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.

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: 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: 2/1/17

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?

three things: 1/31/17

FEED: If you’re on Facebook, do you follow the page I Require Art? It’s a reliable source of something beautiful here and there throughout the day. Yesterday I saw this painting and it just fit the tone of my feeling so well, the memory of it lingered through a difficult day. When I went to fetch it this morning, I was dazzled by a brilliant orange one and nearly snagged it instead, but decided to stick with this one since the tone is just so right.

Winslow Homer (American, Realism, 1836–1910): Adirondack Lake, 1889. Watercolor over graphite pencil on paper. Sheet: 35.6 x 50.8 cm (14 x 20 inches). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

I want this portion of my daily post to be something that feeds my spirits, but I suppose that doesn’t necessarily have to mean something that lifts me up, that boosts me; it can also feed my spirits if it gives voice to them, because having them unarticulated is frustrating. Yes, Winslow Homer, American realist painter, it feels just like this. But less beautiful.

SEED: Is there anything but politics, now? I’ve never been political, I’ve never followed Congress closely, never paid detailed attention to the bills under consideration. With only one exception (pre-2016), I’ve never marched or protested or rallied. Now it’s all there is to do, it’s all there is to think about, it’s all there is to study. I keep trying to take a step back, to look at this from a meta-perspective, to find a way to let this be a piece of my life without consuming my life, but everything else seems at risk, and so I have to fight in order to be able to have the rest remain available.

Maybe this is just the early stages, and I will learn how to live with the fight, I will learn how to allow it a place in my life without consuming my life — after all, this is all new to me. But there has never been a threat like this one, except for the Civil War. Perhaps we’re going toward another civil war; it feels that way, this country is definitely us vs them now and “them” are not just threatening “us,” but also the whole world. I want to think about other things again. I want to find pleasure again. I want to cook and bake again for reasons beyond just immediate need. I want to play with my beautiful grandkids without a cold, watery stomach of fear for their futures. But really, everything is political. The formidable Nawal el Sadaawi said, “Even this glass of water is political.”

Friends around the world, I want you to know that this elected government is not us. There are more of us than them, and we are fighting. Muslim friends, you have allies here who are fighting for you. LGBTQIA friends, we are rolling up our sleeves to fight what seems to be coming for you. Women, we have been fighting and we will keep on fighting. If you live in another country and think the US has simply gone insane, please pay attention to the size of the crowds protesting this shit in every major city in this country, and in smaller cities, too. There are more of us than themThey have the power right now, and they can do very real harm while they do (and already have done so), but we are fighting. We are America, we who are fighting. Please do not give up on us. Please watch over us, bear witness, talk about the resistance, share news of the resistance, give it worldwide voice. It’s so easy to feel like we must be paranoid when we wonder when they’ll shut down Facebook, when we wonder when the tanks will appear in the streets, when we wonder how long we will be allowed to protest before they make such a thing illegal, but those are not paranoid fears given this administration.

How I long to think about other things.

READ: I’m really loving Netgalley, because I get to read new books of my choosing for free. Right now I’m reading The Shadow Land, which is set in Sofia, Bulgaria. A friend of mine, Aaron, was in the Peace Corps in Bulgaria and the stories he told me left me fascinated about a place I knew so little about. The last book I read via Netgalley was set in Norway during WWII, and focused on the Resistance (a timely subject…..), and while the book was ultimately thin and disappointing, it really did give a vivid sense of place. Neither of these books are exactly historical fiction (The Shadow Land is squarely a novel), but they both reorient me into a new place, a new culture, and how I love that. If a writer is good, it’s like getting to travel and see the world. I’m only 8% into The Shadow Land so it’s premature to say much about the book yet, but so far both thumbs are up. Check it out if you are curious about Bulgaria, and you know I’ll share my thoughts when I finish it. I’ll also offer another plug for Netgalley, if you are a reader who likes to write reviews of what you read. You choose the publishers whose books you are interested in, and you pick the books you want to read. You might not always get your choice (especially when you’re first starting out, as they want to be sure they get reviews…but they can be negative! You are under no obligation to give a positive review.), but you’ll get more books than you have time for, if you just say yes to them all.

three things: 1/23/17

FEED: When I was in my first year of college, I saw this gorgeous painting on a postcard at Barnes & Noble, in Huntsville, Alabama, and the vibrancy of the colors drew me to the rack from the other side of the store.

“The Golden Fish,” Paul Klee

I didn’t know Paul Klee, then, but I learned about him and especially loved these two things he said about color:

  • “Color has got me. I no longer need to chase after it. It has got me for ever. I know it. That is the meaning of this happy hour.”
  • “Color is the place where our brain and the universe meet.”

So many of his paintings have a muted, pastel palette, so I always wondered if he said these things at the moment he got a jolt of THIS kind of color, and if his work was this vivid after those insights. There are always too many things to be interested in, too much to learn, too many depths to dive, and for now I just have to leave this bit of curiosity alone. (But if you happen to know, do tell!)

SEED: Last night was the first meeting of my new book club, here at my place. I didn’t know any of them personally before they arrived at my door; we met on Facebook, in the local Pantsuit Nation group, and then friended each other outside the group.  I had posted looking for serious readers, people who wanted to read good literary fiction and then ACTUALLY TALK ABOUT  IT, and five of those new friends immediately responded. We read The Underground Railroad, and of course they’d all read it, and were eager to talk about it.

But first. Since we met in Pantsuit Nation, they all share my politics (such a relief!) but unlike me, they are all focused and very active. My response is emotional, high-pitched, arched-eyebrowing, handwaving, shoulder-upping despair, but I stumble and can’t provide a list of facts to support my response. Not them! They were amazing. They’re every bit as terrified and emotional as I am, but they are just different women, able to marshal their reason to tell the story of what’s happening. They’re not just extremely informed, they’re active. They’re members of the local Indivisible groups and go to meetings, make phone calls, knock on doors, go to legislative training sessions to prepare to lobby, etc. It was amazing. Inspirational. And as much as I was loving it (and I was!) . . . I wanted to talk about the book. Finally I redirected the conversation from the horrors of today to the horrors of slavery (seriously. What the hell is wrong with our murderous country. Seriously).

