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?

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.

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: 2/1/17

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: 1/22/17

FEED: I’ll be feeding for a week off the energy from the Women’s March. The organizers in Austin were expecting 22,000 people but there were between 50,000 and 60,000. I marched with my dear friend Deb and my wonderful daughter Katie, who was able to come after all thanks to her husband’s work schedule. We were near the front of the [alleged] starting point, but there were so many people already on Congress Avenue, in front of the capitol, that it was almost an hour before we started moving.

That’s the Texas state capitol (it’s a replica of the US capitol, but in pink granite). Deb and Katie and I were at the bottom of that paired row of trees on the front lawn, waiting to march down…..
Congress Avenue, the broad street that is the center of downtown, going from the capitol, over the river, into south Austin. It was extraordinary, no kidding.

People like to say that Austin is a big city, but it isn’t, really. Chicago, LA, NY, Boston, those are big cities. Austin is a large town with a WHOLE LOT of people in it. So this was amazing. People came in buses from all around the state, they drove in this morning, just to march here, in front of our regressive state government. It was peaceful. Beautiful. I wanted to hug every single person I saw.

Katie and I, waiting for the march to get started, about an hour before it was to begin. Marnie marched in Chicago, and Marc marched in NYC. Our family represented!

SEED: I’ll tell you this: trolls have zero sense of irony. Yesterday a nasty little troll who lives near Roswell, Georgia left an anonymous comment on my blog that said this:

why don’t you and your radical friends move to Russia!!!!! (subject line: “sick of your bs”)

HAHAHAHAHA! Gosh. Where even to begin. I think it’s a safe bet that this troll is a Trumpeter. Right? That she (for I have figured out who she is) voted for Putin’s puppet. What is it about people like this that always makes them tell us to move to Russia, anyway? Also: trolls love exclamation points. !!!!!

And these extra “patriotic” trolls have their little feelings hurt so badly when an American exercises her First Amendment rights. Choose-your-own-patriotism, I guess.

Also, if you are “sick of [my] bs” I have a simple little fix for you: don’t read it! No one is forcing you. Please, feel free to never read my blog again, I’m serious! Do me and yourself a favor, please. Because I’m not going to be silent so you can be comfortable (and especially not on my own damn blog! Sheesh!).

This is something I really do not understand. I know a couple of people who voted for Trump, and I never bring up politics with them. Never. (Similarly, I never comment on (or read) their political FB posts, ever, but they will slap a comment on mine, what??) Because there is no point, the abyss is too deep. I never bring up politics, and if a conversation by others starts drifting in that direction, I do my best to shift it into a safer zone. But they inevitably bring up politics with me, and you can tell that I have opinions, dammit. (And not only that, I’m super angry about this, which they also know from previous times they’ve brought up politics. What is that about?) So if they do, I don’t hold back. I say exactly what I think, and I’m not delicate about it. They brought up the conversation, and they know my position. I get very upset and shaky inside, because one friend especially I care about so much, I love her dearly, and I don’t want to unleash my anger at her, but I am angry. So it’s completely unpleasant for me, I don’t like it, I don’t wish to talk about it, but THEY BRING IT UP. Again and again. One has said things to me like, “Don’t you agree, liberals don’t think for themselves?” WITH FOX NEWS BLARING IN THE BACKGROUND.

Oh, I’m angry. I’m so angry. It’s not pleasant to have these intense feelings, and I am trying to figure out why my fury is this huge. I really hate unfairness, especially when people who have power wield it over those who don’t — that’s something that always makes me see red. So maybe it’s that, I don’t know, but I’d like to get a handle on it so I don’t stroke out, because I have a lot of political work to do.

Trolls? If you don’t like what I write here, on my own tiny little corner of the Internet, just leave me alone. Please.

READ: So I finished reading A Man Called Ove, which took me so long because I’ve been on a great run of sleeping. Here’s my GoodReads review, in case you’re interested in reading the book:

A Man Called OveA Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I was deciding whether to read this book, I noticed that the most common word in all the Amazon and GoodReads reviews was “charming.” And honestly, I couldn’t write a review without that word either! It’s not just that the man called Ove was curmudgeonly charming, it’s that the approach of the book was charming, too. From the funny chapter titles to the way the story is fed out, to the glorious characters, to Ove’s endless stumbling blocks to joining Sonja, every last bit was charming. The general plot was a bit predictable — exuberant new neighbor saves sad old curmudgeon who finds no use for life until she explodes into his life — but honestly? That didn’t matter. I didn’t care. I didn’t care that I spotted the plot arc the moment they met. I didn’t care that the various subplots were predictable. In large part that’s because of the good storytelling, the lovely writing, and the moments of big truth, and in the remaining part it’s because I really cared about Ove, a lot. Really good book, I enjoyed reading it a lot, and always regretted that my time to read is too brief. [View all my reviews]

Now I’m reading another Scandinavian book (Ove was Swedish, this one’s Norwegian) one called Land of Hidden Fires, which I am reading for NetGalley. More on that later. New book club in the house tonight, to discuss Underground Railroad oh heck yeah.

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: 1/17/17

FEED: My Sunday was incredible — I attended the National Poets Against Trump protest and the National Writers Resist protest here in Austin, and wished with all my heart I could’ve been at the ones in New York City. The writers’ protest there was held on the steps of the New York Public Library, and how I would’ve loved to be there.

At the NYPL

I also attended a training session for nonviolent protest, organized by the women organizing the Austin Women’s March (they’re expecting more than 22,000 people!), so all that comes together to lead me to share this powerful poem.

A Woman Speaks (Audre Lorde)

Moon marked and touched by sun
my magic is unwritten
but when the sea turns back
it will leave my shape behind.
I seek no favor
untouched by blood
unrelenting as the curse of love
permanent as my errors
or my pride
I do not mix
love with pity
nor hate with scorn
and if you would know me
look into the entrails of Uranus
where the restless oceans pound.

I do not dwell
within my birth nor my divinities
who am ageless and half-grown
and still seeking
my sisters
witches in Dahomey
wear me inside their coiled cloths
as our mother did
mourning.

I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic
and the noon’s new fury
with all your wide futures
promised
I am
woman
and not white.

From The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde.

That feeds me, sisters, it does.

This is amazing, amazing Joe Brundidge.

SEED: Even though mine is such a heavily literary life, I’m not hooked into the quite large literary community here in Austin, though I want to be — especially after attending the writers protest and seeing a good portion of it. I sat there at BookPeople thinking These are my people. All of them, these are MY people. I thought it at the poets protest too; we who need words, who value words, who understand the power of words to fight, and who turn to them in times of trouble. He was at the poets protest too, but I must have been distracted because I didn’t really GET Joe until he spoke at the writers protest. He read two pieces, the first of which I remembered from the poets protest a few hours earlier. But then he read the second one, and he is such an amazing speaker it just felt like he suddenly started talking to us, and with urgency. It was about the critical importance of doing your work, of not waiting, and of how important it is, and he spoke right to the things you say that stop yourself, and he was right there ready to step into the muck and lift you out, rinse it off of you because he needs you, he needs your voice. I just sat there crying and feeling LOVED, and held. When he finished speaking, the next speaker was Sarah Bird — actually the person I was most eager to hear — but I couldn’t pay attention because I was afraid Joe would leave, so I just kept my eye on him.

As soon as Sarah quit speaking, while the next speaker was being introduced I jumped up (I was on the front row) and dashed over to Joe, who didn’t know me from Adam. I asked, “Can I hug you?” And with his giant smile, this tremendous bear of a man reached out his arms and hugged me so tight, so solid and still, and for so long. I moved slightly, to end the hug, just because I didn’t want him to feel stuck, and he didn’t let go. So I just relaxed, and I’ll bet we hugged for two solid minutes, maybe three. I thanked him and told him how much I needed to hear what he said, and my eyes filled with tears. Then I got shy and embarrassed and ducked back to my seat, but for the rest of the night I was held by him, and his words, and I felt better than I have in a very long time.

Joe is a host on Writing on the Air (here are his interviews), and he’s the director of the Austin International Poetry Festival. Here’s Joe in action, at Austin’s wonderful, wonderful independent book store Malvern Books, host of the poets protest and so many other wonderful events. He’s not as intense and passionate in this video as he was at the protest, but you get a feel for who he is.

That’s one thing I love about life. You can just be sitting there, expecting so little, and encounter someone who blows you over, envelopes you with love and acceptance and wonder, and you come away healed. I love that.

READ: I will just share some good thoughts and reading if you’re in the same general mindset I’m in this week, as we prepare for ….. ugh. Well, you know. Think about, remember, do these things:

  • “My existence requires no one’s permission.” (Joe Brundidge, beautiful Joe)
  • Someone at the poets protest said, “Aesthetically and philosophically, any poetry is against Trump.” No Republican president has ever had a poet at inauguration. Shocked? Nah.
  • “Don’t just sit there simulating a free person.” ~Austin poet Greg Liotta
  • When he takes the oath of office on Friday, January 19, you take the oath too. Take the oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution (against him and his swamp monsters).
    https://www.wall-of-us.org/taketheoath/
  • Here’s a list of 27 books every woman should read if they’re going to the women’s march or NOT. I’ve only read five, how can that be…..gotta get busy.
  • A pivot: Harvard’s photography courses are online, and free. If you complete all the modules, you get a certificate. The software they use is old (~2009, I think), but the basics of photography haven’t changed.

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: 1/11/17

1)  I think a lot about the truthiness of things, and of course I have my historical, personal reasons for it. I read this passage in Fall on Your Knees, a powerful book by Anne-Marie MacDonald, and it has stayed with me:

“It’s a sin for Lily to let Mercedes think it was Daddy who beat up Frances. But he has done it in the past. Surely truth can be borrowed across time without perishing. Shelf life, so to speak.”

