I’m sure your To Be Read pile (TBR) is tall/long/extensive, like mine. There are 387 books on my kindle, stacks of books by my bed and various chairs and tables, collections of lists in every possible place, and a separate to-read list on GoodReads. I need to get better about taking care of myself if I’m going to live long enough to make any headway. In my various book clubs, I’ve always been surprised when someone had no idea what book to suggest when it was their month…..for me, the question is which one of all the ones I’m waiting to read. Assuming our so-called president doesn’t get us nuclearly annihilated, of course.
But in addition to the full TBR pile, there’s also the Currently Reading list, which is far shorter. One good thing about GoodReads is that it keeps the list for you, if you log a book when you start reading it. Right now that list shows seven books I’m currently reading, even though a good five of those are kind of in a permanent suspension (Nox, Jitterbug Perfume, U and I, The Art of Memoir, and Glass, Irony and God. Oh, also Minds of Winter. I want to finish all those, I mean to, they’re just kind of….on pause). It’s funny how that happens — I really DO want to finish all those books! For each one, something happened to pause the book and then I just never got back to it.
But there’s a hot short list bubbling around at any given moment, the “which one, which one, which one to dive into right now” list. Mine includes:
The Idiot, by Elif Batuman. This one’s getting so much attention, and it’s supposed to be so funny and wonderful and beautiful. She’s a staff writer for The New Yorker, and I think I’d like to read something light and funny. And beautiful.
A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit. For personal reasons having to do with my upcoming life change, this was recommended to me. And to be honest, while I really love Solnit’s activism and scholarship, I find her writing hard-going. Not clenched, exactly, but certainly not light and dive-in-able.
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. I started reading this one and it’s fascinating, and on the edge of catching fire. It’s about the rediscovery of a nearly lost manuscript 600 years ago (On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius) and the way that manuscript sparked the Enlightenment, and changed the whole world. It’s well written, and interesting, and maybe it’s time for a bit of non-fiction?
Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. Saunders is, of course, one of our great humans. His compassion shines through everything he does, and heaven knows the world (and I) need him desperately. I started trying to read it and this one’s kind of hard to get into; but I know and trust him as a writer, so I want to push through the resistance.
All four of those are pushing on me real hard in their own ways. Have you read any of them? Any words, if you have?
It’s Tuesday, so poetry group meets in my house tonight, looking forward to that so much. I’m going to bring a couple of poems by Sharon Olds — not this one, but this is a gorgeous Sharon Olds poem:
Rite of Passage
As the guests arrive at our son’s party
they gather in the living room—
short men, men in first grade
with smooth jaws and chins.
Hands in pockets, they stand around
jostling, jockeying for place, small fights
breaking out and calming. One says to another How old are you? —Six. —I’m seven. —So?
They eye each other, seeing themselves
tiny in the other’s pupils. They clear their
throats a lot, a room of small bankers,
they fold their arms and frown. I could beat you up, a seven says to a six,
the midnight cake, round and heavy as a
turret behind them on the table. My son,
freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks,
chest narrow as the balsa keel of a
model boat, long hands
cool and thin as the day they guided him
out of me, speaks up as a host
for the sake of the group. We could easily kill a two-year-old,
he says in his clear voice. The other
men agree, they clear their throats
like Generals, they relax and get down to
playing war, celebrating my son’s life.
What a wonderful time I had in Chicago — too short, as always, but filled with all kinds of wonder and happiness. Every morning I got up with Ilan so Marnie and Tom could get a little more sleep; he usually wakes up at 5:15am and is up for two hours and then goes down for a nap, so it was my pure pleasure to take that 2-hour segment of time with him.
I went to Chicago to celebrate Marnie’s 32nd birthday (Friday, March 3) and Ilan’s first birthday (Wednesday, March 8), but I arrived mid-afternoon on March 3, and left mid-morning on March 8 so the celebrations were a bit more formless and leaked into the surrounding days. On Saturday March 4, Tom and Marnie spent the day out on a birthday ramble (their birthday specialty), so I had the whole day with Ilan, all to myself. I was playing music for us, my ‘iphone playlist’ which is just a random assortment of music I love, while Ilan ate his morning snack of goldfish crackers laid out around the perimeter of the coffee table, and this song came on. Richard Harris singing MacArthur Park, remember? From 1968?
As it does for most people, I guess, music jerks me around in time. And suddenly I just saw and felt all the layers of time going on in that moment with Ilan, generations of time, generations of moments and experience. I was simultaneously 9 years old, listening to this song and for some reason feeling how much I loved my dad, living in a terrible house of violence and the impending divorce of my parents; 19 years old, listening to Donna Summer’s great disco version of the song, living secretly in the office where I worked in Austin; in my late 20s, giving my own little kids a snack of goldfish crackers and watching them be my beamish little ones; and 58 years old, watching my littlest grandson do the same thing and being my daughter’s (and my) beamish little one. All those layers, all those moments, all those very similar experiences, all felt by me in that one light-filled moment. It made me cry, and it made me so grateful to be my very age, able to hold all that life and world together.