And then that conversation was marvelous. It’s just the best thing ever to talk with smart women. One woman grew up in northern Alabama, very near where I lived for 5 years, so she has that really beautiful accent; one is from the northeast and has that style of talking, and the others just had a lot to say, too — all so smart, so insightful, so full of thoughts about what we read, questions about things they were confused by (turns out we were all confused by the same things), thoughts about how it relates to today. Basically it was a dream come true book club meeting. I’ll be smiling about it for days to come.

Marnie and Ilan arrive in Austin today, for a week-long visit, and I’m beside myself with happiness. It’s not that common that I get to be with both my daughters at the same time, and now this means I get to be with them AND with all three of my grandchildren at the same time. I could hardly sleep last night for all the excitement.

READ: HAVE YOU SEEN THIS?

HOT DAMN.

three things:1/19/17

FEED: This color linoleum cut print arrested my scrolling and drew me in. My friend Sherlock used to say that he doesn’t ‘get’ art, one of many longstanding jokes we shared, but I think it’s just this, at its most basic: stop at what stops you. Look deeply. Look at the work of it, if that’s what interests you. Look at the chips, the strokes, the texture, the color. What is it that stops you and causes you to look?

Elizabeth Catlett (also known as Elizabeth Catlett Mora) (American-born Mexican, 1915-2012): Sharecropper, 1952. Printed 1970. Color linoleum cut print on cream Japanese paper.

I’ve always loved block prints, wood or linoleum, and this one feels so full of tension, with all the tiny, tiny lines. The expression on the sharecropper’s face is where my gaze begins and stays; I can’t find a name for her expression, can you? What is that? And as always, I am in awe of the artist who can present me with such complexity and beauty. I also love the color palette in this piece, and gosh I just keep seeing things — the way the artist created the pulled folds in her garment where the safety pin tugs the cloth, amid the tiny lines of the cloth itself. Her white hair. The very tight focus, where she is all there is to see in this image.

We’ve been in a days-long period of solid gray skies, the flat white kind that looks like the base coat of a painting before the painting is begun, and we’ve had endless fog and rain. When I sat down to create this post, I felt like my spirits needed bright color, strong imagery, something vivid to counteract the gloom outside and to come, but it was this piece that stopped me.

SEED: My beloved poetry group met at my house Tuesday night, and I have to say: being with poets is great balm for the storm we’re already in, and the bigger storm to come. Poets are thoughtful, reflective, metaphoric-minded, word-gifted people who I would guess are mostly liberal and beyond, on to the far left. Because poets know that words don’t just capture, words don’t just reflect, they have power, power to resist and power to change. Last night was the beginning of our fifth year together; we first met in January of 2013, a fact that amazes me. We’re comfortable together, we know each other from these monthly gatherings.

I definitely have other friends who see what I see, and who see it the way I see it (such a comfort), and yet the poets’ vision is more of everything. More frightened. More complex. More broad-based. We’re all close to my age, I think, though one is substantially younger and one (I think!) older, so we have similar frames of reference for past political struggles — all of which have come at the hands of Republicans, I hasten to add.

So last night we did what we do: one of us would read a poem aloud while the rest followed along on the copies we distribute, and then we’d talk about it. A few of us brought protest poems — Audre Lorde (me), Rita Dove and William Stafford (Hadiya) — and as always, a few brought poems they’d written (Ed, Marilyn, and Nick, this time), and a few brought poems to relish. But unlike our usual meeting, we had breaks between poems to talk about the storm of politics. Our despair would grow and we’d have to take a breath and read a poem, to feel better.

I won’t be surprised if all our future meetings have the same structure; this might be the new form, and for me it will be life-sustaining. When they left last night, I felt fed and comforted, and grateful there be poets.

Before he read last Sunday, he pinned the US distress flag on the wall behind him, and there it stayed.

So I say again: it doesn’t matter if you don’t write poetry. I don’t! It doesn’t matter if you don’t know the first thing about poetry. I don’t! I can’t identify feet and schemes, I don’t know types, zip. It doesn’t matter if you’re not hooked into the poetry community in your town already. The poets are active, wherever you live, and you can find a public reading and just show up. Just show up, sit on a folding chair at the back, in the corner, by the door, and be ready to split at a moment’s notice. The poets are angry, but they’re also giving hope — maybe just because they’re there. I just Googled “Austin poetry readings” and WHAM. A plenty. A gracious plenty. There is even a poetry club in tiny little Graham, TX. There are poets in your town, and I’d bet a lot of money that if you put yourself among them — even silently — you’ll come away with something wonderful. And no one will ask you to recite, no one will ask you to speak, no one will ask you to identify iambic pentameter. No one.

READ: Poetry. Read poetry. Poetry can be so funny, so skewed (and yet there’s always something really important inside it) — it certainly isn’t all dense and dark and hard to parse. Here is one that George shared last night, and it’s a perfect example of funny but with something really important to say. It’s titled “Humanity 101,” by Denise Duhamel, and it was selected for inclusion in Best American Poetry, 2016.

I was on my way to becoming a philanthropist,
or the president, or at least someone who gave a shit,
but I was a nontraditional student
with a lot of catching up to do. I enrolled in Humanity 101
(not to be confused with the Humanities,
a whole separate department). When I flunked
the final exam, my professor suggested
I take Remedial Humanity where I’d learn the basics
that I’d missed so far. I may have been a nontraditional student,
but I was a traditional person, she said, the way a professor
can say intimate things sometimes, as though
your face and soul are aglow in one of those
magnified (10x) makeup mirrors.

So I took Remedial Humanity, which sounds like an easy A,
but, believe me, it was actually quite challenging.
There were analogy questions, such as:
Paris Hilton is to a rich U.S. suburban kid
as a U.S. middle-class kid is to:
1.) a U.S. poverty-stricken kid,
2.) a U.S. kid with nothing in the fridge,
or
3.) a Third World kid with no fridge at all.
We were required to write essays about the cause of war—
Was it a phenomenon? Was it our lower animal selves?
Was it economics? Was it psychological/sexual/religious
(good vs. evil and all that stuff)? For homework
we had to bend down to talk to a homeless person
slouched against a building. We didn’t necessarily have to
give them money or food, but we had to say something like
How are you? or What is your favorite color? 

