One of my favorite sites is Maria Popova’s The Marginalian; while I don’t have many words of my own to offer this week, I want to share hers, about the children’s book The Story of Ferdinand. (I strongly recommend clicking through to read her post; there’s so much in it.)
Popova shares the origins of the story, which are rooted in war and fascism and friendship–and a real-life bull who became famous for his gentle nature. In this time that feels increasingly dangerous and bleak, I appreciated learning the story of this book that I have encountered many times but never read. I appreciate Popova’s insistence on the importance of art to help us imagine alternative endings.
I suppose some might consider Leaf’s ending of the story, which is far more happy than the ending of the bull’s life upon which it is based, sentimental. Perhaps they would consider it a lesser work for its lack of realism. Perhaps they might even deem it dangerous, for perpetuating a false idea of how things are likely to go in this world. Perhaps I would do so myself; there have been so many times in recent years that I’ve bemoaned an earlier idealism (naivety?) in myself that I blame for my previous lack of understanding of how so many things really are. I’ve attributed that idealism to beliefs instilled in me when I was young.
But Popova provides a different evaluative lens, one that I find useful in this time, with her claims that “We have always survived history’s dark patches by making our own light and meeting brutality with beauty,” and that “All the art we make — the picture-books and the poems, the paintings and the songs — is our act of resistance to the blade between the horns that menaces us with its unpardonable promise from the moment we are born.” She quotes Kathleen Lonsdale, who wrote that “‘those people who see clearly the necessity of changed thinking… must persuade others to do so'” and makes a case for the importance of art as a tool for such persuasion.
Leaf’s alternate ending isn’t a true one, in the sense of non-fiction’s truth, but it is a possible one. It puts into the world a story that could be true, and isn’t being able to imagine alternate endings the first, crucial step to making them happen?
As I’ve been writing these words, a variety of critters have come into my front yard, which I’ve seen through the window I’m sitting in front of. This past week, we’ve discovered a new inhabitant:
My students and I read “American Cheese,” Jim Daniels’s poem about, well, cheese–as you’d expect from the title. But, we’ve been working all semester on forming interpretations of literary text, and–of course–the poem isn’t just about cheese. “This is about/this is really about” has become our short-hand for moving beyond literal comprehension of the text’s subject (what it is about) to interpretive comprehension of the text’s themes (what it is really about), and my class of nearly all boys is initially stumped by the question of what the poem is really about, have a hard time getting past the seeming triviality of a man’s preferences regarding cheese.
I back them up. “What is the poem saying literally?” I ask, and we establish facts: The speaker attends department parties with fancy cheeses that he’s come to like. As a kid, he ate American cheese, the stuff that comes in individual, plastic-wrapped squares. (“You know, they can’t even call it cheese,” one student offers. “They’re called Kraft Singles because it’s not technically cheese,” he says.) His dad worked in a factory; there were five kids in the family. They ate cheese sandwiches. When he visits home now, he craves American cheese, and his mother is surprised by how he eats it without anything else.
They skip over what I think are the most crucial lines:
...We were sparrows and starlings
still learning how the blue jay stole our eggs,
our nest eggs....
I send them into small groups to identify what the poem is really about, and when we gather back together to share ideas they circle round and round above the poem, talking about food, nostalgia, family–never landing on the lines about birds. When they offer their ideas, I ask them to clarify their thoughts, perhaps to extend them, but I don’t direct them to those lines. My goal is to grow independent readers and critical thinkers, not for them to understand the particulars of this poem, which, in the scheme of literary things, is not a particularly important piece of work.
Someone offers an idea about the poem, and I ask: “Does everything in the poem make sense with that idea?”
Finally, someone gets there, asks what those lines about the birds are about, how they fit in. “Think about how we use our background knowledge and own experiences to build understanding of a text,” I suggest. “What do you know about these kinds of birds, and how can that knowledge give you ideas about how these lines contribute to the poem’s meaning?” I ask.
I drill down just a bit. “How about sparrows and starlings?” I ask. “What about just those birds? What do you know?”
One student, a boy who regularly wears clothing adorned with American iconography, says, “They’re scrub birds.”
