing a hot pink US Marine tee shirt (yes, really) that matches my toenails. An African American sales lady approaches and, noting my tee shirt, tells me about all of her many family members who are in the armed forces, though she stayed home to raise her children. As we chat, she asks where I’m from.

“Birmingham, Alabama,” I say.

“Oh my father went to Birmingham a few years ago,” she says. “My brother’s school also went.”

I give her my “author” postcard, and she wrinkles her forehead. “You’re T.K. Thorne?”

I nod. This is a fun part for me, as people seem astonished at meeting an author. I get the same reaction when they find out this little silver-haired lady (me) was once a police officer.

But she surprises me when she says, “I know your name!”

Click image for more info on book

Sometimes people think they’ve heard of you, so I didn’t think much about it, but she pointed to LAST CHANCE FOR JUSTICE on my card.

“You wrote this book?

“I did.”

“My father went to B’ham for the 50th anniversary and bought two copies of this book! The author was signing them at the 16th Street Church.”

In fact, we had launched the book at the church.

T.K. with investigators Ben Herren and Bill Fleming at 16th Street Church 2013

We chat a bit more and then she looks at me and says, “I feel like crying. Thank you for writing this book.”

I smile.

“No, THANK YOU for writing this book.”

She repeats this twice more before what she is really saying sinks in, and then I feel like crying too. I almost didn’t write this book. There were lots of reasons not to, but I am so thankful that I did. The words “honor” and “privilege” sometimes get bantered about, but at this moment, they really hit me. It was an honor and a privilege, and I will be grateful for having told this story and written this book for the rest of my life.

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The Eye of The Beholder

Some things have confused me for a long time, such as why flowers are beautiful and spiders are not. What is beauty anyway? And is there any importance in asking or answering that question?

Obviously, there are some people who find spiders beautiful (yes, really), so the quality is not inherent in the object. I lost my father recently after a long illness and was thinking about my loss while walking to the mailbox. A crop of slender blue wildflowers on the road’s edge, caught my eye, their beauty an instantaneous salve to my grief.

How? Why?

Somewhere in the heart of a forest, an exquisite orchid is blooming, and no one is there to see it. Is it beautiful? No. Beauty is, indeed, in the eye of the beholder. Without the eye, it does not exist. The orchid exists, of course, but it is not “beauty” to the creatures that see or smell it, even those insects that it is meant to attract. If no human notices the wildflowers and deems them beautiful, they are just wildflowers.

A sense of responsibility followed this thought. Nature is harsh, relentless change. It is “eat and be eaten.” In our stellar neighborhood, two galaxies are colliding, gravitational forces ripping apart whatever life may have painstakingly evolved. Our own galaxy is destined to collide with another, our sun to die, our loved ones, ourselves.

We may learn that whales or elephants or other animals share our awareness of mortality, but, as far as we know now, people are the only creatures to seek meaning to life, perhaps because of that awareness. It is a burden. It is a privilege. In this chaos of change we call life, humans seek meaning, personal meaning.

The concept of beauty may be one of the unique perceptual structures of the human brain. Why did it evolve? Of what evolutionary value is it? Is it just that spiders pose a threat, so we instinctively recoil from them, while flowers pose no threat and may signal a source of food? Perhaps, but some people truly find spiders fascinating and beautiful. There are spider enthusiast groups. Honest.

Perhaps the concept of beauty is just an odd byproduct of the complexity of our minds, our thought processes. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it came into being to give us something we crave—meaning. I have occasionally been told that my book, Noah’s Wife, was “beautifully written.” This puzzled me. It is written in tight third person from the perspective of a young woman with what we now call Asperger’s Syndrome. She sees the world in literal terms. Looking at her straightforward words on the pages, I was befuddled at how they could be considered “beautiful.”

Le Rêve- Picasso

Woman with Mandolin-Picasso

But perhaps it is not the words themselves, but the fact that they create meaning for some readers, truths about being human, and that renders them beautiful, in the same way that Picasso’s art is beautiful to some eyes. His paintings force us out of our typical perceptions, whispers in ways we may not be able to voice, even disturbs, but speaks the language of meaning and (some) find that beautiful, even in the harshness or starkness of his lines, just as some find beauty in abstract art or different types of music . . . or spiders.