We took field trips to nursing homes, prisons,
day-care centers. We stood near bedsides
or sat on the floor to color with strange little people
who cried and were afraid of us at first.
I almost dropped out. I went to see the professor
during his office hours because I wanted to change my major.
He asked, “Is that because your heart is being smashed?”
He thought I should stick it out, that I could make it,
if I just escaped for an hour a day blasting music
into my earbuds or slumping in front of the TV.
I said, “But that’s just it. Now I see humanity everywhere,
even on sitcoms, even in pop songs,
even in beer commercials.” He closed his door
and showed me the scars under his shirt
where he had been stabbed. He said I had to assume
everyone had such a wound, whether I could see it or not.

He assured me that it really did get easier in time,
and that it was hard to make music when you were still
learning how to play the scales. He made me see
my potential. He convinced me of my own humanity,
that one day I might even be able to get a PhD. But first
I had to, for extra credit, write a treatise on detachment.

And to lure you in with another poem that will delight you while delivering a point, here is Dean Young’s “Crash Test Dummies of an Imperfect God:”

Because we are so stupid,
the prizes in Cracker Jacks are now paper
so they can be swallowed, ladders
spackled with warnings. No getting
within a hundred feet of Stonehenge because
everyone wants to hack off a souvenir
and the way home is clogged to one lane
so whoever wants to can stare into a pothole
until coming up with a grievance. I’d vote
the greatest accomplishment of mankind
is the pickle spear. God created paradise
to tell us Get out! which is why we probably
created God who doesn’t much like being created
by ilk like us. No wonder it’s pediatrics
every morning and toxicology by happy hour.
Is it all in the mind, the dirty, dirty mind?
Maybe God tried to turn you into a garbage can
so you could be lifted by the truck’s hydraulic
arms and banged empty. Maybe a snow cone
so you could be sticky-sweet and dropped.
Maybe a genital-faced bivalve to be dashed
with Tabasco and eaten whole or, to his glory,
produce a pearl.

I never share the original poetry written by people in our group, because it’s not mine to share, nor is it published for all to read, but how I wish I could. Last night there were five original poems, and I just listened and followed along in awe, and felt my self expanded out beyond my bones, pushed past my skin, in wonder. “Gone to wonder in the mind,” as Ed wrote in a gorgeous poem, the line cobbled from Chaucer.

three things: 1/18/17

FEED: Long, long ago, my son introduced me to the eerily beautiful photography of Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison. All their work is fabulous, worth gazing at and letting it settle in you, but it’s the images my son loved that stay with me the most. Here’s one I always associate with him:

“Burn Season”

Check them out — not just in the link above, when I first mention them, but I also linked the image to the specific collection for this one, all of which make me think of Will. So for me, it’s a melancholy kind of soul-feeding, looking at these images, but there is also a resonance with the world right now, and resonance is also valuable. Looking at their larger body of work, though, is lifting in the way art lifts.

SEED: My New York therapist, Elizabeth, always told me that dreams are really just showing you how you are thinking about something, how you are processing it. Dreams use a range of personal imagery, maybe, relate to personal themes, other experiences, etc. Last night I had a nightmare that couldn’t be more obviously related to how I’m thinking about the forthcoming nightmare in our country. I was in our NYC apartment, and Marc and I were packing to flee — and it was urgent, we had to go immediately, something absolutely terrible was about to happen (not specified within the dream but I think I knew what it was). As he always does when we have suitcases, he was leaving to go get the car and pull it up to the curb, but he came back immediately and said, “There isn’t time, we have to run now!” And so we fled, in terror, with a sense that we couldn’t outrun what we were fleeing. If that isn’t the most obvious nightmare you’ve ever heard, I don’t know what would be.

I think constantly about why this feels as destructive and scary as it does, why it feels so all-encompassing. After all, I’m a straight, white, well-educated, middle-aged woman beyond reproducing years. All the hate that he spews, and that his administration is ready to enact into law, won’t affect me personally, at least not in the loudest, most hateful ways. Of course living in a society permeated with that kind of hate will affect me. Living in a country determined to build a wall, remove families, block immigrants, remove access to health care for all but the wealthy, with the greediest sharks directly from Wall Street in charge of Wall Street, and people who want to destroy schools in charge of education, and people who have no idea what they’re doing in charge of the rest will affect me, even if it’s largely indirectly. And a big part of the tremendous upset is that I live among millions of people who voted for him, who weren’t bothered by his mocking the disabled reporter, his gleeful boasting of assaulting women, his harassment of ordinary people, his egging-on violence, etc etc etc. Not bothered by voting for the candidate endorsed by the KKK. Just not bothered by that. My fellow Americans.

The nightmare of his impact on global politics is likely to affect me, and I just hope we all survive. Except for our Civil War, we’ve never had war on the ground here, thanks in large part to the simple fact of geography. The terrifying thing is that with him, absolutely anything [bad] is possible, and the unimaginable — like him being elected in the first place — will be our actuality. Hence my dream, hence my constant despair which arises from the need to be ready for any nightmare.

Resist. We will resist. I will resist. We are stronger together, and as long as he doesn’t destroy the world (whether through war or his idiotic ignorance related to climate change) we can start over when he’s gone.

READ: One reason Obama always felt like my president — and this is a huge (yuge) distinction with the incoming not-my-president — is that his solace and ground is in books. He is a writer, and he has all the talents and skills of a novelist: a keen ear, an eye for the right details, an ability to observe, and an understanding that fiction has the capacity to tell the deep, sustained truths of human life. I can’t even process how deeply I’ll miss him, yet. My beautiful friend Deb directed me to this article in the NYTimes with/by Michiko Kakutani, their chief book reviewer, titled, “Obama’s Secret to Surviving the White House Years: Books.” I may have enjoyed the transcript of their conversation even more, because there is a lot more of his voice. If you like books and/or our beloved president, you’ll enjoy the articles too.

xoxoxo

three things: 1/16/17

FEED: When I went to the Quiet Morning event at MoMA last week, I stood in front of this painting with an overflowing heart:

Henri Matisse
Dance (I)
Paris, Boulevard des Invalides, early 1909

For a few years in the 1990s, I felt like this painting kept me going, kept me able to imagine that life could be worth living, that life might again have happiness and joy, that one day I might actually want to dance. They were hard years, uprooting years, dream-wrenching years, and I had a print of this painting on my bedroom wall so I could see it when I felt the most despair. Looking at it today, I remember my shattered heart and how that felt, and I remember the agony I felt in the times I felt this painting made a promise that couldn’t be delivered in my life — and then the fragile times I thought perhaps it could, after all. And now, the simple happiness I can feel in the wake of those years, to have survived them and to have danced. Whether you need hope, or know joy, this painting is a gift.

