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.


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: 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?


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.
click the image to head to the blog
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

*waving my hand, hello!!!*

Well, I know I seem to have disappeared — not just since my last post, which was more than a month ago, but really since August. In September I only posted twice, in October four times, and in November twice. And here it is, December 10. There has been a lot going on; a slow descent into a very dark place, and the slower than anticipated coming out of it, and then our trip to Vietnam and Thailand that was preceded by my trip to Chicago for Marnie’s baby shower, and followed by a couple of days in New York. Also, I’ve been writing on a big project so my spare writing time has gone to that book.

And so here I am, still here and grateful if you are, too. I’ve been thinking a whole lot, and I’ve become obsessed by the subject of self-deception. We say that phrase lightly, but I can’t figure out what it means. I understand deceiving someone else, but if you know a thing how can you deceive yourself about it? If, for instance, you really hate something and choose/decide/have to do it, and you tell yourself you don’t really hate it, you know you hate it and that’s why you’re telling yourself you don’t hate it. So you aren’t deceiving yourself, you’ve just decided to tell a story to others — to deceive them. Or let’s say you have gained a lot of weight (which you obviously know about) and tell yourself you don’t care, you like yourself however you are, there are at least a couple of possibilities. One is that you really do! So there’s no self-deception there. One is that you don’t, but you say you do for all kinds of reasons. You aren’t deceiving yourself because you know you don’t. And then the Freudian/subconscious thing — deep down you know, but you aren’t aware of it….and so you aren’t deceiving yourself!

Honestly, I cannot figure this out. I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy and psychology texts, and it seems to be popping up in the good literature I’ve been reading, prompting me each time to call out to Marc, read the passage to him, and continue the discussion that has obsessed me. If you know a thing and tell yourself something different, you know the thing so you haven’t deceived yourself. If you don’t know the thing but you tell yourself something that isn’t right, you don’t know the thing so you aren’t deceiving yourself. AAAAARGH.

And so another obvious question is why have I become obsessed by this topic. It’s like my frustration over people who write books wondering why there is something instead of nothing (my unhappy review of that book here) — it’s an unanswerable question, so the real question is why are you pursuing the question, what does it mean to you? What would the different answers mean to you? I can’t yet figure out why I’m obsessed by this issue of self-deception, but boy am I. If we’ll be seeing each other and having a glass of wine or something, expect a conversation about it. You might prepare. 🙂

this is the first book of the series -- keep going through all four
this is the first book of the series — keep going through all four

On vacation I read all four of the brilliant Elena Ferrante books, the Neopolitan novels. I’m going to write a post in a few days looking at the books I read this year, because there was a very interesting theme, but for now I’ll just say a few things:

  • Stop everything else, get these books, and read them. (Here, click here, I’ve made it easy for you — the EFerrante page on Amazon.) I haven’t been so affected by a book, so personally moved, in such a long time. And I was moved in a very different way. Moby Dick moved the hell out of me and still leaves me in awe, but it’s a kind of distanced awe. These books leave ME in awe, rather than my opinion. I can’t get it right, I haven’t yet figured out how to talk about it, but just read them.
  • It’s very hard to notice what’s not there. You may notice it in an abstract way, but it’s hard to notice the feel, the texture, the heart of something that’s not there, and reading these books made me so keenly aware of how rare it is to explore the richness of real women’s lives and interiors. It made me achingly aware of how invisible our true experiences are, how fleeting is the glance we’re paid, and it’s rarely a real and true glance. When I finished the fourth book, I turned immediately to the book selection for book club this month and just could not do it. The main character, a young boy, a mahout, in Istanbul in the 16th century. Stock characters, including the princess he impossibly falls in love with. Evildoers and false everything. I just could not possibly care less. (When I couldn’t read the book club selection, I decided to start Moby Dick and couldn’t. All dudes all the time. Even the whale is a dude. Then I decided to read Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle, which I can almost always read. Couldn’t do it. The only other book that left me unable to read anything else afterwards was Moby Dick.) I have wondered why in the world I soaked up Orange is the New Black the way I did, greedily, and felt sad when the season ended and there wasn’t more to watch. It wasn’t the prison melodrama, it wasn’t the ridiculous Piper storyline(s), it was the stories of the other women, the black women, the Hispanic women, Red, the former nun — their lives and struggles and big fronts. The end of the last season, when Black Cindy’s conversion to Judaism takes a real root in her, well, I can’t even think about that without crying.

I need the stories of real women, and they’re much harder to find. Women write male characters, and on occasion a man will write a female character well; at the time, I thought Wally Lamb wrote Delores so well in She’s Come Undone, the whole time I thought the author was a woman. But I want women authors writing about women, so if you have some recommendations I’d love to hear them. Not the Brontes please, or Jane Austen. (Nothing against them, I’m just looking for something else.)

To work for me — a happy Thursday to you all! Mine comes with zero sleep the night before, so it’ll be an interesting day. I’m so lucky to work for myself, at home, so if I crash I can do that. There are so many ways I’m lucky it’s hard to keep count. xoxox

Happy birthday to me!

“Still, there are times I am bewildered by each mile I have traveled, each meal I have eaten, each person I have known, each room in which I have slept. As ordinary as it all appears, there are times when it is beyond my imagination.” ― Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies

Today I turn 57. In the last year, I had truly extraordinary times, so many joyous times, easy happiness for months on end, one deeply painful issue that still hurts and in fact hurts more than I think I can bear sometimes, and one dark period and one deep dark black period. This is long, but I have so very much to be grateful for, and you’re in here, I promise you. I learned a lot about myself this year; what a treat, that you can keep surprising yourself for so long. I kept my promise to myself this whole year in terms of eating well and mindfully, and doing near-daily yoga and meditating and walking. I celebrated our precious and happy Oliver turning 1, and the news of my darling Marnie’s pregnancy with a boy, arriving at the end of February. Two grandsons, what gifts, as I watch my family, the little family I tried so hard to make, grow into the future.

Since my last birthday I traveled a lot. I went to NYC every month, except the two months Marc came here. I went to Chicago on Mother’s Day to see Marnie and loved sitting in her booth at Zine Fest and seeing people respond to her beautiful work. Right after my birthday last year we went to Laos and Cambodia; in March I went to Colombia; in July I went to Norway and saw the midnight sun; in 13 days I return to Vietnam for the fifth time. Seeing the world, a treasure I never thought would happen to me, but it has for the last 10 years.

This year I celebrated the birthdays of my dearest daughters Katie and Marnie, and their families, and my friends. With my book club boon companions, we read books, we ate good food, we laughed so much, we went to happy hours together, we saved each other in one way or another, and our friendships deepened even more. With friends near and far, I enjoyed love and friendship and laughs and commiseration. With Traci I had two lunches each month in NYC and hours of sharing ourselves with each other, such a treasure. Dinners with Craig in New York, though not nearly enough of those, always rich in laughter and feeling seen and known. I even got to see Sherlock this year, but not my darling Peggy. Dear friends in Austin, in other states, in Europe and Canada, and even on the other side of the world, down under — all very real to me, very important, dear friends. Although I already knew this, I learned even more about how critical friends are to a full and happy life, and sometimes to life itself. My friends saved me last month in a very real way. So many walked right into that deep, dark hole and held my hands gently and brought me back into the light, friends in Austin and New York and Connecticut and Pennsylvania and France and Australia, just staggering. Friends, riches beyond compare. Daughters, wealth beyond compare.

a friend interlude -- my book club women, so much love
a friend interlude — book club women, so much love. missing Dee.

kandoI have a chosen family that carries me gently and with so much love, and I feel the same. Sherlock and Craig, my brothers. Peggy and Dixie, my sisters. Don, my Jewish father. Nancy, my….no idea, just my dearly loved family. I feel like there is so much more to say there, but I don’t know the words. I’ve done without a mother for 57 years, so I guess it’ll go that way, but I have a big enough family to hold and enfold me. And then of course my birthed family, Katie and Marnie, who I simply could not do without. Their husbands, always so good to me and to my daughters. I’m so grateful for my sweet family.

Since my last birthday I read so many books, mostly for work, but some for pleasure: Did You Ever Have a Family; A Little Life; Do No Harm; four of the Karl Ove Knausgaard volumes titled  My Struggle; On the Move, Oliver Sacks’ memoir; A House in the Sky; The End of Your Life Book Club; The Empathy Exams; We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves; The Unspeakable; Kafka on the Shore; She Weeps Each Time You’re Born; Norwegian Wood; Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage; Station Eleven; Dept. of Speculation; The Laughing Monsters; West of Sunset; The Children Act; The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing; Loitering; The Bone Clocks; Everything I Never Told Youand Cutting for Stone. Of these, my very favorites were the four giant Knausgaards, A Little Life, She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, Station Eleven, Loiteringand Dept. of Speculation. And then there were so many I reread for the remembered pleasure, including the one I’m rereading for the 5th(?) time, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. That always feels like an autumn book to me for some strange reason. So many I reread, I can’t even remember. The gift of literature, my oldest and most consistent love, I guess.

Every month but one, I think, poetry group met in my house and we shared truly wonderful evenings together, nearly all of the poetry beautiful and expansive and moving. Those friends taught me so much about poetry, and I’m so grateful for their generosity. I learned some new poets to follow, like Frank Bidart, and two of my friendships in that group deepened a lot. I found new music thanks to my very dear friend Val, who sent me an album of Imagine Dragons because she thought I would enjoy it, and at just the perfect time, and added a lot of Iris Dement to my library, thanks to my beautiful Traci. Around Austin and New York, and around the world, I ate a lot of fabulous food and will be drinking a whole lot of amazing tea (thank you Sherlock and Peggy). And I cooked a lot of fabulous food too, including this buttermilk biscuit jag I’ve been on and can’t seem to stop—especially since I discovered Tasmanian Leatherwood honey, and received some of Karyn’s delicious honey from her bees. Books, poetry, music, food, so many riches.

And the ordinaries, the moments throughout the days and weeks that give me peace and ease, or simple happiness, or even joy and bliss, which I am grateful to experience on a regular basis. My morning coffee routine, a deep pleasure never taken for granted. Weekly coffee breaks with Nancy, communion in the deepest, real meaning of that word. The real pleasure of my sweet little home, and the way I get to welcome people into it. Drawing, which I learned how to do this year, a regular joy and wonder. Nightly walks and stories in my ear, meditative pleasures. Sitting on my patio in the cool moments of a day, feeling the soft air on my face and the quiet joy of having my own space. My so-cozy bed, my refuge at the end of each day, crisp white sheets and a soft comforter.

Of course Facebook makes it easy for people — far-flung people — to wish you a happy birthday, but it’s always so surprising to get the emails, cards, gifts, and notes from people who remember. Like Kty in Paris, who remembered — how? how did she remember this? — that I love yellow flowers. People who remind me about Big Daddy or Mister Rogers just when I need to remember them — how do you do that? Little interpersonal touches that show me that somehow I live in the hearts of people in so many places. It doesn’t feel like there is a big enough gratitude for touches like these.