I ask him to explain, as I’m not sure what he means.
“They’re, like, nothing birds,” he says. “No one cares about them.”
I let that idea stand. “And what about blue jays?” I ask. “What do you know about them?”
“They’re cool,” he says.
“They’re big, and blue. They’re beautiful birds.”
“They are,” I say, and I turn back to face the rest of the room. “Here’s a great example of how we can form different interpretations of the same text,” I offer. “One person can see blue jays as better birds than sparrows and starlings, who are small and not very noticeable. Jays are bigger and stronger and much more distinctive–and these facts might influence your interpretation of the poem. But I have different associations and ideas about the birds because of an experience I had,” I say, and I tell them the story of the time I watched a blue jay attack a nest of small birds built in branches outside my bedroom window. I tell them about the sounds of the parent birds as their eggs were destroyed, how they never returned to the nest once they finally left it. “Blue jays are birds that attack other birds,” I say, “and because of my experience, those are more important facts about them to me.”
Now that we have turned the keys of these lines, the poem unlocks. Yes, it is about food, and family, and nostalgia. It’s also about social class, and a declining culture, and pride, and love of country, and community, and hard choices, and survival. What it’s saying about those things is open to interpretation, to different ideas.
We don’t reach strong conclusions about the poem’s meaning as a class. We are a diverse group. I like leaving them with some ambiguity. I want them to figure it out for themselves, to be able to sit with complex and contradictory truths. I know that me telling them what to think or insisting on a particular interpretation won’t meet my goals. They might say what they think I want to hear, but they’re going to think what they think, do what they want to do with their ideas.
As they are gathering their things and heading for the door at the end of class, the boy who shared his ideas about the birds says to me, “I liked class today.” He’s a student I have struggled to engage. We are very different people, he and I. He hasn’t done very well with me, and I know that most days he hasn’t liked my class.
“I’m glad,” I say. “I really appreciated your contributions to our discussion.”
“Thanks,” he says, with feeling, and he smiles at me. I smile back, also with feeling. We have such different views of the world he sometimes astounds me, but I will miss him when this school year ends in just a few short weeks. I am glad to have known him, and I think he might say the same about me. There are things in each of us that the other likes and respects. I want to believe that, anyway.
We have no way of knowing, right then, what the afternoon will bring. I don’t know that after I spend it grading my students’ reading logs–which will prompt me to think hard about purposes and how I might determine if they’ve been met–I will learn, while waiting for the copy machine after school, about the latest shooting in Texas. I don’t know that I will numbly run off copies of another poem for our next class, then go to my empty classroom and sit at my desk and wonder what I should feel and do. I don’t know that I will spend long minutes wondering about the nest I’ve built for us, with its twinkle lights stretched across the ceiling, and posters with art from around the world, and a cart full of window/mirror books, and chart paper with our lists of class norms. I don’t know that I will sit in that space, remembering the day in September we began building those norms as we discussed memes about gun control, or that I will leave memory as I tune into the sounds of students playing ping-pong in the foyer while they wait to be picked up, and that it will be the pock-pock-pock of those balls hitting the paddles that will be the thing that brings me to tears.
This post is about teaching high school students how to read poetry/This post is really about gun violence in the United States
I have been thinking, for weeks, about dormancy. And writing. And habits. I’ve been thinking about the weekly notification I get of how many hours I spend each day on my phone, which does not equate with hours spent on social media, but still. It’s a lot. An astonishing amount, really, especially when I consider how many decades I lived without a cell phone and all it contains. What did I do with the hours I now spend using a phone?
I’ve been thinking about how I spend my days, which, as Annie Dillard told us long ago, is how we spend our lives. Since June, there has been a great easing in mine. September and October, when I re-entered the classroom after a decade+ absence, had its rough days, and I know there will be more of those, but on the whole there has been so much easing. I’ve opened a space, but too often I have not filled it quite as I think I’d like to.