Here’s the gallery note for this painting: “In March 1909, Matisse received a commission from the Russian merchant Sergei Shchukin for two large decorative panels, Dance and Music (now in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg). This painting was made quickly as a compositional study for Dance, which was intended to hang on the landing of a staircase, approached from the lower right. This may be why the lower figure leans into the painting, increasing the sense of movement, and why the figure at left is so large, slowing it. Drawing visible beneath the paint shows that Matisse started with two smaller figures where the large figure is now.”

SEED: I want to talk about little-b bravery because I have been thinking about courage/bravery my whole life. (And in fact, one of the characters tattooed on my back is ‘courage,’ and I wrote a memoir chapter about it, which required me to think very carefully about the idea, the experience.) And then, whaddya know, Emily McDowell went and created a whole line of pins for people who exhibit bravery in their daily lives. I have bought four of them, one for me, one for my daughter, and two for women friends, because I agree with her: so many of us do brave things that will never receive the kind of attention that big noisy brave acts receive, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t brave acts. And that’s why I want to set “little-b bravery” as my focus here. The big-b Bravery is inspirational, aspirational, admirational, worthy of the kind of honor it receives — like John Lewis and his life-long fight for the civil rights and honor and dignity of black people in this country. It was a Brave act, walking over the Selma Bridge and in fact he was beaten and kicked quite terribly by Alabama State Troopers, who fractured his skull. He thought he was going to die, and he just kept going. There is no doubt that was a Brave act, and it’s also true that he continues to do Brave and brave acts every day, in his quiet, dogged persistence. I’ll probably never do anything in my life that approaches his degree of courage.

But I am brave. I have been brave in my life, and in fact most days it takes courage to keep going. My friend Nancy told me that the focus of my memoirs must be “what it is to live with it,” because I survived all the nightmares of my childhood, and in a way that was the easier part. (In a way.) Then, it was so often literally a matter of life and death, and that has a way of focusing things. But living with it all, living with the fallout, living with the consequences, living with the loneliness of it, the despair of it, well, that takes a lot of courage, and there are absolutely days that I don’t have enough courage. I do not keep a gun in my house for all the reasons, but the most pointed one is that I am afraid I will use it on myself. On Christmas Day, I was so overcome that if I’d had a gun, I would’ve walked into my back yard, sat on the rocks and just pulled the trigger. One minute, start to finish. My courage was too low that day, the despair too great. I’m so glad I didn’t have a gun.

But more days than anyone can imagine, I lie in bed when I first wake up and summon courage. I summon the courage to get up anyway. To live my life that day anyway. To find some kind of happiness, some bit of joy anyway. To be willing to be open to joy even though there are ways that continues to be hard. I do it — I seek happiness, I allow happiness, I welcome joy, but it’s a brave choice, most days. This isn’t even about depression, which I know too well; it’s about what it is to live with it. To have survived. To be the survivor.

And so the pin I bought myself says “I saved my own life.” That’s brave, and I might even argue that it’s Brave. (Probably not.) One of these days, when I have earned it, I’ll buy myself the one that says “Found My Voice.” My daughter survived unimaginable grief, and that’s brave. It’s so much easier to give up the game, fold up the cloth, disappear from life in all the ways we can do that — drinking too much, abandoning ourselves to whatever is our drug of choice (carbs, for me), withdrawing from the world, dissolving into hate and anger, abandoning people, as my son has done with his family who desperately love and miss him. So much easier. It’s brave to risk, to risk again, to risk loss, to risk hurt. To risk involvement. To risk connection. If that has never required bravery on your part, then you have had a lucky life, and I don’t begrudge it! You have your own ways of being brave, because I believe we all do — and so does Emily McDowell, as she acknowledges the dozens and dozens of ways we show up to life. The ways we show up anyway. The things we had to fight for and maybe still have to fight for every day. The things we survived. The things we live with, and live anyway. Like me, you are brave in your own ways, I’d bet my bottom dollar.

READ: I like to read about the process of writing, and in case you are a writer, you might like these links:

In a pretty low place right now. Pretty low.

three things: 1/14/17

My dear friend Craig has a website called Travel With Craig. He travels a lot and has a particular affinity for Italy; when he first went to Rome, he felt like he’d finally come home. He provides great information about the various places he visits around the world, check out his site! He travels very differently than I do, but I dearly love following his travels, and it’s always one of our most exciting topics of conversation: Where are you going next? One of the fabulous things he came up with for his website is the organization for his posts: Sights, Nights, and Bites. I’ve been thinking about my post from a couple of days ago, about the Wake Up Project and spiritual warriorship, and it all came together for me. Starting today, I’m going to follow Craig’s model and organize my posts in this way:

  • FEED  (“feed your mind beautiful things” — art, poetry, photography, something that will lift and elevate me, and I hope you too)
  • SEED (thoughts about whatever is consuming me, whether personal or world)
  • READ (whatever I’m reading, whether it’s a book or an article about something big or small)

So here goes:

FEED: It’s pouring rain as I write this and the skies are almost invisible, the rain is so thick, so I found myself longing for sunshine.

“The Sunflower,” Gustav Klimt, 1906-1907.

SEED: I am really struggling with my failing memory, and it’s so upsetting that I was even looking up nursing homes that work specifically with people who have lost their memories. There’s one in my Austin neighborhood (prompting Marc to say, “Well that’s good, you can keep all your old friends!”). Yesterday, by the time I got to the end of a thought I couldn’t remember what I’d been thinking, so I can no longer wait until the end of a thought, as I’d been able to do. I have to act the moment I start thinking about something. It’s so upsetting that it even got into a nightmare I had last night, where I was reading but couldn’t make any sense of the words. I could see they were written in English, but I couldn’t tell what it said.