OandP090215No one ever knows what the coming year will bring, me least of all. I’ve noticed that the things I worry about most tend not to happen, and I never once imagined the dreadfulest things that happened. I guess, if it’s not too greedy, I’d like another year like this past year: daughters and their sons and husbands, friends far and wide, books, art, poetry, good food, travel, continued good health for me and Marc and everyone I know please. Gee, that looks like a whole lot to ask for. I expect and hope to travel to Chicago in February for the birth of Marnie’s and Tom’s son, and I expect I won’t get nearly my fill of my kids and grandsons, even little Oliver who lives up the road a ways.

I’m damn glad to be here and I couldn’t have done it without you. Thank you for being here with me, and for celebrating my birthday with me if you do. Thank you for living this life with me, for the ways you keep me going, the ways you share yourself with me, and the ways you encourage me with so much love. Thank you for the times you let me love you. I’m so grateful for this past year, which was an absolutely wonderful year in almost every way. Even the dark times mattered, even though I did not like the suffering. So happy birthday to me, and many more! On to 58!

p.s. I’ll bet you knew that I cried while writing every single word. xoxoxox

a little wave

Hi there, everyone! Remember me? I’ve been away — on vacation in Norway of course, but also just away from regular writing. I thought I’d pop in today with some small bits to share.

  • It’s been more than a year, now, since I began the anti-flailing project and no one is more surprised than I am by its success. And I think people who know me are surprised, because it circles around issues I have launched myself at so many times over the years, each effort lasting through an initial burst of working, and then fizzling and leaving me only slightly ahead of where I had been when I started. More than a year later I am still doing one thing at a time. Still eating well (except for when I’m in NYC, where I just do the best I can). Still doing yoga every single day, and meditating at the end of the day. Still doing much more walking than ever before. Still feeling still and quiet inside. Still living so much more in the present (thanks greatly to my bubble insight), even though I think that has contributed to the great decline in my writing here. All these shifts have also led to their self-perpetuation in an interesting way, because when for any reason I skip some of them — like doing yoga when I was in Norway, or like eating a bag of peanut M&Ms with Marc while watching the midnight sun — it’s not even an effort to return to myself anymore. It was, at first; at first I would have to summon myself, think about just starting again, but now I just start again. That’s all amazing to me. And even more amazing, all the weight I lost (35 pounds, unbelievably) have stayed off. I go up and down by a couple of pounds, but wow.
  • Surprising to me, I am getting better at drawing! What I mean by that is that it’s more a pleasure in the doing of it now, because I am getting closer to being able to approximate what I see. I’m less mortified by what I draw, and more often kind of happy with it. Getting better means I’m looser and starting to play more, and that was one of the main reasons I wanted to do it.  I never thought I would get to any of these places with drawing. So in the process, I have also learned a little more persistence about starting new things. You can never get better if you don’t practice, and no one starts off as an expert.
  • Living with the estrangement of my son is like living with a raging infection that is agonizing but not fatal. Sometimes it’s worse than others, sometimes it’s just there in the background of everything, and right now it’s kind of raging. It tenderizes me, makes me even more easily and readily touched by the world. Two nights ago I was scrolling through our old text messages to each other and came across this exchange from very early in 2013. It shows his hilarious sense of humor:

I’m sitting in a cafe trying to figure out what I’m doing with my life.

What’re you thinking about?

Aquaponics. Feed fish, fish waste feeds plants, farm caviar and harvest plants.

Well that’s a different idea than usual!

They’re farming sturgeon in Spain, I’m sure it could be done here. Anywho, pipe dream for now. Anytime I think of something to do, the process of me getting myself there looks like this:  1) Collect underpants. 2) ??? 3) Profit!

He always cracked me up, and I miss him so much it ebbs and then swells into unbearable. So I’m in that right now and having to keep drinking water all day to stay hydrated from all the crying. It’s tough.

  • I’ve been reading a lot, as always — Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh;  Knausgaard’s fourth memoir in the series; On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks;  and A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout. (Links all go to my GoodReads review of each title.) It was amazing finishing the fourth Knausgaard in northern Norway, since it was set in that almost-exact location, and I finished it with regret that book 5 is not yet translated, and book 6 will be translated and available a year after book 5. I have a greater appreciation of the vast project of his books, and my awe has settled into place. The brain surgery book was fascinating, both in terms of the brain stuff and in terms of getting into the arrogant head of a brain surgeon. I see that all four of the books are memoir, which I hadn’t actually noticed until now. I recommend Oliver Sacks’s book, and the last one by Amanda Lindhout is really only for the stouthearted, as it goes into pretty horrifying detail about her captivity in Somalia and the things that were done to her. But it also presents one of the most accurate and vivid descriptions of dissociation I’ve ever read.
  • On Facebook I just posted this great old Lyle Lovett song, This Old Porch, because my son once told me that every time he hears it he thinks of me. He’s not on Facebook but I had a silly superstitious thought that somehow it might wiggle at him a little.

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But one line in the lyric brought forth such a detailed memory and it has stayed with me. The line is about an old theater on main street, and suddenly I remembered being a young girl, maybe 10 years old, going to the movies in tiny little Graham, Texas. There was one theater in town, on the square, and it smelled old and musty. I don’t remember what movie we saw; each movie played for a month, so once you saw it you just had to wait another month for the next movie, or see the same one again. I remember sitting in the cool, dark theater with my sister and brother after my mother dropped us off, and there were just a few other kids in the theater. It was a very hot summer day, and we had Charms lollipops, those thick chunks of lurid-colored sugar that turned our tongues matching colors. Someone in the theater threw his lollipop at the screen and we were all scandalized by that vandalism, happening right before  our eyes. It was stuck to the screen throughout the movie. But I remember how my skin felt, how raw I felt, how pressed-on by the world, how unformed it was to be me. Big Daddy had just died and my one little place in the world was gone, and I felt like a speck of dust in a raging, scary universe. I remember how my muscles felt, how my stomach felt, how my mouth tasted. That was more years ago than my father lived, isn’t that amazing? Memory is the most incredible thing, whatever the memories are. How lucky a thing to have them.

Book club tonight, and a friend’s wedding on Saturday. Summer in Texas is here, 100 degrees coming this weekend. A teenager’s death by snake in the news. My daughter Katie’s birthday is coming up, an age that surprises us both — how can that be? And Oliver is walking. Life is, as always, all kinds of things at once. I kind of love that.


spotting your big theme

It’s so funny, the various ways you can learn something big about yourself. And what’s even funnier is that I think it’s not self-reflection that answers this call nearly as often as we think it is. We like to think that we know ourselves from the inside out, but honestly, I think we learn much more about ourselves coming from the outside in.

booksMy most recent example of this came when I was reading through my Kindle highlights. If you are a Kindle owner, and you highlight material as I do, you know that you can see all of them online, right? You don’t have to just go to a single book on your Kindle and view the highlights for that book — you can see them all together.
just go to

I love to scan through all my highlights when I am trying to find one specific thing. But a couple of days ago I settled in and just read them all, from my most recent highlight all the way back to my first. Of course it made me want to re-read almost every single book, and it reminded me of books I had completely forgotten that I read. (And a couple of times I scratched my head, trying to remember anything at all about the book and being unable to recall it entirely.)

But the very cool thing, and the reason for this post, is that I saw a theme or two emerge. You’d think the emerging theme would be due entirely to the specific book topic — like, for example, if one of my themes is fear I only read books about fear, or it only shows up in books about fear — but it isn’t like that. Instead, across a very wide range of books, across a range of genres, across a wide range of subject material, my theme is being an orphan. That drumbeat started sounding as I moved through the first 3 or so books, and as I kept reading it just got louder and louder, until I realized that I had sought out sentences, passages, paragraphs on the topic in the strangest places. It’s my great theme.

And it’s not as if I didn’t know this was a central issue in my life. This is not news to me. But the degree to which words speak to me of that theme was news, as was the specific aspect. I saw that it isn’t abandonment — the act — that was my focus. I don’t think I can ever understand that well enough to have it as a theme. It wasn’t abandoning mother — the one causing it — that was my focus. I know for a fact that I can’t understand her well enough; she is a black box to me. It was the state of being that caught me. Being an orphan. What it is to be an orphan, how it feels, where it leaves you, how the waves of it hit and are reflected out. Again, and again, and again, in short phrases and long passages, I collect others’ ways of presenting this subject. This is a stretch to make my point: if a cookbook writer says something that can in any way be construed about being an orphan, I would highlight it.

That’s really fascinating to me, that I revealed that almost without realizing it. And now what? I’ve learned something new about myself, and now I can work with it in some way. I wonder if realizing it will be enough to let the acknowledgement of it pass along, away, and let me be free of it? For there is something sad about having such a thrum of feeling like an orphan, a kind of loneliness, a feeling outside of things. I am outside the realm of having had a mother, parents who wanted me, but I created a new realm where the idea of ‘mother’ and mother-child bond is very much connected to me, and part of my deepest sense of self. It’s just in the other direction. And so I am not truly and fully outside of that.

I don’t know, I guess I’ll see what happens. Maybe I’ll have to observe myself again from some external perspective to see if something changes, if my theme shifts. It’s an awfully simple idea I’m presenting, and I know personally that just understanding something isn’t always enough to cause the big shift, but it ain’t nothin, either.

sweeping swaths

bookishI am of the ‘bookish’ race. When I’m in the middle of reading a book, I already know what book I will read next, and next after that. It may change, of course, but I’m never wondering.

I have lists of books I want to read, pages and pages of lists. A folder on my computer filled with ebooks ready to upload to my currently overloaded Kindle, and each one is an item that connects to a huge world. That Virginia Woolf title? Yeah, I want to read everything she wrote. Ditto Murakami, and Solnit, and Roth. Oh, that book of essays? Yeah, I want to read as many excellent essayists as I can find. (Dang, that’s right, I still want to read everything D’Ambrosio wrote, essays and other.) After I finish all the Knausgaard books that are currently translated, I want to read as many books by Norwegian authors as I can find. And the Icelandic sagas, that’s right, they’ve been on my list forever.

Bookish people collect ways to find more books, so I love literature-map because it shows me a visual representation of authors who relate to each other. Here’s the space around Knausgaard:

he is in GOOD company!
he is in GOOD company!

I love ‘What Should I Read Next?‘ even though I already know what I’ll be reading next. I love ‘Where Should I Read Next?‘ to help me find books set in the places I visit on vacation. I love the fun sliders on ‘Which book?‘ that help me home in on a mood. I love the recommendations possibilities on GoodReads and I like seeing what other readers buy on Amazon when they buy a book I love.

But I don’t really need all that help, because my problem is never what I will read next. The problem is when, and there is no app, no website, that can answer that question for me. It’s weird to find myself hoping for insomnia, but since the only time I get to read for fun is if I wake up in the middle of the night, I am hoping for insomnia. My insomnia years seem to be behind me, at least for now, and in the long run of course I’m grateful, but for a bookish girl like me, losing the only reading-for-fun time is a big loss.