“Surely truth can be borrowed across time….” That. And the shelf life of truth, that too. Freud talked about ‘screen memories,’ one that may in itself be false but that masks a deeper, true memory of great emotional significance. And in Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch said,

“The more a person recalls a memory, the more they change it. Each time they put it into language, it shifts. The more you describe a memory, the more likely it is that you are making a story that fits your life, resolves the past, creates a fiction you can live with. It’s what writers do. Once you open your mouth, you are moving away from the truth of things. According to neuroscience, the safest memories are locked in the brains of people who can’t remember. Their memories remain the closest replica of actual events. Underwater. Forever.”

And so, as I continue this extremely difficult process of writing my two memoirs, and as I myself am not always absolutely certain about the truth of my memories in certain aspects, the truth of my own experiences even when my body knows the fact of them, the question of the unreliable narrator haunts me. I’m unreliable in so very many ways — including the mere fact of having told my stories a number of times — and yet I insist on the deep truth of all my memories, of all my experiences. Did this experience happen like this in the moment I am writing about, in this specific scene? Can I borrow truth across time without losing its truth? I insist that I can. Owning, telling, remembering, writing the truth of your life is not the same as being on a witness stand accusing another person of a specific crime, for which they can be judged and punished.

Right? I think so. (And if you are strong, read Chronology of Waterhere’s my GoodReads review, it was such a powerful story. The link also includes the material I highlighted, passages I loved for one reason or another.)

And in a funny twist, this quote was in my quote widget (in the right sidebar) when I was writing:

“A common feature of many theories of trauma is the idea that the causative—the wounding—event is not remembered but relived, as it is in the flashbacks of combat veterans, experienced anew with a visceral immediacy that affords no critical distance. To remember something, you have to consign it to the past—put it behind you—but trauma remains in the present; it fills that present entirely. You are inside it. Your mouth is always filled with the taste of blood. The killers are always crashing through the brush behind you. Some researchers believe that trauma bypasses the normal mechanisms of memory and engraves itself directly on some portion of the brain, like a brand. Cattle are branded to signify that they are someone’s property, and so, too, were slaves. The brand of trauma signifies that henceforth you yourself are property, the property of that which has injured you. The psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi believed that trauma is characterized by the victim’s helpless identification with the perpetrator, and elsewhere in the literature one often comes across the word “possession.” The moment of trauma marks an event horizon after which memory ceases. Or else memory breaks down, so that the victim can reconstruct the event but not the feeling that accompanied it, or alternatively only the feeling.” —Peter Trachtenberg

2)  Here’s a poem I really love, and hope you like it, too:

REALISM (Beth Bachmann)

God said, your name is mud
and the thing about mud is you
got to throw it down
repeatedly
to remove the air
and sometimes cut it
and rejoin it with another part.
If stars are made of dust,
it’s not the same stuff,
God said;
you can’t make a hut out of it,
only heaven,
and when I said dust to dust,
that’s not what I meant.

3) I read a collection of short stories by a new (to me!) writer named Carl MacDougall — Someone Always Robs the Poor. He’s a very well-established Scottish writer, and the stories are set almost entirely in Scotland and most are about alcohol in some way, and frequently violence.

The stories often left me stunned, like the powerful story “Korsakoff’s Psychosis” that took me right into the experience of a late-stage alcoholic, with all the horrors of that life. It was hard to read that story, and hard to look away even though I wanted to, because the prose slipped me right into the terrible, tragic remnants of mind. The story “William John MacDonald” broke the narrative form to tell a terrible sad story (one of many stories related to drunk men) of a young man’s tragic encounter with violence and drinking. On occasion I had to read a page a few times — in part because of cultural references that weren’t familiar to me, and in part because of the style of storytelling. I was always glad to read and re-read.

On the whole, the stories were sad and tragic, although they were never told with melodrama. Instead, they were quiet and deeply emotional, and I sometimes paused when one ended, and held it for a long while before I slipped into the next. What a powerful collection of stories that will haunt me. I read and ARC, and the book won’t be published until February 23, but I heartily recommend it. It’s a quick read; I read the bulk of it on the flight from New York to Austin, about 3.5 hours.

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

two things: 1/9/17

1)  Well it’s been cold and gross here in New York, with just enough snow to make a mess but not enough to be pretty and fun. So we spent all day yesterday finishing up the plans and the blog for our trip to Indonesia at the end of March. Indonesia comprises 17,508-18,306 islands (8,844 have been named, and 922 of those are permanently inhabited). The largest cluster is on Java, with ~130 million inhabitants (60% of the country’s population) on an island the size of New York State. The last time we went to Indonesia in May, 2013, we went to Java — Jakarta briefly, Yogyakarta, and Solo — and Bali. We were so-so about Java but absolutely adored Bali. With so very many islands, like Greece they’re organized in groupings. We’re focusing on the Lesser Sunda islands of Bali, Lombok, Timor (overnight), and Rote. Lombok has an active volcano, Mount Rinjani, which last erupted three times in May, 2010.

the blog head — click the image to go to the blog

Unlike our last trip to Laos and Thailand, we’re going almost entirely to places that are new to us, with one exception. In Bali, we’re returning to Ubud to stay again at Alam Jiwa (the name means ‘soul of nature’), largely, I think, because I want to return there. You can see pictures of the place in the post from that blog if you are curious; there’s something about Bali that is extraordinary and lush and creatively gorgeous. Everything they make is an offering of some kind, everything created is made with a specific kind of beauty. Unlike the rest of Indonesia Bali is Hindu, not Muslim, and you can feel that difference, and see it. I can’t wait to get back to Alam Jiwa, just can’t wait.

And the place we’re staying on Lombok that’s near the volcano, I can’t wait for that, either. Just look at this gorgeous view from the hotel:

Rinjani Lodge

It helps a lot having this to look forward to, with the political stuff that’s coming right up. And I hasten to remind myself that other things are coming right up, too, beyond all the marches and protests I’ll participate in: friends’ birthdays, poetry group and book club meetings (to talk about books!), Marnie’s and Ilan’s visit to Austin, a return to NYC, a visit to Chicago to celebrate Marnie’s and Ilan’s birthday (his first, wow), and then we’re off to Indonesia. The only bad thing about the trip is that I’ll miss celebrating Oliver’s third birthday with his family, and I hate that because I’ve been part of the others. But I’ll celebrate him wherever I am, for sure.

2) If you’re a big reader you probably already know about this, but in case you don’t: Netgalley! Create an account (free) as a reader, choose the publishers you’re most interested in (I chose the ones that tend to publish my favorite books, obviously), and then get free copies of forthcoming books, delivered right to your e-reader. You are asked to write a review of the books you read, wherever you might do that — GoodReads, Amazon, your own blog — but there is no obligation to write a positive review. You may see this mentioned if you read others’ reviews on GoodReads; a reviewer will mention that s/he got an ARC (advance reading copy), so that’s what this means. The book may not be in its final, fully copy edited form, so there may be typos, but (a) free books, (b) before anyone else gets to read them! I already write reviews of everything I read so of course I signed up.

Right now I’m reading Someone Always Robs the Poor, by Carl MacDougall (a new collection of brilliant stories from the multi-award winning elder statesman of Scottish literature, exploring themes of poverty, migration, alienation, accountability and alcoholism, with an impressive depth and emotional range) and Land of Hidden Fires, by Kirk Kjeldsen, set in Occupied Norway in 1943. They always ask for feedback about the cover, too. It’s a win-win situation if you’re broke, like me, and you love to read. There isn’t the same time constraint as with a library book, either.

A bonus:

Ilan is TEN months old now, how shocking is that?! He’s so beautiful I can barely drag my eyes away, and he’s really getting into mischief now, and is cruising around.
Oliver is getting so big! He’s super tall and very thin, and he wakes up SO HAPPY
Aww….Lucy is four months old, and just the sweetest little baby. She can never take her eyes off her mama, and she has this little honking laugh, like a goose. Apple of Pete’s eye, she is.

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

three things: 1/3/17

1)  I started reading Underground Airlines by Ben Winters, following on the heels of The Underground Railroad, and so far it’s spectacular. Honestly, I don’t know why the black people in the United States aren’t raging and fighting white America all the time. (And we women, too.) They (we) have every right to be doing that, and every single time some white American says something about slavery being a long time ago just get over it . . . well hell, even want to punch those people in the throat. This country. We arrived and right off the bat started killing people and stealing their land, and just kept doing that (through to today). And then we stole people from another continent and brutalized them in unimaginable ways to enrich ourselves, and then enacted laws to keep them from getting anywhere (through to today). One horrible thing I learned when a friend did my ancestry is that someone in my history owned slaves in Georgia. She shrugged a little, it’s the thing you learn, and yet it’s horrifying to imagine. And so I too deserve the rage. In the second episode of The OA, a new series on Netflix, a voice-over read the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty (“The New Colossus”) and vomit came up in my throat, it’s such a lie.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The world is going mad and it’s so scary. And the United States is the engine of so much of it. How does a person work with that? (I’ll say more about Underground Airlines after I finish it….)

2) Depression status stable. Not feeling better but not feeling worse, and when you deal with depression you know that’s a good enough report. One thing I’m trying (among many things) is a daily inoculation of art, and today I’m rolling my eyeballs around in this glorious color — great thanks to my beautiful friend Anne for posting the painting on FB a couple of days ago:

Max Kurzweil (Austrian; Art Nouveau, Vienna Secession; 1867-1916): Lady in Yellow, 1899. Oil on canvas. Vienna Museum at Karlsplatz, Vienna, Austria.

That color! I would really like to take my eyeballs out of my head and just roll them around in it, coat them like you do a sugar cookie, and then pop them back so that color can seep into me. It’s so glorious, especially in these very gray NYC days. Tomorrow I’m going to a special event at MoMA, 1.5 hours of silence on the 4th and 5th floor galleries, ending in a guided meditation (in front of Monet’s “Water Lilies,” I think). That ought to help too.

