Sunday, a smorgasbord

Yesterday was day 1 of my reboot, and I’m declaring it a simple success. Were I to take a more complicated view of the day I would call it so-so, but in those cases where a reboot is so desperately needed, I’m willing to go with the simple tale. It was a simple success. I took my watercolor class, with my friend Deb. I shopped for good, healthy food afterwards, and didn’t succumb to buying anything else. I made my dinner even though I got sidetracked by a 1.5-hour-long conversation with Marc and then felt almost frantic with hunger….but I made my healthy, wonderful dinner. I didn’t walk or do yoga, nor did I drink lots of water all day, but I’m happy. Today is a gorgeous, sunny day. I’ll take a walk, drink water all day, see my super-intelligent book club tonight, it’ll be good.

And as Paul Harvey used to say, here is the rest of the story:

My version — and should you think it’s tacky (I do!), you should know that it’s pretty close to what she did. That’s not a good yellow branch, hers was definitely better, but this is like hers. SIGH.

The watercolor class was a BUST. I was hoping to learn a few techniques that are helpful in painting flowers, blossoms, blooms. Instead, it was a watercolor version of Painting with a Twist. The instructor placed a print that she had made on an easel, and we all had to paint that. It wasn’t a print I would ever buy (or hang, if I’d received it as a gift). It wasn’t attractive in composition or flower choices, and it didn’t even look like she had much talent. So there we all were, being walked through “now make coral tones, like this, and paint this part of the flower exactly like this.” She wasn’t very articulate, and she wasn’t very confident for someone who teaches this very class as often as she does. It

hers!

cost a lot of money out of my super tight budget so I was deeply disappointed. Still, it was nice to do that with Deb, and to go to a part of town I rarely visit (OH the hipster facial hair! My god! Will that trend never stop?), and to play with color. I’m calling it a simple success because I didn’t back out, I didn’t hate myself for my effort, or feel shame, and I just let myself play. Success!

 

I made a chickpea salad for dinner because I was just craving chickpeas for some strange reason. I also bought ingredients for a great-looking Sriracha Rainbow Noodle Salad, which requires an avocado, so I decided to add an avocado to my chickpea salad. Success! Such good food, so healthy every last bit. I went on to eat the whole thing (it should’ve made two meals for me), but I’m calling it a simple success. I didn’t buy Peeps (which are still available), or a beer, or grocery store sushi because I was famished and tired. I cooked for myself, which is something I’d stopped doing and missed terribly. I made a healthy meal, for myself, and it actually worked — which my creative efforts have not been doing since November. I rubbed my eyes with jalapeno-juiced hands, BAD BAD BAD, but otherwise success!

My knitting has been failing BADLY, except for the last thing I made which was a scarf using the wonderful Zauberball that my darling friend Becci sent me. I need to take a photo of it, it’s gorgeous and it worked. (It’s the simplest knitting, but lately I couldn’t even pull that off.) So, emboldened by my successful reboot day and the Zauberball scarf, I cast on a new project using a yarn I’ve got in abundance, a very pale shell pink (tosh merino light, porcelain). I was very disappointed by the color when the yarn arrived in the mail, years ago, so I set it aside. SO pale. Almost just a dirty white, in some light. And pink is complicated — at least it has been for me. It’s too associated with little-girly and I have zero interest in that. But I’m considering a rapprochement with pink, so I cast on a pattern called Yoga Shawl (link for Ravelers), basically a large rectangle, stockinette in the middle, chevrons on both ends, and buttons/holes along all the edges so you can wear it lots of different ways. Last night I got several rows completed while I watched an old Richard Pryor stand-up film on Netflix, from 1971. His brilliance and vulnerability were right at the surface, then, and at times he was almost frightening to watch, always compelling, and just so moving. The last part of the show is essentially a one-man performance of a play with several characters. SO, success there too, a friendliness to pink and my knitting, and time with an old love.

Because pink is beautiful

Isn’t it amazing? Really, stop to think about that. Look at that tree, nothing unusual, a cherry tree in blossom — but TREES bloom out in these delicate FLOWERS. Trees cover themselves in blossoms, just for a while. All the pinks, there. It almost makes me cry.

I guess I offer this post to those of us trying to find our way back. Claim success, even if its imperfect [it is, anyway]. Let the rest go. You can try to add the rest on as you go. Reboot, day 2, I see you waiting for me and I welcome you with a smile.

***

THIS BOOK!!!

Real quick, before I go, let me make a book recommendation! Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. From the very first sentence I was in it, even though I was exhausted and bleary-eyed and that can be a hard moment to start a new book.

Wow. It’s not like anything else I’ve read. The word most often used for it is astonishing and I think I have to agree. Here is the description from the book’s Amazon page:

“The unforgettable New York Times best seller begins with the story of two half-sisters, separated by forces beyond their control: one sold into slavery, the other married to a British slaver. Written with tremendous sweep and power, Homegoing traces the generations of family who follow, as their destinies lead them through two continents and three hundred years of history, each life indeliably drawn, as the legacy of slavery is fully revealed in light of the present day.

Effia and Esi are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.”

That makes it sound like a history lesson, or like one of those horrible museum dioramas or something, and it’s NOT. It’s so alive (as far as I’ve read, which is only about 5% of the book) and it’s just not a story I’ve read yet. What a gift, when a book does that, when it kind of slaps your face and wakes you up. Unless it’s 3am when it does that, but whatev. 🙂

art and a reboot

OH MY have I been in trouble with myself. Ever since the nightmarish election, I’ve been in trouble. I keep trying to stand up, find myself, breathe, reorient my mindset. I’ll make headway — return to the mat, the street, the vegetable market — and for a moment I am back. But I’m back in that moment, still surrounded by chaos. And it’s a specific kind of chaos that’s my own worst nightmare. The incessant (even when it’s nonsensical) lying and gaslighting, and a country of people who are just fine with it. (Mercifully almost all of my own people see what I see, but not all do.) And that’s not even considering the hideous political stuff he’s doing, the destruction, the looting.

And so I’ll rally and pull it off for a few days: oh yes, yoga, how delicious. A daily walk, hard again at first but after a week getting a little easier. My wonderful food, lots of cool water, clear mind. And I won’t put pressure on myself about it (great! Now I’m completely back! That’s all behind me!) but the constant falling off and then struggling to right myself has been especially awful. I’ve tried being gentle with myself, tweaking expectations, setting low bars, surrounding myself with people who support me, and that’s all gotten me through but I haven’t sustained a reboot.

At this point I’ve gained 22 pounds, from my lowest weight. I’m not quite back where I started a few summers ago (and having sustained my comfortable self for a couple of years, this is hard to take), but I’m in the neighborhood. I was talking to a friend yesterday who asked if I wanted to let HIM have this effect on me — and of course I don’t, of course, but that doesn’t make this stop. It’s actually a thing, the “Trump Effect” — like the ‘freshman 15’ people are eating their misery.

This past week I’ve had a social date every single day, a meal or a drink, and all week I’ve been anticipating today as my next reboot. I’m taking a class this afternoon (watercolor, “bold blooms” — flowers and blossoms, just the perfect medicine) and stopping at the grocery store on my way home to buy fresh, beautiful, healthy food. After dinner I’m either taking a walk or taking a restorative yoga class. It’s not a clear, sunny day here, but I’m filling my day with beauty and color in the hopes that it helps.

Intro to Watercolors: Bold Blooms Workshop
Sriracha Rainbow Noodle Salad!

Fingers crossed, y’all. Is there any worse feeling than just being out of control, unable to stop yourself from doing what you don’t really want to be doing? Unable to start yourself in the direction you really want to go?

How are you?

words

Yesterday I was listening to an episode of Fresh Air, an interview with Kory Stamper, a lexicographer and associate editor at Merriam-Webster. The interview was about how the decisions are made to include words in the dictionary, and how best to accommodate words like the N word, which have complicated usage. Context changes the meaning so profoundly, and determines whether it’s a hate word or an affiliative one. (I would’ve thought that would be an easy issue to accommodate — multiple definitions — but that’s not right, apparently. They manage some of this kind of complexity with usage notes.)

Anyway. Stamper said that she gets letters from people about the N word especially, demanding that it not be included in the dictionary. Similarly, when they expanded the definition of marriage to include same sex marriage, oh the letters they received. And parents write all the time, apparently, to demand that words like “fuck” be removed because they don’t want their kids to say those words. To know about them.

AS IF PEOPLE LEARN WORDS AND LANGUAGE BY READING THE DICTIONARY. I’d bet that 99.9% of the time they already know of a word when they reach for the dictionary, so they’re looking for the meaning and usage, or the pronunciation. Obviously there are people like me, who read the dictionary for fun, but I think we are such a tiny minority we shouldn’t count on this issue of word inclusion. The complainers didn’t seem to be upset by a concern that the inclusion of the word means something, that it is now legitimately part of our language. They simply didn’t want their kids to learn about it.  That’s just so strange, to me.

Part of the conversation was about “English,” and she said we all speak a dialect. Standard English is used for writing, it’s what we’re taught in school, but we really don’t speak it. And we don’t even always use it in writing. She said she never EVER corrects people when they’re talking — jerkery of the highest order, she said and I agree — but even in writing she doesn’t correct them. Of course there’s a time and place for proper language usage, but language is fluid. Gosh I could not agree more. People think it’s funny to be a “grammar Nazi” and seem to take a kind of pride in it, a way they get to feel superior; they also assume that since I work as a freelance editor I must be a grammar Nazi too. (My response: I will if you pay me to do it but otherwise nope. I also care much less about what a rule says and much more about clarity of expression.)

And this was fascinating: so many of the “rules” we go by (never split an infinitive! Don’t end a sentence with a preposition!) are holdovers from other languages. The split infinitive rule stems from Latin . . . where it is simply impossible to split an infinitive because it’s one word. So a long time ago people thought Latin was the fancy language and English needed to be fancier….hence more like Latin…..hence no splitting of infinitives.

It’s a fascinating conversation, and I recommend the podcast episode! This is one domain in which the Internet has improved the landscape; not only can lexicographers more fluidly change the dictionary — no need to wait 10 years for the print update — but they can also track usage more easily with the massive databases that are available. I wonder how one becomes a lexicographer (I’m always looking for a career, what I will be when I grow up); I just found this fascinating article in the NYTimes, worth a quick read. Apparently lexicographers are born, less than made.

this would’ve been me, but I had blue cat-eye glasses. With rhinestones.

It made me think of the search for the new Dalai Lama when the old one dies: monks go out into the world looking for the new incarnation — maybe a search for lexicographers would involve knocking on doors and pulling little girls who are hiding under the covers reading the dictionary. They would’ve found me, for sure.

And then I came across this quote I’d saved:

“DEFINITION NOT FOUND IN THE DICTIONARY Not leaving: an act of trust and love, often deciphered by children” —Markus Zusak

and I think about all the ideas, feelings, experiences we have that we don’t have words for, that can’t be found in the dictionary. That’s why we all seem to love those lists of words in other languages that we don’t have in ours, like schadenfreude, and saudade.

Many of my friends love words and language as much as I do — there are so many of us! I don’t despair over some decrepitude in English; it changes, because that’s what language does. Anyway. This one’s for the word nerds among us. xoxoxox

longings

One thing I have never understood is the desire to have a mansion. Even if I had all the money in the world, I wouldn’t want one. Partly this is because I have a poor person’s mentality — one of my first thoughts is Who’d want to have to keep it clean all the time? Lori: rich people have maids. And it’s not just because too often mansions reflect a poor person’s idea about what ‘rich’ looks like (see Trump’s vulgar all-gold manifestation, pure obscene vulgarity); it’s just that my longing is for a bungalow. I just want to have my own little place, my own little home.

I just love this style so much

Since I first heard about them when I was a late teen, I’ve wanted my own little Craftsman-style bungalow. Hell, even the word bungalow makes me fill up with longing. Cottage. I saw a little home in Huntsville, Alabama that has stayed in my imagination, not even a Craftsman style home but definitely a cottage, surrounded by a beautiful little garden, and I’ve lived there in my imagination ever since.

Look at the interior of this Craftsman home:

AARGH that is such perfection for me. I don’t have much of an imagination, and without a mind’s eye it’s not as if I daydream the specifics of that life but I have it elaborated as story.

This is in conflict with my other dream of having a little yellow house; Craftsman homes are brick or stone, and yellow trim is odd — and my yellow house is full-on yellow, not just yellow-trimmed. Big Daddy’s house was yellow, back when I was a child, and I know that’s the source of my longing. It was just a plain little stick house, not one thing fancy about it in any way, so that daydream of mine isn’t really elaborated beyond little yellow house. But I could be very happy in that kind of small home, too.

And then there’s another fantasy house, also small, also in the bungalow/cabin/cottage realm. The first time I went to Woodstock, NY, in 2005, I spotted a little cabin sitting on a rock outcropping over a creek. It was bigger than a creek or stream, smaller than a river — rocky, so the water burbled and splashed past the cabin. I took a picture of it but can’t find it to include here. It had shake siding, and a peaked roof, a beautiful front porch you could sit on and watch the water flow past, over morning coffee or evening wine. It was surrounded by trees; I first saw it in the fall, so it was surrounded by those flames of foliage. In my fantasy story of it then, it had a living room with a woodburning stove, and a small kitchen. Walls lined with bookshelves. One very cozy bedroom, and another room with walls of windows and a giant loom, and a spinning wheel — a version of a life I once had.

I also love mid-century modern homes, and extremely modern glass homes, and can imagine a life in them too but it’s the bungalow, the cottage, the cabin in the woods that always sustains my heart and my imagination. I’m a big city girl — a real city girl, New York, Chicago, Paris — and feel so alive there. Some days the city beats me, and some days I get tired of how hard it can be to do any damn thing, but I never want to leave the city. I could live in a big city until the day I die and remain very happy.

In some ways I have distinctly different people inside me: the NYC happiest one, and the cabin lost so far back in the woods one, and both are real and true. Since one of my two personal mottos is “Well, oh well!” I can fully inhabit where I am and be truly glad. SO: Well, oh well! I live in a big city and not a wood-surrounded cabin, oh well! I’m happy! But that doesn’t mean the other couldn’t be fully true in a heartbeat. In a heartbeat.

I assume everyone is like this, right? What’s your fantasy home(s)? 

(I was looking on the internet for a little cabin like the one I saw in Woodstock so long ago, to replace the photo of mine that I can’t find, and saw these gems. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in these?)

Oh gosh, this is a version of me heaven.
And this is a very different version of me heaven!

Not the Big Pile

I’m sure your To Be Read pile (TBR) is tall/long/extensive, like mine. There are 387 books on my kindle, stacks of books by my bed and various chairs and tables, collections of lists in every possible place, and a separate to-read list on GoodReads. I need to get better about taking care of myself if I’m going to live long enough to make any headway. In my various book clubs, I’ve always been surprised when someone had no idea what book to suggest when it was their month…..for me, the question is which one of all the ones I’m waiting to read. Assuming our so-called president doesn’t get us nuclearly annihilated, of course.