I have been thinking, for weeks, about how often I pick up my phone when there is a quiet moment. Or an uncomfortable one. Or an exhausted one. I’ve been thinking about how it has become difficult for me to sustain my way through the reading of a print book, and how astonishing that is. My father once told me, when I was a young woman, that when he thought of me he pictured my younger self sitting at the kitchen table with a book propped up behind my plate, reading as I ate. There was a time that I never truly ate alone, because if there was no flesh-and-blood human with whom to share my meal, there was always a book with its other voice to keep me company. I can’t remember the last time I consumed a book with a meal. I often want to, but I have no book I’m reading. I remember when I always had a book I was reading (usually more than one).
I start many books, but I finish few. I’m not sure why.
Sometime back in November, I went to the library to graze the stacks, one of the best ways I’ve found to tune into what the universe (or something that “the universe” is our shorthand for) is saying to me. That day, I found Julia Cameron’s It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again, a version of her classic The Artist’s Way, written especially for those “at mid-life and beyond.” Hers is a 12-week program of creative recovery, which is just about the length of a season. I read enough of it to decide to buy my own copy, thinking I would start working through its program at the beginning of January.
Instead, I began it this week, on the first day of winter. I have been thinking about winter since the day I listened to a Story Corps episode on the way to work in which Suzanne Valle talked about life in terms of seasons. She said that the winter of our lives begins at 60. Four days before that, I had turned 57.
Time is infinite, and the universe is infinite, but an individual life is not. I have been thinking about that, too. A lot. Despite what Cameron might have us believe, sometimes it is too late to begin again–because we have ended.
I have been thinking about Words of the Year, the choosing of which is a practice that some I follow or interact with on social media engage in. I tried it a few times, but it didn’t work for me. It still doesn’t, but I’ve been thinking about what I want more and less of in the coming year. “Scrolling” isn’t going to be anyone’s word of the year, is it?
As I’ve been having all these thoughts, I’ve been more mindful of what I’m getting (and not) when I engage with social media. I love Kate’s Instagram stories, because she so often shares things that are funny, wise, or visually gorgeous. Sometimes she shares words that seem to be just what I needed to hear at the moment I read them. I love being in the company of Dave Bonta’s Poetry Blogging Network. I love interacting with those of you who write to me here.
I have been thinking about June, when I might be in the position of needing to make a decision about teaching for another year. I have been thinking about all of the reasons I have never written in the ways I’ve said I would like to, in ways I gave up trying to more than a decade ago. I’ve been thinking about how, if I were to make a different space for writing in my life, I don’t know what I would fill it with, and how I am so often tired of the sound of my own voice. I’ve been wondering if the writing I do here is the writing I need to do, or if it is something that keeps me from the writing I need to do. I have been wondering how I want to spend my minutes, hours, days, life.
There have been a lot of thoughts rattling around in my (increasingly) old head, and I haven’t even started with the feelings.
So I keep returning to dormancy, and how that might work for a large mammal who cannot sleep underground for 12 or more weeks.
I’ve decided to take the winter off from things that make up too many of the hours I spend on my phone. I’m taking the social media apps (other than Messenger, which I use to communicate with folks) off my phone and I’m not going to write here again until Sunday, March 20th, the first day of spring. I’m not going completely off-line, but I intend to be much more intentional about being on. What I want is to clear some space and be purposeful about what I let into it. I think I need some arbitrary restrictions and some public declaration to make a necessary quiet happen.
I have been wary of writing that last paragraph because there are things I know I will miss, and because writing here has become a thing I count on for several different kinds of good things. I have been avoiding it because if I didn’t write it I could more easily change my mind about the whole thing. I was avoiding it because there’s some fear in this for me.
But I’m saying it and am going to do it because last week, when I went into Powell’s, a bookstore that covers an entire city block and was once one of my favorite places, I felt overwhelmed by the cacophony of voices shouting at me from the shelves. There is so much clamor in the world, and so often lately all I can hear is a grating din. I want to see if I can create a pocket of quiet within it, if I can make my way back to some part of that young girl who loved to make a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of canned chicken noodle soup and eat them slowly at her family’s kitchen table in the company of a book, able to hear nothing in her mind’s ear but the voice of one other person speaking to her. I don’t know if this experiment is as much about becoming some other kind of writer as it is about becoming a different kind of reader. All I know is that somehow, I’ve lost my way, and I want to find it again.