In my fantasy book club, there would be a small number of readers who are like me — by which I mean just like me, wanting to read the way I do and exactly what I do, and wanting to dig in and talk about the book until the book is exhausted, and who will then want to read a book that connects, so we swim together in the wide swath of a writer, or a subject, or a genre. I want someone to say to me, with a look of excited wonder on his/her face, “Yeah, but do you see what Knausgaard is doing here? Do you see the project?” And I would lean forward and nearly faint and grab his/her hands and we’d be struggling not to talk over each other because we both see what he’s doing there, it’s not at all what it appears if you just sit on the surface, see?? Yes, of course I see, what a relief you do too…..

Why I read, what I read for, matters but only to me, and matters only because it guides the sweep of my reading. Lots of people love reading as much as I do, and a great many of those avid readers favor books that I’m not interested in, genres that I simply don’t want to spend my very rare time immersed in — just as they don’t find any interest in mine. That’s why there are so many kinds of books, more than enough for everyone! Yay!

So here is one of my several fantasy lives: I travel — alone, even — and am engaged in the world. Let’s say I walk the Camino de Santiago, like my friend Lynn is doing right now, or let’s say I bicycle my way around Europe for a couple of months, like my friends Anne and Colin are doing right now, or let’s say I land in Hanoi and just wander around Vietnam for a couple of months. All I have, except for clothing and necessary toiletries, are my Kindle and my moleskine and a pen, and my camera. During the day I walk, I bicycle, I meet people, and in the evening I write, and I read. My God, what heaven!

But for today, I will be reading something not of my choosing all day long, something I read in order to earn some money. That damn piper, always needing to be paid. 🙂

And if you know someone whose reading taste and style aligns with mine, send ’em my way, would you?

hi, beautiful

2015And here we are in the new year, 2015. The year my second daughter will turn 30, staggering to the mama. The year I will turn 57, a little less staggering to the mama somehow. The year I’ll go to Colombia, and Iceland, and back to southeast Asia. And today the day I will see almost all my book club women (but no Faith, to my sorrow), my boon companions here in Austin. We’ll eat well, laugh a lot I have no doubt, and Marc will be in the mix, which will be . . . interesting.

Someone in London, Ontario has been slowly and systematically reading her way through my blog, month by month. It’s been very interesting to observe; she (I assume she) doesn’t know what’s to come in late October 2012, and I wish I could warn her. She’ll be as shocked by the sudden crumbling of my whole life as I was (well…..kinda, not really). Periodically I’ve wanted to see what she was seeing, so I’d open a month page and read through the posts for that month, in that year. It’s been a lot of fun, actually, revisiting those days, seeing the kinds of things I wrote about.

One thing I did a lot of a year or two ago was to share links, things I wanted to read or think about. I haven’t done that in a while, so I thought I’d do it today; in case you’re in a lying-around kind of mood maybe something will strike your fancy. Here are some links I’ve saved:

Links about books and literary stuff to read

Life stuff



OK! Happy new year. Thanks for following my blog, for commenting here or on Facebook, and emailing and messaging me about posts, or other things my posts make you think of, or for any reason at all. I look forward to seeing how this year unfolds for us all. Peace on earth is too much to hope for, but I’d settle for a quiet weekend here and there, wouldn’t you?

And p.s. Since my daily gratitude email system has apparently gone down for the count, I’ve decided to put it here. There may be days that’s all I post, just a short note about what I’m grateful for. Dang, that system was so great . . . I really miss it. For 616 days in a row I made note of what I was grateful for, beginning right after Gracie died. Usually my daily gratitude was about someone specific, and that may well be you. I’m just going to use first initials, so since I know a bunch of people whose names begin with K, and with D, you’re just going to have to wonder, I guess. Since I write my posts the day before, and schedule them to go up at 7am the next morning, there’ll be a tiny bit of a lag. So here goes:

gratitude: 01/01/15: Today I am so grateful for my wonderful little home, with a landlord who takes such good care of me and with friends N&B just on the other side of the wall who turn this into a home depot, where we watch out for each other as we come and go. I never take having a home for granted, but I really hit the jackpot here.

01/01/13: Struggling to feel grateful about anything today. (I remember that day.)
01/01/14: Grateful today for a new year of life.

best books

Well, hell — everyone else is on the Best Books of 2014 bandwagon, why shouldn’t I be? I only read 35 books this year (for fun, I mean — I read at least that many for work), but five turned out to sit on my “favorite books of all time” list. That’s pretty good! A higher ratio than I often have, I think. One book came via my book club, one came via Marnie’s recommendation, and the rest I just chose on my own:

omsThe Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. Here is my short GoodReads review of it. Random House published it in January 2012, so it wasn’t new in 2014, but it really knocked me back. It’s a profound trauma narrative of life in North Korea. It’s sometimes quite beautiful. I frequently had to read out of the sides of my eyes, or stand up and walk around taking deep breaths because of the horror.  I’d had the mistaken assumption that it was impossible to know what’s happening in North Korea, but it isn’t. This novel was heavily researched (and Johnson even visited North Korea), and I think he drew heavily on some of the first-person accounts of people who escaped. After I read this, I read every memoir I could find by escapees. Escape from Camp 14 was by far the best of those, and it transcended horror narrative because the young man, Shin Dong-Hyuk, wonders if it’s possible for him ever to become human. And you wonder that too, with a broken heart. But The Orphan Master’s Son is still a novel, and it’s beautiful, novelistically. I will definitely be reading this one again and again. Right now, with North Korea in the news, would be a great time for everyone to read this.  And then you might want to start following this site: One Free Korea.  I get a daily email of the day’s post and I always pause to read it.

carsonThe Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. THANK YOU, MARNIE. Here is my GoodReads review.  This is one of those books where I could tell you what it’s about, but that’s not what it’s about, that’s not why it sits on this shelf. It’s not because it’s about Geryon, a winged red monster struggling with his family and falling in love with Herakles, who is fated to kill him one day according to the myth. It’s because of the language, it’s because of the singular mind of Anne Carson. It’s one of the very rare books I read on paper instead of in my Kindle — the only one this year, I believe. It’s a book to read very slowly; if you just race through it to get the story you have completely missed the point. It’s hilarious. It’s crushing. It’s beautiful. It’s a book to read with a notebook at your elbow and a pen in your hand. I underlined something on almost every page — here’s a little passage I loved, to give you a sense of it:

[from X: Sex Question]

Cold night smell
coming in the windows. New moon floating white as a rib at the edge of the sky.
I guess I’m someone who will never be satisfied,
said Herakles. Geryon felt all nerves in him move to the surface of his body.
What do you mean satisfied?
Just—satisfied. I don’t know. From far down the freeway came a sound
of fishhooks scraping the bottom of the world.

It’s a book to be savored again and again, and I will be doing that the rest of my life. I started reading another of her books, an essay collection titled, Glass, Irony and God and just haven’t finished it yet. Savoring, savoring, savoring.

beingmortalBeing Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, by Atul Gawande. Here is my tiny little GoodReads review, just a para. I saw Gawande on The Daily Show and was so impressed by his quiet intelligence and way of thinking that I read his book, and now I want to read his others. I’m only 56 and hope that the end for me is in the far, far distant future — partly because I hope that by then, more people in medicine will understand things the way he does. He’s an influential thinker in the medical field so maybe he’ll have some effect. I hope so. The book explores what is important in the later years of life, and how to incorporate those values into the experiences of the elderly, or those facing death. Our culture thinks the more medical intervention the better, and people who turn away from it, reject the chemo and surgeries and harrowing treatments, are on their own. It’s a very thoughtful and beautifully written exploration of a time of life when you’re really on your own and it all matters very much.

northThe Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. Here is my brief GoodReads review. This story of the WWII POWs forced by the Japanese to build a railroad through Burma and Thailand won the Booker Prize this year. Flanagan completely rewrote the book several times — his father had been one of the POWs and he felt great urgency to tell the story just the right way. He finally kept the version that was a love story (as he described it), and to be honest I was not moved by that aspect. Was it a perfect book? No, not for me. There were parts I thought were much less successful than others, and parts I found myself just clicking through the pages. But it still sits on my favorites-of-all-times shelf because it did what those books do for me: it transported me, it made me feel another kind of life, it wrenched me open by putting me in the middle of the very worst of humanity and it lifted me by showing me the very best of humanity in the middle of that worst. For weeks after reading it, I heard myself bringing it up whenever I could, and I seemed to find all kinds of relevant connections. It’s a big book, a wrenching book, a hard book. After reading about the way the Japanese treated the POWs, the book takes us to those Japanese soldiers after the war and I did not want to go there. I wanted them all to suffer terrible, horrible, miserable agonies. Instead, I had to read of their lives, their justifications, their rationalizations. I will read this again, but I’ll probably just focus on the chapters that take place during the war, in the POW camp. Amazing.

Loitering: New and Collected Essaysloitering by Charles D’Ambrosio. Here is my GoodReads review. D’Ambrosio, how have I missed you all these years?! It seems like I’m the last person to know about him, so I’ll have to make up for lost time and read everything he’s written to date. This collection of essays left me feeling like I’d found my much-more-talented other half, my kindred spirit who could say what I think and feel, almost exactly as I think and feel it. He values a lack of certainty about things. Quite loudly. He’s from an extraordinarily difficult family, with a brother who committed suicide. He feels like the eternal outsider. Some essays are pointedly personal and some are not, but they all share this value about the risk and danger of certainty. I especially loved the way he didn’t end them with a perfectly closed circle, a note of finality, and yet somehow they felt like they ended. I kept trying to see how he did that. I’ll definitely read this collection again and again. I just looked at the Table of Contents and wanted to put everything down and dip into the book again.

I hope there are five books waiting for that shelf in the coming year.

little black squiggles

Before I moved to New York, I lived in a house with a huge living room, and I had floor-to-ceiling teak bookcases lining the walls of that room. Every bit of wall that was wide enough held as much bookcase as it could hold. The shelves were gorgeous — Swedish design — but of course it was the treasures on all the shelves that I loved. I moved all those books from place to place to place, probably spent a small fortune in boxes and barrels to carry them around the country.

But in New York, space was limited, to say the least. There were limitations on the limitations. There was very little wall space, and all I had was one bookshelf. I used the space to its max, with a row of books behind the row of books on each shelf, and books stacked on top of the rows, but there was no way I could keep all my books. So I culled them with great agony, as the booklovers understand. I kept only those books that meant something very special to me for one reason or another, like my copy of Little Women that my grandmother gave me 50 years ago. It was excruciating getting rid of them. It took several passes through, winnowing and winnowing until I could fit the remaining books. Ugh, it hurt.