But in addition to the full TBR pile, there’s also the Currently Reading list, which is far shorter. One good thing about GoodReads is that it keeps the list for you, if you log a book when you start reading it. Right now that list shows seven books I’m currently reading, even though a good five of those are kind of in a permanent suspension (Nox, Jitterbug Perfume, U and I, The Art of Memoir, and Glass, Irony and God. Oh, also Minds of WinterI want to finish all those, I mean to, they’re just kind of….on pause). It’s funny how that happens — I really DO want to finish all those books! For each one, something happened to pause the book and then I just never got back to it.

But there’s a hot short list bubbling around at any given moment, the “which one, which one, which one to dive into right now” list. Mine includes:

  • The Idiot, by Elif Batuman. This one’s getting so much attention, and it’s supposed to be so funny and wonderful and beautiful. She’s a staff writer for The New Yorker, and I think I’d like to read something light and funny. And beautiful.
  • A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit. For personal reasons having to do with my upcoming life change, this was recommended to me. And to be honest, while I really love Solnit’s activism and scholarship, I find her writing hard-going. Not clenched, exactly, but certainly not light and dive-in-able.
  • The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. I started reading this one and it’s fascinating, and on the edge of catching fire. It’s about the rediscovery of a nearly lost manuscript 600 years ago (On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius) and the way that manuscript sparked the Enlightenment, and changed the whole world. It’s well written, and interesting, and maybe it’s time for a bit of non-fiction?
  • Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. Saunders is, of course, one of our great humans. His compassion shines through everything he does, and heaven knows the world (and I) need him desperately. I started trying to read it and this one’s kind of hard to get into; but I know and trust him as a writer, so I want to push through the resistance.

All four of those are pushing on me real hard in their own ways. Have you read any of them? Any words, if you have?

It’s Tuesday, so poetry group meets in my house tonight, looking forward to that so much. I’m going to bring a couple of poems by Sharon Olds — not this one, but this is a gorgeous Sharon Olds poem:

Rite of Passage 

As the guests arrive at our son’s party
they gather in the living room—
short men, men in first grade
with smooth jaws and chins.
Hands in pockets, they stand around
jostling, jockeying for place, small fights
breaking out and calming. One says to another
How old are you? —Six. —I’m seven. —So?
They eye each other, seeing themselves
tiny in the other’s pupils. They clear their
throats a lot, a room of small bankers,
they fold their arms and frown. I could beat you
up, a seven says to a six,
the midnight cake, round and heavy as a
turret behind them on the table. My son,
freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks,
chest narrow as the balsa keel of a
model boat, long hands
cool and thin as the day they guided him
out of me, speaks up as a host
for the sake of the group.
We could easily kill a two-year-old,
he says in his clear voice. The other
men agree, they clear their throats
like Generals, they relax and get down to
playing war, celebrating my son’s life.

Olds has long been a favorite poet of mine, and she was recently included on a list of five female poets who are doing good work in the resistance.

The world feels extremely scary right now. Every day, scarier than the day before. I gaze at this beautiful child and hold my breath.

Love and Other Ways of Dying (including reading this book)

I’m an enthusiastic reader, and an enthusiastic recommender. I’m also a probably confusing combination of extremely picky and extremely accepting. I’m picky as a reader in that life is too short to read crap (even if everyone else loves it…..if it’s crap to me, my own life’s too short) so I am willing to abandon a book after a good-enough try. But I’m very accepting in that I don’t have to love the book, as long as I understand what the writer is doing. I can severely dislike all the characters, I can hate what happens, or even be bored to tears, as long as I see what the writer is doing and it’s effective and intended. For example, when I read the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s remarkable series, I felt so bored by it I finally had to set it aside for awhile — but I came back to it, because I felt like I was missing something. And then I realized what he was doing, and that the long period of boredom was critical, it’s what he was intending (just like David Foster Wallace in The Pale King). I never did end up loving The Pale King, and I did end up loving Knausgaard, but for recommendation purposes I could recommend them both heartily even though they felt boring.

So to understand my recommendations, it’s important to realize that I often recommend books that other people dislike — because I’m thinking about what the book is trying to do and whether/how well it does it. I don’t have to love it, it doesn’t have to become an absolute favorite. It’s also important to realize that I really dislike schmaltz. Oh how I hate it. I hate schmaltz and purple sentimentality however it comes at us: in prose, in greeting cards, on television and in movies, etc. Swelling violins, purple mountains majesty and flags waving in a gentle breeze, front porches with flag bunting and window boxes filled with flowers, True Americans wearing khaki or pressed blue jeans (even sometimes True Americans Of All Colors, but not usually) holding hands. GAG. One thing I’m always most happy to hear, when people read pieces of my memoir, is that it’s not sentimental. It’s not self-indulgent and pitying. I am sentimental as a person, but I very much dislike over-sentimentality in writing. I think writers achieve so much more when they use restraint when writing about emotional things. Don’t beat me over the head with violins! To my mind, the best emotional writing takes me there almost invisibly, and leaves me to do all that emotional work. Then it’s my emotion, it’s earned.

It’s a nice cover, though!

And so, to an extremely crappy book I just tried to read, and abandoned. Let me save you (although almost all other reviewers loved it, so read their thoughts if the book seems possibly interesting). Love and Other Ways of Dying, by Michael Paterniti. Thank heavens I just checked it out from the library.

It seemed to have everything going for it. The topic, the form, the fact that it was longlisted for the National Book Award, the other reviews, the blurbs….the topic, which is one of my favorite (it really is about love and dying, writ large and broadly). I’d just finished Eileen and was eager to dive into this, palate-cleansing in every possible way. And I really do love essays (and will take this chance to again recommend the most excellent collection by Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering), so I was literally excited when I started reading. I didn’t know the writer, who is apparently relatively well-known and publishes in great places. The first essay was about the crash of Swissair flight 111, an event so horrific and well-known that there are movies and television specials about it, including this NOVA episode. As I was reading, I periodically kind of rolled my eyes and thought, sheesh, this guy, he’d be super annoying to spend much time with. It was overwritten, it went too far into that kind of emotional manipulation that really wasn’t necessary, at all! The story itself, told with plain, short sentences and no elaboration, would’ve done that.

So I was a little concerned, but read the second essay, “He Might Just Be a Prophet,” about Ferran Adrià, the chef/owner of El Bulli, and the originator of an incredibly inventive way of cooking — he’s considered the best chef in the world by people who rank those things. And again, the topic was interesting enough that I kept reading despite the severely overwritten prose. I needed a bit of lemon ice to cleanse my palate from it, good grief.

But the third essay just done this old girl in. It was titled “Eating Jack Hooker’s Cow,” and it was really the most patronizing, condescending schmaltz I’ve ever tried to choke down in my whole life. The whole ‘traditional good old American way of life, the cattleman on the prairie, shucks it’s all dying and look at this noble man and his noble wife managing a crappy motel with all their red necked nobility’ and truly, flags were smacking me in the face and the prose was Elvis in front of a lurid sunset on the blackest of velvet in Las Vegas, or maybe Elvis and Jesus. My god. It was just the most awful culmination, a peaked crescendo of the schmaltz that had permeated the first two, and I was done. I glanced ahead at the next essay just to see if maybe he got it out of his system (the next essay was about a giant who lives in Ukraine, or somewhere like that) but nope, so I broke up with him and threw his shit out on the street and we are finished forever.

Save yourself the trouble, and don’t read this one. (Or maybe do, if the other reviews make it seem like you’ll like it — and if you do, great! We all need to find books we love….this one just didn’t work for me.) If you like essays, and are looking for some recommendations, I have really enjoyed these and you can find my GoodReads reviews of them here:

And if you’ve read an essay collection that you really loved, tell me about it! I’m always looking.

bookie book book – Eileen

Blogs evolve (obvious-est statement in the world #1). Sometimes a blogger takes a hard left and changes it whole cloth, and sometimes it just shifts like a riverbed. Mine has been so many different things, including for a while a knitting blog. Usually it’s a personal blog, as you know already. Always I mention books because, aside from my kids and grandkids and my traveling life, books are the most central and defining detail of my existence.

Now I am a book ambassador for Little, Brown, a publisher that’s one of my favorites (along with Graywolf, and Vintage, and Picador, and FSG, and Penguin). All this means is that they’re going to start sending me books (hard copies, I think, which means I can start to rebuild my personal library that I had to decimate when I moved to NYC in 2005) and if I like any of them, I write, post, Instagram, share. No requirements, no expectations beyond that. I can do that, and happily.

I already review almost every book I read on GoodReads, and mention books in passing here, but thought I might start writing about them a little bit more on my blog, whether for Little, Brown or otherwise. SO! I just finished reading Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh, and it’s almost indescribable. It’s disgusting. It’s gross. It’s creepy. It’s awful. It’s wrenching. It’s unbelievable unless you’ve lived aspects of her life, which I have, so I know that it’s believable, even if you don’t think so because you are luckier than I have been.

I’m known in my former book club as a trauma book junkie. The joke about me was that if it was my turn to pick the book, it would be about the Holocaust. I guess to a large extent that’s true, and it’s that I am most fascinated by what people do when their backs are against the wall. That’s when you see who they are, and that’s what fascinates me. Who breaks, and how. Who comes through, and how do they do it. What are the consequences. Those issues fascinate me, along with questions of post-traumatic growth. If you’ve made it through hell, and you find a way to flourish, how do you do that, and what can it look like?

So in this book, Eileen lives in Xville with her late-stages alcoholic father, who is an ex-cop, and quite vicious, especially and almost solely to Eileen. Her mother has died and she wears her mother’s frumpy old clothes, hides in them. Her sister, favored by her father, is something of a fluffy, trampy woman who just shows up on occasion, gets praised by their father, and leaves Eileen to the mess. At the end of the first chapter, which sets the landscape of Eileen’s truly miserable existence, we get this:

So here we are. My name was Eileen Dunlop. Now you know me. I was twenty-four years old then, and had a job that paid fifty-seven dollars a week as a kind of secretary at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys. I think of it now as what it really was for all intents and purposes—a prison for boys. I will call it Moorehead. Delvin Moorehead was a terrible landlord I had years later, and so to use his name for such a place feels appropriate. In a week, I would run away from home and never go back.

This is the story of how I disappeared.

Eileen is a gross young woman, her life is disgusting, the house she shares with her father is DISGUSTING and filthy. She takes large doses of laxatives, doesn’t bathe or wash her hair, eats like a furtive rat, and drinks too much. Moshfegh is extraordinary at providing the specific colors, textures, smells, sounds, to gross you out. I often felt nauseated by the description. Now, don’t you want to read it? Reviewers on GoodReads talk about how ugly it is, how dark, repellent, filthy, etc., and they aren’t wrong. But I still recommend this book, as long as you go in knowing this about it, because:

  • No one else could have written these sentences. It isn’t that they’re especially eloquent, or beautiful (obviously), or filled with lyrical description (obviously) or great vocabulary. It’s just that they are unique, and specific in their observation, and again and again I’d read something that just made me sit up because I’d never read a sentence like that. Or I’d never read that point of view, or observation, even though I knew the absolute truth of it. This is one brief passage I highlighted because it was like a spotlight hit me with the truth of it: “When poor people hear a loud noise, they whip their heads around. Wealthy people finish their sentences, then just glance back.” I have been that poor, and even though I’m not that poor now, my head still always whips around.
  • Moshfegh is a brave storyteller, and I admire that. Right from the very beginning you know something dramatic happens, right from the outset you know there is a crime, she leaves, but you don’t learn what it is until 85% into the book. I kept thinking she was about to reveal the twist — “This was my last day at work, even though I didn’t know it,” etc — but then on the book would go, tripping along with all these lasts, each digressing into story but never getting to the twist. That’s brave storytelling, trusting that she had the chops to keep you reading. Around 20-25% I started to get frustrated, and would scan ahead thinking the thing was surely just about to happen, and finally I decided just to trust her, and go with it. I’m really glad I did. (I’ll read the book again, for sure, and will be more relaxed about this.)
  • Nothing is simple or black and white, which is my FAVORITE thing in the world since nothing is. The catalyst character, Rebecca, is not well sketched-out, and the longer I thought about the book after I finished it, the more I realized I was unsatisfied by her. I think she was the least successful — not because of what she did, which was dramatic and odd and unexplained, but because I was not given enough about her to even craft a vague explanation for her. I didn’t need to understand her completely, or know her back story, but she was a bit too much of a cipher. Still, the way her part of the story ended was certainly not black and white, and if the book had been written by a less confident writer, it would’ve been. It would’ve been like any TV drama, and the book would have been less satisfying.
  • The end story for Eileen is beautiful and I just felt such relief for her. It’s funny; it reminded me of that old Steve Martin joke about how to be a millionaire and never pay taxes (“First, get a million dollars. Now, forget to pay taxes.”) — wait! I want to know that first part! In Eileen’s case, her whole life after she leaves Xville is glossed over and not at all part of the story. You don’t get to know how she got there, from here. But you get to know that she did.

I’m not a reader who insists that things be nice. Characters don’t have to be nice, or clean, or simple. It always surprises me to read reviews that are critical simply because the reader hated the character. I’m glad to hate a character! I’m glad to feel squidgey, to feel squirmy, to feel uneasy, to feel like perhaps a shower would be good right now because the story is that gross. If that’s the world of the story, and the writer does a good job with it, I’m all in.

So I recommend this book as long as you know it’s going to be gross. It’s going to make you uncomfortable. You’ll never read anything else quite like it, I can say that for sure. Here’s the Amazon link, if you’re interested.

touching base

I ran out of time before we left for Indonesia to put up a farewell post with a link to the blog, so I’ll do a little of that here and then catch up a bit. Indonesia was incredible! We saw so many glorious sunsets, experienced the strangeness of ogoh-ogoh on Bali, the wonder of the second highest volcano on Lombok (and a terrible accident for Marc, and a minor one for me as I burned my calf on a motorcycle exhaust and was too humiliated to mention it to the cute young guy who was driving me), and the thrill of finding an exceptional place, the tiny southernmost island of Rote. Goats and pigs everywhere, music in the dark, white sand beaches and crystal clear water. It was a great trip. You can look at the blog here. I haven’t finished writing it yet — there’s one last day in Denpasar and the winding-up to write, but everything I mentioned above is already fleshed out on the blog, and boy are there some beautiful photographs! Not because I’m a great photographer, certainly, but because it’s nearly impossible to take a bad picture there, the setting is so spectacular.

so much of my time in Indonesia looked something like this

I read TEN books on vacation, which might be my record. Two of those made it to my “absolute favorites” shelf on GoodReadsHuman Acts, by Han Kang, and Why I Am Not a Feminist, by Jessa Crispin. I linked to my absolute favorites shelf, there, so you can read my reviews of both books if you’re interested. Han Kang also wrote The Vegetarianwhich won the 2016 Booker Prize, and which was so startling and amazing I read it four times in about six weeks. When I read it the first time, I read the last word and just started reading it again immediately, straight through. Kang is an extraordinary writer, and in Human Actsher storytelling skills are surely at their peak. She tells the story of a real event — a student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea, in 1980, in which the government slaughtered protestors. The first important chapter is told in second person, and the disorientation of that POV choice is so brilliant, SO brilliant. It’s a wondrous book, but not a fun book (except for the fun of realizing what a writer is doing for you to create such a book).