I can remember older things. I can think, and process information. I can do all the things I’ve ever been able to do, I just can’t hold onto thoughts as they happen, things like, “Oh, gotta go brush my teeth.” It’s very much a failure of on-the-fly processing, and it’s terrifying. Doing memory exercises and working puzzles (word and numbers) hasn’t helped me at all, and in fact this seems to be getting worse. Marc said when he was in his mid-50s it happened to him, and it felt like a plummet — and then it stabilized, so the issue is not to fall into despair and catastrophize. I’m still waiting for things to stabilize and I hope it happens soon, because the despair and catastrophizing are sometimes threatening to swamp me.

click the image to go to the Amazon page

READ: I’m reading A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman, and I don’t think it’s a very ‘literary’ book as much as it is a ‘human-story’ book, as if those are separate categories. Ove is a cranky old man, bitter, judgmental of everyone and the world. And heartbroken by the recent death of his wife. Some of the most beautiful passages in the book describe his memory of her laughter:

“She laughed and laughed and laughed until the vowels were rolling across the walls and floors, as if they meant to do away with the laws of time and space.”

“He had never heard anything quite as amazing as that voice. She talked as if she was continuously on the verge of breaking into giggles. And when she giggled she sounded the way Ove imagined champagne bubbles would have sounded if they were capable of laughter.”

But it’s not a saccharine story at all; the passages that show you how Ove views the world are hilarious:

“The husband just nods back at her with an indescribably harmonious smile. The very sort of smile that makes decent folk want to slap Buddhist monks in the face, Ove thinks to himself.”

“Ove glares out of the window. The poser is jogging. Not that Ove is provoked by jogging. Not at all. Ove couldn’t give a damn about people jogging. What he can’t understand is why they have to make such a big thing of it. With those smug smiles on their faces, as if they were out there curing pulmonary emphysema. Either they walk fast or they run slowly, that’s what joggers do. It’s a forty-year-old man’s way of telling the world that he can’t do anything right. Is it really necessary to dress up as a fourteen-year-old Romanian gymnast in order to be able to do it? Or the Olympic tobogganing team? Just because one shuffles aimlessly around the block for three quarters of an hour? And the poser has a girlfriend. The Blond Weed, Ove calls her.”

The most commonly used word to describe this book, as I scan Goodreads and Amazon reviews, is “charming,” and I’d agree. It’s charming. Predictable in plot (exuberant family moves next door and save him from himself), but it’s a very enjoyable read so far. So if you’re looking for something like that, I recommend it! Of all the books I’m reading at the moment, it’s the lightest and easiest to read, and a variety of pleasures as I turn the pages.

Happy Saturday — I hope there is a corner of peace for you somewhere. xoxo

three things: 1/10/17

1)  Are you a completionist? I’d never heard the word until Karen Russell (author of Swamplandia) said it when she was introducing her reading of a Mavis Gallant story in a podcast I listened to yesterday. She described herself as not-quite-a-completionist of Gallant’s writings, and I got to wondering:

Is there a writer whose entire set of works you’ve read? All of them? Not just the big-name ones, but all of them?

I started thinking about some of my favorite writers, and I don’t think so:

my very favorite memoir

Nick Flynn — sure, his big three memoirs (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (x4), The Reenactment  (x2), Ticking is the Bomb), and one or two collections of his poetry, but not all his poetry. Dang.

Cormac McCarthy — Child of God, Suttree, Blood Meridian (x6), All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, No Country for Old Men (x3), and The Road, but not The Orchard Keeper, Outer Dark, or Cities of the Plain. (Nor any of his screenplays, short fiction, or plays.)

Salman Rushdie — Grimus, Midnight’s Children (x4), Shame, Satanic Verses (x3), The Moor’s Last Sigh, Fury, East West, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Imaginary Homelands but not The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Shalimar the Clown, The Enchantress of Florence, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, Luka and the Fire of Life, Joseph Anton, or The Jaguar Smile.

Victor Hugo — only Les Miserables and Notre Dame de Paris. 🙁

Dante — ding ding ding! Yep! I read The Divine Comedy, which was his only published work. And in several translations — my favorites being the John Ciardi translation, my sentimental favorite because I read it first, when I was a brand new mother, and the edition translated by the Hollanders, which is just extraordinary in every way.

William Faulker — The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Light in August, Absalom, Absalom, These 13 (which includes “A Rose for Emily”), but not The Hamlet, The Town, or The Mansion.

Ernest Hemingway — The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and A Moveable Feast, but none of the rest.

F. Scott Fitzgerald — all his novels: This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and The Damned, The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, The Last Tycoon, but none of his novellas or short stories.

this is the edition I have; my copy first belonged to my dad

Kurt Vonnegut — Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan (x???10?), Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle (x7 or 8?), God Bless you Mr Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions, Slapstick, Jailbird, Deadeye Dick, Galapagos, Bluebeard, Hocus Pocus, Timequake, Welcome to the Monkey House, Happy Birthday Wanda June, God Bless You Dr Kevorkian, Wampeters Foma and Granfaloons, Bagombo Snuffbox, and Palm Sunday. I missed a few novels and a bit of his non-fiction.

I guess one approach is to pick writers who don’t write very many books (like Dante). I get on these jags where I fall in love with a writer and just want to read it all, so I dig in. I did that with McCarthy for sure, and Vonnegut, and Rushdie, and Nick Flynn. As I’ve mentioned before, here, I bought these sets of hardback books when I was a teenager, four books by Hemingway, four by Faulkner, and four by Fitzgerald, and read them all at once, which I don’t recommend — especially for writers like those, who have such a specific and distinctive style. It then becomes hard to remember which one was which. (My favorite joke: Now which Hemingway was it where the guy dies in the mud, under the bridge? Oh yeah — all of them! 😉 )

I’m working on Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante, completing all their published works to date. And then sometimes I kind of outgrow a writer, I guess; I’ve read so many of their books and I come to feel like I understand them and their projects, and maybe they get a little tired, too, and a new book of theirs comes out and I just don’t have the interest. That happened to me with Salman Rushdie.