Hope you’ll check back in here come spring. If you’re not yet a subscriber, please consider signing up (top of right sidebar) and you’ll get an email when a new post goes up. (I don’t do anything with the subscriber list. To be honest, I don’t really know how to.) Wishing you all a good season of whatever it is you need from it.
First of all–and most importantly–you can’t go looking for it. (Except, of course, when you do, as I am here.) You will go looking, most likely, because you want it and you’ll get tired of waiting for it to come tapping on your shoulder one day when you’re in line at the grocery store or strolling the library shelves or walking the dog, as if your writing life were a romcom and you are a young Meg Ryan (if she were weightier, somehow, and far more deep, like you) and the poem is Tom Hanks or Billy Crystal (but smarter and more handsome). Honestly, you can go about it either way–looking or not, purposefully or not–but the best ones happen upon you, usually when you’re engrossed in some other pursuit, in being alive.
While you’re doing that–being alive, living a life–the true ones will come at you sideways, catch your attention for a moment through a fragment of memory, a snippet of language, a scent that takes you home. It’s such a balancing act, you know? There you are, immersed in some experience or another, and then, this other fascination comes along and you have to decide if you will follow it.
Let’s say you do. (You’ll have to, if you’re going to write a poem.) You turn to follow what beckons, to see where it might take you.
From there, well, things can go so many different ways. (Isn’t that part of the thrill of it, that you can’t know how it will all go?) It’s the beginning of the dance, and it’s different for all of us, really. It’s different every time, even though it might feel like you take the same steps over and over again. The more you write, the more you’ll come to know and hone your moves, develop your way of being with words. Some of us rush in, stripping ourselves bare before we’ve hardly gotten through the door, while others peel layers slowly, savoring each new revelation before reaching for the next. Either way, surprises abound, things we couldn’t anticipate when we started.
So many think it’s all about that first draft and getting it on the page. They think the passionate melding of your senses with your language with your hands with your memories is the heart of the matter, the most important thing; they think that’s what writing a poem is. Sometimes, rarely, maybe. But write long enough and you know: That’s only the beginning, that initial tumble into the sexy potential of it all. The next day (or week or month), when you open your eyes to light and see not a grand passion but crumpled sheets and stale metaphors and the mess of your feelings strewn across the page: That’s when you decide if where you’ve gone is worth a longer stay.
Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.
Sometimes that heady frenzy is the point, and it’s enough just as it is. Maybe you’ll walk away from it, grateful for some thing it helped you see or know or remember. Maybe it was just an itch you needed to scratch. Maybe it was nothing, and you can see that and it’s fine, just fine. It was what it is. You go back to walking the dog and buying groceries and picking up library books, perhaps more primed to notice the world’s glances that come your way, that spark that could turn into a real poem.
Sometimes, though, you know it’s the beginning of something more than words scrawled through some feeling’s heat. It’s something you could sustain, that could sustain you. So you turn toward it and hold on.
This is where the work begins. (All poems are work, just as everyone says.)
At first you tackle the easy things, a word here or there, a phrase, a clause. You begin tentatively, seeing where things hold and give. The more you come to know the poem, the deeper you’re able to go. You add, delete, and combine with confidence. You trim the redundancies and the modifiers that are about nothing but nervousness or bravado or fear. You might write or cut whole stanzas as you realize what the poem is going to be, to mean. The more you polish, the more clearly you see, and you keep only the parts that work with the whole. The poem begins to gleam. You do, too.
Sometimes, it’s as easy (and difficult) as that. Other times, you get snagged or stuck. You do and undo, do and undo in futile loops. You might come to doubt yourself. You might tell yourself that you’re a shit writer who’s never written anything worthwhile and that you’re probably not capable of writing at all. Get over that. It’s just early life trauma coming around to have its way with you. Don’t let it.