And I’ve just found Ottessa Moshfegh, and am loving her book Eileen. Since I read brand new writers all day long for my work, it’s always a huge breath of joy to read someone who writes sentences ONLY THEY could’ve written. That’s how Moshfegh writes. No one writes like her. No one else could write like her. With my clients, most of the time anyone could’ve written their sentences because most of them are just learning how to write, so they haven’t yet learned to trust themselves and let themselves have their own voices. But Moshfegh has a distinct voice even among writers with distinct voices. It isn’t that her sentences are extraordinary in their eloquence, or diction, or vocabulary, it’s that they’re distinct in their observation and stance. I’m only about halfway through the book, but wow.

My book life is exploding — not only do I read for a living, read every other moment I can, and review for Netgalley, but I’ve just been selected as a book ambassador for Little, Brown, a publisher whose list I’ve loved for a long time. So I’ll be talking about their books in the coming years, too. So many books. So. Many. Books. I read almost every moment I am awake, and it’s still not enough.

My life is going to be changing pretty dramatically in the coming weeks or perhaps a few months, but I’m not quite ready to say it all. There are details to be nailed down and people to be told in person, face to face. It’s good. It’s a welcome change, and it gives me a lot more peace in my life. I came home from vacation to plenty of work, which hasn’t been true for a very long time (I have a queue again, haven’t had that for 18 months or so), and also to the terrible allergies that plague all of us in central Texas at this time of year. I’ve been so miserable with that and jet lag, and trying to work, so I have been slow to get back here, but I’m back….so hello! I missed you!

xoL

potluck

Just an assortment of things, almost all beautiful:

  • Since I won’t be here on Oliver’s third birthday because I’ll be in Bali that day, I spent a few hours with him yesterday. I had some kind of seriously awful gut thing going on so it wasn’t as long as I’d have liked, but it was so wonderful being with him. He and I went to one of the neighborhood parks, the one on the elementary school grounds where he will be going in just a couple of weeks. He played on the equipment, we blew bubbles even though it was too breezy to make chasing them much fun, he ate lunch, and he ran around. I watched him wandering around, running, talking to himself the way he does, and my heart ached so hard. Oliver has something going on — the current educational diagnosis is in the autism neighborhood — but most difficult is his pretty profound speech delay. So I watched that beautiful, darling boy running around, in his own world, and I cried pretty hard because I so want to know him. I so want to share things with him, know what he thinks without guessing, hear his wonderings and his wants and his needs and his funny. At the moment that’s not how it is to be with Oliver, but I know it will be one of these days. I don’t think he feels lonely; he seems keenly aware of how much he is loved. One fun thing to do with Oliver is to look at the phone together. We had the camera on and turned to selfie mode, and he was grinning as he held down the button for dozens of long bursts. He caught the really beautiful shot I included here. See the delight on his face?
  • My dear, dear friend Becci (hi darling Becci!) sent me a Crazy Zauberball. I have always wanted one, and somehow she chose a colorway that I always wanted, too. The other day I opened my mailbox, expecting the usual day’s allotment of junk mail, and instead there was a nicely wrapped box, fit snugly into the mailbox with my name facing outward. I had no idea what it might be, even when I saw Becci’s name and address in the top right corner. I literally ran into the house and unwrapped it (even more nicely presented inside the outer brown wrapper, with a “just because” note) and when I pulled out the ball I jumped up as if I’d been electrocuted. It was the last thing I expected, and I instantly started crying with all the joy — the joy of having a friend who would do such a thing (and just because), the joy of her thoughtfulness and knowing, the pleasure of the long-wanted yarn, and the delight of finding just the right project for it. I decided on a project that others have made with the yarn, a scarf called Baktus, because it looks amazing and it’s a simple knit—I want to make it on my upcoming trip. In the way these things work, forever more I’ll feel all the love and joy when I wear it, remembering Becci, remembering making it in Indonesia. That’s one thing I love about knitting, it holds the space for all of that.
  • I can’t properly talk about how humiliated I feel over having that hangover on Tuesday. I feel such shame about it. I’m 58, I have so many ways to manage upset, and I drank enough to have a hangover? It’s hard to talk about it but I feel like I must — maybe this is some kind of self-flagellation, maybe I shouldn’t, but shame and humiliation is exactly what I feel. I mentioned that feeling to Nancy, and she looked puzzled, which puzzled me. Shouldn’t I feel shame? I talk relatively often about AA, which I only know about because of my husband; I know that they believe self-loathing doesn’t get you anywhere, and certainly not to the same place that self-compassion will take you. I’m trying that, trying to have compassion for myself that evening, acceptance of myself and what I did. I don’t think I’ll ever do that again; I sure learned a lot, including the fact that a hangover can be a really terrible mood, which I didn’t know. I’m sorry I did that — I say that out loud, and to myself. It’s funny; I even find this beautiful, even though it’s such a dreadful feeling. But it’s beautiful to stumble along, fall down and get up, bruise yourself, heal yourself, and be helped along by others. I think that’s really beautiful.
  • We just lost Derek Walcott, a poet whose words have meant a lot to me over the years. I first encountered him in 2001, when I knew a poet who loved him. I’m sorry this is in a jpg instead of text, but I can’t find it copy-able and I don’t want to type it all out. This poem relates so beautifully to the end of my last bullet point:

  • Tonight I will sit with the women in my book club to talk about this month’s book, which I didn’t like at all I’m sad to say (The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood, review here). But I will love being with the women, who share my political world view and who are SMART, screamingly smart, and compassionate. We meet at Joyce’s house tonight — she picked the book — and she’s making us a vegetable pie and salad, and I’m bringing Topo Chico and dark chocolate, and I look forward to the communion with all my heart. For now, though, I pack for Indonesia. Happy Sunday, everyone.

Well, I deserved that

I think I had a stupid hangover. If that’s what was wrong with me yesterday, I deserved every moment of the misery. If that’s what it was, it was the second hangover of my life, so I’m really not sure because of my inexperience. The first (and only, until now) hangover I had was on January 1, 1980, after a NYE celebration at a wine bar (which was a thing back in the late 70s, chickie babies, along with fern bars). We had flights of wine, small tastes, and I just didn’t realize what was happening. That felt like what I imagined a hangover would feel like: the motes of dust in the air slamming into my head were excruciating, and the voices, oh the loud, loud voices, agony. It was so punishing, I couldn’t understand why anyone would ever put themselves in a position to have to go through that, and ever since, I’ve held myself back from getting anywhere near that experience. I’m a cautious drinker anyway, after growing up with my vicious alcoholic dad, but man, that hangover was bad enough to straighten me right up even without a family history.

Monday evening I had three beers, and then also a lot of really bad food. Too many salted peanuts. A pint of ice cream. A three-pack of coconut Peeps with dark chocolate. A container of guacamole and most of a bag of salty tortilla chips. I was clearly in a hard place, and just cramming as much of everything into my mouth as I could possibly get.

Around 5am I started waking up with a funny, bad headache, and my stomach hurt so bad. What an idiot, eating all that fat! I cursed myself. And thus began the, um, “intestinal distress,” let’s call it. For the next three hours, more or less, really bad business. My head hurt, but it hurt worse when I lay down so I kept moving around, when I wasn’t stuck in the bathroom. I ate something so I could take Excedrin, and drank a lot of water, and cursed myself for having been so stupid.

But the worst part — even worse than the bathroom, because the headache was manageable — was the mood. I really think the mood all day and night was part of the hangover! Has that happened to you? I felt cloaked in a too-heavy and too-tight lead skin. Suppressed as much as depressed, but also all the bad things at once. Mad, bitter, prickly, distressed, irritated, down, flat, anxious, all of it at once. No single bad feeling arose as the most pressing, which was kind of confusing, because I couldn’t say what I was feeling. Everything bad, that’s all I could say.

Poetry group met at my house last night, and that’s usually one of my favorite nights of the month. We have a new member, and he’s an extremely good poet. He wrote a poem about an acid trip he had in the 1960s and I could immediately see that it was a masterful poem, but it prompted a lively conversation about all those acid trips members took in the 1960s/1970s. And OH were they lively when they talked about them! They went on and on (at least it felt that way to me), comparing notes, talking about the wild hallucinations, etc., and I wanted to scream and choke them and run out of the room. That’s not my favorite kind of conversation, anyway, because it always feels to me like it’s making light and fun of something that’s actually horrible. I know what it is to live at the hands of an addict, and I know someone very well who was addicted to heroin and his stories are so very terrible — oh sure, it’s all fun UNTIL IT ISN’T and then you’re stuck, and so are all those in your life. My mood made it so hard for me to sit there and listen, and I was trying hard to manage my facial expression so it didn’t betray my real feelings, but I don’t know how well I did it. I’ve never felt so terrible during poetry group, and my hangover mood was largely responsible. Otherwise, I’d have let the conversation go on a little and then I’d have redirected us back to the poetry.

I had no idea that a hangover could be that mental and emotional state, but I do think that’s what yesterday was all about. All morning, when I was walking around managing the headache and running to the bathroom, I kept saying out loud, “Idiot, you brought this on yourself! Jesus, what were you thinking.” Fully deserved, Lori, even if I also have some compassion for the feelings I was having that brought me to that eating and drinking frenzy the night before. And then the rest of the day, as the physical consequences disappeared, I kept saying out loud, “Oh, I feel so bad. I just feel so so bad. And I brought this on myself.”

The only good thing about that experience is that it seems to have slapped me in the psychological face a little bit, a bit of Moonstruck Cher talking to Nicolas Cage: SNAP OUT OF IT!

The sun is shining. I have a bit of work. I started my day the way I wanted to start it, and for my dinner tonight I’m making this gorgeous spinach salad. Doesn’t that look yummy? Ever since I got back to Austin, I have not been cooking for myself, for some reason, and that’s something I love to do, even if it doesn’t reliably work at the moment. In NYC I don’t get the kind of food I love to make, so when I’m here I’m always eager to make it and eat ALL the vegetables. That salad is part of a wonderful “snap out of it!” reboot. I only have a few more days here before I return to NYC and then we go to Indonesia, so I’d better get busy if I want to eat all the vegetables. 🙂 I’m so glad I learned, on my yoga mat, that all of life is like tree pose — wiggling, wobbling, falling out of it on occasion and getting back into it, and seeking the stable point.

And no more beer. Not for a very long time.

to be honest

To be honest, I have drunk too much beer.

To be honest, for too many days now I have drunk too much beer.

To be honest, I am lost, floundering, devastated, frightened.

To be honest, my life is a mess (but it is not just a mess). To be honest, the world is a mess (it feels like it is just a mess).

Where will I live? How will I live? I make too little money and I can’t keep going in the life I have. I am lucky — I have people, I have options, I have choices, but I have no power because I have no money. Tom and Marnie invite me to Chicago. Katie would like it if I could stay in Austin. Back to NYC is perhaps an option. I am become Blanche duBois.

I’m reading a book called Utopia for Realists and can recommend it, so far. While our country is veered so far off the rails, and we are left to think about how to manage the reboot, books like this are helpful food for thought. What we had wasn’t working, clearly, or else an insane person wouldn’t have captured as many votes as he did. While I do not live in abject poverty, I’m on the margins of things in a way that leaves me scared a lot of the time.

Between the frightening government, and my own very precarious situation and impending change in living arrangements — but with no idea what that might be — I am having a hard time keeping my head in the moment. Such a hard time. (A small mercy: I am not depressed, nor am I having even fleeting thoughts of the permanent check-out. It hasn’t crossed my mind, but it did just cross my mind to offer the reassurance.)

Maybe one solution is to take a little sabbatical from the outer world and just be quiet with myself. Just take care of myself, a bit of home spa, a bit of home yoga retreat, a bit of home poetry and literature, a bit of home food (careful food, good food, nourishing food), a bit of hydration and rejuvenation. Not worry, for just a few days, about all the starving people in the world, all those fleeing war, all the meanness of governments. Just for a few days.

If you happen to notice that I’m not present on FB or IG, and I am quiet for a week(-ish) here, that’s why. See you on the other side of my sabbatical. xoxoxox

 

seeking the mechanism

Since November 9, 2016, all my creative efforts have failed. All my cooking has flopped. My baking, just awful — even things I’ve been making for decades and can make in my sleep. Knitting? Fail, fail, fail, frog frog frog. My writing has been clenched and just kind of awful, though I have had a couple of things that worked, inspired by deep veins of emotion about my family, in one way or another.

Why is this? Why has the election of this monster (and the assumption of complete power by the evilest group of politicians that have ever skulked in the halls of power in our country’s history) had this particular effect on me? I wonder about it all the time, because cooking and baking and knitting and writing are such common activities for me, things I do for comfort, for pleasure, for myself and others, and for a creative outlet. But even uncreative things are failing too, like housecleaning. I bang into things, drop things, break things, knock them over. Putting the dust mop away, I realize there’s a wide swath of dust on the tile in the small hallway, how could I even have missed that, anyway? Like, how would it even be possible, given the width of the Swiffer and the narrowness of the hallway?

I’m less interested in suggestions to fix the problem (except for complete overthrow of our government and restoration to sanity), because I feel like I know the things to try, and have been trying them: I slow down, take a deep breath, create a setting that’s conducive to my enjoyment of the task, be present, note each step, take my time, etc., and still it’s all failing. So, OK. I don’t assume this is some kind of brain damage that’s happened inside me, I assume it will pass somehow. But I am interested in the mechanism, in finding some kind of explanation for it.

I’m sure it will notch right into a larger question that’s also confusing me: why am I this devastated? My own very specific life is not affected, if by “my own life” I draw the circle tightly around my personal physical boundary and don’t include “my care for vulnerable people.” Setting aside my real and surely justifiable fears that the Monster-in-Chief will get the world killed in a nuclear holocaust, this too shall pass, and we’ll get him and all his cronies out of office and if we have learned nothing else, we’ve learned that rules and norms don’t matter one bit and that one person can just sit in the chair and on day 1 sign a bunch of papers to completely change everything. So, OK. We’ll set it right, and in the interim it’s just going to be hard going. Why am I this completely devastated, four months and three days later? And of course it’s not just me, we’re all still shellshocked, pulled inward, trying to figure out how to take the next step. We’re mobilizing, fighting, having small victories and planning big ones. That feels good, it allows for the idea of the possibility of perhaps a spark of hope. (Note the distance to hope.)