Some people love mystery writers and read all their works; Sue Grafton is a good example, with her alphabetical series. I guess I started early, reading all the Nancy Drews, all the Hardy Boys, all the Cherry Ames Student Nurse books, all the Trixie Beldens, and all the Boxcar Children books. It was not the worst habit I formed in my childhood. 🙂 So, you? I suppose you might do this with film-makers too, or musicians! Or actors. Or other artists. Hmmm. Any completionists in this crowd?

2) Do you know about this project? What’s Underneath:

You can click the image to go to the site, and I also provided it in the link, above. It’s a collection of stories (each accompanied by a video) by women (almost entirely, but not completely, and in some cases a story is about non-binary gender) and race, age, weight and size, illness, hair, work, motherhood, gender, identity, sexuality, all the things of real life and how they don’t immediately fit the Barbie image of “American woman,” but how the storytellers have found their way through, because of, despite, in celebration of their differences from Barbie ideals.

Diane Goldie

The one I most want to share is by London artist Diane Goldie, whose piece is called “Maybe I’m not ‘fuckable’…That’s fine, I’m not for you to fuck.” She is “a larger, menopausal, 51-year-old woman. I am not invisible.” When she was 13, she was raped by a 36-year-old pedophile. “After he raped me, I lost ownership of my body,” Diane says. “It became the vehicle in which I pleased other people.” I get that. Her video is no longer available on the What’s Underneath site, unfortunately, but I can share this, a video of Diane in conversation with Sue Kreitzman about wearable art. As you can guess by her picture, she isn’t trying to be invisible.

Me, I have a huge craving for a pair of cherry red tartan plaid pants and a close-fitting cherry red blazer.

3) I love this quote, which I saw in the caption of a beautiful photograph by author Maggie Mackellar, who lives on a farm on the east coast of Tasmania:

“…beauty & grace are performed whether or not we see or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” Annie Dillard

In addition to her gorgeous photography (I linked to her Instagram account above), she’s just the most beautiful, eloquent writer (two books published so far, she’s working on her next one). She published a three-part series last fall about her father’s death; this link will take you to the first piece, which will then lead you to the other two. Anyway, Maggie knows very well about suffering, and perhaps this is what helped her recognize the power of the Annie Dillard quote about beauty and grace.

It’s there, beauty & grace, even if you have to look very very hard. Even if the day feels heavy and ugly, even if you look out your window and see gray and brown and filth, even if you’re just sitting in the same old place you always sit, beauty & grace are happening somewhere — maybe you don’t see it right now but it is. When I’m having a hard time seeing it in my surroundings, for some reason I always think about the glacier valley we walked through in Norway — Lyngsdalen — and that no matter what’s happening, those mountains are just standing there over that valley. In the months-long dark, they stand there, and maybe the Northern Lights dance through the valley, or maybe not, but they stand there, solid and present no matter what. Whether anyone is looking, whether war is raging somewhere, whether I am lonely or bleak, those beautiful mountains are standing over that valley.

I walked there. I drank handfuls of cold glacier water out of that river running through the valley. It’s doing its thing RIGHT NOW.

The least we can do is try to see the beauty & grace where and when we find it. That seems like the least we can do. See it, notice it, take it in.

Flying day for me, back to Austin — xoxox

three things: 1/7/17

1) I’ll begin with a poem titled “A New National Anthem,” by Ada Limón:

The truth is, I’ve never cared for the National
Anthem. If you think about it, it’s not a good
song. Too high for most of us with “the rockets
red glare” and then there are the bombs.
(Always, always, there is war and bombs.)
Once, I sang it at homecoming and threw
even the tenacious high school band off key.
But the song didn’t mean anything, just a call
to the field, something to get through before
the pummeling of youth. And what of the stanzas
we never sing, the third that mentions “no refuge
could save the hireling and the slave”? Perhaps,
the truth is, every song of this country
has an unsung third stanza, something brutal
snaking underneath us as we blindly sing
the high notes with a beer sloshing in the stands
hoping our team wins. Don’t get me wrong, I do
like the flag, how it undulates in the wind
like water, elemental, and best when it’s humbled,
brought to its knees, clung to by someone who
has lost everything, when it’s not a weapon,
when it flickers, when it folds up so perfectly
you can keep it until it’s needed, until you can
love it again, until the song in your mouth feels
like sustenance, a song where the notes are sung
by even the ageless woods, the short-grass plains,
the Red River Gorge, the fistful of land left
unpoisoned, that song that’s our birthright,
that’s sung in silence when it’s too hard to go on,
that sounds like someone’s rough fingers weaving
into another’s, that sounds like a match being lit
in an endless cave, the song that says my bones
are your bones, and your bones are my bones,
and isn’t that enough?

Our country is breaking, as was inevitable, and our time is passing. I just hope we don’t do too much damage to the world before it’s all over. One thing I loved about the poem so much were the lines, “best when it’s humbled, / brought to its knees, clung to by someone who / has lost everything, when it’s not a weapon, / when it flickers”.

2)  One of my favorite paintings is by an artist named Helen Frankthaler. She was born in Manhattan in 1928, and began exhibiting her work in the 1950s. This one is titled Eve, and I must have somehow seen it the year it was painted (1995), because I think I’ve loved it that long. I remember having it as my computer wallpaper in 1996, for a full year. I find it so hard to stop looking at it. That exquisite yellow-orange, the shapes above it that certainly suggest a hanging apple. The thin, wavery line, the watery blue.

1995
Medium: Prints and multiples, color screenprint on woven paper
Edition of 108
44 x 29 7/8 inches (full margins)
Catalogue: Ann Kendall Richards, Inc. Inventory Catalogue

I only just learned that she was married to Robert Motherwell, another of my favorite artists! Wow, what a home theirs must have been.