My dear sister-friend Peggy gave me the suggestion to make a long list (25 items on mine) of small things I could do, simple things, nourishing things, and you know, when you’re mentally flat and blank the problem is that nothing feels do-able anyway, much less thinking up a list of things. But with her help I did, and daily art is doable. If you are prone to depression, make your list when you’re not depressed, it’s much easier.

3)  Another bit of art stolen from a friend’s FB (this time from beautiful Kathy, who understands so much):

This is not an age of beauty,
I say to the Rite-Aid as I pass a knee-high plastic witch
whose speaker-box laugh is tripped by my calf
breaking the invisible line cast by her motion
sensor. My heart believes it is a muscle

of love, so how do I tell it it is a muscle of blood?

This morning, I found myself
awake before my alarm & felt I’d been betrayed

by someone. My sleep is as thin as a paper bill
backed by black bars of coal that iridesce
indigo in the federal reserve of

dreams. Look, I said to the horse’s
head I saw severed & then set on the ground, the soft
tissue of the cheek & crown cleaved with a necropsy
knife until the skull was visible. You look more
horse than the horses

with names & quilted coats in the pasture, grazing unbothered

by your body in pieces, steaming

against the drizzle. You once had a name
that filled your ears like amphitheaters,
that caused an electrical

spark to bead to your brain. My grief was born
in the wrong time, my grief an old soul, grief re-
incarnate. My grief, once a black-winged

beetle. How I find every excuse to indulge it, like a child
given quarters. In the restaurant, eating alone,

instead of interrogating my own
solitude, I’m nearly undone by the old
woman on her own. The window so filthy,

it won’t even reflect her face, which must not be the same
face she sees when she dreams

of herself in the third person.

– “Age of Beauty” by Emilia Phillips

What a wonder art is. Thank you to everyone who puts it into the world.

three things: 1/2/17

1)  I’m thinking a lot about saving vs leaving behind, and in the way things work, it’s showing up in media I’m consuming. I’m near the very end of The Underground Railroad, and Marc and I are rewatching The Wire (season 4 right now), and in both story lines is the question of how to move a people forward. Some Africans were so severely damaged by enslavement, and some corner boys were so left behind and damaged by their own type of enslavement, and what do you do for them, and for the rest? In The Wire, the corner boys were pulled out of the regular classroom so the other kids might have a chance, and an effort was made to socialize the corner boys to “regular” life — how to order at a restaurant without cursing and starting a fight, etc. I’ve got squarely liberal values, and a deeply empathetic heart, and it’s hard to think about shrugging off some people as too far gone, and yet maybe that’s not a helpful position. Maybe that dooms everyone. I know that not every single American kid needs (or wants) to go to college, but we pretend that everyone does and so we no longer have technical training tracks . . . which leaves so many kids kind of aimless.

on the park bench at the end of my block, as if it’s there for me.

And thinking at a bigger scale, I think about getting rid of Hitler vs saving whatever Jews one could save during WWII. Just because no person could get rid of Hitler on her own didn’t mean there wasn’t a world of value in saving the lives of any Jewish person she could possibly save. The Torah says, “whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

I’m obviously grappling with my place in the battle to come, and thinking about the importance of doing exactly what I can within my sphere of life. What do you think? I’m asking everyone I encounter — do we save everyone or agree to leave some behind? Obviously I’m just a tiny small person with a tiny small sphere, so the question doesn’t determine my actions but I’m struggling with my own answer to it so I’m curious about yours if you’re willing to talk about it.

January 1, 2017, in my 58 years of glory

2) Part of my mission as a 58-year-old woman in this world is to be exactly who I am. I do not color my hair because I’m 58 and 58yos have gray hair — even women. And 58yos have soft, loose skin in places it used to be taut, like along the jaw, and on the throat. I’m kind of militant about it, actually, and while I slather moisturizer on my skin and try hard to take care of myself, I plan and intend to be my age, whatever that means. That doesn’t mean it isn’t shocking to see time all over me, and it doesn’t mean I don’t resist finding a filter that might just smooth out that throat sagging a little bit, but then I remember: I spent my life as a woman talking shit about my appearance. “I’m so fat, I hate my thighs, my stomach is disgusting,” and I regret every movement of breath that was needed to put those sentences into the world, and every molecule of ATP I wasted having the thoughts. I don’t know any women my age who aren’t coloring their hair, and one of my secret missions is to be in the world so they see someone like me in case they want to stop — and if they don’t more power to them! (But if they do…..)

3) I finished The Underground Railroad last night and started reading A Man Called Ove, which is as opposite as possible from The Underground Railroad! It’s hilarious, and about a bitter curmudgeonly white dude. It caught my interest originally because of the name Ove, which of course led me back to Karl Ove Knausgaard. I can be so shallow like that — nothing more than a character’s name or a nice font on the cover will grab me. But oh it’s funny. In the opening scene, Ove is in a store for “people who drive Japanese cars and need to buy white cables.” I gather it’s not going to just be funny, but the observations that allow the reader to see Ove are certainly funny, and it’s a nice change of pace after the heaviness and shame of The Underground Railroad. I’ll let you know how it is when I finish it.

It’s January. 2017. March, march, march.

three things, 12/29/16

today’s Riffle deals

1)  One more book thing before I move on from books (for the moment). Do you get daily emails from Riffle and BookBub, notifying you of very good (i.e., super cheap) daily deals on e-books? That’s really all I’m interested in because I only get to read for fun in the middle of the night, and don’t want to turn on the light and wake myself up more than I have to. The light from my Kindle Paperwhite doesn’t wake me up so it’s my favorite middle-of-the-night thing in the world. There are also book giveaways on GoodReads, based on books you’ve tagged as “want to read,” and while I haven’t yet won one, it’s nothing to enter so I continue to do that. Do you have another source? I get the Kindle Deal of the Day email from Amazon, but can’t tailor it as precisely as I can the Riffle and BookBub subscriptions, so it’s a little less useful. There are really just a few categories of books I want to read for fun: literary fiction, translation/world literature, and memoir. Occasionally non-fiction. Always good poetry, but I have to read poetry in real books, and very rarely in the middle of the night so I don’t get notifications on that genre. Let me know if you have another source for deals on e-books!

2)  It’s not quite the last day of the year yet, but I love this poem so I’ll share it today. It’s a cold, rainy, dreary winter day here in New York, and I was to meet Jim to retrieve my son’s belongings — but he has a terrible cold and is coming a long way, and the rainy dreariness was breaking my heart harder, so he and I will see each other another time, and I will pay attention to my real gratitude to him for the gift he’s giving me.

Year’s End, by Richard Wilbur

Now winter downs the dying of the year,
And night is all a settlement of snow;
From the soft street the rooms of houses show
A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,
Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin
And still allows some stirring down within.

I’ve known the wind by water banks to shake
The late leaves down, which frozen where they fell
And held in ice as dancers in a spell
Fluttered all winter long into a lake;
Graved on the dark in gestures of descent,
They seemed their own most perfect monument.

There was perfection in the death of ferns
Which laid their fragile cheeks against the stone
A million years. Great mammoths overthrown
Composedly have made their long sojourns,
Like palaces of patience, in the gray
And changeless lands of ice. And at Pompeii

The little dog lay curled and did not rise
But slept the deeper as the ashes rose
And found the people incomplete, and froze
The random hands, the loose unready eyes
Of men expecting yet another sun
To do the shapely thing they had not done.

These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
More time, more time. Barrages of applause
Come muffled from a buried radio.
The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.

3)  Hasn’t this been a hard year? It has held its wonders in my personal life — Ilan and Lucy born, travel to southern China and the UP and Laos and Thailand and Taiwan, hours of poetry group meetings, meals and drinks with beloved friends, weeks spent with Marnie and so many days spent with Katie, the opportunity to help my daughters and their families even though I have less than no money, time spent laughing and walking with my sweet little Oliver, good movies, gorgeous food made and shared. Those are great things. And it seems like the world is about to end, too, with the horrors of Syria and South Sudan and Palestine and the true hideousness of the American election and the death and destruction that are about to follow from that. And so many people dying, largely just a generational thing that will be increasingly notable to me as my generation (and older) are nearing that point on the wheel. It’s easy to tap into this feeling of gloom since I am depressed, but that doesn’t mean the horrors in the world aren’t also true. I’d like to say something lovely like ‘It can only get better’ or ‘Maybe things won’t be as bad in the coming year’ but one word answers those thoughts with a big loud no: trump. I’m trying to find purpose in the way most of my friends and I will fight so hard, we will protest and boycott and make calls and march and show up and call out lies and gaslighting and it’s hard to feel the energy I will need for all that.

Plus my lost son.