But why? There are parts I get; I learned that there are enough people in this country to have fallen for his monstrousness and cast their votes for him, and that shocked me. They walk among us too. I knew they were here, I guess I just didn’t realize how many there were. So is it simply that? I don’t live in the country I thought I did? They aren’t just the fringe lunatics? That’s destabilizing I guess. But it doesn’t feel like the answer.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers have been running sweeps all around the country, snapping up hardworking people, splitting up families — kids come home from school and their parents are just gone. That’s devastating to know about, it goes against everything human and humane and that I care about. Just typing those two sentences made my breath get stuck, brought hot tears into my eyes, and gave me a kind of panic. But that response feels like a symptom not the cause, and it’s the cause of the enormity of my despair that I’m struggling to understand.

Then I look around the world and see this virus of hate spreading from one formerly tolerant country to another. There was a terrible-wonderful passage in a book I recently read, Ill Will by Dan Chaon. One character in the book, Russell, is an agent of destruction, and the scenes that describe the abuse he had suffered as a child were almost impossible for me to read, even though they were presented in a peripheral vision kind of way, hinting and just letting the taint seep into you through your eyes. When he’s in prison later in life, a counselor says to him: “When you’ve been abused in the way you were, you have a virus. And the virus will demand that you pass it on to someone else. You don’t even have that much of a choice.” Russell thinks, The idea that I passed on a virus, and the virus would turn around and it was my own doom? That was so fucking funny. That was so sad and so funny. [Do read Ill Will, it’s powerful. Here is my GoodReads review.] But YES, a virus. It feels exactly like the world is being infected with a murderous, deadly virus, and I hope it’s not fatal. Maybe that’s why I feel sick.

You don’t have the answer either, I don’t think anyone does. Mark Halperin (senior political analyst for MSNBC and Bloomberg Television and contributor and former co-managing editor of Bloomberg Politics) said the election has “convulsed the country” more than any event since World War II, including the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. I agree with him. I guess we’ll all grapple with this until we get it figured out, and that is likely to take a long time because every single day the administration hurls more horrors at us. Every. Single. Day. It’s so disorienting.

I want my pleasures back. I want to knit beautiful things again and not have to just rip everything out.

I want to bake sumptuous cinnamon rolls for people. I want to make really delicious vegetarian food for my dinners again. I want to make.

Even though I’m not asking for answers, I am wondering: is this happening to you too? Is it still happening to you?

layers of time

up from his morning nap one day — classic Ilan move, pointing

What a wonderful time I had in Chicago — too short, as always, but filled with all kinds of wonder and happiness. Every morning I got up with Ilan so Marnie and Tom could get a little more sleep; he usually wakes up at 5:15am and is up for two hours and then goes down for a nap, so it was my pure pleasure to take that 2-hour segment of time with him.

I went to Chicago to celebrate Marnie’s 32nd birthday (Friday, March 3) and Ilan’s first birthday (Wednesday, March 8), but I arrived mid-afternoon on March 3, and left mid-morning on March 8 so the celebrations were a bit more formless and leaked into the surrounding days. On Saturday March 4, Tom and Marnie spent the day out on a birthday ramble (their birthday specialty), so I had the whole day with Ilan, all to myself. I was playing music for us, my ‘iphone playlist’ which is just a random assortment of music I love, while Ilan ate his morning snack of goldfish crackers laid out around the perimeter of the coffee table, and this song came on. Richard Harris singing MacArthur Park, remember? From 1968?

As it does for most people, I guess, music jerks me around in time. And suddenly I just saw and felt all the layers of time going on in that moment with Ilan, generations of time, generations of moments and experience. I was simultaneously 9 years old, listening to this song and for some reason feeling how much I loved my dad, living in a terrible house of violence and the impending divorce of my parents; 19 years old, listening to Donna Summer’s great disco version of the song, living secretly in the office where I worked in Austin; in my late 20s, giving my own little kids a snack of goldfish crackers and watching them be my beamish little ones; and 58 years old, watching my littlest grandson do the same thing and being my daughter’s (and my) beamish little one. All those layers, all those moments, all those very similar experiences, all felt by me in that one light-filled moment. It made me cry, and it made me so grateful to be my very age, able to hold all that life and world together.

One of the hundreds of most-wonderful things about Ilan is how much he loves the Feist song, 1234. (I think Oliver loved it so much too — what is it about this song?)

He just couldn’t believe it.

Marnie got Ilan a small handheld bluetooth speaker of his own, and when she plays this song he just holds the speaker and stares at it with an extraordinary expression. He’ll glance up at her, and at me, and at whoever is in the room, with an expression I can’t exactly name but I know it completely.

Of course he’s one, and being one you put everything in your mouth at some point, but there were times he was holding the speaker and listening to a song, and he put it in his mouth and I thought he was really wanting the music to be inside him as much as anything else. I thought about this great story that Maurice Sendak told:

Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”

I remain filled with all the wonder of my time in Chicago, the hours I got to spend with Ilan, the hours spent with Marnie, talking, and the evenings with Marnie and Tom over dinner. And I’m always grateful for those brief moments of seeing how time and life work together, and it’s all right there inside you all the time, waiting for something to break through so you can see it.

bouncing kisses

Somehow I’ve set my phone to back up every picture I take to my laptop. I only realized this when my hard drive was so full the computer quit working, and I started poking around to solve the mystery. And there they were, thousands of pictures and videos, saved to a folder buried in the file structure. In addition to all the images, I found a somewhat random collection of other files — pdfs and text files and Word documents, all saved and long forgotten. Most of the file names were descriptive enough, but one was just titled “ms.doc” so I opened it, thinking it was a client’s project I’d accidentally saved in the wrong place. And what I read felt as detached from me as if I hadn’t ever seen it before, but the stories were clearly mine. I have no recollection of writing them, page after page after page, but they are definitely mine. Weird. Maybe that’s the hazard of being a compulsive writer-of-stories, and a person who is now very good at forgetting things.

Anyway, this one was written in a way that brought me right back to that experience, to those lonely and exhausted years, those summer nights, those sorrowful feelings, so I thought I’d give it some air and let it breathe a little. Here you go, a story from the very early 1990s:

“Let’s go bounce our kisses off the moon.” This is what I told them every night, after their baths, that long summer in Virginia. The nights were so hot and steamy my glasses fogged up when we stepped out the front door, and my shirt clung to my skin within seconds. They were little, then, and always clean-scrubbed and shiny in their fresh pajamas and nightgowns. There was something fantastical to them about going outside in their nightclothes; they always looked at each other with sneaky little grins, as if they were getting away with something. It had been his idea, before he left, this whole bouncing kisses off the moon thing, as if they could throw theirs and he’d catch them, in the other hemisphere.

“Mommy, does Daddy feel our kisses the way you do? How does he get them?” they’d ask, in a hundred different ways. Katie was the oldest and knew this was just a game, but she went along for the sake of her little sister and brother, the same way she gave me a sideways smile when they’d talk about how clever the Easter bunny was to think of hiding their baskets underneath their beds – the last place they’d have looked. She knew what we were up to with this story, but the way she threw her kisses, the way she looked so hard at the moon as they flew away, I knew she was hoping that somehow they’d get there, somehow he’d feel her yearning for him and know that this one, this special kiss, was just hers, for him. Marnie and Will always gave a little jump when they kissed their hands and threw their kisses into the air. Marnie was just the right age, really, believing in the magic. She’d turn to me with light all over her face, letting the kiss go on its way as she gave one to me, too. Will was usually unsatisfied with just one toss and jump, so he’d push the kiss on its way with both hands a few times, each push getting its own jump. “Daddy is gone,” he’d say, and then he would run into the house, upstairs to his bedroom to play. “Yes, Daddy is gone,” I’d say softly to myself. “Daddy is gone.”

Saturday mornings the kids gathered downstairs, watching cartoons before breakfast. At the top of the stairs, I’d ask, “What shall it be this Saturday morning,” doing my best imitation of the silly-pompous way he used to ask that question, “waffles, or pannnnncaaaakes,” dragging out the last word as he did. “Pancakes! Pancakes!” they’d say, jumping up from the floor. The girls jumped once and ran to me, but Will just kept jumping around in circles, singing, “pannnnncakes, pannnnnnncakes, pannnnncakes!” and waving his hands like little wings. Of course pancakes didn’t mean pancakes, it meant their dad’s pancakes, shaped like Mickey Mouse, or like a silly unicorn, or sprinkled with candy if we had it, or cupcake decorations. Nothing as boring as a plain round pancake with butter and syrup, there’s nothing fun about that, Daddy always said.

“Daddy makes better pancakes than you do,” Will said again this Saturday. “Yours are too round and the legs are too short.” Katie glanced at my face and scooted her chair a little closer to mine, and asked if she could have another pancake, please. “I wonder what Daddy’s doing this morning,” Marnie said. “I wonder if he got our kisses last night? I want to draw monsters with him, I want him to come home now.” Her eyebrows pulled together and a little pout started forming around her mouth. Touching my hand, Katie turned to Marnie and said, “It’s OK, Marn, I can draw with you this morning!” I looked away, out the glass door into our large backyard, littered with leaves and fallen branches from the recent storm. I sat still, unable to move my gaze, as the girls ran upstairs to get the jar of markers and the big blank book Marnie and her dad filled with funny monsters, and palm trees, and dogs that waved their paws. I heard them turning the pages, turning clumps of pages, trying to find an empty space that hadn’t already been filled on Saturday mornings, before he left.

“Mommy? Are you crying, mommy?” Will asked. I coughed a little into my fist and turned my shining eyes to him. “It’s OK, Daddy will come back!” he said. Will put his arms up, the signal he wanted to be lifted out of his booster seat, so I got up and lifted him out of the chair and watched him run upstairs, to draw with his big sisters.

Daddy said he would come back. He said.

* * *

In the funny way the world works, sometimes, this story continued to echo into the world. Marnie incorporated some of it into a personal experience she had, and put it in a truly beautiful book she wrote and illustrated called Particle/Wavewhich you can buy for only $8.

It reminds me of the way our experiences have such long echoes and ripples, how a moment can transform and connect past and future. And it makes me cry.

the hazard of self-knowledge

One of the unexpected consequences of the Milgram studies on obedience, and a consequence that led eventually to the creation of Human Subjects Commissions, was that people learned unpleasant truths about themselves. They learned that they would administer what they believed were likely fatal levels of shock to a complete stranger just because someone told them to do it. And of course, they only way that study could’ve produced real evidence was to put people in the actual setting, right? Because if you ask someone, “Would you administer a fatal level of shock to a complete stranger if someone asked you to do it?” people would immediately say no way, and that would be wrong for a frighteningly large number of people (but not all! Some people refused, and we have to remember that part, too.).

After the experiment, participants had to face this truth about themselves. Of course they hadn’t actually been administering shock, but they believed they had. The experiment was so clever, and so well-done, that they listened to the ‘shocked person’ scream and beg and then go silent, and still they administered stronger levels of shock. Sure, they may have sweated and felt miserable and asked not to do it, but then they went on. And so they had to know that about themselves.

I was thinking about this when I watched the documentary Tower, about the mass shooting at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966. It’s very good, and as of this moment it’s streaming on your local PBS channel/website. I remember that day very well; we lived in Austin, I was still 7 years old, and summer was nearing its end. My dad was working at the state capitol building that day. My mother was probably watching Password, her favorite game show, but I remember the news breaking in to tell us to stay away from the campus, and I remember seeing it all unfold on television back before anything like that had ever happened in this country. I remember feeling pure panic that the bad man might shoot my dad; back then, the UT Tower and the capitol were the tallest buildings in town, and visible from each other. Austin was such a small town then.

Not everyone was a coward, though — there were many extraordinary selfless people

One moving scene in the documentary is when a woman confesses that she learned that day that she’s a coward. She was afraid to go help the wounded because she didn’t want to get shot. She had to face that, she said, and that’s the day she learned that lesson about herself.

One of the real heroes of the day, aside from the men who were responsible for killing Whitman, was a young woman named Rita Starpattern. The first student shot was a very young 8-months-pregnant woman named Claire. As Claire lay on the burning hot concrete for an hour, with bullets whizzing past her and her baby shot to death inside her, and her boyfriend lying shot dead next to her, Rita ran towards her and lay crouched at her feet, talking to her and keeping her conscious. Finally three brave young men raced out onto the mall and grabbed Claire by the hands and feet, and picked up her dead boyfriend, and carried them out of harm’s way. Rita risked her life in the truest way just to be there with Claire, so she didn’t have to be there all alone, and those boys risked their lives too, because they couldn’t bear having that young woman lying there one minute longer.

And so of course you ask yourself the question, knowing that the real answer might be very different than what you imagine. Would I run out, in danger, to help a stranger? I know two things about myself that lead to contradictory answers:

  • I’m extremely impulsive and emotional, and my absolute impulse would be to run out there and not care about the danger I might be in — it would feel like a moral imperative, and my impulsivity would trump my thought.
  • But I have PTSD and am profoundly scared by a number of things, so if any of those elements were in play (and gunfire is one) I might well dissociate and disappear inside myself.

One thing I’m very curious about, though, is the effect of that unhappy self-knowledge. It’s not like you learn something about yourself and that’s that! COWARD! Now and forevermore, coward. OR now and forevermore, I will shock someone to death if I’m told to do so. Can’t you learn something about yourself and use that information to change, if you don’t like what you learn? Of course I don’t know what happened with each participant in the Milgram studies, but the woman in the Tower documentary was still saying that about herself fifty years after that terrible day. It’s the same thing as learning from a mistake, isn’t it? Of all the mistakes I’ve made in my life, there is one that I deeply regret and boy did I learn something about myself, and boy did I make vows to myself, which I’ve honored for 25 years.

Live and learn, and do better.

the Proust questionnaire

If you want to answer any of these questions, I’d love to hear your answer!

this isn’t the little boat, but I’m writing notes on the larger boat as we float down the Mekong. I love this memory so much. And how funny — sitting in a white wicker chair on a traditional Vietnamese boat.

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
It’s so strange to say this because it doesn’t fit my sense of myself at all, but perfect happiness for me is being in a small boat on some river, preferably in southeast Asia, but anywhere. I don’t fish, I don’t row or anything, and I’m not at all an outdoors person, but I love little more than being in a small boat. One of my most glorious memories happened at night in the Mekong Delta; we’d gotten out of our larger boat, into a row boat, to go into a small tributary to “see how ordinary people live in the delta.” Standing behind me in the boat was a beautiful Vietnamese boy wearing Diesel jeans and singing a French song as he used a pole to navigate our small boat through the tight waterways. There were homes scattered along the riverbanks, and the smell of small charcoal fires, food cooking, and the firelight, and the sounds of people talking and laughing in the dark, and the stars were overhead and the air was fresh, and I still hear that song, the word fantastique, his beautiful voice. I recall that memory so often.