So now I just have two tall 6-shelf cases and one small three-shelf case, and it looks small and paltry to me. The shelves hold books that are among my very favorites. Here are two of my very favorite shelves:

click to enlarge
click to enlarge

These shelves hold Achebe through Hurston, which means the top shelf holds Things Fall Apart, a long-time favorite, Little Women (the 3rd from the left, with broken spine), City of Bohane, oh-how-I-love-that-oneBeckett, Calvino, Camus, Carver, Dante, Dostoevsky. I haven’t yet read 2666 but it’s on my short list. (Which is a very long list.)

The second shelf holds Faulkner, Foer, Galloway (Marnie’s books), Gaitskill, Gardner (Grendel, which is a thoroughly brilliant retelling of Beowulf from the perspective of the monster), Grass, Heller, HOMER, Houellebecq (who drives me mad), Hugo, and dear Zora Neale Hurston. Also: Nick Flynn. Of course.

Like so many bookish people, my fantasy house holds an enormous library. It’s a huge room lined with warm wood shelves, two floors maybe, and a fireplace on the ground floor, a big comfy couch and a super cozy chair with ottoman, warm lamps, thick rugs, art, giant windows open to the view of whatever the view is. I don’t care so much what the view is. There’s also a big library table, piled with more books, my NYRB collection (and my New Yorkers would be stashed somewhere too). Gosh. How I would love that.

It’s less important now, since I have so few books, but they are organized by genre/subject, and then alphabetically within the sections. Philosophy, social science, novels, poetry, general non-fiction, journals, photography, writing, dictionaries and other reference books, knitting. I often sit in my chair and just look at them, even though my eyes are not what they used to be and I can’t quite read all the titles. But it doesn’t matter, they are my preciouses and I know them by their shape and color. Ah — that fat yellow one, that’s Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. Those fancy ones, the McSweeneys. And that big sideways stack, my Vonneguts. Another big stack, my Rushdies.

I have a short stack on my bedside table. There is a cozy chair in the corner, right next to the stack, and I love to sit there early in the morning and read.


Cicero said, “A room without books is like a body without a soul,” and I couldn’t agree more. That Cicero was one smart dude.

Happy Sunday, everyone. Read something good today!

she’s always going on about books

bookartBut see, here’s the thing. You just never ever know where a book is going to take you, and I do not mean the plot. They’re like people, in one way, in that when you encounter a new one you may think you know something, you may think you’ll like it, you may start off with a grudge, but you can be so wrong. I cannot possibly list (or even count) the books that I began with one expectation and went somewhere entirely different. That’s true with people too, when I think of random meetings that placed a person in my life who completely upended it, or changed it in some huge way for the better. As much as I may dislike a lot of books that I’ve read for my various book clubs—and as precious as my spare reading time is, it’s especially terrible to have to finish a book for book club if I’m not liking it—some of my absolute favorites came through a book club, and they weren’t books I’d heard of or would’ve picked up on my own.

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Yep, that one was a book club choice in New York (thank you again and eternally, Tracy….actually, Tracy’s boyfriend-now-husband). When she picked it I was simultaneously intrigued and put off by the title, but O how I fell for that book. It’s one of my always-favorites, as you know by now. It turned me into a rabid Nick Flynn fan, and I read everything he writes, now. I have copies of all his books of poetry, his three memoirs (the third of which, The Reenactments, was also amazing). His books were not only artistic gifts to me, they also made me think about my own life in a larger way, in a more poetic way. I had no clue that was going to happen when Tracy made her book club pick and I opened it on my kindle, and I love that.

The Orphan Master’s Son. I had NO idea what this book was going to do to me, no idea at all. When it was selected for book club, I remember thinking hmmm. Orphans. I knew it was set in North Korea and thought hmmm. North Korea. What did I know about North Korea then, can I remember? Not much. I knew about the Korean War (but not much), I knew the leader was insane, and I thought it was impossible to know anything about it, for some reason. I thought it was like some kind of lead shield was over it and it was literally impossible for anyone to know what was going on in there. And then there was the lunacy of Dennis Rodman going there — not once but twice — which confused me, they let in a Westerner, what? The fact that it was a loon they let in made some kind of sense, but I basically just didn’t think about it too much. North Korea. Hmmm. Hmph. Hope that insane leader doesn’t nuke the world to death. That’s where I was when I started reading The Orphan Master’s Son.

I read the book — consumed it, really — and loved the deeply literary aspects of it, the way the author presented the trauma narrative, and was horrified by the story of it. Really? North Korea is like that? How could I have been so ignorant? So I immediately downloaded and read Escape From Camp 14, a story of the only person born in that horrible camp ever to have escaped. Many of the events in the book were so similar to those in The Orphan Master’s Son it gave that book a kind of reverse horror icing — god, those kinds of things really happen, it wasn’t just something imagined for a novel. I became obsessed. I read The Aquariums of Pyongyang, a story of a man whose family was tossed into a camp and he eventually escaped. I’m reading Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea now, but I had to stop to read two giant GIANT books for book club (11/22/63 by Stephen King, an 800+ page behemoth, and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, a 784-page behemoth). The Goldfinch is really quite wonderful but my heart and mind are still in North Korea. Now I want to read every single thing I can find about it — history, political science, biographies, everything. I have a list of all the books and am working my way through them. In a million years, I never would’ve thought I would become obsessed by North Korea. Nope, not me.

It was just a book club book, that’s all. Now I just want to grab everyone’s arms — do you know what is happening in North Korea?? Do you? Do you really? We all have slaughter exhaustion, I know. Syria, Africa here and there and always, smaller or larger slaughter skirmishes, empathy depletion, how can we muster ourselves again and again against what man will do to man, what government will do to citizens? But seriously: do you know what’s going on in North Korea? It is not impossible to know. [really, read this link.]

I never fail to experience awe at the fact of having my eyes move over dark squiggles on some surface — paper, pixels, no matter — and then I feel something, then I am changed, then my heart is torn or healed, then I am not the same or my place in the world is not the same. Maybe a person crafted those squiggles originally a few centuries back: AWE. Maybe a person crafted them in a frightening place: AWE.  Maybe a person risked his or her actual life to get those squiggles down so they could be passed along. That is reason for awe.

But seriously: do you know what’s going on in North Korea? It’s not impossible to know.

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lots of good stuff

Well, dear friends, I know I’ve been away for a while and here I am just sharing some links, but I want to share these with you! So much good stuff, and I hope some of it appeals to you. Since it’s coming from me, it’s about books and movies and poetry:





Winding down 2013, looking ahead to 2014 — arbitrary divisions, but they still feeling meaningful. Much love to you all……xo

gettin on a jag

obsessionWhen I was a kid, I saw an ad in a magazine for sets of books and records so I saved my money until I could buy one of the 12-book sets I most wanted in hardback: four books by Hemingway, four by Faulkner, and four by Fitzgerald. (It must be four each, because that’s what I still have, though maybe I lost some over the years in my dozens of moves.) So thrilled to have these books, to own them, I sat down and read them straight through. All four by Hemingway, back to back. All four by Fitzgerald, back to back. Ditto Faulkner.

I don’t recommend this as a strategy. Even right after finishing — but definitely all these years later — I can’t remember which was which. Now which one was the Hemingway where the guy died under the bridge, in the mud, in the arms of a woman? (hmmm, um, all of them? Bad example.) Which was the one where the rich young couple wandered through the city after a night of debauchery? (um, any Fitzgerald, now that I think about it.) Which Faulkner was the one where I had to keep reading the same sentence over and over and over trying to parse its meaning — oh yeah. All of them. Those are bad examples.

This seems to be a reading strategy I pursue, but then again it’s the same strategy I pursue on a lot of fronts. Find something I love and then do it to death. When I finish reading a book I’ve loved, I want to read every single thing that author wrote. After I read The Woman Warrior (well, after I read it three times in a row and felt ready to move on a tiny bit), I read all of Maxine Hong Kingston’s books. I definitely learned her voice, and could spot a Kingston book if I found a page separated from a typewritten manuscript stuck between bricks. Hey, that’s Maxine Hong Kingston. But they’re all of a piece for me now, and that’s good and bad. But don’t you do that too — if you’re surprised and delighted by a new writer, you just want more of her or him? Finding a good writer is so hard, if you find one sure bet probably others will follow there.

For about nine months when we lived in Fredericksburg, VA (and my kids’ll back me up on this) I got really stuck on Aretha Franklin’s “Til You Come Back to Me”:

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Did you know you can wear out a CD? YOU CAN. I played that one song on repeat for nine months — never the song that came after, never the song that came before, no other song, ever. For nine months. It finally got to the point where that song wouldn’t play, it just skipped and did that digital stutter. I just couldn’t stop. It was so great! (I see this is a slightly different argument — instead of playing all of her songs I just got stuck on one.) To this day, when I hear that song my kids are little, the air on my skin is humid and hot, we’re in the rusty old Buick with the sagging headliner, Jerry is off somewhere — Alaska, Panama, Canada — and it’s just me and my little kids bouncing kisses off the moon every night. That song holds every feeling, every moment, every longing, every happiness and bit of sorrow and delivers them back to me on request, in full.

I apparently have a high tolerance for repeaters, as my sweet little Kiki used to say. Every single workday for decades, his lunch was an apple and a container of yogurt — the same exact kind of yogurt, probably. That’s how he articulated that habit, and it’s a phrase that stuck with me. I guess one might call it obsession; it’s really not at all about laziness, or an unwillingness to try new things. It’s not even about the fear of disappointment, as you might think — what if I don’t like a sandwich as much as my apple and yogurt, then I’d have a bad lunch! Nope, it isn’t that. I think it’s about soaking up all the pleasure in a thing, squeezing out every little bit, eating it up until it’s gone. And then finding the next thing.

This morning I read the “By the Book” column in the NYTimes, and Amy Tan described doing what I do — wanting to read all the books by an author if she likes one — and so here we are. A lot of words to say what she said in thirteen. So me.

Happy Sunday y’all. Hope it’s a beautiful one….xo

book choosin

bookFew adults who love to read have all the time they want for it. I read all day long for a living, often until I go to bed, so my free reading time happens when I’m awake in the middle of the night, or when I’m flying back and forth New York-Austin. So it’s precious, that time! I don’t want to waste it with a bad book; if a book is truly and obviously awful I’ll bail on it, but too often I just keep reading, assuming that surely it’s going to get better. When it doesn’t, I feel so mad — at myself for not bailing on it, at the writer for failing so badly, and at the publisher for publishing such dreck. It feels something like treachery, getting a bad book. Recently I read two very awful books, Half the Kingdom and Night Film. When I finished those books I was really pissed off, I felt cheated. I have so little time to read! What can you do, you know? When the book’s summary sounds like something you’d like, you read reviews by people whose opinions usually fit yours; you scroll through Amazon reviews; you rely on pet publishers and their lists; you take advice from friends whose reading tastes fit yours.