How are you managing all this? Are you picking one hill to defend? Are you simply doing everything you possibly can, in a scattershot way? Are you pulling back and focusing on more immediate things, your own life and its joys and needs? Are you looking harder for the good? Maybe you’re doing all of these, either purposely or in a swinging back and forth way? I have no judgement on any of them; we’re all going to have to find our way to keep going, and the world needs everything — and especially everything good we can pour into it as this horror and destruction is about to come raining down. If you have any wisdom, or if you have arrived at a path or plan that makes sense for you, please share. I’m looking for help.

three [book] things: 12/28/16

Before I get to the three things, my hideous headache is gone (and hallelujah for that because I felt like blowing my head off to get relief) and I’m just so numb to the pain with my son that it’s not hurting at the moment. The comments you left on yesterday’s post were so comforting, whether because you know the pain and can commiserate, or whether you simply love and support me. Thank you for that, so very much.

click the picture to go to the Amazon page

1) Book thing #1: I have a brand new book club (and we call ourselves “We Really Mean It” because we absolutely will be talking about the book dammit) and our first book is The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. It’s everything the reviewers and prizes have said it is, although it’s not a perfect book (but that’s OK by me). Sometimes the research is worn too heavily, but I don’t mind. I know so little. One thing I learned is that North Carolina (during the time the URR was so active) abolished black people. They didn’t abolish slavery, they used Irish immigrants instead, although they did pay miniscule wages so they were slaves in a different way. But they abolished black people from the state. It didn’t matter if they were free black people, they were abolished — lynched if spotted, and left hanging in the trees to rot. It’s easy to see that very thing, the underneath of that, still alive in North Carolina as they enact one hideously regressive law after another. (And I live in Texas, the King of Regressive Laws, so I can point fingers.) The white people were so scared because there were more Africans than whites, and they knew how terribly they’d treated them, so they were afraid of retribution . . . as well they should’ve been. South Carolina instituted a sterilization policy on the Africans in their state, destroying the future in a different way. It’s obviously intended that I see parallels in today’s America, because I see them all so easily. Between reading this book and watching the gutting documentary 13th on Netflix, it’s hard to see how I or any other white person in America can do anything but fight to make things as right as possible, at this late date. According to a recent dissertation I found, 80-90% of all black people in the United States are directly descended from slaves. EIGHTY to NINETY PERCENT. That shit has long, long ripples and don’t you think for a moment that severe trauma doesn’t last for generations. Read The Underground Railroad and watch 13th on Netflix. (I realize that we who give a shit about social justice — i.e., not people who voted for Trump — have our hands full, and there is only so much time and energy, and where do we start. Just getting knowledge is a good place to begin.) And if your heart can bear it, here’s a little piece on a gift made by a slave mother for her daughter who was sold and taken away. Fifty-six little words of love handstitched on a cotton sack.

click the image to go to the amazon page

2) Like me, like Karl Ove Knausgaard, or other Norwegian writers? (I happen to adore Per Petterson and recommend everything he has written.) This page lists other Norwegian writers not named Knausgaard that you might like (though Petterson is not, and should be, on the list!). I can vouch for Hamsun’s Hunger, personally. It was first published in 1890 and it’s amazing. Like other places, writers from Norway have a specific sensibility, the elements of that place soak into the language and you can feel it, whatever you’re reading. (But if you haven’t yet read Knausgaard’s epic series, My Struggle, I recommend it heartily. Here’s Book 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. We’re still waiting on Book 6 to be translated.)

click the image to go to the amazon page

3) Here is a list of 26 books to get you started, January through March of 2017. I want to read all but one — less than zero interest in reading anything by twit Ivanka Trump. Yeah, no. The list is a mix of fiction and non-fiction, and I found several I definitely want to read. Paul Auster, George Saunders, Sam Shepard, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and not on this list, but on my own, is Frantumaglia, by Elena Ferrante. She wrote the Neapolitan series (Books 1, 2, 3, and 4, which I read at the same time I read all the Knausgaard books, a miraculous experience of synchronicity), but she uses a pseudonym. Her real identity was a great mystery, and most readers were happy for it to remain that way, although it was a hot topic of conversation. My favorite guess about her identity was that she must be female, because no male writer could have that degree of success without pinning his name and face to it. Well, a male journalist uncovered her identity, even though no one wanted to out her — there was a kind of respect for her wish for privacy — and he got a LOT of well-deserved backlash. This book, Frantumaglia, is at least in part about her experience as a woman writer.

I’m just so relieved not to have that headache today, I keep exclaiming over and over, “Gosh! It’s wonderful!” Gosh. It’s really wonderful.

three things: 12/22/16

1)  I wish I had more time to read. That would really mean there would just have to be more hours in the day, because I already read nearly every waking hour. But one of my most readily touched sources of frustration is just not having enough time to read. The new issue of the New York Review of Books taunts me, every single article headlined on the cover one I feel urgent about reading. Anne Carson’s wondrous book project about the loss of her brother, Nox, singing to me in the late hours as I continue to struggle with my grief about my son. I know I would find understanding there. Drawing books, volumes of poetry, novels that were given to me by friends, books I’ve bought, and then all those I really want to read again. For some reason The Tin Drum has been whispering in my mind’s ear, read me again. The little girl I was still lives in me, the one who identified with Jo March, sitting in her attic window with a book and a bowl of apples, whiling away a winter day. How I would love to do that.

my coffee table — and then piles everywhere else, too, by the bed, on the nightstand, next to the chair, in the yoga room….

We who need to read are probably mysterious to those who don’t. I’ve heard what they sometimes say about us — get your nose out of that book. I prefer to actually live my life. Jerks, those who say those kinds of things. I’m not quite sure why I have such a never-quenched need to read, but I do.

2) If I think abstractly about what I think equals a “good life,” I’d say that [for me] it would require people to love, and be loved by — family (born into or made) and friends. It would require a home of some kind, whatever that might mean. Easy pleasures, like making good food. Reading (see above) wonderful books, stories, poetry, sense-making of all kinds. Music, and art. I’d say it would involve exposure to the world in whatever way that would be possible, traveling if that’s available. I’d say a good life would require history with people, so sticking it out over the long haul. I’d say a good life would require openness to the world, and a willingness to be present to whatever it presents. I have a good life. What would you add to my list?

3) A poem for the just-passed winter solstice, and for you:

The Shortest Day, by Susan Cooper

And so the Shortest Day came and the year died
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.

Anselm Kiefer, Gescheiterte Hoffnung (C.D. Friedrich), 2010, Charcoal on photographic paper. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York. Text on the work is translated as follows: “Wreck of Hope.”

three things: 12-17-16

1)  I had the strangest experience last night — maybe it was the Indian food I had for dinner with my friend Lynn and her boyfriend David. I had a very unsettling dream that took place in LA, and while I remember it clearly, I cannot tell what it was about. I can’t narrate it, but in my memory I know everything that happened. I know what the setting looked like, I know what the rooms were like, I know what the view was like. I’m a little less clear about exactly what was happening, though I know what the feelings were, and I know the various people (strangers to me) who were there. But I can’t tell the dream, at all. I can’t even tell anything about it, like “we were at a party” (it wasn’t that….). And throughout the dream, I’d come up to slight consciousness and find myself in odd places in the bed. Once I was sideways at the very bottom of the bed. Once I was curled up in the top left corner. Once I was spreadeagled on a diagonal. And throughout all that, the odd, unsettling dream kept unfurling. That I cannot narrate today. Have you ever had this experience?

2)  Last night I was driving in heavy traffic, listening to Dwight Yoakum on Fresh Air. I used to really enjoy his music, back in the 1990s, so it was a lovely distraction. At one point in the interview he talked about growing up in the Church of Christ — as did I — and he talked about the music, which was always sung without instruments. Old country hymns, mountain hymns, he said, coming from Scot and Welsh miners. Terry Gross asked if he’d sing his favorite hymn, and I sat forward a little, because I always love those old hymns. I imagined he would sing one I didn’t know, but in fact he sang one of my favorites. And as he sang, I just cried and cried and cried. Here it is, he sang it at Buck Owens’ funeral:

When I was a little girl, we went to church Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night. (Hard to process, given the things that were happening to us in our home.) But oh how I loved that music, the very specific harmonies, the melodies, the aching, longing words. All the way to my friend’s house last night I sang that song and cried, and wondered why. I’m not religious. I don’t feel like God walks with me and talks with me. I don’t feel like I am his own. But I do connect to that deep, aching longing for such a thing. I do. And I’m sure it’s wrapped up in my child’s longing for a father who didn’t hurt me, too, and a little girl’s desperate wish to be loved. But oh, that music. The interview is quite wonderful; he’s a very thoughtful person, and I enjoyed it so much. Here, if you want to take a listen:

When we were little girls, my sister and I played two games: secretary, and church. She always got to be the secretary and I always had to be the boss (and “got to” and “had to” are important there — the secretary was the desired job). But the way we played church makes me laugh, now. We would sit facing each other on hard metal chairs, and we’d have a saltine and a tiny glass of grape juice. One of us would pinch a small corner off the saltine, place it in our mouth while looking as miserable as possible, and then pass it to the other. If we didn’t look as miserable as we possibly could, we weren’t playing church, we were just eating a cracker. That pretty much sums up my experience of the Church of Christ. The sermons were about how worthless we were, and how there was no redemption for us, and the songs were dirge-like (but with beautiful harmonies). There were no cushions on the wooden pews, no stained glass, no decorations, because those were not in the Bible and “thou shalt not add to nor take away from the Word of the Lord.” (But we did have air conditioning, which I’m pretty sure was not in the Word of the Lord.) Just as Yoakum said, those years spent in the Church of Christ had an indelible effect on who I am, though I don’t go to church, as he doesn’t.

3)  What’s the best book you read this year? I read so many good ones, and found two new writers I adore (Vivian Gornick and Lidia Yuknavitch, and I note with interest that now I’m reading primarily women writers, which wasn’t true a few years ago, when I realized I never read women writers and asked for recommendations). But if I were forced for some reason to pick only one favorite, I would pick The Vegetarian, by Han Kang. Here is my Goodreads review, and here are a couple of lines I loved from the book, to give you a feeling for the prose:

“Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…”

“Only Yeong-hye, docile and naive, had been unable to deflect their father’s temper or put up any form of resistance. Instead, she had merely absorbed all her suffering inside her, deep into the marrow of her bones. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, In-hye could see that the role that she had adopted back then of the hard-working, self-sacrificing eldest daughter had been a sign not of maturity but of cowardice. It had been a survival tactic.”

“The feeling that she had never really lived in this world caught her by surprise. It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure. She had believed in her own inherent goodness, her humanity, and lived accordingly, never causing anyone harm. Her devotion to doing things the right way had been unflagging, all her successes had depended on it, and she would have gone on like that indefinitely. She didn’t understand why, but faced with those decaying buildings and straggling grasses, she was nothing but a child who had never lived.”