What is your greatest fear?
Something terrible happening to one of my kids or grandkids. No mother is easy with that, but I have a particular fear of their self-harm that I believe I would not be able to survive.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
I shut myself off at the first wounding, and don’t/won’t/can’t give you another chance. I really hate that, so much. I fight myself over it.

What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Meanness, and gaslighting. So you can imagine how this administration is killing me.

My dear, loving, beautiful Dixie — sister in my deepest heart.

Which living person do you most admire?
Easy. Dixie. If I could be half as loving as she is, I’d feel like I had it made. If Dixie loves you, you are LOVED unconditionally. But if you hurt someone Dixie loves, well, let’s just say you should not hurt someone Dixie loves. Dixie loves me, and that makes me very blessed. Her voice became the voice in my head and that changed so much for me.

What is your greatest extravagance?
OYSTERS! Even at happy hour, they’re $1/each, and I could easily eat 100 of them I think, though I’ve never been able to afford to test that limit. Also, the frequent world travel that Marc takes me on — he manages the whole thing, plans the trips, pays all the expenses, and I am so grateful for it all.

What is your current state of mind?
At the moment I’m kind of scattered because of politics and because I’m SUPER stressed out about not making enough money. Super super stressed out. Constantly wondering how and where I will live.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
Honesty, because everyone lies. I value honesty, but I am always kind of amused at the way people get so self-righteous when they’re lied to, since without a doubt they lie, too. I lie. You lie. Everyone lies. Honesty means something different to me than being truthful in every sentence.

On what occasion do you lie?
The nice thing to say is that I lie to save your feelings. But the truth is that I lie to get out of social engagements, because I’m such an awkward introvert and even though engagements seem like a wonderful idea when I first say yes, as the time approaches my awkward terror swamps me and I lie to get out of them. I don’t like that about myself, but it’s the truth. The truth of when I lie. 🙂

What do you most dislike about your appearance?
My teeth. I’d give anything to be able to afford to fix my teeth. This even trumps my clumpy thighs, my saggy tummy, and my droopy neck. If I could fix my teeth I would be so happy.

Which living person do you most despise?
Our so-called president and all the Republicans in the government. Mitch McConnell has a special place in hell as far as I’m concerned, but they all belong there. I really, really, really hate them.

What is the quality you most like in a man?
Beautiful (and kind) hands. Is that a quality? I really love beautiful, gentle hands and a man’s hands are the very first thing I look at, to decide whether to look at anything else about him.

What is the quality you most like in a woman?
Being real. I hate gloss and superficiality so much, and I just expect more of women. I want to know the truth of women’s lives.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Really? Wonderful! Wow. Amazing! Whoa.

What or who is the greatest love of your life?
My kids and my grandkids.

When and where were you happiest?
My kids are the loves of my life, but raising them was not my happiest period. I guess I was happiest….at random moments! Walking in the sun (or big snow) in Riverside Park. Finding myself in a place on the earth I never thought I’d be able to see — Hanoi, for example. Being hooded in my PhD ceremony, and hearing my kids shout for me from the audience. Picking up a Do-Rite donut in Chicago. Seeing one of my kids after an absence, that moment when I first see her face.

Which talent would you most like to have?
Oh without a doubt I’d love to be able to draw in a free and evocative way.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
More self-confidence! An imagination for myself! I often think about what someone else could do with the raw stuff of my life, and all that stops me is self-confidence and imagination. Super frustrating. It seems like I could gain self-confidence, but the imagination for myself seems impossible to get, no matter how much I try. It’s such a black hole. And I’m grateful to Nancy for articulating that for me.

What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My kids. They are good people in this world, and whatever role I played in that is definitely my greatest achievement.

If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
A rich person. Because, as Dorothy Parker said, I would be darling at it. I would not be like the Republicans — everyone I know would have all their needs met and many of their wants, and I would be gracious and generous, and travel, and read, and make things. And give, give, give.

Where would you most like to live?
In rank order: Hanoi, Luang Prabang, Paris, Vancouver. (Of course I assume I would have the money and language needed to live in these places.)

What is your most treasured possession?
Big Daddy’s hard hat, and the various letters my kids wrote me when they were young.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
In my personal life, it’s the ongoing absence of my son. I often think I can’t actually survive it.

What is your favorite occupation?
“My” favorite occupation? I’ve been so many things over my life, I guess the one I like best was acquisitions editor. I really loved talking to people about books I wanted them to write, or hearing them tell me about books they wanted to write. I didn’t at all like the pressures of the job, but the essence of it was always so great. I mean, really: I was paid to talk to people about books. That part was wonderful.

What is your most marked characteristic?
I’m not sure if this is a “characteristic,” but I think my giant gummy smile is probably the thing I’m most known for. And my love of donuts and Peeps.

What do you most value in your friends?
Their willingness to share the reality of their lives with me. To share mine. To be real with me, and not to default to small talk and cliche. To tell me what they really think about things. I just can’t stand small talk. We sure don’t have to be doom and gloom, but if all I get is the gloss, the “sunny side only!”, we won’t get past that barricade into real friends.

Who are your favorite writers?
How much time have you got??? Vonnegut. Rushdie. Knausgaard. Berlin. Ferrante. Yuknavitch. Yanigahara. Hosseini. Gornick. Carson. Munro. Moore. Offill. Flynn. Melville. Homer. Grass. Murakami. Dostoevski. Dante. So many poets.

Who is your hero of fiction?
Jean Valjean, I suppose. I identify with all kinds of characters, narrators, memoirists, but Jean Valjean was my very first hero and I think about him so often.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?
No idea. All I can think of is Quasimodo — detested for his being, his nature, his birth. He wasn’t historical, but he was my earliest Other.

Who are your heroes in real life?
John Lewis and Fred Rogers. And aspects of Hillary Clinton — the way she just keeps going, the way she was able to keep standing on that stage with the monster, the way she gave her life to fighting for others, even if that wasn’t the whole story. For John Lewis and Hillary Clinton, it’s their persistence that makes them my heroes. With Mister Rogers, it’s his essential kindness and loving heart that makes him my oldest hero. I will always love him, and credit him with helping me learn how to become a human being.

What are your favorite names?
Pete is far and away my favorite name, followed by Mama, which Marnie calls me. And I feel tender toward “Dawn Ann,” which my dad called me for some reason. He gave me my middle name, Dawn, and my mother gave me Lori — and why he called me Dawn Ann I don’t know. But I feel soft when I think about him calling me that. Still, Pete is my absolute favorite, followed by Mama.

What is it that you most dislike?
Cruelty and abuse of power, especially over the powerless (and most especially over children). I just cannot bear that. Even a little bit.

What is your greatest regret?
One specific mistake I made with my first husband. I’ve done a lot of things I wish I hadn’t done, mistakes made, choices made, miscalculations, all those things as we all have, but that mistake is one I will regret until the day I die, even as I understand the context for it.

How would you like to die?
In my sleep, as a dusty, old, otherwise-healthy woman! Wouldn’t you?

What is your motto?
Fall down seven times, get up eight.

self-ease

Summer 1980, age 21 — I was certain, then, that no one could be more monstrous than I was. I look at myself then, so fresh and young and pretty, and can’t imagine how I saw what I saw. I still can remember what I saw, and it makes me shudder.

The really terrible thing about being seen and described as a monster by your mother is the way that gets internalized, right from the start, before you even have words of your own. It’s like a slug of radiation, slow-leak-poisoning you for decades. She did her thing, and I finished the job for her long after I left her and never saw her again. I believed I was the monster she saw. I believed I was a fat cow, as she called me. Her words transformed into the very lenses in my eyes. The clinical term for it is body dysmorphia, but that seems so bloodless. It’s confusing to other people who look at you and see a perfectly ordinary human being. Maybe they see beauty, maybe they see plainness, but they just can’t see what you see yourself. They have normal lenses. 

The changes that come with aging are twofold. First, if you’re lucky I suppose, you simply become more comfortable in your own skin, which at that point is softer and sagging. And second, also if you’re lucky, you dig out those old lenses, delete and replace those old stories, and find a new voice in your head that wishes you well.

Here I am with Nancy, my boon companion. Isn’t she lovely?

Selfies are fascinating to me. Young people seem to take them to practice different ways of self-presentation, to be flirty, to show their youth. Selfies can show you in a special place — here I am, on Machu Picchu! At the Parthenon! In a little boat in the middle of the Mekong River Delta! Here I am with my daughter, my granddaughter, one of my grandsons, my friend.

And sometimes I think people take them for the same reason I do, which is to try to see themselves clearly. To snap a picture and then gaze at it, ah, that’s me. That is my nose, that is my smile. Taking selfies has helped me learn how to see myself. I look closely at all of them, the awkward ones, the ugly ones, the mid-grimace ones, the lovely ones, looking for myself. It’s a digital effort to build my own database of myself. I have a folder on my laptop full of them, and I keep trying to remember to delete them all in case I die unexpectedly and my kids find them and think I was surely narcissistically self-centered. For some reason it’s easier to see a photograph than to see in the mirror, where I move and live and my face morphs. I too easily get distracted by my thoughts in a way that I don’t, with a picture.

When I started sharing them a couple of years ago, people’s comments and responses were extremely difficult to take. They made me uncomfortable, and I wondered if people thought I was fishing for compliments. If they had been inside my head they would have known the truth of my humiliation, and the courage it took to share them. I’d thank them, and for a very long time I thought they were just lying out of kindness. And then, about a year later, I started to think it wasn’t that they were lying, but that their vision of me had everything to do with them and their generous hearts, and little to do with me. So I thanked them for seeing me with such grace and love. 

January 1, 2017, in my 58 years of glory

When I share one now, and someone leaves a generous compliment, my gratitude is very different. I see a bit of what they see. And best of all, I can’t see what my mother saw, no matter how hard I try. I see an aging woman with a kind face (usually), with a nice smile and a generally attractive appearance. I usually like my hair (especially that glorious white streak that frames my face, how I love that!). I’ve come to like my nose well enough. I see echoes of my father and his mother, both of whom I was always told I resembled. Actually, I was told I looked JUST like them, and in fact I have their hands exactly, although my hands have never been violent.

OK. That’s me. I see.

I guess this post is just an alternative way for you to think about seeing people’s selfies — and especially if it’s a somewhat older woman sharing them. Maybe it’s not at all about showing off, or hoping for compliments, or about narcissism. Maybe she is just trying to see. Be kind. Help her.

wrong casting! NO!

If you’ve read a book that was later made into a movie, it can be jarring if they get the casting completely wrong. Like, NO WAY. Dude was slightly built with dark hair and haunted eyes, NOT LEONARDO DICAPRIO!!! (For example.) That experience can completely destroy your enjoyment of a movie.

I have sat in that audience so many times with pure, rapt pleasure

But what I never realized before is that the same thing is true for the voice of a book’s narrator. When I took my walk yesterday, I listened to a podcast of Selected Shorts, performed and recorded at Symphony Space, which is one of my long-time favorite podcasts and real-life experiences. Actors read aloud (and slightly perform, to varying degrees) short stories, each program organized around a theme. I’ve talked about this so many times on my blog, and I’ve also been so lucky to attend the performances at Symphony Space, especially easy since it’s located in my NYC neighborhood. I saw Stephen Colbert perform a story by T. C. Boyle and his professionalism was incredible — and, of course, he was funny. Just so many performances, and almost all good. It’s a mostly magical experience, sitting in the dark auditorium watching and listening to someone read a story aloud. It’s that old experience, the childhood experience, the people-around-a-fire experience, and I just love it.

such a beautiful book – click to see it on Amazon

So, to my point. The podcast featured Cynthia Nixon reading a chapter from Jenny Offill’s extraordinary book Dept. of Speculation, a kind of associational, dreamy novel about new motherhood, among other things. She has such an original eye for the detail that tells it all. The reading was from one of my favorite chapters in the book, no less. (There is a widget in the right sidebar of my blog that rotates through quotes I’ve saved in the books I read, and when a quote comes up from that book, it’s almost always from the chapter that was performed on the podcast.) (And note, I have nothing against Cynthia Nixon.) This is one of my very favorite quotes from the chapter:

“The baby’s eyes were dark, almost black, and when I nursed her in the middle of the night, she’d stare at me with a stunned, shipwrecked look as if my body were the island she’d washed up on.”

When I read the book, the narrator’s voice was quiet, interior, not really whispering but not much louder than that. It was a questioning voice, a complicated voice trying to find her way through this part of her life.

Nixon read it with exuberance! For a laugh! The quote above — read for a laugh! It was so completely wrong I couldn’t delete the podcast quickly enough. I pulled out my earbuds when she finished reading that line so I didn’t have to hear any more of it, and that was the end of it. Perhaps she hadn’t read the whole book and was just presented with the chapter, or perhaps that reading of the voice is entirely my own, born of my own dark, interior experience of new motherhood, but YIKES, man. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong. Until that moment, I hadn’t really realized that this was such a big deal. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me — voice casting is a thing.

Just in case you want to hear it (only if you haven’t read the book yet!), here is the episode. Golly I love Selected Shorts, even if this one rubbed up against my own imagination of the voice. Happy Sunday, y’all — book club meeting for me tonight with super smart, progressively-politicked, generous women to discuss Between the World and Me. It’s a bookish day in my little world.

P.S. if you’re ever in NYC and want a beautiful experience, head over the Symphony Space. For real. Here’s the calendar of events. It’s located at 96th and Broadway, on the west side of the street, and at a major express stop on the 1/2/3 line — Upper West Side all the way.

the quotidian grist

the icon for the app

I’m participating in a scientific experiment about happiness — you can, too, by downloading the app for your phone (click that link). A set number of times throughout the day you get a little ping and respond to a number of questions — where are you, what are you doing, are you alone, are you productive, have you exercised in the last 24 hours, have you spent money, etc — quick and simple. Sometimes it’s frustrating, because I want to provide context (I’m very unhappy because of politics!), but at the same time given my own research in graduate school, I know that context isn’t as important to a great many questions as we think it is. Track Your Happiness was created as part of Matt Killingsworth’s doctoral research at Harvard University, and the project was approved by the Harvard University Committee for the Use of Human Subjects.

Of course, and especially when I’m in Austin, my days are extremely small, quiet, and routine. I’m mostly at home, with brief forays to see my daughter and grandkids, or to an occasional lunch or happy hour with a friend, or to a book club meeting. A daily walk. A daily yoga class. Meal preparation. Make the bed, pull back the bed. Clean the kitchen. Get the mail. Work, if I have work. It’s a very tiny little life in Austin, quiet and inward, and for the most part I love it. But it’s also true that participating in this study has made me even more keenly aware of this because it asks me specifically to move this slide before I say anything else:

I’m glad it’s not a 5- or 7-point scale, but when I’m walking through the house, or knitting, or drinking a cup of coffee, or making a shopping list, HOW DO I FEEL at that moment? Ordinarily, before this nightmarish election, my base state was happy; since the election my base state has not been happy at all, it has ranged from full-on despair to fear to panic, and the app doesn’t let me indicate that at all. Still, when I make that rating I try to think about what I’m doing in that moment and how it makes me feel. It has had the effect of focusing me in the present a little more, which has been good. Because while my background state might be panic, when I’m holding Lucy (and getting puked on, because those are synonymous), I’m very happy. When I watching Oliver be Oliver, I’m very happy. When I’m taking my walk, or doing yoga, I’m content and I feel good.