Night Film fooled me by being written by a hugely popular author (Marisha Pessl) whose books are the darlings of the book set, and whose first book made such a splash. Half the Kingdom fooled me on three very trusted fronts: a favorite publisher (Melville House, shame on you man), a starred review in Booklist, and a spate of awards for the author including a Guggenheim. I feel so let down, so mad, so frustrated. Finding a good book, the right book, is so important. After Gracie died, when I finally felt like I could perhaps start reading, I went to a book group I’m a member of and explained my situation and asked for recommendations. I needed to read something that grappled with great big issues and did it well, something that wasn’t silly but that also offered some kind of hope, and probably something that didn’t feature a dead baby. I got so many recommendations from people who know just how important the right book can be. (Now they’re assembling a variety of lists: books not to read when you just get divorced; books not to read when you lose a child; books not to read when your parent dies; etc.)

OK, granted, perhaps I’m a little involved in books and reading. I went more than a bit nuts over meeting my favorite writer last weekend. My biggest fantasies involve writers and writing. If I had to answer the question, “Hey Queen, what saved your life?” I’d have two answers: “my children, and books.”

When you finally get the deep pleasure of reading a good one (I truly enjoyed and recommend The Circle by Dave Eggers, my most recent very good book though not a “favorite of all time to read again and again”), finishing it brings a bit of bookish anxiety. There’s a kind of pressure to follow up with another good one, a bit of worry that the next one won’t be good. Anxiety, even, if you’re a bookish nerd like me. You know that space after finishing a good book where you have to find your next one, you don’t have a real idea so you’re casting about, and you’re wanting the same good bang for your buck. After finishing The Circle, and without another must-read up on deck, I decided to re-read my old favorite, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. I know that one is going to move me, make me feel so many deep things, delight me in the language. It really just postpones the need to find a new book, but I’m OK with that. It’s treading water in the warmest most comforting ocean while I keep searching.

Come on. Surely I’m not alone. 😉


Friday AGAIN

I know everyone loves a Friday — weekend, yay! — but they come whizzing by so fast and there are only 52 in a year, and then WHEE! It’s already a different month, a different season, the next year. I’m telling you, time is scary fast. My time in NYC is winding down, and I head home very early Monday. It was a blur, as the weeks generally are these days.

There are 31 tabs open in my browser right now. Thirty-one. That’s insane. My computer is so slow and don’t even ask me to open task manager and see how many instances of Chrome are filling up that little screen. It kind of freaks me out. How can my computer do anything, with all its resources going to maintaining Chrome and all my tabs. Jesus. So here, in case any are of interest to you and (hahahaha!) so that I’ll come back and find themhahahahahah oh that is so funny, here are the tabs I haven’t been able to close all week:

Have you written a manuscript but can’t really afford a professional edit? This page gives you 10 ways to fake a professional edit. Good advice all around.

Two from the LA Review of Books (consistently outstanding writing there, I highly recommend the site. Friend them on facebook for easy access):  Here’s an interview with the author of The Woman Who Lost Her Soul, a book I want to read. The book is kind of a political thriller and about a father-daughter relationship. Sounds good to me. And here’s an interview with Michelle Orange, who is described as the love child David Foster Wallace and Joan Didion would’ve had.

Here are two from The Millions — if you love books and don’t follow The Millions, why?? Here is a list of the Booker Prize shortlist, with links and excerpts! Wonderful! And here’s a bit about Pynchon’s new novel, which I will soon be reading. (And here’s a review from NPR books of Pynchon’s novel.)

Are you thinking about self-publishing? Here are 10 counter-intuitive tips for self-publishers, and here’s an article on self- vs traditional publishing.

From The New York Times, a review of Edwidge Danticat’s new book titled Claire of the Sea LightI keep hearing about this one and it sounds amazing. Also, a truly gorgeous essay by Pico Iyer on the value of suffering. It’s a beautiful piece, very thoughtful — no surprise. And finally, a piece in the NYTimes Magazine about Justin Timberlake, because COME ON. Justin Timberlake.

From The New Yorker, I love this piece because it’s about neuroskeptics. Seriously, just because you can show me an image where the brain flashes blue when presented with something DOES NOT MEAN YOU HAVE FOUND THE SOMETHING CENTER. I hate that reductionistic crap. And here’s an article about Claire Danes, who is frankly kind of amazing in Homeland. I think that most episodes. The piece asks where her volcanic performances come from and I want to know, too.  In this era of reading “books” on our phones (which I do at night), this piece asks what it means to own a book. It’s an interesting question….

And then from all around the web:

OK, so that’s that. All my tabs are closed, my browser is clean. I’m ready for the weekend — how about you? I hope to see Nick Flynn on Sunday, in Brooklyn (André Aciman, Edwidge Danticat, Thomas Drake, Nick Flynn, Rachel Kushner, Leonard Lopate, Francine Prose, Jeremiy Scahill:  Recent leaks have revealed the breathtaking reach of the National Security Agency’s secret surveillance programs. Should writers and readers be concerned? A fast-paced mosaic of readings by leading PEN members, an NSA whistleblower, and others to provoke reflection on the dangers surveillance poses to the freedom to think and create, and to celebrate the role writers have played in defying those dangers.) But we’ll see. Sunday is a long ways away. Happy Friday, y’all. Hope it’s a good one.

the best and the worst

This post is a two-for-one. I thought about simply writing two different posts, but the good bit is too insubstantial, and I don’t want to give the worst bit enough importance to have its own post. I’m small and petty that way. 🙂

So here’s the best, for starters. Taking away nothing at all from the deep pleasures of living with someone you love (having someone to sleep against at night, having someone to share wonderful things with and scary stuff, being touched, having your feet or back rubbed), I have to say there are some fantastic things about living alone — especially if you’re like me, and very happy with your own company and in good health. Let me tell you about my Sunday, because it encompasses the glorious pleasures of living alone.

Saturday night I went to a wonderful little party in a beautiful backyard. On the way there, I drove underneath a big rainbow — it had rained in south Austin, but not at my house. I sat at a table under the stars and trees with some wonderful conversationalists, drank a bit of wine, did some dancing when Gloria Gaynor came on, tried a hula hoop but it was too small and light and wouldn’t stay up, and headed home exactly when I wanted to. Removed my party-girl make-up, brushed my teeth, climbed into my wonderful bed and read myself to sleep, happily. Sunday I woke up late, around 9am, and just picked up my phone and started reading the book I hoped to finish. And I read, and read, and read. Got up and made my coffee and brought the French press pot back to bed with me. Kept reading, as much as I wanted. Finished the pot of coffee, kept reading. Oh, need to pee! No need to turn on the bathroom light because the seat will be down. Because it always is down. Because there’s no one lifting it and leaving it up. Ever. I cannot tell you how glorious that is, because when I have to go to the bathroom I’m always in a rush, having put it off for too long, and dancing around for that extra second it takes to put the seat down is sometimes a second too far, not to give you too much information. Then back to bed to read for another glorious hour. Then a hot bath, to read some more, than back into my cool-sheeted bed, my glorious cozy bed, surrounded by pillows and quiet and no one getting irritated because I’ve now been reading for four hours. Along the way I’d gotten up to make my green smoothie, which I also enjoyed in bed while I was reading. When I finished the book, I put on music — whatever I felt like listening to, at the volume I felt like listening, and I danced around my house, so happily. I sat and wrote for a while, uninterrupted. Wandered out to my patio. It was a beautiful several hours, and they were all and entirely mine. And the toilet seat was always down. I really love that.

I cannot recommend that you do NOT read this book strongly enough.
I cannot recommend that you do NOT read this book strongly enough.

But now to the worst, and it’s a book I will anti-recommend to you. The author, Marisha Pessl, made a huge splash with her first book Special Topics in Calamity Physics. She was said to be brilliant, crazy brilliant, pulling off everything that sounded so great to me, so I bought that first book but somehow never got around to reading it. I do that a lot. So when this book, her second, was published to acclaim, I decided I’d read it. It’s a relatively large book and I posted a little note on facebook asking if anyone wanted to read it with me and Cyndi said yes. She finished it pretty quickly, and though I was extremely disappointed by it early on, the fact that I’d gotten her to read it (and she had) made me feel like I had to finish it.  I also kept reading because I hoped like hell there would be some kind of pay-off for the howling misery I felt reading it. Surely. Surely it couldn’t really be this bad. I felt like that kid at the parade, looking around in disbelief saying, “But wait . . . the emperor has no clothes on!”

The gist of the story is that a NYC reporter and two young adult side-kicks are investigating the apparent suicide of a mysterious young woman, the daughter of a famous director of underground horror movies (named Cordova) — snuff films, from the sound of it. Although maybe they aren’t, maybe it was all just acting, he’s so super top-secret that a whole universe of his obsessive fans create and maintain this underworld world. You know, that’s an OK premise for a book. But nothing worked, in my opinion. Not one thing. I realize that I am a demanding reader, since I critique others’ novels all day long and have learned how to not only see what doesn’t work, but to see exactly why it doesn’t work. Plots, dialogue, character development, pacing, all I can see now is the man behind the curtain and I know he’s no wizard. (Although I can be taken away — and I go willingly — when writers pull it off, and I’m always begging and hoping and praying that they do. I want nothing more than to go there, to be taken away, to go into a world of any kind, even one that is mysterious and other-worldly. Buddy, I will go there with you and love you forever.)

So, in no particular order, because it was all so awful, here are my complaints:

Plotting — I’ll begin with an aside. I once read and evaluated a novel written by a 15-year-old boy, filled with vampires and dragons and werewolves, and Dracula in a prairie schooner. It was terrible, but he was 15! He’d written a very long novel, and I was so impressed by that fact alone. But one big problem out of all the big problems was that everything always happened perfectly for the protagonist. He dodged every single bullet (or arrow or slave rebellion) and all his bullets and arrows always found their mark. In this book, every person the main character Scott needs to talk to somehow just sits there and fills him in on EVERYTHING. One, at the end, fills him in but it’s a dodge (and Jesus, he really just went with it, at that point??). Characters who never speak, ever, mysteriously just sit and talk to him for hours — and serve him tea! A professor interrupted in mid-lecture, furious at being interrupted, just mysteriously stands in the hallway and tells him everything! Always! Bad things do happen to him — he walks into his apartment as someone is robbing him — but too many things just happen too perfectly, especially in terms of people just giving him huge chunks of what he needs to know.

The main character Scott is an investigative reporter with a nasty history investigating the film director. As he starts off here, he encounters these two young people, complete strangers, a young man named Hopper and a young woman named Nora, and presto! They are part of the investigation with him — and Nora even moves in with him, and sits on his bed talking to him in the middle of the night! The flimsiest of explanations is given for their sudden and complete participation in the investigation, but I didn’t buy a word of it. There are so many pieces of the plot that are nonsensical (but not in a way of creating a world I’ll buy into), storylines abandoned, oversized details too unrealistic but meant to be realistic.

Insulting me — Pessl seems to think her readers are morons (given the way she is described in interviews and reviews, as something of a young genius, she probably does). She doesn’t trust me to know any damn thing. And worse, she’ll explain it to me in a parenthetical comment, not even working it into the passage, or in dialogue. She’ll say something and then explain it in parentheses. I really hate that.