The first time I read it, when I finished reading I just turned back to the beginning and read it again, start to finish. About a week later I read it again, and then I read it again a few weeks later, with two friends. It won the Booker Prize, and it’s on the NYTimes’ Notable Books of 2016 list. I’m re-reading Loitering right now and finishing the collection of Deborah Eisenberg’s short stories, but when I finish one of those I just might have to read The Vegetarian again. Did you read a book you loved this much in 2016?

five things: 12-16-16

    1. just married, and just barely 21

      Thirty-seven years ago today I got married to my first husband. My truest belief that day was that I’d be celebrating this anniversary with him, with whatever family we might create, and that I would be with him until we died. My intention was true and real, and my love for him was true and real and permeated into my marrow, and he was absolutely the right person for who I was then — broken, fragile, scared, in need of safety and care — and still we were just so very wrong for each other in just the right places. We hadn’t been married even a month when I lay awake one night thinking, with a kind of horror, about how much smarter I was than him. And the horror was from being willing to say that about myself, and about having that matter to me. It horrified me, I didn’t want to notice, I didn’t want to care. And honestly, I wouldn’t have, but the dynamics of our relationship (him benevolent father, me fragile child) resulted in his complete inflexibility, he was always right. I feel very sad about it all, sad that we were both edged into the places we were, and I think it definitely changed him. He has always been the kind of person who wanted to save people anyway, but he became too grounded in the paternalistic role. But I never would’ve even gone to college had we stayed married, and I never would’ve found myself. Today I’m thinking about all of that, but I have less than no desire to speak to him; he became a right-wing Tea Party bunker-desiring nut job, not to put too fine a point on it.

    2. I started re-reading Loitering, Charles D’Ambrosio’s extraordinary collection of essays. (Here is my GoodReads review.) It circles around twin themes of the difficulty of life (including suicide) and the truth of ambiguity, uncertainty, and the unresolvability of anything approaching “truth” without those elements. I’d never read D’Ambrosio when I heard about the collection, and his is a startling mind. The collection was on sale yesterday, $1.99 Kindle, so I shared that on Facebook and decided to re-read it and it’s as wonderful as I remember. A couple of quotes:

      “The canker of self-consciousness has been long in me, so like a lot of writers I not only do a thing, I see myself doing it too—it’s almost like not being alone. That morning our hero skipped in his skivvies down to the shore of the sea . . . it was dark . . . the fog . . . Storytelling!”

      His childhood was as difficult and violent as mine, and his brother committed suicide (a theme he pokes at throughout the collection); I think this quote alone will tell you why the collection is so powerful to me:

      “If I could intervene and change my own particular history would I alter past events in such a way that I’d bring Danny back to life? Would I return the single rimfire bullet to its quiet chamber in the gun and let the night of November 26, 19__, pass away in sleep and dreams or drink or television or whatever the anonymous bulk of history holds for most people? Would I uncurl the fingers from the grip, would I take away the pain, would I unwrite the note and slip the blank sheet back in the ream and return the ream to pulp and etc., would I exchange my own monstrous father for some kindly sap out of the sitcom tradition, would I do any of this, would I? And where would I be? Would I be there, in the room? Would my role be heroic? And where exactly would I begin digging into the past, making corrections, amending it? How far back do I have to go to undo the whole dark kit and kaboodle? I mean, from where I sit now I can imagine a vast sordid history finally reaching its penultimate unraveled state in the Garden, under the shade of the tree of knowledge, raising the question of whether or not I’d halt the innocent hand, leaving the apple alone, unbitten.

    3. Tonight I’m having dinner with my friend Lynn and her boyfriend because he’s going to backpack around SEAsia for a couple of months and he wants to hear my stories. It’s funny; SEAsia is my very favorite place, and I can’t get back there often enough, but I don’t know that I have stories, and I’m a little anxious about it. I can tell excitedly about the places I’ve been, tell my impressions of the places, but I’m not sure what I will convey except for my enthusiasm for the places. And then I give myself a little shake and remember: Lori. You don’t have to plan out the “successful” conversation in your head ahead of time. You’re seeing friends. You’re eating Indian food. You’re talking about a place you love. Relax. Are you this way?
    4. I want to see Manchester-by-the-Sea, directed by Kenneth Lonergan. I read a wonderful article about Lonergan that made me want to see it, but then I read a review that bemoaned yet another movie about an emotionally stunted man. Here’s the NYT review, and here’s the trailer, and I want to see it anyway.

5. I’ve gotten to the point in my life where there is little as pleasurable as making a very nice meal for someone I love. Preparing the meal for my poetry group made me SO HAPPY (and it helped that the food all came out the way I wanted it to come out!). It took me a long time to get to this point; while I often enjoyed making meals that my kids enjoyed, and especially making treats for them, the tyranny of dinner-every-night-no-matter-how-I-felt took the joy out of it. I’m making a meal for someone I dearly love next week and the anticipation of that, even the anticipation of planning the menu, is delicious all by itself. Yet another toast to the pleasure of keeping on living.

Happy Friday, everyone. xoxo

Another happy birthday for me

Where I started. Graham Texas, Thursday, 11/6/58. Someone really should've put a blanket over me!
Where I started. Graham, TX, Thursday, 11/6/58. Someone really should’ve put a blanket over me!

 

This was such a spectacular year in my life, it boggles my mind. How can my life just keep getting better and better? And yet it does. These aren’t the best pictures from my year, or of each place, but they’re the ones I labeled “happy Lori” when I filed them away; this year,

 

We went back to Vietnam, and to a tiny fishing village on the coast of Thailand.

happy me, in Tam Coc
happy me, in Tam Coc Vietnam, in one of my favorite places: on a little boat in a gorgeous landscape

We went to southern China.

happy me, in the countryside around Yangshuo
happy me, in the countryside around Yangshuo — I was drunk on those karst mountains, man.

We went to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

happy, flying around Manistique Lake
happy, flying around Manistique Lake, getting to be part of a place that was important in Marc’s life.

Next week we’re off to Laos again, and back to that same tiny fishing village in Thailand.….so only the happy anticipation of that trip properly belongs with this year of my life.

My family grew so much this year!

Last Christmas, with my daughters and their families. We already knew Ilan was coming (obviously, look at Marnie!), but we didn't know Lucy would be coming, too.
Last Christmas, with my daughters and their families. We already knew Ilan was coming (obviously, look at Marnie!), but we didn’t know Lucy would be coming, too.

My grandson Ilan was born in March, and I got to be with Marnie and Tom in Chicago for a month, to welcome him to the world and to take care of their sweet family. Tom reached out to me this year in a way I will never, ever, ever forget (my eyes instantly fill with the hottest tears every time I think about it), and Marnie’s regular weekly phone calls to me are an ongoing treasure, more than she knows.

happy Pete, during a very quiet morning in the first couple of days of Ilan's life
happy Pete, during a very quiet morning in the first couple of days of Ilan’s life
And I got to go back and see him again when he was a few months old. ADORE.
And I got to go back and see him again when he was a few months old. ADORE.

My granddaughter Lucy was born in Austin in September, and I got to stay with sweet Oliver so Katie and Trey didn’t have to worry about any of that, and then I got to welcome Lucy home. The easy chances I have to see Katie, opportunities to spend time with her (which I love, she’s so sweet and funny and smart), opportunities to help out a little and be their regular old Pete, those moments are the real stuff of life and are a big glory in my heart.

so happy to hold my sweet little Lucy girl
so happy to hold my sweet little Lucy girl, applet of my eye
so happy dancing with Oliver, and swimming, and walking our very slow walks together
so happy dancing with Oliver, and swimming, and walking our very slow walks together, and listening to him call me Pete.

The BEST Halloween costumes — their mamas are so creative.

I got to cast my vote for a woman, for president. Two heroes entered my psychological world this year: Hillary, for the way she just keeps moving forward, she never gives up EVER, you knock her down and she gets right back up, ready to work as she has for at least 30 years; and John Lewis for his quiet persistence for 40 years. When I feel like giving up, I always think of them both, now. This year they joined Mister Rogers in my own personal pantheon.

happy and crying, my steady companion combo
happy and crying, my steady companion combo, but especially present as I voted.

I read so many wonderful books this year; especially, I found Vivian Gornick, Lidia Yuknavitch, Irene Nemirovsky, and Lucia Berlin, new favorites; Nemirovsky died in the Holocaust and Berlin is also gone, so I can only cherish the books they left behind — but Gornick and Yuknavitch (the latter most especially) are still writing, and on my forever watch list, now. My beloved poetry group continued meeting at my place throughout the year, and they shared so much extraordinary poetry with me, and taught me so many things I can never repay them. Our monthly meetings focused simply on reading and talking about poetry, all of us hyper-thrilled about that, what a pinch-me gift, man.

I spent time with so many beautiful friends in Austin and New York — and made new friends, too, an ongoing source of joy, to make new friends at this stage of my life. I’m so lucky to have friends who take me as I am. And I’m also lucky to have friends all over the world (shouting out especially to my antipodean beloveds, whose love I feel this far away, but also to friends in England and France and Canada. I fear this makes me seem like an extremely old person going on and on about these new-fangled devices called telephones, but I was once again blown away by Laura, calling me from Perth to sing Happy Birthday to me).

I’m always shy about getting a picture of us together, and I don’t know why — I so love having your pictures.

cindy
getting mehndi with my Cindy; I thought about using the photo of us celebrating my birthday together, but I liked the rhyme of “mehndi with my Cindy.”
don
my darling, precious friend Don, who calls himself (and is, in my life) my Jewish father.
girls
A subset of the “book club” women, my dear friends. Some are missing from this picture, (Anne, Diane, Jen….) but always with me otherwise.
nancy
Nancy, my boon companion and quirt-wielder and I don’t know what I’d do without her.
sherlock
Sherlock, one of my oldest, dearest friends. I wish I had a picture with Peggy.