That’s it, that’s really what makes happiness. Making a really good cup of coffee. Knitting a pair of fuchsia socks out of the softest wool, and seeing the fabric appear before your eyes. Reading a really good book. Talking to someone you love. Being called on when someone is in need, and being able to be there — oh, that’s just the best joy, note to self to remember that when I am in need. Spending a day that comprised dozens of those unremarkable moments. The remarkable times speak for themselves, carry their own emphasis, and don’t need any help being noticed. When I’m in New York City and going to MoMA, or marching in a protest, or walking in Riverside Park, or any of the zillions of remarkable things there are to do, I note them and appreciate them and they’re the tell-worthy experiences of my life: “Guess what I did today! It was such fun!”

Even in this awful time, when we are witnessing the destruction of our country by a political party that is willing to burn everything down, knitting with soft fuschia wool is beautiful. Getting puked on by your roly-poly, happy, red-headed granddaughter is beautiful. Running errands on a sunny day and getting shit done, beautiful. Waking up in your own wonderful bed, running your feet over the soft, cool sheets, listening to the mockingbird in the backyard tree, stretching and getting up to make a pot of strong, rich coffee, that’s a whole lot of happiness right there.

Happy Saturday y’all. If you’re interested, download the app! “Track Your Happiness” for iPhone and Android, both. xoxoxo

 

excavations

What a remarkable and original mind

This morning I listened to Terry Gross’s Fresh Air interview with Raoul Peck, director of the truly marvelous documentary I Am Not Your Negro I wrote about this a couple of posts ago, and continue to recommend that every person go see it. Raoul Peck is a very interesting man with his own fascinating history, and his interview gave me additional insights into James Baldwin, and also gave me another chance to hear Baldwin speak, since the interview included a bit of Gross’s interview with Baldwin in 1987. It’s astonishing to listen to someone with an original mind, it’s like breathing the freshest air (no pun intended there, really) after being in a stale, enclosed room of ordinary objects. Here’s the interview to make it easy for you to listen:

Baldwin had to leave America to learn who he was outside of the labels that were attached to him from birth, and the way he talked about that in the older interview, that he had to learn who he was, not what he was, gave me a new perspective. He was a genius at that; when he lived in Paris, and saw the photograph of Dorothy Counts walking to school, integrating the school in North Carolina, his thought was shame and anger — we should have been there with her, he thought. She should not have had to do that alone. That’s not what I think when I look at it, and in part that’s because I’m white and feel the shame of those reactions and unimaginable awe at her ability to be so composed.

She held her head so high, Dorothy Counts.

Raoul Peck said that no one thought Baldwin’s thought when they saw the picture, and that was his gift, his ability to see what others don’t see even though it’s right there, obvious when he says what had not been obvious before. He had such clarity and sight and then an extraordinary gift to convey it with eloquence and unflinching, direct power.

Peck was born in Haiti, and lived in the Congo, and then all over the world. His experiences as a kid with dictators and the cruelty of power gave him an insatiable need to fight against abuse of authority. He said he simply cannot accept it. That struck me, because whether one can or cannot accept it, authority will continue to be abused and so this sets you up to be tilting at windmills, fighting an endless battle. And it struck me because I have my own version of it, as I’ve learned lately.

My friend Nancy often says to me, “I’m glad I’m not burdened with empathy the way you are.” Not just because she happily voted for Trump, but she keeps telling me to just let things be, not to be so absorbed by the protesting and the despair I feel, I have my own work I need to be doing and I should just do that and let the world be. I keep trying to explain to her that I cannot do that. I would like to! I would. I’d like to let it be, whether because I trust that others will protest and march and fight, or whether because I just allow that the world will ebb and flow and things will go as they will and it’s beyond my personal ability to change it anyway. But I can’t. Probably because of my own experiences in childhood, I just cannot accept abuse of authority. I cannot accept basic human rights being stripped away from human beings. I just cannot. It’s not a choice, it’s not even a value, it’s much more fundamental than that. It’s not even about my empathy, which I do have in deep stores. This is who I have always been, and because the fight was never so stark, my experience of it was never so strong.

Recently a varied number of people have told me that they think I am very brave, or fierce, and it always surprises me because I think those things include some aspect of choice and I’m not at all choosing my response. It isn’t even a response, really. But I am learning more about who I am, underneath the labels and descriptions. Even underneath my own labels and descriptions, I guess. It can take a long time to see a pattern; for the longest time, it’s just a number of data points. On a nice piece of empty graph paper with that neat and axis, when you are learning geometry, it’s easy to see that two points determine a line. But in the messy noise of living a life, with labels and confusion and conflict (even/especially inside yourself), that line can take a long time to see. As awful as it is, what is happening to my country, it has snapped my understanding into sharp relief: THIS IS WHO I AM. This is always who I have been, always. From rescuing pillbugs, to being bewildered that my best friend couldn’t come to my birthday party just because she was black, to my undisciplined thrashing in response to unfairness of all kinds, it’s always been this. It’s a line, from my feet through my core to my mind, and it just is.

In the most perfect world, each person in this world would be focused the most on being exactly who they are — to seeing the world as they see it, to flowering themselves out into the world. To singing their songs, saying their poems, engineering their creations, fighting the injustices they see that others don’t — and we would all do our best to encourage each other in that. I certainly didn’t have that, and I think when I was raising my kids, I was more focused on keeping them alive and on the path toward education and making “good” choices for themselves instead of listening to them and helping them flower. I can do that with my grandchildren of course, and I think my daughters will be better at that than I was. For me, at age 58, I continue to excavate, to shine lights in the corners, and to see who I am so I can flower outwards. And I add James Baldwin to my own pantheon (which includes Mister Rogers, Hillary Clinton, and John Lewis) for models for how to be a person in this world. I have an impulse to say that I’m changing right now, it feels that way, but I think a better way to say it is that layers are falling away that have hidden me from myself — and maybe they didn’t hide me from you, maybe you saw through them.

Be you. Let me see you. I want to see exactly who you are, I really do. I am feeling cheated by the world. I feel cheated by the oppressive white culture that hides so much from me. I feel cheated by the labels and boxes we are defined by whether they fit or not. Please be you, it’s the most important thing you can do, and it’s probably true that you will have to figure out what that means, first. xoxxo

destabilization

It was not the first time he raped me, but it was the first time my mind severely broke. In the middle of it, while I was crying, my stepfather said, “I don’t know why you’re crying, I’m not doing anything to you.” My mind felt like it was bulging so hard it was going to shatter my skull, and at some point I completely dissociated and went away. The conflict between what I knew was happening, and what I was being told was happening, was too great. Before I left, I remember thinking that I had to pick one or the other, what he was saying or what I believed, and so I consciously picked believing him because the constancy of his and my mother’s versions of reality was so overwhelming, and they had all the power because I was a child. Obviously this wasn’t the first gaslighting experience in my childhood home; this technique was constant, daily, and applied to lies big and small. But this time, the conflict was so great, my body was screaming at me in pain, and my mind could not endure it any more.

The gaslighting that’s happening in my country is definitely hitting me hard, and it’s obviously affecting me because of my history. Except to watch Saturday Night Live, I have not turned on the television since the election. During the campaign, I rushed to mute it or turn it off anytime a Republican was on the screen, but since the election the risk is constant that he or his liars will appear — since they are causing chaos every single day — and so I’ve just kept the television off completely. I keep my computer speakers muted because some websites autoplay ads or videos and I once had to hear his voice before I could get to the mute button. If I have to read their lies, my stomach gets wet and wobbly, and I feel a kind of panic that is hard to convey in a way you can really understand. My eyes fill with tears, my breath becomes shallow, I instantly sweat, I feel frantic and start pacing like I have to run to save my life, it’s that intense. It’s hard. I keep thinking I will eventually get used to it, maybe this will be good, by throwing me completely and headlong into a non-stop gaslighting government, I will become inoculated and immune. Maybe that would be good. Hasn’t happened yet.

These flopped. Tough, hard, unpleasant.

But what has happened is that since the election, my cooking has failed every time. My knitting has failed every time. I have been making cinnamon rolls since 1979, and until now, I only had one batch that wasn’t scrumptious, back in ~1988. Even then, they weren’t a failure as much as they just weren’t as soft and puffy as usual. Since the election, I have tried to make them five different times, and they were all complete failures. The Moroccan chickpea soup that I can make blindfolded, with one hand tied behind my back, failure. The shakshuka? Either the eggs are cooked too much, or they’re slimy and the whites are raw. Chocolate chip cookies, the most reliable thing ever, nope. Lemon cakes, nope. Flops.

These at least worked, although I’m not very proud of any of them (but I am proud of my friends).

Except for the pussy hats, curiously enough, all my knitting has failed too. I’ve tried to make hats for grandkids — failures, either giant or tiny. The Kai-Mei socks, that pattern I’ve made easily in the past, gloriously beautiful socks, failures. I have to completely frog the one I made in New York and start again. I’ve been making patterns I’ve made before, simple things, and each one has failed. Scarves, shawls, hats, socks, failures one after another. I try to be mindful, to pay attention, to be present; I put on music that I love and enjoy, I remember to breathe, lower my shoulders, find the pleasure of making, which is my oldest pleasure after reading. And yet it all fails.

My self-care has been hard to maintain, too, but like with my cooking and knitting I do keep trying. I have a sense that all those things are important to helping me keep going. My already failing memory is worse than ever before, and I’m sure that’s related too, connected to the mental overwhelm of trying to battle for the truth of things.

I’ve had a LOT of therapy, and especially I’ve worked on learning how to trust my own perceptions. According to this site (and validated by my own experience, “People who are victims of gaslighting may behave in ways that cause them to appear unstable because they have learned that they cannot trust their perceptions and cannot count on the validation of their thoughts or feelings. They are also less likely to continue to voice their emotions and feelings, knowing that they are likely to be invalidated.” YEP. My sole strategy at this point is to avoid, leave, run away, turn off, disappear however I can, but I wanted to see if there were known strategies for dealing with gaslighting, and I found this kind of horrifying article — horrifying because it’s like they looked at the current slate of Republicans in charge and just took notes. For each strategy used by these people, the article lists some counter-strategies you should employ. I’m in no way strong enough even to stand and listen, so they won’t work for me but I’m glad to share them in case you are stronger than me in this regard.

I just want to be able to cook and knit again. I just want to comfort myself with those things, and show my love through them. It has taken me a while to notice that this is a long pattern, now; at first it was just weird. Huh. Why did my lemon cakes flop? Or That’s weird, I know how to knit a fucking hat. I finally realized that this has been going on since November. I want my cooking and knitting back. Any ideas?

black

Without pointedly intending to do this, I’ve been heavily focused on race in America for the last few months. Like everyone in this country, for the last few years I’ve watched black people being slaughtered and their white murderers walking away with no consequence, and with the tacit approval of the institutions they belong to. I’ve listened to white people insist that “no, all lives matter” when black people assert that black lives matter.

I’ve read three books — Underground Railroad, Underground Airlines, and Between the World and Me — and I saw the extraordinary documentaries I Am Not Your Negro and 13th. Here is the trailer for I Am Not Your Negro:

The movie is quite powerful, in large part because of the forceful brilliance of James Baldwin, who was spontaneously eloquent and thoughtful and indicting and willing and able to name the truth of things no matter what was happening, or where he was. I want to read everything he ever wrote.

I grew up in Texas, among very racist people. I was not allowed to invite my best friend to my 6th birthday party in 1964 because “it’s not done.” Rhonda was black, and she attended my school most likely because her mother worked in the cafeteria. It made no sense at all to me, and no fuller explanation was given. My paternal grandmother, a nurse her whole working life, told me when I was an adult that black people “aren’t like us, when they die, gallons of oil pour out of their bodies.” WHAT??? She saw them as truly not human beings as we are. My stepfather and mother regularly called black people niggers, and I flinched when I heard the word, as much from a response to the venom they seemed to spit when they said it as from any real understanding of the potency of the word. (They were equal opportunity haters, and had only venom for Mexicans too, and for Muslims—I remember my stepfather calling Benazir Bhutto a cunt—and for gay people.)

My first two years of college were at the Huntsville, Alabama campus of the University of Alabama. Huntsville is interesting; it’s got a very educated population, and the campus feeds engineers to Redstone Arsenal and Marshall Space Flight Center. It’s in the far north of Alabama, butting up against the Tennessee border. In most of my classes, the majority of students were white but there were usually a small handful of black students. In my Philosophy 101 class we talked about racism and all the white students piped up saying it doesn’t exist any more. Nope, no more racism. That was then, it’s all gone now. After class, I walked alongside a couple of the black women who’d been silent in class and asked them what they thought and they busted out laughing. Right.

Like everyone else who was old enough at the time, I watched the OJ murder case unfold, from the very beginning with the slow car chase all the way through to the verdict. I was shocked and terribly upset, because it seemed so clear to me that he was guilty, that he murdered his ex-wife and her friend, and how could that jury let him off? Celebrity, I muttered. I remember so clearly how I felt. I remember seeing the split screen on television when the verdict was announced: white people in shock with their hands over their mouths, and black people rejoicing. I was bewildered. Then last week my husband and I watched The People vs OJ Simpson and I saw it so differently. I still believe he is guilty, but I completely understood why the jury made the decision they did. And I had to sit in the complexity of it, with no easy corner to sit in: I believe he murdered those people, and I understand why they let him off, why they probably even believed truly that he didn’t do it. A guilty man was set free, and the community was understandably and righteously thrilled that he was not convicted.

Those white kids in my philosophy class said that because they probably didn’t think they themselves were racist, and so therefore there was no more racism. WE ARE ALL RACIST. It’s the very dirt of this country. It’s the reason for the war we fought against each other. We are all racist. Period. If you can’t start by owning that, you are the problem. I am racist (but I am not racist). I was trained by racists in my childhood home, and I grew up in a racist society. How could I be anything but racist? I do not have to follow those ideas, implement them in behaviors, allow them to bloom or grow — be a racist — but they are in me as an American, without a doubt.

You have to start somewhere, and you cannot go wrong with any of the books or the Baldwin documentary or 13th. I have no idea how to fix the problem, how even to begin. The intransigence of so many white people in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, their complete unwillingness to give up insisting that no, all lives matter, leaves me bewildered. I’ve started replying that when black lives matter, then all lives will matter (but that leaves out Muslims and gay people and refugees and immigrants and all the others who are being shoved out by the Republican party that’s in power, and by far too many straight white people). When I attended a Black Lives Matter rally, and when I read pieces written by black writers who are addressing this issue, their anger is obvious and understandable, and I struggle when they aim it at me standing there trying to do better, trying to start changing whatever I can. It’s not their job to teach me anything, or tell me anything, and at the very same time I don’t know how to move forward together with them. I just don’t know.