Beauty is observable by all our senses, including our ability to see a beautiful act of kindness or a beautiful scientific formula. If we are uniquely capable of determining beauty, then we have a responsibility to see it, to open our eyes to it, to find meaning in it, our uniquely human meaning.

 

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One Simple, Life-Changing Thought

Have you ever tossed and turned in bed, unable to sleep because your mind was wildly bouncing from thought to thought? One of those thoughts being, Why can’t I stop thinking? What an interesting thought, your mind says. How can “I” stop thinking? Am I not my thoughts?

I’ll skip to the answer:  No. “You” are not your thoughts.

The way to that conclusion is deceptively simple, yet life changing.

I wonder if the whole practice of meditation came about because of some woman’s difficulty sleeping thousands of years ago. Yes, I know men take credit, but, according to the latest science, women’s brains are more active than men’s. Women multitask and use more parts of the brain, leading, interestingly enough, to the fact that they need more sleep than men. Their brains get more tired.

They can also get stuck in thought buzz-land. Men too, of course.

Meditation is a practice of being still physically and watching mentally. It is becoming deliberately aware of the “I” observing the thoughts. Each time one arises, you recognize it and put it aside. You are not so much stilling the thoughts as finding the Watcher. She is elusive. If you stop paying attention, she slips away and seems to loose herself in the thought, to become the thought.

What is the point?

Just as in sports, you train muscles, in meditation practice, you are training the muscle of your mind. Don’t get me wrong. The thoughts that arise are not unimportant. Your subconscious is a power house that you can channel, something I wrote about in 3 Steps To Engage The Secret Smartest Part of Your Brain. What arises from your subconscious can be significant and powerful or it can be trivial. It can be contradictory, emotionally loaded, or an idle worry. Your subconscious is as much a part of you as your lungs or heart, but a thought is its product. It is not “you” the watcher, you the decider. It is not “thinking” that distinguishes us from most of the other life on this planet, it is the awareness of thinking.

In our culture, we are not taught to distinguish between the thought and the watcher-decider.

So what?

Here’s what. If we think—I am the worst wife/mother/sister that ever was—and make no distinction between the thought and the watcher-decider, we give that thought enormous power. It is just a thought! You could have also have thought—I am a big banana.

big-banana

 

What is the difference?

Vive la différence, my friend. You are not a big banana. Or a little one, for that matter. Thoughts populate for many reasons. There is a lot of electrical activity going on in the brain. Our brain developed, not to be the most precise or effective instrument for many tasks, but to be creative. Our success in survival is an outgrowth of that ability:

Nut in hard shell=no food. Nut + stone + smash=food.

The possibility of creativity (which meant survival in evolutionary terms) arises when two or multiple disparate ideas collide, i.e., our subconscious brain is designed to be a high-energy-let’s-try-this-and-that-together, kind of place. It is such a wild environment (pay attention to your dreams if you don’t believe this) that an “I” monitor arose to make decisions. This “I” can get in the way sometimes. It is not needed so much when a tiger appears. Decision to Get Out of Dodge is made on a more basic level. The being who stops to ponder about tigers and life gets eaten.

But the “I”-monitor/watcher-decider, plays an extraordinarily important role. As a writer, what I do with a creative idea is as critical as having one. Some ideas need to be discarded. An idea is not sacred. A thought is not necessarily true. You are not a big banana. You are probably not the worst person on the planet either. It is just a thought and you are free to have another one, such as, I am the best that I can be at the moment. Or I made a mistake. It’s not the end of the world. Or I wonder why I am beating myself up over something stupid?

You can let go of anger because you can have angry (or whatever) thoughts, but you don’t have to keep them. You can even change them, because they are not “you.” They are just thoughts. This tiny, subtle distinction can literally change your life.

And maybe help you sleep.

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