3) Such a terrible feeling, the feeling of being out of control of yourself. Of deciding you’re going to start (or stop) doing a thing, swearing to yourself you are, and then to do it. Again. And again. And then the renewed vow. Even though I have never suffered an addiction, I do know this feeling from a more ordinary position, from getting back on a sugar/eating binge (I’ve been eating my fear and despair since before the election and it feels terrible) or getting out of the healthy habits that make me feel so good, and struggling to return to them as my norm. I remember my dad vowing at night as he was poured into bed, by me for a long time, that tomorrow would be different, tomorrow he wouldn’t drink, but then the next morning he couldn’t get out of bed without a big tumbler full of straight vodka, and the cycle would begin again. That cycle leads to such intense self-loathing, so common among addicts, and I’m grateful not to have that part of it, the self-loathing. I’m grateful to be kinder to myself, gentler to myself, to instead try to help myself in manageable ways. Today, just drink lots of good water, that’s all you need to do. And take a yin yoga class, so nourishing and manageable, and let tomorrow be whatever tomorrow will be. Just today, drink water and take a yin class.

Be kind to yourself, that’s the most important place to start — it really is. If you are kind to yourself, it’s so easy to be kind to other people. It’s so easy to have a bit of yourself to give, then, to send out into the world. Open your phone and look through your text messages — pick one and just send a kind note, a quick text, a surprise bit of kindness. Texts require no time commitment, just a few thumb strokes, and a click. Make yourself or someone else a beautiful meal. Pick or buy a flower, for you or someone else. Little things, quick things, kindnesses — and start with yourself. Just for today. xoxoxoxo

three things: 1/6/17

1)  Today I’ll lead with a piece of art I love, and I’ll bet you could make a good guess about where the artist, Jane Parker, is from:

roughly 24 by 30 inches, gouache and ink and color on heavy paper

This piece just makes my mind vibrate, and I feel the vibrations come down into my whole body. I really love it — and the colors, that turquoise and the orange, so alive together. She is Australian, which felt immediately knowable to me when I saw her work. The tiny dots, right? I absolutely do know that not all Australian art has the tiny dots, the aboriginal dots, but if dots, then aboriginal / Australian, more or less, for a pretty solid first guess. One of my favorite Australians is a woman named Fiona Edmonds Dobrijevich; I mentioned her underwater photography a few posts ago (follow her on Instagram, where she’s @fifi_dob), and she’s also a beautiful painter. I love her still lives and whatever else she paints, but at the moment I’m enamored of her underwater paintings. Fiona swims in the ocean every single day (around Sydney I believe) and she doesn’t count it a good day unless she has swum with sharks. She is very different from me in this way. 🙂

2) I’ve been thinking about this thing and I don’t think I can articulate it exactly right just yet, but it’s this: Each person holds a whole, complete universe inside them, a whole, fully peopled, memoried world, and when they’re gone it’s all gone too. Me, you, all of us. Whole worlds. It’s not like we’re just individuals walking around, we’re whole worlds. A world full of worlds. It’s led me to see things so differently, this thought; I look out my New York window at people on the sidewalk, and I see universes passing by, universes colliding and crossing paths.

I move my hands to music in the way the song leader at my childhood church led the songs. No one knows that’s what I’m doing, so while Marc is making our dinner and we’re listening to Sia sing “Breathe Me,” and my hand starts moving, it seems like a random weirdo thing but it’s the Loving Highway Church of Christ, Tommy Thompson leading the music, the smell of the songbooks, my mother’s stale coffee breath but her strong voice carrying the harmony line always, the lush sound of the minor harmonies all around me, surrounding me. The girl with the port wine birthmark staining 3/4 of her face in three-dimensional strangeness. My dad in his suit, miserable because he didn’t get to have a drink yet. That’s all there with me as I move my hands in 2017, in New York, and no one knows it. I carry them, bring them into the world with me. When I die, no one will remember my father as a living person. The Loving Highway Church of Christ is gone now, and eventually there will be no one alive who remembers going to that old building, who remembers Tommy Thompson leading the singing.

A song from Elton John’s Greatest Hits album, mid-1970s, is in the air — Rocket Man, let’s say — and I’m sitting on the splintered wooden steps of the mobile home in Wichita Falls, handstitching those red sequins on that gray T-shirt, a big glittery heart, and that whole world reemerges in its full memory and sensory detail, a real world, a world I know, feeling states and body states, each connected outward to people and places, Hirschi High School, summer band camp, all blooming while the song plays. That world lies inside me, dormant usually, but ready to bloom when any of those songs plays. I can’t even share it with you properly, no matter how fully I describe it, but in me it’s vivid and as alive as I am, and when I die all of that will disappear. I can’t quite get this articulated the way I want to express it, but this is what I have right now and I can’t stop thinking about it.

3) I vaguely remembered a poem and looked through my computer, and after a few online stumbles I came across a fabulous site called Language is a Virus. If you are a writer or lover of language from any direction, check it out and bookmark it, as I did. Among other things, it provides a daily writing prompt, and yesterday’s was “Write about the strangest thing you own.”

Well, since I had to buy every single thing anew when I moved in October 2012, I don’t really have any strange things, but immediately I thought of one of the two things I have that belonged to my dad (the other being a little wooden boat he created as a kid). I don’t know what the thing is called, so I image-googled ‘clicker counter’ and there it was. This one looks almost exactly like mine, except this one is on a little stand and mine has a metal loop because it was handheld. He’d put his left index finger through the loop and hold it in his hand and use it when he was looking through a set of plans to count architectural elements: how many fuse boxes, how many studs, etc. I don’t know the details for sure, but I think he was a draftsman. I know he worked for an architectural firm called Page Southerland Page, which used to be a small office in Austin on West Avenue (whenever I’m driving on W 6th and I pass by the old location, it blooms back into existence). I can see him sitting at his drafting table, using a carmine pencil to touch the elements as he counted them all, clicking clicking clicking the count. I have absolutely no idea how I ended up with his clicker, couldn’t even make up a story about that, and it’s amazing that somehow I still have it 35 years (and countless moves) after his death, but I do. It’s rusty and beaten-up, dented, but obviously a counting device so it can only seem so strange, but it’s strange enough. I guess this is another thing that relates to my previous wondering — the whole world we each carry. When I die, and someone is going through my things, this will likely be picked up, turned over, frowned-over a bit, and then tossed in the throwaway pile. What’s that? Who knows, pitch. And there will go a piece of the world. There will go not just the knowledge of what it was, but carmine pencils, and the old location of that firm on West Avenue, and Bob Tieman and the other architects who were so good to my dad even when he was too drunk to work, and the summer parties the firm threw in Northwest Park, and my mother dressed in 1960s style with her fall and capri pants, and on and on and on….