This is not a sophisticated or in-depth post about such a huge topic, and I’m not claiming that it is. It’s a quivering start, and a hand reached out, and a plea for help. I welcome advice and other recommendations.

three things: mirrors, growing, and zen

FEED: When my little family and I lived in New Britain, CT almost 30 years ago, in what was clearly the ghetto part of that otherwise-rich place, I got a chance to get away for a bit. We had three tiny kids at the time, all under the age of 5, and we were planning to move to Virginia. My then-husband had already been there scouting places to rent, and he suggested that I go, that he would stay with our kids.

even after driving over that bridge hundreds of times, the view of Manhattan never fails to take my breath away

This was such a glorious thing—just me, after such terrible hardship, a solo road trip (and I adore road trips). And not only that, I would drive through New York City for the first time in my life. I left around 4am, I think, and as I came down through the scary (to me then, and in the dark) Bronx and went over the beautiful George Washington Bridge, with all of Manhattan spreading out to my left, this song came on the radio.

It was popular at the time and I really loved it, and I think it probably came on the radio a dozen times on the 6.5-hour drive, or at least it felt that way. So even now, when I hear the song I just get filled with the same soaring sense of freedom, and the lyrics poke at me too. If you wanna make the world a better place, you’ve got to look at yourself and make a change. Lots to think about there. But at the moment I am just being fed by the beat and urgency of the song, and by the memories it holds for me.

SEED: Over the last couple of very easy years of my life, I’ve often written about feeling the complacency of it, and about wanting to use that easy time to challenge myself, to get out of my comfort zone, maybe to learn something new.

Well. Then the presidential campaign came along and all that ease went away, and now the fact that he’s in office and trying to destroy everything — no more complacency here, or anywhere else. As it all started unfolding, I often felt so many levels of terrible, including some inner levels, some frustration and personal hopelessness: I don’t know what to do! I don’t know how to do anything about any of this! I’m not an organizer! I don’t know anything about lobbying, I don’t know how to do any of this! I don’t know how the details of the government work! How can I / what do I / where do I / I can’t!

At one of the marches a speaker said something about this, that it doesn’t matter if we don’t know what to do, learn how to do it. It’s all learnable. Dig in, investigate, read, ask, poke around, assume roles, make things happen! I had to keep reminding myself of that because it’s not my instinct at all. Hell, after I had already made a sophisticated quilt by hand I thought I didn’t know how to quilt so I took a beginner’s quilting class. THAT IS SO ME.

It has been very frustrating, having all those feelings going on at the same time the frustration and fears about what was happening in the government were so overwhelming. It was just too much, too many sources of fear and upset, and yet there was nothing to do but keep flailing in the muck.

Yesterday I realized that I’ve learned a lot. I have really gotten somewhere with how to do these things. It’s less confusing, it’s less impossible-feeling. I have yet to organize a march, and still wouldn’t even know how to begin, but I do now know that I could figure it out. My understanding of things has become more sophisticated. I’ve paid attention somehow, in the midst of all the overwhelm.

And so this terribleness was also an opportunity, as terribleness usually is. And I guess the other thing about terribleness opportunities is that no matter how many times you go through that process, the terribleness feels so terrible that you can’t remember the opportunity part. That’s true for me, anyway. I’m by no means anywhere with it except to say that I’ve noticed the opportunity of it now. There is a very real ALIVENESS to being confused, to doing something new, to having to figure out a new language and new modes and slowly seeing that you have changed as a result.

READ: My friend George gave me a daily Zen calendar for Christmas — the only Christmas gift I received, actually — and as I pulled off all the days’ pages that passed while I was in NYC, two caught my attention:

“Nothing is more real than nothing.” ~Samuel Beckett

“Just try to feel your own weight, in your own seat, in your own feet. Okay? So if you can feel that weight in your body, if you can come back into the most personal identification, a very personal identification, which is: I am. This is me now. Here I am, right now. This is me now. Then you don’t feel like you have to leave, and be over there, or look over there. You don’t feel like you have to rush off and be somewhere.” ~Bill Murray

That Beckett is so Beckett, right? It’s the kind of thing you can say to yourself and then pause to see what it means and then just get kind of lost. Is nothing real? Is there a realness to nothing? AAARGH! And I don’t know if the second quote is by that Bill Murray, but doesn’t it just give you a sense of calm?

I’m off to babysit wee Lucy this morning, so my day is off to a great start, and I hope you have something wonderful in your day too. xoxox

two things: daffies and a poem and gotta dash….

FEED: I have a specific thing for daffodils, and especially here in the late-mid-early-mid-winter. I usually think of them hard at the very beginning of March, but at the moment I am needing them desperately so I feed myself on this photograph.

Daffodils so reliably make me happy, with their wholly improbable shape. It’s silly, maybe, but every single time I see one I just feel such wonder that they make that wonderful shape. That trumpet, with the frills. I like the full-on yellow ones more than I like the yellow and white ones, but daffies do it for me no matter what.

SEED: It’s a long day for me, up and out early for a flight back to Austin, connecting through Houston so the flight will take me longer than it ordinarily would. And then a dash home to get ready for poetry group in my house, a (mostly) monthly event that I dearly love. Every month we each bring copies of two poems (whether you write them or just select them) and this is one I’m bringing tonight. I shared it on facebook several days ago and it has stuck with me:

If You Could (Danny Bryck)

I know, I know
If you could go back you
would walk with Jesus
You would march with King
Maybe assassinate Hitler
At least hide Jews in your basement
It would all be clear to you
But people then, just like you
were baffled, had bills
to pay and children they didn’t
understand and they too
were so desperate for normalcy
they made anything normal
Even turning everything inside out
Even killing, and killing, and it’s easy
for turning the other cheek
to be looking the other way, for walking
to be talking, and they hid
in their houses
and watched it on television, when they had television,
and wrung their hands
or didn’t, and your hands
are just like theirs. Lined, permeable,
small, and you
would follow Caesar, and quote McCarthy, and Hoover, and you would want
to make Germany great again
Because you are afraid, and your
parents are sick, and your
job pays shit and where’s your
dignity? Just a little dignity and those kids sitting down in the highway,
and chaining themselves to
buildings, what’s their fucking problem? And that kid
That’s King. And this is Selma. And Berlin. And Jerusalem. And now
is when they need you to be brave.
Now
is when we need you to go back
and forget everything you know
and give up the things you’re chained to
and make it look so easy in your
grandkids’ history books (they should still have them, kinehora)
Now
is when it will all be clear to them.

READ: Nothing to note here — mainly because I’m out of time on this dashing day. I’d love to hear what you’re reading, though!

three things: beautiful Bali, moving on, and cussin’

FEED: I’m telling you, it’s really winter here in New York. There isn’t any snow, but it’s very cold and the skies are either gray and dirty, or so brilliant that the cold sun is blinding. I find myself looking so forward to going to beautiful tropical Bali, and I think so often about the beauty of the place.

This is the veranda off our room, overlooking rice fields. We stayed here last time (Alam Jiwa is the hotel, and our room is Jelatik), and we’re staying here again while we’re in Ubud. We have breakfast at that table every morning, and afternoon tea and cake.
This is the entrance to the Sacred Monkey Forest
This gorgeous detail has stayed in my mind, associated with the beauty of Bali

We’re spending the least amount of time on Bali, in Ubud, and the most on Lombok, but I don’t have memories of Lombok to carry me through the cold winter so these are the images that are feeding me now.

SEED: For me, the silt has settled to the bottom and I’m starting to feel space for other things in my mind besides the nightmare of our current administration, so I look forward to writing other things in this section of my daily post. If you’re in the US (or just feeling traumatized in an ongoing way even though you live in another country), I’ll tell you the final part of my path in case it’s helpful to you.

Being active is the best thing, it’s the very best way to allow other life to reemerge. It’s easy in New York because honestly, there are one or two protests or rallies or marches every single day (at a minimum). But even back in Austin, there are work days, organization meetings, events at the capitol, planning sessions — and then there are daily phone calls. No one is more phone-phobic than I am, but you get kind of inoculated to it once you learn the structure. They certainly aren’t social calls, and they follow a formula so you just learn the formula, say what you’re calling to say, and you’re done. Those are actions that count. For me, actually doing stuff has been the most helpful.

And then minimizing my responding to my Facebook feed has also helped. As I’ve been focusing on helping the silt settle, I’ve been able to pay close attention to what happens within me when I look at my feed, and as soon as I feel the tizzy rising up, I just close it. I am in the process of figuring out my posting strategy — maybe every day one action item, one bit of background that would be helpful to read, and one thing that either provides a laugh or a bit of encouragement. If I’m involved in something that might really be encouraging to others, like participating in a giant march or rally, and I think it can strengthen my friends’ hearts to see how many people there are on our side, I’ll share a lot of pictures. But otherwise, I’m trying to limit the sharing from friends’ feeds. And when I’m tempted, I ask myself if my point is just to arouse a “SEE????!!” response (and if so, I don’t share) or if it’s instead intended to ask a question or orient us. “This is happening, what is our action option?”

I don’t know, those things have really been helpful to me. They’ve kind of re-oriented me away from reacting emotionally and toward agency and action.

And now that I’ve kind of figured this out, I’m ready to move on to thinking about other things. I am glad, and I imagine you are, too. 🙂

READ: Here, I’ll start your week off with a whole new crop of alternative cuss words. Field-tested and mother approved! I actually say a bunch of these all the time, in addition to my inordinate love of the one that starts with F.

YOU’RE WELCOME.

xoxo

three things: the American West, dancing in the living room, and Mexican literature

FEED: Since the new government seems intent on destroying the physical world, I need to remember this:

View of Valley from Mountain, “Canyon de Chelly” National Monument, Arizona (Ansel Adams)

I have camped in that canyon and gotten horribly, blistery sunburned riding mountain bikes over a Fourth of July holiday weekend, but the place was gorgeous. There was a new moon, so the vast, black night skies were filled with the Milky Way and I will never forget lying there watching it wheel through the enormous sky. The world can be so so beautiful, and it’s definitely worth fighting for.

SEED: Yesterday was a cold, brilliant day. Even though he has a terrible cold, Marc thought it was important enough to add another body to the crowd that he joined me at the LGBT Rally at the Stonewall Monument in the West Village. After the rally, I made a big pot of Moroccan chickpea soup, and while I was tending to it, this song came up on my playlist (“Only Love,” by k.d. lang — give it a play while you’re here, it’s such a beautiful song):

Although I’m not a very good dancer at all, I love to dance and do it at home when I’m alone. My first husband used to dance with me in the living room and I’ve missed that because Marc will not dance. Not ever, not anywhere. But there’s something so sweet about just dancing with your husband in the midst of your home. I understand Marc; like me, he is a very socially anxious person and in fact he’s much more socially anxious than I am. This is a place we can connect with each other. But the day had been so lovely, and the soup smelled so good, and so I grabbed him and dragged him up, put one earbud in his ear and one in mine and put my arms around him and told him we were going to dance. “All you have to do is just hang on to me and sway to the music a little.” He felt anxious, I could feel it in him, but I closed my eyes and held on tight and felt the music and cried.

Maybe, slowly, with patience, I can help him grow a little. That’s what it’s really about, spending a life with someone.

READ: In this time of nationalism and closing of borders (and not just in this now-insane country, of course) it’s time to read translations. I love reading translations, and some of my favorite books are translated, but how is it that I’ve never read a Mexican writer? Lithub posted a list of 15 books by Mexican writers and nope, haven’t read a one. Have you read any of them? Or another one that’s not on the list? I’d love to get a recommendation if you have one.

Foreign films, watch those too. My friend Jeff is on a Pedro Almodovar spree (I need to get on that spree too and rewatch them all….). So, while we’re at it, do you have a favorite Mexican director? Actor?

I’ll say one thing about this time of fear and insanity. I feel very much alive. I feel very connected to other people. I hate the cause, but love this specific effect. Happy Sunday, y’all. <3

three things: 2/4/17

FEED: Franz Kline is usually thought of as a black and white painter (and in fact, one of my favorite of his paintings is black and white, I’ll show you after I show you this one), but he did some magnificent paintings with brilliant color. This one just dazzles my brain cells and makes me so happy.

I can’t find the title of this painting anywhere

See how important the grays are to the success of that painting? The brown slashes, the spits of charcoal? And the potency of those primary colors, the pureness of that red, that yellow, colors unresolvable to anything but themselves. Prime colors, I guess.

And here is the black and white one I love so much — it hangs at MoMA, and I took a selfie with it last Wednesday. I’m honestly not sure why I love it so much, but that doesn’t matter. Whenever I see it, my pulse quickens.

“Painting Number 2,” 1954, Franz Kline

SEED: SO! Anchoring the idea of ‘slow’ in my mind has been very helpful. I had just become so tizzified, so terrified, so frantic in my mind, and while I was extremely active during that period and not simply frantic, it was hard going. It was draining, exhausting, and I worried that like so many of my friends, I would get sick because of it. Because it’s true: so many of us are getting sick. Not just susceptible to colds, etc., and not just drifting into despair, but full-on sick. Unable to get out of bed, or to stay out of bed for long. I worried that would happen to me, too, given the intensity of my frantic tizzy.

What we’re doing is having an effect. Learning that has helped, too. It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of a tyrant and his administration who are willing to overturn all the rules to do whatever they want, and who are fed by a man whose stated mission is to destroy the country, but what we are doing, we in the resistance, is having an effect. That helps.

June 28, 1969

I’m making three phone calls a day. I’m monitoring the actions of Congress and following exactly what our elected representatives are doing, how they’re caving or resisting, and keeping notes because we are going to have to elect new representatives, that has become clear. I’m reshaping my social world to include more women who are fighting alongside me, and letting go those whose votes have brought this world into being. I’m noting and scheduling into my calendar every possible march and protest, and attending them. Today, for instance, is the LGBT rally at Stonewall, which is the birthplace of the gay rights movement in this country. Read the history here. I can’t wait to stand alongside everyone at that rally. Those experiences energize me and keep me able to fight and persist.

I’m going on Facebook only in the morning, for no more than half an hour, and my posts are now more pointed. Less hysterical. And I try to include at least one thing to give us a smile, we in the resistance who need a smile so desperately. Fight on, sisters, we will prevail. Slow news, slow thoughtfulness, slow reshaping of your world to help you fight.