One of the hundreds of most-wonderful things about Ilan is how much he loves the Feist song, 1234. (I think Oliver loved it so much too — what is it about this song?)
Marnie got Ilan a small handheld bluetooth speaker of his own, and when she plays this song he just holds the speaker and stares at it with an extraordinary expression. He’ll glance up at her, and at me, and at whoever is in the room, with an expression I can’t exactly name but I know it completely.
Of course he’s one, and being one you put everything in your mouth at some point, but there were times he was holding the speaker and listening to a song, and he put it in his mouth and I thought he was really wanting the music to be inside him as much as anything else. I thought about this great story that Maurice Sendak told:
Once a little boy sent me a charming card with a little drawing on it. I loved it. I answer all my children’s letters — sometimes very hastily — but this one I lingered over. I sent him a card and I drew a picture of a Wild Thing on it. I wrote, “Dear Jim: I loved your card.” Then I got a letter back from his mother and she said, “Jim loved your card so much he ate it.” That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original Maurice Sendak drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”
I remain filled with all the wonder of my time in Chicago, the hours I got to spend with Ilan, the hours spent with Marnie, talking, and the evenings with Marnie and Tom over dinner. And I’m always grateful for those brief moments of seeing how time and life work together, and it’s all right there inside you all the time, waiting for something to break through so you can see it.
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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.
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:
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.
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What a trip that was, to China, although what’s strange is that my experience of it is shifting the longer I’m back. When we were there, I was so dazzled by so many things — the landscapes, the architecture, the places we stayed, the faces of the very old women — that it kind of kept my focus away from other things that were not so nice. The spitting, my God the spitting, which comes always with a giant hocking sound. What is it that makes a culture of people believe this kind of thing just must happen? That throats must be cleared like that, that there is a need for throats to be cleared? The impossibility of navigating the whole food situation, which left us far too often with completely ordinary, boring food. The suspicion and unfriendliness we felt from people we weren’t paying for service, and the downright hostility and even cruelty from young people.
And then the history, and for me especially the historical treatment of all women. That was very hard to deal with, although I’ve about had it up to HERE with women’s places in the world. On the flight back to Austin, a young couple sitting in the row in front of me had two very young children — a ~4-year-old boy, and a ~2-year-old girl. The mother only called her daughter “pretty girl.” That’s all. Never her name, never an endearment, only and constantly “pretty girl.” “Come here, pretty girl.” “Look out the window pretty girl, see the clouds?” Non. Stop. You can see how up-to-here I’ve had it when that made me this furious. We can’t afford that, women. We can’t afford that.
The two books I read start to finish on our vacation (Riding the Iron Rooster, by Paul Theroux, and The Woman Warrior [for the 8th time at least] by Maxine Hong Kingston) certainly didn’t help my attitude about China. Theroux provided historical specifics and details, based on research and on his conversations with Chinese people from all classes, and Kingston’s own first-person presentation of what it is to be a Chinese woman left me nauseated. The bigger problem was that they left me unable to read anything else, unsettled, scattered. That feeling may also be a consequence of the non-stop uprooting this year has brought me, of course, moving here to there to there to there, sleeping here for two weeks, there for two weeks, over there for a month, here for a night, there for two. I think that’s playing with my psyche too.
And so I tried to read a dozen different books, some I’ve read before and loved, some I’ve been dying to read (like the 5th Knausgaard, which I immediately bought when it was available), some I was already reading, and just could not. Just couldn’t. That’s always such a weird feeling. It’s happened to me twice — once after I finished Moby Dick for the first time and everything else just felt silly; and once when I was in the hospital trying not to die — and so I sought the remedy that worked then: Vonnegut. Vonnegut always reboots me for some reason, and if nothing else, I have been able to persist with Sirens of Titan, which was my dad’s very favorite book in the world. I have his copy of the book, so fragile now — a cheap trade paperback copy, broken spine and pages loose, kept in a ziplock bag — and it’s kind of heartbreaking to see the phrases that he highlighted. One of the most repeated phrases in the book seemed to be his mantra, because every single time it occurs, he highlighted it and starred it in the margin: “I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.” Maybe by the time I finish the book I’ll be able to read other things again. I sure hope so.
And so now, for a while, anyway, my life returns to its ordinary routine of coming and going. I get to be here at home, in Austin, for 16 days, a relief. Then it’s this:
May 6-17 in NYC, earlier than usual to coincide with Marc’s 66th birthday.
June 10-21 in NYC, then to Chicago until June 25 — I haven’t seen Ilan since he was born so that’ll be a treat, even though it’s a huge chunk of June away from home, and then 10 days later
This morning I realized that every time I am home in Austin, my primary feeling is a kind of urgent rush of catching up. Catching up with myself, with my own choices of how to live, daily yoga and walking and eating my happy food, catching up with my friends, catching up with my own breath. As if all the rest is an exception and here, now, I’m home. I suppose it would be helpful to me to find a way to see my whole life as myself and not so much of it an on-pause exception.
A ramble, which is about all my jetlagged mind can pull together. I have been thinking about a bunch of stuff I’ll need to write my way through, but I need a bit more steady sleep to be able to put those sentences together.