This year I tried oysters and now cannot get enough. If I had a million dollars I would eat a million oysters. Thanks, Sherlock, for showing me how to eat them. And thanks, Nancy, for eating them with me too.

from the first batch, eaten with Sherlock
the first dozen, eaten with Sherlock
Also, I kept eating donuts. Because OBVIOUSLY.
Also, I kept eating donuts. Because OBVIOUSLY.
Marc's surprise for my early birthday celebration. He knows me. :)
Marc’s surprise for my early birthday celebration. 🙂
I got to make lots of delicious food for loved ones throughout the year, and even when the cake stuck, it was still MIGHTY GOOD.
I got to make lots of delicious food for loved ones throughout the year, and even when the cake stuck, it was still MIGHTY GOOD.

I went back and forth to New York City, and while that’s also quite hard and wearing, I never fail to also feel so lucky, like I get the best of two very different worlds. Marc and I continue to find our way to make things work for us, and I’m so grateful for that. When I’m in Austin, his morning texts start my day off with great joy (and usually mystery), and when I’m in NYC I delight in his delight in making food for me, and in the way he always takes my hand. We both grew this year in ways that were good for us individually, and definitely that were good for us together. Would I have dreamed any of this was possible in late 2012? NO. Even though I love every gritty, urban street and curb and subway platform (well, almost), I never get tired of walking in Riverside Park, ever.

park-snow
my beautiful park during the epic snowstorm
parksummer
and on any day in the spring, summer, or fall
Marc and I walk in the park every day, at least once
Marc and I walk in the park every day, at least once

I survived a few very hard things — in largest part because of my own strength, forged and honed over my 58 years of sometimes-difficult life, and in critical part because I have the best friends, who check on me all the time, like Dixie inevitably does and always at the right moment; who say my name to me over and over when I’m lost, like Nancy did when I was despairing one night; who call me darling, like Anne does when I’m in deep need; who sit next to me at parties or anywhere else when I’m barely there and help me through, like Lynn did at a big happy birthday party; who reach their hands out to me in ways immediate and virtual (oh gosh, all of you), and who also laugh with me, and share themselves, which is my favorite thing. The violent reappearance of my brother, after decades, and with scary threats, was probably my worst trouble this year, in ways most people can’t understand. That one nearly done the old girl in…..but I’m still here, blowing and going. And speaking of that, a book was dedicated to me this year:

I cry no matter how many times I read it.
I cry no matter how many times I read it.

I didn’t have nearly enough work all year; another year has passed without my son, an ongoing pain I’m not always sure I can bear; I caught the flu a couple of times, the worst on our terribly long travel day from Can Tho to Ho Chi Minh City to Bangkok to Trat to Mairood; the Republican candidate for president has left me feeling terrorized all year and I am praying so hard that goodness prevails; and as stressful as those things might be in moments, they pale in comparison to all the rest. Yep, being 57 was amazing. I’m the luckiest person in the whole world, with the best life, far better than I ever dreamed it could be, it would be.

Fifty-eight. Amazing.
Fifty-eight. Amazing.

Let me tell you this. It’s really a privilege getting to be 58. I’m proud of it! It’s a privilege to have lived so many years, to have seen the wonders and survived the pain; it’s a privilege to learn and grow; it’s a privilege to soften and open. My hair has more bright silver in it — so beautiful! Why would I want to pretend that isn’t true? When I smile, now, you can see the evidence of all the years I’ve smiled. My skin is changing, my memory isn’t the same, and that’s OK because it’s part of it, and I’m grateful to have the chance to have every part of it, every last bit.

Thank you for being in my life with me, in whatever form you’re here. Thank you for the words, the touches, the drinks and breakfasts and lunches and dinners, the happy hours, the notes, the calls, the many, many ways you hold our connection. Your presence, your words, your friendship, and your faithfulness mean the world to me, and I count myself so lucky to you know. Happy birthday to me, and now on to the next! oxoxoxoxox

I just like to share!

Through the terrible stress of this everlasting nightmare of our presidential election, I have relied on a number of ways of coping — some have been good, and some have NOT been so good. And I’ve been inconsistent in using the good ones, perhaps because the benefit isn’t immediate and my stress is begging for immediate relief (even though they help me more, and without causing trouble). Yoga, walking, cooking beautiful and healthy food, meditation, those have flickered in and out of use.

My less-good ways of coping have filled me with junk. Other stresses. And even though I know this, going in — as I eat another donut, or another BLOCK O’ CHEESE — I often feel completely unable to stop myself. In New York especially, since Marc keeps a fridge just about as opposite mine as possible, and since he makes things for me like gravlax, my stress eating is less good for me than when I’m in Austin. After I inhale a pound of cheese, let’s say, I feel very crappy (to say the least, and I’m trying to say the least, here).

Another way I’ve been dealing with this stress has been a constant consuming of social media. I am on Facebook non-stop, and while I am reading and responding to posts that present the same political position I share, and that help me feel less alone, it also keeps me stirred up. But it’s become a compulsion, an impossible-to-resist response to stress.

It’s also true that when I’m here in Austin, I sit alone in my house day in and day out. I will have a little social activity here or there, but I sit in silence all day and night, and without anyone else to interact with at all. And I like that! It’s not that I don’t like that. I really do, especially in the days after I’ve been in New York and feel overwhelmed by people and noise and non-stop interruptions. The silence and solitude are wonderful! AND again and again I’ll think about something, or read something, or see something, and turn to share it with…… ah, no one. There’s no one here. No one to say, “Hey, listen to this!” to. And so that’s another reason I hop onto Facebook. Wow, look at this. Hey, you won’t believe this! Ah, read this beautiful thing. Look. Listen. Read. Wow.

I’ve missed my blog. My absence from it has been due to a lot of reasons; I’m doing other writing, long-form writing, and trying to spend my time in that manuscript, and otherwise I’ve been kind of blanked-out with stress and fear. It occurred to me that I could help myself with two of these things in one fell swoop: Instead of machine gunning Facebook, I can collect the things I want to share with someone and put them in a post here. That will have the benefit of making them easier for me to find again, too. Aside from political stuff (which I will not share here because I just really need to avoid it all completely for my own sanity), the stuff I share will fall into the ordinary categories of things I share on Facebook: book recommendations, interesting articles, poetry, images, family stuff.

And so, here goes:

  • Do you know Hélène Cixous? I hadn’t heard of her until I read a quote about her by Lidia Yuknavitch, so I looked her up and now I must MUST read her. This quote seems especially relevant in the United States as we are teetering on the brink of living under a Christian Taliban: “But I am just a woman who thinks her duty is not to forget. And this duty, which I believe I must fulfill, is: “as a woman” living now I must repeat again and again “I am a woman,” because we exist in an epoch still so ancient and ignorant and slow that there is still always the danger of gynocide.” ― Hélène Cixous, The Book of Promethea
lidia
read Lidia.
  • The quote from Lidia Yuknavitch that sent me to Hélène Cixous was from The Chronology of Water, which I highly recommend: “With Hélène Cixous you must close your eyes and open your mouth. Wider. So open your throat opens. Your esophagus. Your lungs. Wider. So open your spine unclatters. Your hips swim loose. Your womb worlds itself. Wider. Open the well of your sex. Now speak your body from your other mouth. Yell corporeal prayer. This is writing.” WOW.
  • Have you ever read May Sarton? I’ve always wanted to and somehow never have, yet, but yesterday Sherlock sent Peggy and me this BrainPickings post about May Sarton and the use of anger in creativity. That’s a thing you hear, right? “Turn your anger towards your work.” Transform that energy into creation. I need to carefully read that piece and think about it, because I hope it has something for me. I am swamped by the experience of anger, overwhelmed by it, and often paralyzed by it. So when I feel it, I become scared that I’ll explode, that I’ll express it awfully, and often I do, and it’s just tough, and especially tough for women. I once asked members of my book club to write about a time they were angry (we were tentatively trying these writing sessions), and one member became absolutely enraged at my suggestion, saying she doesn’t get angry because it’s not useful. The time didn’t seem right to point out just how angry she was. 🙂 But I am in desperate need of learning how to manage anger! It’s my oldest lesson I have yet to learn, so I’m hoping the BrainPickings post and then reading some Sarton will help. Any words you might have on either Sarton or anger will be appreciated.
  • The idea of living in Australia or New Zealand has become kind of irresistible; a thread developed on a Facebook post by a friend who originally shared this video:

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[First…I mean, RIGHT????] One friend responded to the video by asking me what it’s like to live here right now, and in the ensuing conversation, I got invitations to move to all the major cities of Australia, with explanations of their great aspects, and a bunch of bids for life in NZ, which is not just gorgeous but is also lacking in snakes. 🙂 They were just so adorable, every last one, and every time I woke up during the night, mid-Trump-panic, reading that thread made me grin so hard.

  • Today’s poem: Carpe Diem, by Jim Harrison:

Night and day
seize the day, also the night —
a handful of water to grasp.
The moon shines off the mountain
snow where grizzlies look for a place
for the winter’s sleep and birth.
I just ate the year’s last tomato
in the year’s fatal whirl.
This is mid-October, apple time.
I picked them for years.
One Mcintosh yielded sixty bushels.
It was the birth of love that year.
Sometimes we live without noticing it.
Overtrying makes it harder.
I fell down through the tree grabbing
branches to slow the fall, got the afternoon off.
We drove her aqua Ford convertible into the country
with a sack of red apples. It was a perfect
day with her sun-brown legs and we threw ourselves
into the future together seizing the day.
Fifty years later we hold each other looking
out the windows at birds, making dinner,
a life to live day after day, a life of
dogs and children and the far wide country
out by rivers, rumpled by mountains.
So far the days keep coming.
Seize the day gently as if you loved her.