Somewhere I have a picture of one of those PSP summer parties, but I couldn’t find it — instead I found this, a houseboat party on Lake Travis, probably a PSP party. That’s my mother in the front, wearing the big sunglasses (I remember her sewing her outfit), and my dad holding the Jolly Roger up so it could be seen. I think I also remember my mother sewing that flag. I imagine the others in the photo are architects from PSP. All of this comes to life when I see the clicker. They look happy there, 1966 I think, and back then I believe my dad could still be happy when he was drunk, which he certainly was in this picture. I think my mother still believed that my dad could take her somewhere.

[even though I frequently wrote “when I die” in this post, I am not feeling death-gloomy at all! My time at MoMA really did lift my spirits, as is this daily focus on art, what medicine.] [xoxoxoxox]

three things: 1/5/17

1)  I once knew a very bitter old woman named Ann-Marie who said NO, no matter what you asked. Back when her kids were almost teenagers (she was in her late 70s when I met her), she had gotten tired of doing for everyone, of always being the one who sacrificed, and so she decided that whatever they asked her, she would say no. “Will you take me there?” NO. “Can you bring—” “NO.” There was almost nothing they could ask her that would get a yes answer. She stuck with it too, to a truly remarkable degree. Even in her dying years, she would still say no to almost any request. It was stunning, and sobering, and her bitterness is the main thing I remember about her. My kids were pre-teens when I met her, and she became a cautionary tale for me, about the poison of years-long, intense self-sacrifice. As with all things, it’s a balance and we all have to find our own way, but I know I’ve too-easily felt like I gave away the farm, like I just said yes, sure, I will, OK, whatever you want way too often. And the underneath of that (the “the dark, tarry smear” of it, to steal a bit of a quote that Peggy shared yesterday, by Amy Bloom) is resentment. And resentment is definitely a poison. I tell my daughters all the time not to constantly set themselves aside. To get themselves a new shirt when they need one, instead of wearing a ratty old one but buying another toy for their babies. To go out for some time to themselves.

So at the guided meditation at MoMA yesterday, when the meditation teacher asked us to think of a characteristic we might want to focus on in the coming year, I heard in a very quiet but clear voice that I want two things: (a) quiet, and (b) selfishness. And by that I mean that I want to privilege myself in the coming year, I want to pause before every commitment and allow my own needs and desires to be my first consideration. I’m a pleaser and a sacrificer so it’ll be hard and that probably means I don’t have to worry too much about becoming the bad kind of selfish; privileging myself will just help me course-correct and bring me a little closer to some illusory middleground. It’s hard even to say this! I don’t want to be like Anne-Marie, obviously, but this is something that will be helpful to me, I hope. YES. I say yes to this.

I would ask if this is something you struggle with, but since everyone who reads this (as far as I know) is a woman, I imagine the answer is yes. And to the degree it’s less true for you, I also imagine that’s because you pointedly worked on it. Yes?

2)  Tonight I’m meeting my friend Craig for dinner at an Indian food restaurant, but before then I’m going to the main New York Public Library because the Rose Reading Room reopened in October after an extended period of renovation. I’ll take my moleskine and my beautiful pen and sit at a long table with a low light, underneath the magnificent ceiling, and write for a while. That will be a slug of beauty in my day, for sure. My friend Anne mentioned seeking out a beautiful thing to photograph every day, and January in NYC makes it pretty tough but I am sure I’ll find a corner, a bit of architectural detail, a book jacket, something to relish.

Ceiling detail
Isn’t it so lovely? And it’s even more lovely when there are people reading and working there.

3) So, my new theory. Going to MoMA for the Quiet Morning event was as juvenating (not rejuvenating because I was so low in the trough there was no juvenation to re-ignite) as I’d hoped and maybe even more. This depression, this new kind, isn’t about my deep psyche, and so I imagine that’s exactly why art is working. My depression is about the world, the bitter cold wind of it, the tyrant-coming of it, the fear and dread. Because every day brings new terribleness, it’s hard to find space to catch my breath and get my head above the depressed water. But art is still in the world, and artists. Poetry, and poets. Music, and composers and performers. Dance, and dancers. Beautiful novels, and novelists. That’s all still there, too. And so are blue skies (just not where I am, FOR REAL) and all my favorite clouds, and Bali, and Vietnam and Laos, and all the places I’ve loved. To help with this depression, those are the medicine, soaking them in, being reminded. Unusually, my people aren’t the direct medicine this time, because the dread world is going to steamroll all of them and so they remind me even more of my fear and dread — oh no, not them too, please. Please.

I’ve already bought my ticket for the next Quiet Morning at MoMA, February 1, and in between I am planning to keep inoculating myself with art. I think I’ll pick an artist for each week, and a poet for each week, and sort of assign myself to soak them up in a more focused way.  OR I could choose a color for a week, here and there — brilliant golden-yellow, find art that features that color, maybe, or crimson, or blues (OH MY the blues, I saw some extraordinary blues at MoMA yesterday).

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 was the third time I’ve seen it in person and it’s never less than the same electric experience.

And that reminds me of a thing Sherlock used to do, back in the pre-digital camera days. I did this with him one Saturday our first year of graduate school I think, and it was fabulous. Before we set out with our cameras loaded with a roll of film (36 pictures, if I recall), we each chose a theme. Circles, maybe. Red. Words. Something abstract like that. Then we just drove. We drove through the countryside, we stopped in very small towns, and we took photographs of whatever fit our theme. When we’d taken all our pictures, we dropped off the film to be developed and printed, and we went out for lunch while we waited. It was so much fun, I remember it still (and that was probably 1999, which is….what? No, really? Eighteen years ago??).

Republicans don’t appear to think so, but we need art. We need beauty. We need the abstract. We need the Big. xoxox