Required reading for every American

READBetween the World and Me is as good as the reviews and press have claimed, and it’s very hard to read. Not in the sentences — the sentences and prose are quite good, evocative, clear, powerful, hard. But it’s very hard to read because of the truth of it, and the resulting overwhelm. I have participated in Black Lives Matter marches and rallies, and I’ve stood there knowing that I don’t and can’t know what it is to be black, but ready to try to know, and to fight. I’ve fought with people who tell the lie that “all lives matter,” always with bewilderment. WHEN black lives matter, THEN all lives will matter. And right now black lives don’t matter. The thing that is so difficult about Between the World and Me is that he does such a good job of showing the complete pervasiveness of racism. The murderous cops aren’t even the problem; it’s the society that invests them with the right, the history that endows them with the purpose. It’s like dropping some ink into a vessel of water, and when it’s completely dispersed, trying to pull out the ink. You can’t. The water is permanently changed. Our very ground is built on the racist murder of black bodies, our wealth, our heritage, our worldviews, and I’m left having no idea how we change this. I’m about 60% of the way through the book so I hope Coates offers some ideas, although it’s also up to me to find ideas.

One point Coates makes so poignantly is that slavery is not a thing, it is personal. It’s a specific woman who had a specific life, and who had hopes and thoughts. It’s a specific man, a specific child, a specific family, all with names and bodies. (Eric Reidy makes a similar point about refugees in this must-read piece.) It’s easy to paint with a flat brush and talk about the “institution” of slavery, but that erases all the lives of those enslaved people. In this country, we enslaved black people for 250 years. They have not yet been free for that many years.

At the giant march and rally last Sunday that started at Battery Park, within sight of the Statue of Liberty, I stood among tens of thousands of people of all hues of skin color, most of whom were holding signs about the anti-Muslim ban. And I stood next to a black woman. I wondered if she felt betrayed, because where are the crowds of this size rallying against the ongoing murder of black people for the crime of being black, for driving, for walking, for holding their hands up in the air when demanded? Yes, some white people march and rally, but in small groups, and only after the most egregious of murders. But innocent murder is innocent murder is innocent murder, and we just aren’t responding the same way for black lives — because we shrug. And we too-quickly think well, the police force has problemsThe problem is with police training, etc etc etc. Maybe we allow ourselves to think that because at some level we know how vast the problem is and in the face of that overwhelm, it’s easier just to point at the symptom.

As I’m reading, I find myself thinking Yes, this is terrible and we have to do something but right now the whole place is going up in flames and so for right now we just need to….. X….Y…..Z. And that’s not completely untrue, but at the same time it’s a part of the complexity of our country, a country filled with enough nasty voters to bring the new administration into power, and so it’s another piece we need to understand. Read Between the World and MeYou will be uncomfortable, and we all should be.

I agree with Bannon about one thing: this country does need to be destroyed started over. We do need to do that. Of course I differ with him completely on the methods and what the reboot would look like, but what we have become—and it’s a direct arrow from where and how we began—is deadly and terrible.

BONUS: Check out this link, a crowd-sourced collection of relevant books, movies, TV, podcasts, and other things (including some under the category of “escapism”) that will help us all at this particular cultural and political moment. I found lots of good stuff, and I imagine you will, too.

three things: 2/3/17

FEED: There I was, going miserably through the ongoing onslaught of onerous updates on FB, when this quite literally popped into my field of view. And how wonderful it made me feel.

Emil Nolde (German, Expressionism, 1867–1956): Sea with Violet Clouds and Three Yellow Sailboats, 1946. Watercolor on paper

Isn’t that just extraordinary? Everything about it, I just love. And it’s watercolor, which is hard to understand when you look at the reflection of the yellow — doesn’t that look like oil paint applied with a brush, a thick squidge of it at the top or bottom of each reflected sail? Gosh. I love that painting and am so grateful to have seen it. Even though the purples and blues are restful, that vivid YELLOW makes my eyes hop all over the image, and I keep loving it more and more.

SEED: My focus is drawing in, drawing down, getting close, and I hope this is what will work for me. I was reading an article about how not to get burned out, given the nonstop terrorism of our government, and it mentioned ‘slow news,’ like ‘slow food.’ I don’t think that’s a new idea, slow news, but it sure felt good to read those words, and the sentence that contained them. The thing about news feeds, however you access them, is that they don’t stop. They’re like a never-ending video game in that way—there’s always another level, another scroll, another page refresh. So they hook you, especially when the consequences are at such a high level as ours are. And when you’re hooked, there comes a frantic feeling of needing to get off the hook.

So I looked into a subscription to the real newspaper (for me, always the New York Times) but it’s way expensive, too expensive for my non-existent budget, and then there’s the issue of where it would be delivered; I’m never in one place more than 18 days, and it’s rare to be in place that many days. When I’m in NYC I can walk to the corner newstand and pick up an issue ($2.50/day, $5/Sundays). The writer of the article talked about the feeling of closure when he turned the last page. Done. He’d read the news.

I don’t know how it’ll work out, but I do need to get my news differently. Accessing the online NYTimes is only a bookmark away from my FB newsfeed, so that seems dicey. I’m working on it.

But in the meantime, I’m focusing on other ‘slow X‘ stuff. Slow handwork, knitting socks. Slow food again, as soon as I’m back in Austin. I think I’ll start baking bread again, slow bread. Slow walking. Slow breathing. Slow coffee. Quiet. It feels very loud in my head at the moment and I think the antidote is slow and quiet and deep.

READ: We are going to Indonesia at the end of March — to Bali, which is Hindu, and Lombok (and Rote Island) which are Muslim. In Ubud, there is a well-attended annual writer’s conference, and there are plenty of books set in Bali besides Eat, Pray, Love (which I have no interest in reading). If you’ve read any other good books set in or about Bali, I’d love to hear about it. I’m curious about Love and Death in Bali, which is about the mass suicides of the Balinese royalty when the Dutch invaded, but meh, doesn’t look so very great. Or Indonesia? A book? Before we went to Indonesia a few years ago, we re-watched The Year of Living Dangerously so maybe we’ll rewatch it. Anyway — if you have any Indonesian recommendations I’d love to hear them. (And the first time we were in Indonesia is when I got the red polka dots for the first time! I was sitting on the edge of a planter in the Jakarta airport and felt them start stinging and burning. Maybe this trip will close the circle and end them….not that I’m counting on it.)

Here’s a Balinese diversion. We saw a dance performance the last time we were in Bali, exceptionally beautiful and disturbing and confusing and wonderful.

Happy Friday everyone. We’re still here.

three things: 2/2/17

Anne Carson in her inscrutable brilliance; click the image to read an article in the NYT

FEED: Tonight I’m lucky enough to be going to hear Anne Carson, who is currently the Distinguished Poet-in-Residence in the NYU Creative Writing Program. What she does with language is almost impossible to describe; I’d like to share some of my favorite lines from my favorite of her book-length works, The Autobiography of Red, but (a) they are too strange completely out of context and you wouldn’t be able to see their proper strangeness, and (b) I’m in NYC and my book is in Austin and I only read poetry in real book form. First, Book of Isaiah:

Book of Isaiah, Part I (Anne Carson)

I.

Isaiah awoke angry.
Lapping at Isaiah’s ears black birdsong no it was anger.
God had filled Isaiah’s ears with stingers.
Once God and Isaiah were friends.
God and Isaiah used to converse nightly, Isaiah would rush into the garden.
They conversed under the Branch, night streamed down.
From the sole of the foot to the head God would make Isaiah ring.
Isaiah had loved God and now his love was turned to pain.
Isaiah wanted a name for the pain, he called it sin.
Now Isaiah was a man who believed he was a nation.
Isaiah called the nation Judah and the sin Judah’s condition.
Inside Isaiah God saw the worldsheet burning.
Isaiah and God saw things differently, I can only tell you their actions.
Isaiah addressed the nation.
Man’s brittleness! cried Isaiah.
The nation stirred in its husk and slept again.
Two slabs of bloody meat lay folded on its eyes like wings.
Like a hard glossy painting the nation slept.
Who can invent a new fear?
Yet I have invented sin, thought Isaiah, running his hand over the knobs.
And then, because of a great attraction between them—
which Isaiah fought (for and against) for the rest of his life—
God shattered Isaiah’s indifference.
God washed Isaiah’s hair in fire.
God took the stay.
From beneath its meat wings the nation listened.
You, said Isaiah.
No answer.
I cannot hear you, Isaiah spoke again under the Branch.
Light bleached open the night camera.
God arrived.
God smashed Isaiah like glass through every socket of his nation.
Liar! said God.
Isaiah put his hands on his coat, he put his hand on his face.
Isaiah is a small man, said Isaiah, but no liar.
God paused.
And so that was their contract.
Brittle on both sides, no lying.
Isaiah’s wife came to the doorway, the doorposts had moved.
What’s that sound? said Isaiah’s wife.
The fear of the Lord, said Isaiah.
He grinned in the dark, she went back inside.

And to entice you to read Autobiography of Red, a few snips:

“Depression is one of the unknown modes of being.
There are no words for a world without a self, seen with impersonal clarity.
All language can register is the slow return
to oblivion we call health when imagination automatically recolors the landscape
and habit blurs perception and language
takes up its routine flourishes.”

“…..in that blurred state between awake and asleep when too many intake valves are open in the soul. Like the terrestrial crust of the earth which is proportionately 10 times thinner than an eggshell, the skin of the soul is a miracle of mutual pressures. Millions of kilograms of force pounding up from earth’s core on the inside to meet the cold air of the world and stop as we do, just in time.”

What she does with language can be astonishing. Here’s my short GoodReads review of Autobiography of Red — short, because I couldn’t properly put words to her words. Her startling use of language definitely feeds me.

SEED: This is a broad topic I think about a lot, the way very good things can come out of very bad things. I’ve thought about it my whole life, in terms of my near-fatal childhood; I value who I am, and who I am is a direct result of what I endured, so where does that leave me with an evaluation of my childhood? To play the silly game, if I could go back and time and give myself a different childhood, would I?

grateful I got to be at the JFK protest on the day the ban was announced. So grateful. More than 10K people showed up spontaneously.

I think we’re in the same boat as a country now. I see good things emerging in this horrific political maelstrom. People are fighting, protesting, getting off their comfortable couches. More women are mobilizing for office than ever before. Etc etc etc. It isn’t that things were perfect while Obama was in office, and it isn’t that I agreed with all his decisions (I really didn’t, some more horribly than others like his bail-outs for the banks and his use of drones and his failure to close Guantanamo as he’d promised), but I was complacent. We all were complacent. And that complacency led us here, to the nightmare and also to the resistance, and the long-lasting consequences of the resistance — assuming our country and world survive, which is not at all guaranteed — will be good. Eventually. I’m thinking a lot about this as I look around. Are you?

READ: Read poetry. Last night I read a bit of Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates), and he was talking about writing as a way to hone your thinking — and especially poetry. Here’s a relevant passage:

I was learning the craft of poetry, which really was an intensive version of what my mother had taught me all those years ago–the craft of writing as the art of thinking. Poetry aims for an economy of truth–loose and useless words must be discarded, and I found that these loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts. Poetry was not simply the transcription of notions–beautiful writing rarely is. I wanted to learn to write, which was ultimately, still, as my mother had taught me, a confrontation with my own innocence, my own rationalizations. Poetry was the processing of my thoughts until the slag of justification fell away and I was left with the cold steel truths of life.

Read good poetry. I am not at all trained in poetry, but I think I have good taste somehow, because the poetry I love always turns out to be “good” poetry, so if you want to read poetry but don’t know where to start, get in touch and I’ll make some suggestions.

three things: 2/1/17

FEED: This morning I am again attending the Quiet Morning program at the Museum of Modern Art — and so grateful for it. I plan to be standing in front of this painting again, for as long as I can.

Last month I cried like a BABY. I stared at all his brush strokes and thought about his own suffering, and his ecstasy, and how I could feel his and my own. This will be the fourth time I’ve seen it in person and it’s never less than the same electric experience.

After the event ends, I think I’ll go to the Rose Reading Room at the NYPL again to read and work for a while, so this should be quite a nice day after all and despite it all.

SEED: I’m continually shocked by how fast time is passing, but how is it already February 1?! I think that, among other terrible consequences, my obsession with fighting the terrible politics of my country is making the time fly. And it’s funny: in some ways I am 100% in each moment, which usually makes time slow down. The ways I’m not in each moment relate to my fears of the consequences for the future of each of these things we fight, of course, and it’s those future consequences that stoke the fire. But reading, reading, reading, refreshing the feed, what’s new, what’s now, what’s happening, is both keeping me hooked and making the day pass by in a flash and I have nothing real, no experience of myself, to show for it.

How is it already February 1?

I’m continuing to struggle with finding a place for all this, with how to effectively take care of myself and fight in the resistance. Does the resistance require my every moment? Of course it doesn’t. It requires my body in crowds, my voice in chant, my words in action, and it requires me to know what’s going on — which I can do in focused bursts, right? I’m thinking about setting aside 30 minutes or so each morning and 30 minutes or so each evening to focus on it. In the evenings I think I’ll catch up on what the monsters did that day and plan for the next morning’s time: topics to write or call my legislators about, new candidates to research, areas that need support, and to note times and dates of protests to participate in. Then the next morning, my 30 minutes will be a brief scan of the news and a focused attack on my tasks for that day, drawn from the evening’s work.

Of course that makes a lot of sense, and is reasonable, and will keep me fighting every single day, but this overwhelm is outside reason. Fear is outside reason. And every single day he makes us more afraid. So it’ll take discipline and it’ll be hard to limit myself, but I do want to live, too. I’m going to try this — if you’ve found an approach that works for you please let me know. Whatever approach you’ve found to manage overwhelm and fear, to stay informed without becoming swamped, to stay committed and participating (however small), I would appreciate hearing about your strategy.

READ: Usually, when I’m wanting something kind of quick to read, I look at my saved links on Facebook. I subscribe to so many longform writing sites, and to so many book and essay sites, and when good posts fly through my feed I save them to read later. I’m sleeping relatively well and so not making much headway in my book, so I thought I’d find a few good reading recommendations among my saved links but when I went to check, look at what I found:

I kept scrolling down, and down, and down the list and they’re all like this. I was wanting to share something else, something richer, something fascinating (to me at least!), something that could meaningfully distract from this, but all I have is this. If that isn’t an indication that I need to take deep breaths and remember also to live, I wouldn’t know what is.

So instead I’ll ask: reading anything good these days? Here’s what I’m currently actively reading:

There’s a list of a few others that are stalled (Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, Beatlebone by Kevin Barry, Nox by Anne Carson) but I’m working intently on those two. And my to-read list of 129 books is always up and ready to go of course. In my previous book club, we took turns choosing books and for everyone else, when it was their turn to pick a book they had no idea and asked for ideas, a situation that boggled me. What? You don’t have a ready and waiting LIST? I also have a “Books to Read” Pinterest board with 168 pins, most of which comprise lists of books (like “25 great books by refugees in America,” from the NYTimes).

Still, I’m always curious: reading anything good?