Happy Saturday, y’all! It’s going to be a great one for me — birthday lunch with a friend, and the lit crawl tonight with poetry group friends. Also: It’s my BIRTHDAY EVE YO! xoxoxoxo

TODAY"S PHOTO: Marnie is in Seattle to exhibit her new book, and she sent me this picture, note the caption. :)
TODAY”S PHOTO: Marnie is in Seattle to exhibit her new book, and she sent me this picture, note the caption. 🙂

TRUTH

“Leslie Marmon Silko whispers the story is long. No, longer. Longer than that even. Longer than anything. With Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath drink at the bar. Laugh the dark laughter in the dark light. Sing a dark drunken song of men. Make a slurry toast. Rock back and forth, and drink the dark, and bask in the wallow of women knowing what women know. Just for a night. When you need to feel the ground of your life and the heart of the world, there will be a bonfire at the edge of a canyon under a night sky where Joy Harjo will sing your bonesong. Go ahead—with Anne Carson—rebuild the wreckage of a life a word at a time, ignoring grammar and the forms that keep culture humming. Make word war and have it out and settle it, scattering old meanings like hacked to pieces paper doll confetti. The lines that are left … they are awake and growling. With Virginia Woolf there will perhaps be a long walk in a garden or along a shore, perhaps a walk that will last all day. She will put her arm in yours and gaze out. At your backs will be history. In front of you, just the ordinary day, which is of course your entire life. Like language. The small backs of words. Stretching out horizonless. I am in a midnight blue room. A writing room. With a blood red desk. A room with rituals and sanctuaries. I made it for myself. It took me years. I reach down below my desk and pull up a bottle of scotch. Balvenie. 30 year. I pour myself an amber shot. I drink. Warm lips, throat. I close my eyes. I am not Virginia Woolf. But there is a line of hers that keeps me well: Arrange whatever pieces come your way. I am not alone. Whatever else there was or is, writing is with me.” —Lidia Yuknavitch

words

lonelys

I’m not a lonely person in almost all the possible ways. I am so deeply rich with people: family —  daughters and their husbands, two grandsons, another grandchild on the way — and friends all over the world. Boon companions in Austin, darlings in NYC, old and newer friends scattered around the country, bunches scattered around the earth, and a number of close communities of women I rely on. Rich!

I’m so deeply rich with interests. I have never been bored, don’t know what that even feels like. I have more things I want to do than time to do them in. I have books to write. Quilts to make. Sweaters and things to knit. Clothes to make. Meals to prepare. Goodies to bake. Yoga to do. Walks to take. Museums to visit and talks and performances to attend in NYC, never enough time. Music to listen to in Austin, never enough time. Books to read! NEVER enough time for that. Travel! Even though I travel a lot, more than anyone else I know, I could always just keep on going and I’d be happy.

I’m rich with people to share emotions, experiences, the details of life. They share with me, I share with them, and that’s extraordinary. However I am, whatever I need, wherever I find myself, I’m rich with people to talk to about it. That’s just unbelievable. Something wonderful happen? Something terrible? There they are, ready and willing to talk with me, or to share theirs with me.

readingBut I realized the other day that there is a way I’m lonely. If you have more than one child, you know that the ways they are different provide different opportunities for you to connect with them. When my kids were growing up, Marnie loved to read exactly the same kinds of books I did, so we’d read together and talk about the books in depth. I took my kids individually out on dates, and Marnie and I usually ended up at the book store, walking around touching every book: “read it. read it. haven’t read it. never heard of it. want to read it. read it. read it. nah. want to read it.” One summer she spent some days reading Grendel aloud to me while I spun some wool. It’s still one of my favorite memories. When she left home, every time we talked our conversation always included talk about what we were reading, with eager recommendations that we followed up on.

I miss that. I’m lonely for that. I’m lonely for someone who really wants to read what I’m reading and is as excited as I am to talk about it. For someone who has already thought about the book and hopefully saw things I didn’t see, understood parts I didn’t — or understood them differently! I also really love to do this with movies and good TV, and it has less to do with plot points and more to do with the novelistic aspects OR what the director did. I’m always aware of this loneliness, but my monthly poetry group fulfills some of the need and longing because we sit in my living room for two hours and talk about poetry. And they’re all just as excited (and MUCH more knowledgeable) about it as I am.

So I’ve just been going along, feeling very alone, but busy! You know, I’m busy, and I don’t have enough spare minutes in the day already so it’s not like I wallow. BUT THEN I found this really wonderful video series from the AV Club; the guys discuss each episode (season 2 only) of Better Call Saul in depth. They analyze it, compare notes, consider theories, show film clips and pause to look at a specific shot, they see so much more in the episodes than you see if you’re just dazzled by the show. Here they discuss episode 1 of season 2:

It made my mind so so happy. So happy. I felt like a dry sponge that got dropped at the edge of a lake, and I felt myself soaking, soaking, soaking it up. And it also made me feel my deep loneliness for someone to talk to in this way . . . about good books, about movies and TV. I’ve got my heart stuff covered, but I have this intellectual craving and I feel so lonely with it. I think that’s one reason I sometimes write thicker posts, esoteric posts, and one reason I set up my 2016 project (which I want to return to). I’ve never really had anyone else in my life like Marnie, in terms of this kind of conversation, and I’m just so lonely for that.

I’m lucky that I don’t otherwise feel lonely — very lucky. I never feel all those other kinds of loneliness, even when I spend several days hidden away at home in Austin, never even leaving the house. That kind of loneliness hurts, and makes people sick. It doesn’t make my own island of loneliness go away, but it does give me context. I imagine we all have a way we’re lonely, and this one is mine. It’s hard to say it out loud, because the last thing I want is for any of my beautiful friends to feel like I’m saying something against them or our relationship, and yet they all have their own ways I don’t fulfill their needs — I’m not a sports fan, for instance.

SO….if you’re lonely in this way, let’s talk! It might not be a love match, but you never know. 😉

my kind of [X]

readerOne of my dear friends was facing a situation that would require a slow recovery, so she asked me and our friends for recommendations of books, television shows, and movies — but of a specific kind. Easy to read, light, the kind that are often (and often unfairly) disparagingly called junk reading, junk TV. She pointedly said, “Not the stuff you read, Lori.” Over time I’ve gotten the reputation for only reading Holocaust or big trauma literary fiction, a category that (I think) is meant more broadly than just those specifics, but definitely with that degree of heaviness. (Although I looked at my Netflix queue and it was one after another Holocaust movie, so hmmmm…..) I enjoy a book that asks something of me, that requires me to participate.

And then another friend recommended a show and in an aside said, “You’ll LOVE it, man. It’s dripping in humanity.” The show was about punishment and retribution and recovery and redemption. My kind of things, my kind of themes.

It isn’t that I’m dismissive of “junk” entertainment, and I’m certainly not judgmental of it. I watch Project Runway, Top Chef, some sit-coms. It’s just that I have so little spare time for entertainment (and not for nothing, I read all day long, almost always stuff I would never ever read of my own volition although sometimes I get the most amazing book/client and that’s a huge gift). So in my rare bit of time for passive entertainment, I want to finally read what I want to read, and what I want to read are stories that grapple with the questions you face in the dark, the situations that harrow you and force you to face yourself, force you to encounter the shadow — either of others, or the world, or yourself. Because I’m always looking for answers! I’m always looking for an articulation of my own shadow, my own experiences. I’m always wanting to better understand people and how they affect and are affected by others and the world. What makes some people turn this way or that, or NOT turn this way or that.

I’m also wanting to be engrossed, enmeshed, and moved in a deep way. My daily life is kind of light; for the most part I sit in my living room, in my chair, reading and working on a client’s book. The ordinary tenor of my life is quiet, solitary, easy, slow. I’m very happy in solitude, it occurred to me again the other day. I was the only person at a wedding alone recently, and I could’ve invited someone to go with me but it never crossed my mind. I enjoy going to movies alone. I enjoy walking alone. I enjoy shopping alone. My days don’t have enough hours for all the ways I want to fill them.

But emotionally my days are just kind of steady and quiet. (YAY!) My life is steady and quiet. (YAY!) So I read or watch something to move my interior, to swim in the vast ocean of human experience. One of the saddest moments — and maybe you know this one too — is when I finish a deeply wonderful book, when I close it and feel so much, and it has left its deep mark on me, and I know it’s going to be hard to find another one that will do that. And sure enough, I try this one (nope!), that one (ugh, no), the next one (maybe…oh, no.) and none are of the same kind.

Although there are some exceptions, most of the books on my “absolute faves” shelf on GoodReads are of this type, and I’m good with that. The only sad thing for me is that I don’t really know other readers who like to read what I do, except for one woman in my book club who chose a book that became one of my favorites (The Orphan Master’s Son, my review on GoodReads here). The specifics of her life mean that she doesn’t have much time to read, though, so I don’t really have someone to share this with and that’s a secondary joy of reading. I do know people whose recommendations usually connect with my interests (Dixie, for instance), but that’s rare.

This is one of the very rare ways I’m lonely, and I am very lonely in this way. If you glance at my “absolute faves” shelf and see yourself there, I’d sure like to know about it.

Happy reading y’all, whatever you read. xoxox

just a lot of OMGs

In random order, O.M.G.:

  • How have I not read any Tom Robbins as a 57yo person?? Thank heavens Peggy posted a quote by him, which led me to comment on it and led two friends to tell me how great Jitterbug Perfume is, leading me to immediately download the book and start reading it and O.M.G. Here’s the quote that kicked off the whole thing for me (thank you Peggy and Anne!):

beets“The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.

Slavic peoples get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from beets. The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can’t squeeze blood out of a turnip…

The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies.”

I ended up highlighting the entire first few pages, including the epigraph and the introduction, and throughout the early pages my highlighting is more evident than the non-highlighted stuff. Just, wow. How did I miss him for so long? I think I got him confused with someone else, some writer who does a lot of pulp books, but I can’t quite think of who it might me. OH! Harold Robbins! Yeah, very different.