Bizarre dialogue and absence of unique voices — the main character constantly says “Thank Christ.” First, I have never heard anyone say Thank Christ, have you? I’ve heard Thank God, or Thank heavens, but I’ve never heard Thank Christ. And she uses it like a tic of her own rather than letting it be something integral to the character’s voice. And no one sounds any different than anyone else; surely a seasoned reporter’s voice (a 44-year-old man, I think that was his age) would sound different from a very young woman (who was far too old-voiced, mature) and a young man with a troubled past. If she hadn’t given me attributions, I couldn’t have told anyone’s dialogue apart from anyone else’s. And their dialogue was just false, anyway. Super annoying.

Here’s my guess. Pessl loved (or loves) Ayn Rand. You know in Rand’s books, the “good guys” are described in these absolute, unbelievable, nearly Platonic forms, like gods of some ridiculous oversized kind. It is the extremity, the inhuman depiction of them that I’m thinking of here, because Cordova and his whole group (and his fans, Cordovites) live in such an extreme way — “diving for mermaids,” only living on the most extreme edge burned by terror so that ordinary life is meaningless, once you have lived there, like that, with them, you are set free from ordinary existence! You must be free! You must now live only in the extreme, because the rest is pale! I call BULLSHIT. Every single time I encountered this breathless enamored glamorization of the results of living in constant and total terror on the edge of existence, it just pissed me off in the same way Rand’s glamorization of her god-like heroes and heroines pissed me off.

Language. I love books that make me turn the pages quickly because I can’t wait to see what’s next in the plot, I can’t wait to see how it turns out. I love books that I don’t give a crap about how it turns out because the sentences are so beautiful, the insights are so stunning, the figurative language so original and gasp-inducing. This book is more the former (but without the “loving it” part), but she does try to use figurative language and it’s clunky and awful. I see this a lot in my first-time writer clients who want to use figurative language, metaphors, similes, and those who are trying to be original with it will sometimes reach pretty far. But as I tell them, the comparison has to illuminate the thing being illuminated in an important way, in a way that helps the reader understand SO MUCH. It has to add, it can’t just be something jarring because it’s not a cliche. On occasion she’d add something illuminating, but so much more often the language stopped me cold because it was simply wrong. Not only didn’t it add, it stopped me cold. I hate that. Also: She italicized words all over the place. Nearly every line of dialogue had a couple (or more) italicized words, to the point of distraction. What was that about?!

Resolution. I care so very much about how novels end, and like excellent TV, a bad ending (I’m thinking of the Sopranos, the ending of which still leaves me so dissatisfied) ruins what came before. I don’t think Philip Roth has ever ended a book to my satisfaction, though I keep reading his books in the hopes that just once he’ll make me happy. This book takes the reader to an apparent ending 90% in, but of course we know there is still too much of the book remaining so this cannot be the ending. Sometimes that can work, I guess, but too much was made of it here, and it didn’t work. But then the real ending, the last 10%, was too little too fast and just so disappointing. Since the main reason I kept forcing myself to grit my teeth and read was the hope that there would be a satisfying ending, I read the last word with pure bitterness. I finished reading with a feeling akin to hate for Marisha Pessl, whose books I will never again read. She seems too impressed by her own cleverness, so I hope she has a lot of fun with herself but I won’t play with her ever again.

Sheesh. See what I mean by the worst? I’d have quit reading ~15% in if I were reading on my own; life is far too short to spend an hour of it reading such crap. I enjoyed spending my Sunday the way I did, but I hated that it was such terrible stuff I was reading. The best part: I’m finished! Yay! I’m deleting it from my kindle completely, because I hope to forget it completely, and I’d hate to run across it in my complete-forgetting state and spend even 5 minutes reading it again.

It’s going to be a busy week for me — I hope it’s a great week for you and that Monday is an easy start into it. And I hope you haven’t read anything so awful lately. 🙂

stuff I found

Aw, such a large-hearted woman.
Aw, such a large-hearted woman.

Hey, I was just about to post a bunch of links but I had this strange little thought. I’m writing this on Monday afternoon and the television schedule is kind of different than usual — holiday, I guess. Usually I have Jeopardy on in the background between 4 and 5, but golf is on instead so I have Ellen on in the background while I work. And you know, she’s just pretty great. She’s hilarious, of course, and in love with her wife, and such a kindhearted generous real soul. I imagine she is largely the same person in real life that she presents on her program — not 100%, of course, but largely. She dances, she looks her guests right in the eye and talks with them instead of over them. She’s pretty great. She asks us to be kind to one another. And I was thinking about how inspirational she is, and how I want to be a better person than I am, when I watch her.

So then I was wondering why our culture watches such crap, and with such contempt. Why we watch people who aim so low, who revel in low expectations and bullshit and trivial things. I mean, it’s not like we all have to be engaged in saving the whole world, in fighting against the gas bombings in Syria, in trying to make our country safe from various political trouble, but we all can try to be better people; we all can try to help each other as much as we can; we all can try to make someone else’s trouble a little bit easier. So many things we can be doing, lifting our heads a little higher, adding a bit of light into the world instead of sucking it out. I just don’t know why our culture is wallowing in the gutter instead of putting our eyes up on the horizon. It’s so sad. And: ELLEN. Or whoever inspires you. Watch the people who inspire you, read the people who inspire you, focus your intention on anything that lifts you up instead of brings you down.

So now, to the reason I was posting today . . . link love! It’s a lot of book stuff.

On that note, I leave you to your Tuesday. I hope to tell you soon about a bunch of books I bought when Sherlock and Peggy were here. Tomorrow, maybe. xo

what’s your bible?

bookWe all have to find our own bible (and here, I guess I’m talking about those of us who find it in pages). For some of us, it’s a religious book, and that’s pretty simple. We’re told there it is, the Truth, and all we have to do is read and discern. When I was young — and although it certainly wasn’t the only book I read like this — I read the Christian bible cover to cover again and again. Genesis to Revelations, repeat. It read differently each time, as I aged. At first it was just an unexamined gulping of what I was supposed to believe. Once, it was a shock that God’s people were all stupid and stubborn and resistant and low, and the shock that that was done on purpose, because it was easy, then, for all of us stupid and stubborn and resistant and low people to see that we were God’s people, too. Several times it was for the language. A few times it was for specific reasons related to my life.

But that’s not the only bible I’ve reached for. I have several, and which one I need depends on where I am. Do you have bibles too? Here are some of mine.

  • The Odyssey. Whenever I am lost, this is the book I reach for. Once I was in the hospital because I did not want to live anymore, and I was obviously in pretty awful shape. My therapist called me on the pay phone, and I stood there in my unkempt lost self and listened to her tell me to lash myself to the mast, to put wax in my ears, and to keep sailing past the Sirens. Partly this story is a testament to a wonderful therapist who knew her patient so well — who else would’ve thought to tell me that? — but partly too, it’s about the importance of this book to me. Odysseus, the wanderer, floating over the face of the earth just trying to get home. And everything slamming against him trying to do him in. And unrelated to my personal life, when I read it in college, my professor read the passage where Penelope and Odysseus go to their bedroom after their reunion, where the enormous bed is, fashioned of living trees, and as he read it to us he cried, and I fell even more in love with the book. I’ve read it so many times, including on my vacation to Turkey, where I read it in Olympos. At so many moments, I pull this book off the shelf, allow it to open wherever it will, and just read it at that spot. I always get something.
  • The Woman Warrior. The essential memoir of an outsider, this book is responsible entirely for my first set of tattoos on my spine, telling the story of my survival and resilience. Although I dearly love the entire book, it’s Chapter Two, White Tigers, that tells the essential story of The Woman Warrior. When I need to — and I always know when I need to — I reach for this book, and it’s the only book that’s right.
  • Moby DickAll thanks to Marnie for giving me this one. I’d always been afraid to read it (silly!), but she loved it so much, and so I read it. The other night I had reason to read this passage to someone as an explanation of how i was feeling:

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship.

Nothing else could articulate it so well but that passage. The book just kills me; whenever I read it I find myself unable to read anything else for a very long time afterwards, because nothing approaches it in any way. When I need to dive deep, this is the book I reach for. One day I’ll get a half-sleeve (or maybe a full sleeve, we’ll see) of a whale. Like this, but with a whale and not a hammerhead (which gives me the creeps!):

like this, but with a sperm whale, and on my arm
like this, but with a sperm whale, and on my arm
  • And this isn’t a book, but it’s a category, of sorts — the first of two categories. When I simply cannot read for whatever reason, it’s always Vonnegut that brings me back. Either Sirens of Titan, my father’s favorite book, or Cat’s Cradle, the source of many of my favorite references. When I was in the hospital the last time, not wanting to live, I simply could not read. I tried this book and that, familiar books and new books, books that meant something to me and books that were trivial. I just couldn’t read. Could not do it, no matter how I tried. The first time I read Moby Dick, I thought I’d never be able to read again, and that scared me. I kept trying to read books but they all seemed stupid, trivial, uninteresting. In both those cases, it was Vonnegut who led me back into my home, the land of readers. I think it was Cat’s Cradle in both cases, but I’m not sure. Partly it’s his dark and wry humanism, but it’s also his humor and his funny use of language. The center, though, is his love of the human effort that reaches me. In a similar way, Anne Lamott reaches out to me and takes my hand when I cannot read, and brings me back to where I belong.
  • And the final category, very good poetry. I have my favorite poets (Louise Gluck, Charles Simic, Jack Gilbert, Adrienne Rich, Donald Revell) and some favorite poems (Adrienne Rich’s “Shooting Script” is a particular favorite), but when I am in need of comfort and understanding or connecting to my deepest self, poetry surrounds me with whatever I need. If I need to find words for how I’m feeling, I can usually find it in poetry. If I need comfort or understanding, poetry gives it to me. I’m extraordinarily lucky in that when I need it, the perfect  poem comes. For example, when I was flying to Austin, moving away from my beloved New York City and feeling about as low as I could feel, I turned a page and found this:

The Layers (by Stanley Kunitz)

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

There could have been no better set of words at that moment. If you know me at all, you see me scattered throughout that poem. And I couldn’t have found it at a more perfect time. I gasped and had to lean back in my seat, grasping the armrests, as we descended into Austin.

There are many books I return to, and so many I’ve read multiple times, but these are the ones that serve as bibles for me. They give me the truth, they give me a way to understand my experience, they guide me. I’m curious about your bibles, if you think of things in this way.

quick, try this

eIndulge me. Using your index finger, draw a capital E on your forehead. I’ll wait.

Did you draw it so it looked right to people looking at you? Or did you draw it so it looked right to you? If we’d been sitting together, would you have asked me which way I meant, or was it immediately obvious to you how you “should” draw it?