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Gosh, I don’t even quite know where I am. I slept in my own bed last night for the first time in five weeks. I made coffee in my own kitchen, with my own gear, this morning. I took a shower this morning. I had to try to remember how to do all those things here. I have only one very very busy week here that includes time babysitting my darling Oliver, helping prepare for his 2nd birthday party, and then attending the party and spending the whole day with my little Katie family . . . and then to New York for three days before we go on to China for 15 days. WHERE AM I TODAY?
I was in Chicago for four weeks, and we imagined that the bulk of that time would be helping after the baby was born but it didn’t work that way. Two weeks of waiting with Marnie and Tom, long days talking and watching old Top Chefs and Marnie and I lying in bed together to stay warm, talking and killing time and snoozing. Even though that’s not how I’d have most preferred to arrange the time, since it meant Tom and I both left the same day (he had two weeks of leave accumulated), it will always be so special that I got to spend that time with her, waiting for her son to be born. I’ll never forget it.
The easiest thing is just to do a photo post. If you’re my Facebook friend you’ve seen some of these, and you know the gist, but here goes:
I’d spent some hours in the waiting room — a large, nice enough room filled with grandparents-to-be. The hospital was top-notch, part of the Northwestern system, and the other grandparents were professional people with lots of education (it just came up among them). I sat in a corner, writing on my laptop and listening. One set of grandparents had been waiting 25 hours by the time I arrived, so they’d heard stories through the night. Grandparents reappeared in the room to announce that they’d seen their grandchild and everyone cheered. The room was filled with quiet conversations AND THEN a woman burst into the room complaining loudly:
“Oh sure, he lives right here in town and he’s retired already but I get here first? That’s typical. That’s why I divorced him 40 years ago.”
Our eyes got wide and we were all drawn into conversation with her. How she only had to push a couple of times with all 6 of her kids, her labor took just a couple of hours each time so this grandkid would probably be born fast too, but he probably wouldn’t make it, typical him.
The conversation came around to grandparent names, and most were typical: Grandma, Nonna, Nonny, Gramma Carol, Pete (me!), and then it was her turn: Grandma The Diedelhoff. Grandma The Diedelhoff. We all burst out laughing. It fit her so much. Her ex-husband finally showed up, reeking of Old Spice to the point that I had to leave the room before it gave me a migraine. I’d have divorced him for that Old Spice alone.
To get them home a couple of days later, I rented a car and brought the car seat to the hospital, and it was harrowing driving them home — I remember feeling that same way when I was driving my own babies home. New human being in the car! Be careful everyone, be careful! Drive safely!
The next two weeks were pretty routine. I took a couple of middle-of-the-night shifts but the kids mostly wanted to do them themselves, so for the most part I’d take Ilan at 7 and they would get 2 or 3 more hours of sleep. Those hours were extraordinary; Ilan was always in such a good mood then, quiet and watching, and for the most part I just held him. I held Ilan, tried to help the kids when I knew a helpful way to do something with a crying baby (amazing how it comes back, bodily, even if I couldn’t have said it if asked), and cooked. I cooked and cooked and cooked, and baked. We had yeasted waffles and cinnamon rolls twice and lots of big dinners (and their friend Paul fed us four times, big feasts each time). I was there for Paul’s birthday so I made him a fabulous birthday cake.
I hated leaving, since Marnie was still recovering and in pain (and they live in a two-story home), but my time had run out. My last night, Marnie and Ilan slept in my room with me so I could help one last time and Tom could get an uninterrupted night of sleep before his first day back at work. It was so damn sweet I can hardly write about it without crying. Marnie would nurse Ilan and then I’d take him. He and I went to the nursery and I rocked him, and for a very long time I lay in bed with him snuggled next to me, watching him sleep. My arm was wrapped around him and I could hear his little quick breathing, and smell his little head, and I could feel my daughter on the other side of the bed, hear her exhausted snoring, and it was just one more experience that I’ll never ever forget.
When I got home yesterday, I got to see my dear friend Nancy for a couple of hours — lucky, since she’s gone now for a few days to see old friends in Kansas — and then I met Katie, Trey and darling Oliver for dinner at Chuy’s, a place that has a very very special place in my heart. Oliver looked huge! After holding tiny little newborn Ilan, and putting those tiny newborn diapers on him, Oliver looked like a teenager. 🙂 They got to the restaurant before me, and when I walked in and he saw me, he wiggled and grinned so big it melted my heart. I can’t believe he’s about to turn two, how fast that time has gone.
I didn’t get any reading done, to speak of, but I did finish the Ursula K. LeGuin book I was reading for my year-long project so I hope to write that post very soon. I missed the idea of writing on my blog, but it was such a blur of waiting and quiet and crying and cooking, the idea of it was about all I could muster. I gained ten pounds while I was gone and I didn’t regularly do yoga, and the only walking I did was back and forth to the grocery store, so I’m thrilled to return to my routine while I can, before we head off to China.
For now, I just have to remember which set of keys I need. xoxoxoxoxo
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