I’m also newly and re-smitten by Per Petterson — about as opposite a writer as Tom Robbins as you could ever imagine. Where Robbins is out there in plot and inventiveness of language, Petterson is quiet, interior, and dreamy. Here’s my review of I Curse the River of Time, and I can’t recommend it enough. It was my third read of that beautiful book and I know I’ll read it at least a couple more times. I’m currently reading Out Stealing Horses (the guy is great at titling his books, that’s for sure), and moving between Petterson and Robbins is a head-banging experience.

  • I am hardly going to be home in Austin for the coming weeks and months, OMG. It’s all good stuff — my grandson’s birth and the luxury of time helping my daughter and son-in-law, a trip to southern China, and NYC time on either side of those great experiences. Still, I dearly love being home in Austin, in my cozy little place, with my own way of living my life and feeding myself, with my dear friends and family and weekly time with Oliver and Katie, with book club and poetry group and happy hours and brunches and coffee breaks, with nightly walks and an easy stop at Torchy’s Tacos (click here for images, you’ll want to eat there right away). When I’m in NYC or Chicago or southern China I’ll be so happily immersed in all that’s going on, obviously, and my sweet little home will be whispering in my ear. Queenie….come home….. will be home for Oliver’s 2nd birthday, no matter what. That’ll be a big day for us all.
  • I’m so glad I was in NYC for the historic snowstorm! Just, wow. It was amazing. In less than 24 hours we got nearly 27″ of snow. It was pretty hard to take a bad picture that day, but still I think this one I took in my beloved Riverside Park is pretty fantastic:
I took this at the spot I always take pictures of the park, and it was about 4:30pm. It's not a black and white picture, and I did absolutely no editing to the shot except to crop out some sidewalk foreground.
I took this at the spot I always take pictures of the park, and it was about 4:30pm. It’s not a black and white picture, and I did absolutely no editing to the shot except to crop out some sidewalk foreground.
  • We have some amazing travel coming up this year. Southern China in April, so excited about that (and also a little scared), and also the UP in July — the Upper Peninsula of Michigan! We’re going to Manistique Lake, a special place in Marc’s life. His family had a cabin there; actually, his grandfather bought it before Marc was even born, and he went all the time as a kid, and then at critical times during his adult life. Both blogs are set up. We’d been planning to go to Alaska in July so I could see humpback whales, but the places were already sold out so we’re diverting to Manistique and planning for Alaska next year. It’s a gorgeous Plan B, and also without any of the anxiety we have about China.
china
click the image to head to the blog
mheader
ditto — click the image

And a final BIG picture OMG. My life is pretty amazing at the moment and so I pause to acknowledge it. My little Katie family is flourishing (and Oliver is amazing) and I am so grateful for my loving daughter; my little Marnie family is flourishing and about to grow and I am so grateful for my loving daughter; my friends remain essential to my heart and well-being; I have work; the back-and-forth pleasures of Austin and NYC are mostly great, and the less-great stuff is a bearable price to pay; I’m in excellent health as far as I know and my eating and yoga and meditation makes me happy on a daily basis; I’m writing my own stuff and it’s good; I’m reading amazing books that enrich me; and my little year-long project has been surprisingly meaningful already. It’s so important to pause and look around during the peaceful happy periods, to see all there is, to sit with it and be grateful for it.

OMG. xoxoxox

resolutions

I know, I know — I said I don’t make resolutions. And I don’t! I used to, and they all (no matter how I worded them) involved losing weight. I quit that one a few years ago and mysteriously(?) I lost all the weight I’ve ever wanted to lose and so far I’ve kept it off so easily for 18 months-ish. Curiouser and curiouser.

I look forward to the topic for this book, which is "Use discipline to catalyze creative magic."
I look forward to the topic for this book, which is “Use discipline to catalyze creative magic.”

BUT I do like to think about life and how I live it, and I do have some beliefs and values that I’ve already thought about a lot and others I want to think about more deeply. And then along comes this fabulous post on the also-fabulous Brain Pickings and thus a project was born. I’ve put the project up in the menu bar (see it up there? 2016?) for my own quick and easy reference. There I’ve listed all 16 of the resolutions, and for each one I linked it to the relevant book. Some of the books I’ve already read but I’ll read again, some are pretty quick, and some will be very slow (the Sontag and the Nussbaum in particular, though in those cases I’ll probably just read the relevant chapter and others that grab me).

My plan is to do this as a year-long reading and thinking project, and at the completion of each topic I’ll write a post about it integrating my own thoughts with those I’ve just studied, and if I find other relevant books and resources I’ll link them in that post too. Of course I read a whole lot already and have a couple of book clubs to read for so this will be a challenge, but what is a challenge if it isn’t a challenge! On the project page I’ll also link to my post on the topic.

Since I’m getting started late I’ll have to hustle, so I’m off to Resolution #1: Cultivate honorable relationships, which centers on Adrienne Rich’s collection of poems titled On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. Yesterday I babysat Oliver all afternoon and while he slept I started reading. Hmmm. Lots to think about. xoxoxox

an accidental year-long reading project

When I was a kid, I got these book sets: four Hemingways, four Fitzgeralds, and four Faulkners. I read one Hemingway and liked it (I was 9 maybe, not real discriminating) so I read the other three next. Then I did that with the Fitzgeralds, and then I tried but was too young to be able to figure out the Faulkners. The sad effect of that project was that I just cannot tell you which of the Hemingways was the one where the guy died alone in the mud under the bridge. (All of them, I think…) Which Fitzgerald was it where the rich people were really sad, even though they drifted from one party to another? (All of them, I think.)

KOKSo I have this tendency anyway, but this year something amazing and dramatic happened. I met Karl Ove Knausgaard, and then I met Elena Ferrante. There was a lot of buzz around both, wildly positive (and voluminous) reviews, an occasional snark, but I was curious and willing. Both were multiple volumes, and both were written in another language, as it turned out (Norwegian and Italian). I started the first Knausgaard and hit the middle and lost steam, but a bit later I picked it up again and that was that. I read that whole book, then the second, then the third, then the fourth, and then I wished with all my heart that the translator would get off his ass and get the others done. (A total of 1,871 pages…. [link to the series on Amazon])

ferranteThe same thing happened with the Ferrante, in its own sidling way. I was put off by the covers, which look old-fashioned and uninteresting, but I picked up the first book and that was that. Those I consumed, the way an alcoholic throws back the first drink of the day. I had to read to stop the shakes, man. (A total of 1,664 pages…. [link to the series on Amazon])

I didn’t really realize the extreme similarity between the two until I was in Ferrante Book 3, I think, but Knausgaard and Ferrante had undertaken exactly the same project. Both sought to intimately portray their inner lives from childhood through adulthood, and to capture their development. These aren’t journals, they aren’t diary entries, they both transform those details into something far greater, something that reaches for universal. Ferrante is older (I think, she remains anonymous) so her books took her character through an older age than Knausgaard, who is only 47. Knausgaard’s books are more openly memoir, partly because Ferrante will not reveal her identity, but I’ve read an interview with her in which she admits they’re drawn from her life to a large degree. And after all, she gave her main character her own name, Elena. There’s also the issue of male story vs female story in this project, and while I thoroughly enjoyed Knausgaard and can’t wait for the next volume [Goodreads review of volume 4 here), the Ferrante was just tectonic for me. I wrote about it in my Goodreads review, here.

When James Joyce published Ulysses, there was a sense that no more literary novels could be written, because he had taken the form out to its farthest edge and done something so startling that anything that came after could only be derivative. He had portrayed one day in the life of a man in its extraordinary complexity. The kind of novelists I prefer to read are those who are grappling with this issue — portraying the truth of what it is to live. I’ve never been interested in potboilers, or genre fiction, or even heavily plot-driven novels. Nothing against them, they’re just not for me.

What fascinates me, and what is so hard to capture well and accurately in a novel, is the big mess of what it is to live in the world. What it is to wrestle with yourself, your ambitions, your needs, your desires, the world, other people. What it is to think about all those things, too. Thinking is chaotic, a bit of focus and then a wandering, then another thought intrudes, that reminds you of something else, back to your focus, interruption, thread of focus lost. We are all essentially contradictions, too, whether it’s over a period of time, or whether we are ambivalent, or whether we change and grow. I want this I want its opposite. I believe this and this contradictory thing. I am this and I am also its shadow. And our shadow! That lives inside us too, in corners, and how do we negotiate with it? What kind of deals do we make, what kind of games do we play, when and how do we indulge it, what horrors do we anticipate if it gets out? We do things we know we shouldn’t, we do things and we don’t know why, we don’t do things we want to do, or know we should. How do you capture that complexity in a novel?

Apparently you do it in multiple very long volumes. I’m the kind of reader who would’ve purposely undertaken this as a project, reading both series of books—binge reading, I guess—but this happened purely by accident. I can’t believe it I didn’t realize it until the seventh book out of eight, but the books are immersive, because they’re both very good at capturing interiority. They’re both very good at including the granular bits of life (Knausgaard more than Ferrante, who focuses a little more on the emotional/psychological). Because the fact is, that’s the bulk of our life. A frightening amount of our lives, if you think about it, is just going on inside our heads. Even when our bodies are moving around in space, doing things glorious or troubling, interacting with other bodies, think about what’s going on in your head: thoughts about what you’re doing, fears, anxieties, emotion, determining or experiencing meaning, or its absence. An overwhelming amount of our lives is captured by the granular boring details. Emptying the trash. Putting away groceries. Time at work. Meetings. Driving, showering, sleeping. Trying to get him to do the things you keep asking him to do. Wasting time.

I’ve got no ending for this post, I’ve just been thinking about it and needed to get it out of my head. Read Ferrante. Most people end up thinking somehow she was writing about them. I did. You might.