The first time I heard about this when I was in graduate school, it never even occurred to me that there was another way to draw it — so it was right for people looking at me, of course! No thought whatsoever about the possibility of drawing it the other way. Over the years I’ve done this with people and about 1/3 usually ask me which way I want them to draw it, and it’s just clear to everyone else. I’m curious about what it meant to you. Last night I asked someone to do it and he immediately drew it so it was right for me — obvious to him. So obvious.

It’s about a concept called “self-monitoring,” and if you draw it so it’s right to a viewer, you’re probably a “high self-monitor,” like me. We high self-monitors are keenly aware of social cues, we’re (to varying degrees) social chameleons, shifting the presentation of ourselves to fit our surroundings. We’re allegedly easily influenced by advertising. At an extreme, we exhibit a herd mentality. So we draw the capital E that way because we’re always kind of watching ourselves from the outside, watching and tweaking our behavior. I imagine there’s a pathological extreme, where we have no real sense of self and are completely different in different settings. I’ve known people like that, and they’re so creepy — there’s no one inside, it seems, they’re simply a mirror. But you know, like everything else, it’s about context, it’s about flexibility, it’s about being able to self-monitor when you need to. Here’s a story about using some self-monitoring to advance in your career.

Now, though — and this is funny to me — it’s equally obvious to draw it so it’s right to me. If I encountered this for the first time, it wouldn’t cross my mind to do it any other way. If you’re curious, click this link to take a little online test, developed by the researcher responsible for the construct, Mark Snyder. And the little survey supports the shift in me. Here’s my survey feedback:

Your score (9/25) indicates that you value staying true to yourself and are unwilling to modify your behavior just to get the approval of thers. You probably do not like to be the center of attention very often.

So there’s a little Fun With Psychology for you on this Friday!

Speaking of, FRIDAY, yay! Hallelujah! Oh wait… doesn’t mean anything much to me, I have so much work to do I’m working through the weekend. But that’s OK, I’m glad for the work and I did, after all, have three weeks off recently. Do you ever read out loud (not to small children, I mean)? I’m reading Blood Meridian out loud to a friend (my favorite Cormac McCarthy book, by far), a chapter at a time, and last night I read a chapter that described the first Comanche attack on the group, with page-long sentences, phrases strung together with ands, breathless to read but chilling and just right. My friend is a poet, and his poetry reminded me of McCarthy’s style — spare and biblical — so I forced him to listen to the book. Well, force was required with the first paragraph, but now it’s an eager experience. When I hit that long Comanche attack scene (Comanches represent! My people!), his eyes widened and he leaned forward and kind of raised himself off the chair a little bit, caught up in the horror but the brilliance of the language. It was so much fun, because after that passage ended we both just sat in silence, staring with our mouths open a little bit. And then he tried to say something about it but there was just nothing to say, every single word of the passage was just and only right, and it was terrible and magnificent. Isn’t it fun to have someone to share that kind of thing? Because you know, I can be intense about things like that, I can be swarmed by goosebumps and get really excited and geek out about McCarthy’s fondness for using the past tenses of slink — slank, slunk — and the brilliant way he uses the word slake….twice in that chapter…and how OH MY GOD that bloody wedding veil and the mirrors on the shield yes of course. And reading Blood Meridian reminded me of Jim Jarmusch’s fantastic movie Dead Man, which we now have to watch. Having a friend who is a poet is just the greatest thing for me. Usually, if I start talking about those things (except with Marnie), my conversation partner’s eyes start shifting to the sides and then they remember they need to get to the dentist for that emergency root canal or something.

Anyway. Happy Friday, I hope it’s a beautiful day where you are. xoL

maybe i have the wrong idea

insomniaSo this is REALLY not funny. Seriously. Last night I slept from 1-2 and then from 8-9. And that’s it. During each hour of sleep, at least I slept the whole time — an improvement over how it usually goes, which is little sips of sleep interrupted by waking up.

What occurs to me is that instead of thinking that what one does is get in bed at night and sleep until morning, instead I take naps! A one-hour nap here, a two-hour nap there. One of the worst parts of this is that somehow I don’t feel sleepy. During the day I never feel like I want (or could take) a nap. Ever. Now, I just stay in bed for the 4-7 hours of being wide awake in the deep night, trying to find my way to sleep, but that old dog ain’t gonna hunt, apparently, so maybe I ought to just get up and do something with those hours. This gives me essentially a 20-hour day, woo-hoo! If only I really felt excited about it. One good thing about being awake in the middle of the night is that you get to know you’re in the middle of a tornado watch/warning! Last night around 3 my county was in a tornado watch, and just slightly north of me, near Katie’s house, the area was in a tornado warning, people needed to get to the center of their homes or to their tornado shelters. All those sleeping people never knew — which is actually one of the scariest things about living in tornado country. But the insomniacs know. (Trying hard for some lemonade here.)

But what a boring topic. I just got this book in the mail (How Literature Saved My Life, by David Shields) which I ordered after reading the review in the NYT Sunday Book Review section. Among his other books, Shields also wrote The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead, which cracks me up as the title of a book. It’s a ballsy title, reminding people of that so loudly. I don’t yet know what Shields thinks about how literature can save your life, or how it saved his (beyond what is mentioned in the NYT review), but I do believe that it saved mine. Whatever else it may do — let you see that others feel the same way, articulate something you know or feel but never put into words — it can save you by showing that there is another way. There are a lot of ways one can be in a limited and tightly demarcated world and think that’s just how life is. Lots of ways. I lived in one as a child. I know I tell this storylet a lot, but reading gave me the idea of sanctuary, that one can seek out a safe place — never mind that it didn’t work out all that well for Quasimodo — and that was a lifesaver for me. Just getting that one little idea that there was something like that, even though it took me a lot of years to find it. And I thought that even if there wasn’t such a thing in the real world, the fact that one person could imagine it meant that maybe I could create it if it didn’t really exist. It was imaginable.

I was planning to drive down to Gruene this morning for the Sweetheart’s Gospel Brunch (oh how I love gospel and brunch), but I decided I’d really better not do that right now. Emphasis on “sweetheart” and its occurrence a few days before Valentine’s Day would probably mean I’d be the only person there by herself, in a sea of sweethearts. I was feeling braver and bolder when I bought the ticket 6 weeks ago, but now I think it would be a dumb idea, rubbing salt in a wound. Instead I’m working working working and watching my precious little birdies. Who’d have ever thought I’d become so enamored of birdies.

Happy Sunday, y’all. I do hope it’s a wonderful day for you, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing.

good thing of the day: headache medicine! low pressure fronts give me a fierce headache so it’s Excedrin and sudafed for me today, and hallelujah for those little pills.

onward! upward!

poking their heads through the frozen ground. kinda like me.
poking their heads through the frozen
ground. kinda like me.

This is finally a much more upbeat post than I have felt like writing for such a long time (and it gets kind of funny at the end). I’ve had my moments of happiness, and cherished the hell out of them — and I even had a bit of bliss over some laundry one sunny day. But it’s been extraordinarily hard lately. In response to a comment on yesterday’s post, I accidentally came up with a good metaphor for where I am right now. I’m a crocus, a daffodil, poking my little head up through the frozen ground that seems dead but it isn’t. I’m coming up to the sunshine, coming out to the fresh air. And not to go too far, but one of these days I’m going to be beautiful.

I didn’t think I was going to be able to stop crying — I was like Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give, that great prolonged scene where she cries nonstop. She cries in the shower (yep, I did that a lot of times), cries while writing (oh yeah, definitely), wakes up in the middle of the night and breaks into tears (yeah), walks and cries (mmmhmmm…). And I just couldn’t stop! It was loud and snotty and everything stayed soaked, hour after hour. How could I cry that much, surely it was going to stop but it just didn’t. The pain in my chest was excruciating.

And then something kind of magical happened. It really did. Megan had mentioned this book and I tend to like the same books she likes, so I requested it from the library. Well, it came in much earlier in the week, but Thursday morning I tried hard to stop crying for a few minutes, washed my puffy sad face, put on sunglasses, and drove over to the library to pick it up. I was working (well, ha, kinda) so I put the books on the coffee table and tried to work. Too much bawling and sobbing, too much need to get up and lie on my bed brokenhearted. Maybe a massage, no not now. Maybe….nah. I finally decided to run a very hot bath and put some relaxing-smelling salts in, and oh maybe I’d try to read a little bit. I looked through the two books that had come in and chose the one Megan recommended because it seemed easier for my swollen little mind to deal with.

The book is The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness: A True Story, a memoir of a professional storyteller who got thyroid cancer and was cured, but lost his voice. Each chapter (more or less) opens with a fable, a story, from different countries and cultures around the world. Of course each one is relevant to the chapter to come, and I don’t think I’d already heard any of them. Maybe one. Anyway — it’s a wonderful book because it’s all about the human need (my emphasis, my interpretation) to find stories in our experiences to give them meaning. And also that stories can help us in immeasurable ways. One of the little stories gave me a gut punch, more on that after the story. Here it is, and it comes from India:

“There once lived a man who set off to look for truth. He scoured the world in search of it, giving up his possessions, his family, his home, all to search for truth.

After many years of wandering, his travels took him to India, where he heard tales of a distant mountain. Atop that mountain, people told him, he would find that place where truth resides. For many months he searched, until he found the mountain of which they spoke. He climbed for several days until he finally came to the mouth of a cave. He called into it and, a minute later, his call was answered by the voice of an old woman.

“What do you want?”
“I seek the truth.”
“Well, you have found me.”

He entered the cave and there, in the back, saw the most horrific creature he had ever laid eyes on, huddled over a fire. Her eyes bulged out, one further than the other, and bumps covered her face. Stray teeth stuck from her mouth, and her long tangled hair hung down in matted strands.

“You?” he said. “You are truth?”
She nodded.

Though shocked at her appearance, he stayed with her and found that she was, indeed, truth. He lived there many years, learning her ways. Finally, as he prepared to leave, he asked how he could ever repay her for all she had done for him.

“I would simply ask this,” she said. “When you go out in the world and speak of me, tell them I am young and beautiful!””

First, what?? And yet there’s something in it that bugs me, that pokes at me. The timing could not have been better for me, because there was a big huge screaming loud truth that I had been using all my various powers to ignore. Fingers in my ears, lalalalalalala, hahaha! But it was making me sick to my stomach, making me jump out of my chair and pace, before I’d even realize I was doing that. I knew, I really did. I knew. I knew the truth I was willing myself not to know. So I forced myself to write my husband and tell him I still had hope we could figure it out, I didn’t know how but I was desperately hoping, and I needed to know how he felt. A few hours later, he wrote and said it’s over, he loves me, and he hopes he can find someone else. WELL I KNEW THIS. I really, really did. I knew he felt that way. It was in the things he didn’t say. It was in the way he consoled me when I was crying on the phone, telling him how much I missed him — and he’d say oh, honey. I knew it already. And it was hideous and I thought it just might kill me. I had asked for the truth and he gave it to me, and I imagine that was hard for him to do that, knowing that I was in such a different place.