However, if you try and try and try and can’t get anywhere, it’s time to take a step back and consider radical revision. It’s time to look hard at the frame you built in that first coming together, to see if the way you began allows for a structure that holds. Do you need to let someone else be the speaker, change the tense, impose (or tear down) a form? Oh, how hard it can be hard to realize that what you’ve written doesn’t work, that to save any of the poem you will have to rebuild from the ground up. You might hate doing this because you’ll feel as if it won’t even be the same poem any more.
Maybe it won’t. It might not be worth saving, the thing you’ve turned your beloved poem into. You might have to let it go.
If you’re not ready to do that, you could try just putting it away for awhile. Go about your business and get some distance. When all you can see is weakness, when you can’t remember what you ever saw in the poem anyway, when you’re sick of the sound of its voice, when the poem on the page just can’t become the one in your head, maybe give it a rest. Just put it aside. Let it be. (You might even try writing some new poems for awhile.)
One day, when there’s a chance the words might sound fresh again, pull it out and see what it is to you now.
Sometimes you’ll realize you were an idiot, that you were just too close to the whole thing to see what you had. Other times you’ll realize it was as doomed as you thought, or that even though it’s not all that bad, it just isn’t and can’t be what you hoped for. Let it go, if that’s what’s true. Do so with peace. You learned something from it, you know. You always do.
None of your words are ever wasted.
These words grew from an exercise from The Daily Poet, by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Solano. It’s a book I picked up last summer, when I was strolling a bookstore and imagining what the coming fall would be. I thought I would be fully retired, with lots of time to write. As I had no ideas about what I might want to write, I thought a book of exercises might be useful for building a consistent writing practice, a good way to discover what you want to focus on.
As this week turned toward its end and I realized I hadn’t written anything (again) or (again) felt the pull to write anything and knew I didn’t want to write about any of the things that had been yammering inside my head, I pulled out this book that I’d done nothing with (so far) but put on my shelf.
The book contains a writing prompt for each day, and I chose the one for the day I’d be publishing this post, November 14:
Teach Us: Write a poem that teaches the reader about something….Have this “teaching” happen through the poem, but have it be about something else entirely….See what you can teach the reader when you write the poem about something other than what is being taught.
Feel free to let me know what you think the true subject of the writing is. 🙂 I did not write a poem, and you don’t have to, either. The beauty of a book of prompts is that the whole point is just to get you started. You can do what you want with them, and this was a week in which I needed to do more of what I want and less of what I think I should. It was nice to shut the yammering up for a bit.
“Mommy, when you’re a mommy and an artist, does being a mommy have to come first?”
My daughter was six years old. We were lying on the living room floor late one afternoon in front of the fire. I remember being tired.
At the time, my daughter’s greatest ambition was to be an artist. She had several schemes for how this might work in her life. She thought she might be a kindergarten teacher, so that half of her days would be free to make art. She thought she might have an art gallery, staffed entirely by members of our family (I was to be in charge of a daycare center), so that she could be free to make art to put in the gallery.
I remember being tired. I remember her small body next to my larger one, both of us looking up at the ceiling. I remember being very aware that it was important for me to answer the question thoughtfully. Carefully. Correctly.
“Well,” I said, “I think when you are a mommy, for most of us that’s what we want to come first.”
“But does it have to?”
“I don’t know if that’s the right way to think about it,” I finally said.
“I’m not going to be a mommy,” she stated matter-of-factly. “I always want my art to come first.”
Ohshitohshitohshit, I remember thinking.
How to respond in such a way that I might serve both the girl in front of me and the woman she will become? How to be honest (because she has a sense for dissembling sharper than any I’ve known)? How to answer this question that so many women have struggled to answer? That I have struggled to answer?
Let’s re-frame the premise, I remember thinking.
“You know,” I said, “you don’t have to choose. You can be a mommy and still be an artist.”
Not entirely true, but not entirely false. Good enough?
“But I want my art to come first. And if you’re a mommy, that should come first.”
“Lots of women do both. You can, too.”
I remember her looking directly at me. “But you don’t,” she said.
Oh, I thought, as her words walloped me. Why is this so hard? “This” being all of it–parenting, art-making, making a living. Being so goddamned tired all the time.