And then I read that story, and it gave me something very deep in my gut somewhere. I stopped crying. I just stopped. And I haven’t cried since. (And note: the truth was that I am unwanted, by someone I love! Heartcrushing.) I’ve wobbled a little here or there, but I just haven’t been crying. I slept through the night. Yesterday I went to the garden center, and to Miguel’s for some really beautiful pots for my plants, and a gorgeous sky blue birdbath (because a birdy’s gotta drink doncha know).

I don’t know why that book and that story in particular moved me so far along. I’ve thought for a long time about truth (it’s one of my tattoos, actually). I love that line they have in AA: the truth may set you free, but first it’s going to really piss you off. Maybe truth asks you to tell others that she’s beautiful and young because otherwise people would stay away — who wants to seek out a hideous grotesque monster? But it’s hideous and grotesque when you’re not looking at it, if you really need to look at it. And maybe especially if you already know it inside.

One thing I really love about the book, and about this whole idea, is the power of story — and that it is the human enterprise. Very few things will piss me off quicker than someone telling me, when I’m in the midst of trials and tribulations, “everything happens for a reason.” GET OUT OF MY WAY, because it’s not going to be pretty. I think lots of people believe that there is a marionette dude in the sky, pulling strings and making things happen, and we just don’t get to know the why of it. But I think these things happen to us, sometimes terrible terrible things, because life is like the honey badger: it don’t give a shit. Things happen, and unfair things because life also doesn’t know from fair. The story comes out of us. The story comes as we struggle to find meaning in our lives, as we try to understand the humanity of our experience, the universality of it. And sometimes our story changes, because we’ve thought more, we’ve had more experience. Another line I loved from the book is, “There are stories in this world that need to rattle around inside your brain for 20 years before they reveal a final, hidden grain of truth.” I’ll find my first story of what happened, it helps me understand and find some truth . . . but time adds to my story, changes my story. If you and I went through exactly the same thing, your story of it would be different from mine. The story comes from us. Two days ago, a story helped me understand myself, my own story. It shifted my perspective in some way I can’t yet say, but it did.

And just for good measure — and a laugh — here’s that honey badger:

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Happy Saturday y’all. It really is.

good thing of the day: finding a way of going from crocuses to hideous truth to the honey badger. 🙂

how about some book stuff?

If you like to read, and you’re on facebook, I can’t recommend the group Recent Reads highly enough. First of all, the group members are uniformly kind and generous, but second of all, there’s great book talk, and a flood of recommendations. Some of the threads can get very long when it’s a controversial book, or a book that polarizes readers, and new readers of a book will tack on their comments after a thread has died down. It’s pretty great. When I was grappling with intense grief last October, I went to that group and explained my situation and asked for recommendations of books that I might be able to read, and that grapple with big issues like life and death. There was an instant flurry of care and support, and also a quick list of beautiful recommendations. AND, the group is full of Aussies and Kiwis, who happen to be the loveliest of people. In fact, one of the women who lives in western Australia called me on the phone one morning to offer her care and sympathy. ! See what I mean?

One woman in the group is a librarian (actually, lots are librarians, or editors, or writers, or work in publishing). Anyway, this particular librarian’s last name is Waldo, so her blog is called of course Here’s Waldo! She recently wrote a series of three posts that I thought you might like to check out:

I started with the 2012 list to see if our interests meshed, and our opinions, and they were a good enough fit for me to trust her recommendations. If only I could read, I can’t wait for that to come back. I’ve had so much work since mid-November that I’ve spent most of my days reading and editing from wake-up to night-night. Last Sunday I just gave myself the bloody day off, the whole day, no work. I can’t remember the last day I had like that. So maybe that’s interfering with my interest and ability to read for pleasure, too. Maybe I can take another whole day off in a couple of weeks. It’s crazy.

And my last four boxes of books arrived last night from New York, which was bittersweet. I’m glad to have all my books, especially since my collection is so much smaller than it was when I moved to New York (space! no space!), so I want every one I have. But with these boxes, there is nothing left of me in New York. Today I hope to get the books put away and the boxes broken down, but I’m going out for tea or lunch with Laura in the early afternoon, so the day will be a bit of before and after.

If you’re reading something that you just can’t put down, I’d sure like to hear about it. Otherwise, I hope y’all have a wonderful Saturday with some yummy food for dinner.

good thing of the day: there’s just nothing like a big pot of pintos and a pan of cornbread. mmm mmm good.

Friday books, links, and stuff

I thought about titling this post ‘goulash’ but decided that was too misleading. Still, it’s going to be some of this and that and the other thing, so goulash does fit. Let’s go:

  • A couple of Austin notes. First, since what we do as Texans is have friendly conversation with each other even if we’re complete strangers, I frequently mention that I have just moved back to Austin after living in New York City. Nearly without exception, the immediate response is “Welcome home!” They say that first, and then they ask other questions. I love that, that there is this generous sense of homecoming. And second, the guy who delivered and set up the bed in my guestroom yesterday finished work and then dashed out to his truck for a second. He came back with a brochure advertising his first gig at an East Austin coffeehouse. He said “you look like the kind of person who’d like my music.” I’m not sure why, exactly, but that’s so Austin. Who isn’t playing a gig in this town, I wonder?


  • Here are a bunch of links you may enjoy:
  1. 9 foreign words the English language desperately needs
  2. 2 Chicago inmates escape prison by climbing out the window
  3. Portraits of unrelated doppelgangers (I have doppelgangers everywhere)
  4. Best picture of Barack Obama
  5. 44 more great Obama pictures
  6. Great dog GIFs (I’m not that big a dog person, but some of these made me laugh really hard.  Especially #17.)
  7. Brainpickings lists the 10 best psych and philosophy books of 2012 — always a great list.
  8. Speaking of lists, here are the hundred best lists of all time! Fun!


  • I’ve been able to read again! Yay! I’ve read some brain candy, and one book that really touched me, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Barbery is a French philosophy professor and now and then the book takes a hard left turn into philosophy in a way that’s a little bit distracting, but I wasn’t troubled by it at all. It’s the intertwining story of two people in a Parisian apartment building, both of whom are in retreat from the world, for very different reasons. Renee is the 54-year-old concierge (hey! whaddya know, I’m 54 years old too) who is quite deep and thoughtful, but who hides from the world by disappearing into her stereotyped role — and most of the residents of the building buy into that vision and don’t even see her beyond that stereotype. But she’s thoughtful, and extraordinarily intelligent, and sees and appreciates the subtleties of things and people. The other main character is a gifted 12-year-old girl named Paloma who decides to kill herself on her 13th birthday out of boredom, partly, because of the morons in her family, and in the building. They’re brought together by a mysterious new resident of the building, who sees them both for who they are. I just loved it for its message of beauty in the small moments, and for its recognition of the hidden depths of people we pass every day. The ending startled me and I haven’t stopped thinking about it ever since I finished it on the flight home from New York a few weeks ago. It’s a complete world, rich with detail and real people. I’ll definitely read it again, a few times, probably. This book is like a rich, complex meal that stays in your memory in the best kind of way.
  • And the other books I’ve been able to read are high-brow mysteries by Gillian Flynn. Flynn can twist a plot, man. Seriously. Just when you think you see what’s coming, where she’s taking the story, twist! And you never see it coming, it’s always startling and shocking. She writes about the darkest kind of people, people who are soulless in a way, and who have no qualms about destroying people for little to no damn reason. A few months ago I read Gone Girl (her newest book), and the problem with Gillian Flynn’s books is in trying to tell what they’re about, because you don’t want to give anything away. Of the three of her books I’ve read, I think Gone Girl was the strongest. It delivered in every way, hit every note, and the ending was thoroughly satisfying. Basically, it’s about a young married couple and what happens when the wife disappears and the husband is accused of murdering her. Black and shocking! Then I read Sharp Objects (her earliest book), about a reporter who returns to her hometown to investigate some strange murders of little girls. She has a mother and sister still living there, and I can’t give anything away except to say that the ending is creepy. The one I read this week was Dark Places (the 2nd of her 3 books) and it was fantastic, though I was less satisfied by the very ending. But there’s a real “Gillian Flynn” kind of book developing here, characterized by strong female characters, extraordinary plot twists, and really dark stuff. I’ve never been a fan of mystery books (though I read a lot of Agatha Christie as a young girl), but I couldn’t put these down. They’re really good candy—homemade fudge with pecans—so if you’re in the mood, these will be wonderful for you.
  • Although I’d read two other Gillian Flynn books, the reason I read Dark Places was that I’m going to a book club meeting next week, and that’s the book. Luckily, it was a quick read. There’ll be a second meeting of the group later in January, so for that meeting I’m reading How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, which is often so funny. I hope the book club has interesting women — we’ll see!

It’s so good to be able to read again, and to want to read, which I haven’t wanted to do since I was on vacation in Myanmar. It’s so good to have my place mostly finished. It’s so good to have plenty of work. It’s so good the holidays are nearly over. 🙂 I think this weekend I’ll go out a time or two. See Lorraine. See Lorraine feel better. Feel better, Lorraine, feel better. Get back to living. Yeah. Here’s a song that always makes me feel full of life — from the Eurythmics ‘Forever’ album, which came out when I was in graduate school and feeling on top of the world. Happy Friday, y’all — read something good, see some people, eat something yummy, take time for yourself, breathe some fresh air, and be grateful for your life whatever it is.

“Some people never take the time to try / The way you live’s the way you die / The stuff of life’s in short supply / And if it sometimes hits you strong / Remembering that things go wrong / The song of life is just a song / And everything goes on and on”

Help. Thanks. Wow.

Do you like Anne Lamott’s writing? I do, I’ve read every single thing she’s ever written. She is probably the greatest influence on what and how I write; she gives voice to her petty struggling self and I try to do that too, because I secretly know that even you are petty, though no one would ever know that about you, so you are stuck all alone knowing that unless other people ‘fess up. I love that about her. When I’ve been unable to read, at various times in my life, I’ve always found my way back to reading, and to life, through her books. I’ve read everything she’s ever written, and if you like her too, friend her on facebook for a near-daily dose of her generous spirit and liberal-hearted view of the world.

Last night I read her new book, Help Thanks Wow. I’d pre-ordered it months ago for my kindle, and poof! There it was, late last night, just in time. I was lying awake, struggling in the dark, and decided that her words could probably help. I read the whole thing in an hour or so, it’s a short (4 chapter) book. It’s a pointedly spiritual book (all hers are, of course, but this one is especially so) focusing on the three prayers she says. Those are my prayers too; you could of course argue that all prayers come down to those three topics, and you’d be right, but those are exactly the prayers I say. In this regard, I am a wordy minimalist. Help. Thanks. WOW. Occasionally my help prayers take the pleading form:  pleasepleasepleaseplease. 

Helphelphelp (my dear daughter in her grief, my suffering husband in his pain, me in my grief and pain and suffering). Thankyouthankyouthankyou (for strength and courage and love and friendship and all that surrounds me right now, and always). Wow. Just, wow. Pain and love, all at once. Wow. Amen.