It was not the first time, and most certainly not the last, that I knew with swift, sharp clarity that every single choice I made was teaching my children something about how to live, and that my actions carried more weight than my words ever would or could.
What was I teaching her about how to be a woman? How to make a meaningful life? About serving others and serving ourselves?
She knew that I had a published book. She and her twin brother and father had traveled with me for poetry readings, where she’d seen me on stage, reading my work. I had thought I was a pretty bang-up role model, being a fully-present mom, a published writer, and, through my work as a teacher, a financially independent wife. Apparently, however, she knew that I wasn’t doing much writing. And, clearly, she was attributing that to my being a mother. Her mother.
“No,” I said, knowing I had to tell the truth. “I don’t very much.”
In Daily Rituals: Women at Work, Mason Currey profiles 143 artists on “how they paint, write, perform, direct, choreograph, design, sculpt, compose, dance, etc.” In it, he shares that Alice Walker moved three times across the country in search of the right place to write what would become The Color Purple, and that during the extended period of those moves her daughter stayed with her father, Walker’s ex-husband.
Reading that, my first thought was, How could she do that? I could never have done that. It was not a thought of judgement, but one of genuine wondering. When my children were young, I hated to miss even one bedtime. I rarely did. Nothing I said to my daughter about mothering in that long-ago fireside chat was untrue. I wanted my children to come first. When they were born, I thought: No poem I could ever write will mean as much to me as this. And that was–is–true, too. Raising my children was often absorbing creative and intellectual work, and writing was third (or fifth or tenth) because it was never as compelling as mothering or as necessary as the income needed to support the mothering. I was not a martyr. I was doing what I wanted to do. (Just not everything I wanted to do.)
Once Walker settled in what became the right place–meaning, the one in which her characters “started talking to her”–her daughter joined her. In Currey’s account, Walker felt she found a way to productively write and care for her child, but her daughter Rebecca’s experience was quite different: “…in her telling, being the child of an author who was so deeply absorbed in her characters’ lives was profoundly destabilizing.” So much so, it is implied, that the adult Rebecca became estranged from her mother.
As I dip in and out of Currey’s book, I’m drawn to the stories of women who both created art and raised children, particularly the writers. Again and again, reading his accounts of their daily ways of working, I have thought: I could never have made that choice.
I suppose I picked up the Currey book because I find myself again in a place with choices to make, and I’m looking for models of how I might work and live. I suppose I have been remembering that long-ago afternoon with my daughter because she and her twin brother have just celebrated another birthday, an annual time of reckoning for me. They are no longer, in any way, children. They are young adults. With every birthday their lives have become more and more their own creation, not mine. In that shifting, that turning over, a space has been opening for me that now yawns wide.
In a recent conversation with my mother about life choices ahead of us both, I mentioned that I am open to “radical lifestyle changes.”
“Maybe you can finally write that trashy best-seller,” she said, laughing a bit.
The trashy best-seller I might write has been a long-running joke/fantasy, shorthand for her wish that I might find a way to both make the money I need and to write things that matter to me.
I laughed, too, though to see that she still sees me as a writer, still sees that as a possibility, after all this time of mostly not-writing, took me close to tears.
“No,” I said, “you know I’ve never really been interested in that.”
I paused. “But maybe I can finally write.”
It felt risky to say that out loud. Like, singing in public or taking off my clothes risky. (It feels that way to write the words here, too.)
To be honest, I don’t know if I want to write anything more than I do here. To be honest, I feel so worn down I don’t know if I’m capable of knowing (right now) what I want to do in the space that’s opened, or the one I might blow open through radical change. Since learning of the passing of my friend and mentor, Robert, I have been keeping an intention to write here at least once a week. It is partly my way of honoring what he gave me, and partly my way of trying to take care of myself by prioritizing creative work. The more I do this, though, the more that tensions long buried have risen to the surface.
In Currey’s book of over 400 women, most profiles seem to fall into one of two categories: women who immersed themselves in their art and didn’t raise families, or those who did both and endured significant challenges in one realm or the other. And that’s the women who weren’t also doing some kind of other work to pay the bills.
What painful relief it was to read about a different Walker: Margaret, the author of Jubilee, a novel she began at 19 but didn’t finish until she was in her early 50s, after teaching for 30 years and raising 4 children. Currey quotes Walker’s response to a question about about how she finds time to write with a family and teaching job: “‘I don’t,'” she said. “‘…It is humanly impossible for a woman who is a wife and mother to work on a regular teaching job and write.'”
Certainly, there are women who do teach and write and mother, and my intention is not to disparage mothers who create or imply that they are lesser mothers or artists. I just appreciate the acknowledgement that, for at least some of us, it is not possible–and, more importantly, to see that it is possible to do significant creative work later in life. Walker said that her inability to work on her novel was “agonizing,” and she feared that she’d never be able to finish it, but also that, in the end, time served the work: “‘Despite all of that, Jubilee is the product of a mature person. When I started out with the book, I didn’t know half of what I now know about life. That I learned during those thirty years…'”
Unlike Walker, I have no Jubilee that’s been percolating in my mind over the past three decades. I have no Yale Younger Poets Award or a prestigious academic career or anything to my writerly name other than one slim volume of poetry and a blog whose daily page views rarely top 100. What I’m saying is, there’s nothing I’m burning to write, and my prospects for accessing outside resources to support writing are as slim as my chances of writing something as important as the novels of either Walker.
But that’s OK. That’s not what this post is really about. It’s about the question my daughter asked me when she was 6, and all the other questions embedded within it: How important is creative work? How do we incorporate it into the whole of our lives? How do we make choices about what to prioritize? What matters most, and when? It’s not about the business of writing or standard measures of success, but simply about the need many of us have to create in whatever ways compel us–and what happens to us if we don’t meet it. For years I poured my creativity into mothering and teaching, which largely satisfied that need for me, but neither of those is an outlet for it now, and there isn’t much, or enough, or the right kind, available in the work that’s replaced those vocations.
As I did that afternoon on the rug in front of the fireplace, I feel the importance of the questions in front of me. In preparing to answer them again, I again feel the need to be thoughtful. Careful. Correct. Not so much for my child this time (though she’s still watching, I know), but for me.
The past few months I’ve been checking out piles of library books that languish on my nightstand past their due dates only to be joined by more books before I’ve returned them, and I’m starting to think that I love something about the idea of books more than I love actually reading them. I fantasize about spending a whole Saturday curled up on the couch with a book, but I never turn that fantasy into reality. Perhaps what I love even more than reading a book is the search for it, the anticipation of it, the possibility within it, the comfort of it. Some thing a book represents, more than the thing it is.
I blame this book habit–and my impressive fine history–on my childhood. Which means, of course, on my mother, the one who introduced me to books and libraries.
She has told me that she began taking me to libraries before I can even remember. She dropped me off for a weekly “creative drama” class when I was just a toddler. “I always wondered what they had you do there,” she’s said. She doesn’t know, having raised children before the advent of helicopter parenting and outsized fears about child safety.
I have no idea what we did, but I’m guessing I liked it. I’m guessing I felt safe and happy, the way I’ve always felt in a library.
Later, when I was trapped in the bog of misery that was my 6th grade year, she’d take me there every Saturday. I’d drop off the stack I’d checked out the previous week and leave with a new one, each volume a friend to get me through the long weekend ahead–because those weekends in which I needed distance from my parents but lacked proximity to my peers were so, so long.
Back then, I did lose whole days to the pages of books. I wasn’t discriminating because you don’t have to be when time feels unlimited. I read trash. I read weird things. I read things I’d read 20 times already. I read some classics, too. Compared to now, there was very little like YA then, and I struggled with being both too old for the children’s section and too young for the adult section. The closest things to books that felt written for someone my age were some corny series from the ’50s (Beany Malone was my favorite) and Beverly Cleary’s really dippy Fifteen and Jean and Johnny. (These did not equip me well for the late 70s teen social scene I was entering.) I did eventually discover the entire Judy Blume oeuvre and Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack, the title of which alarmed my father enough that he initiated a Serious Talk, a conversation I did not enjoy, and, of course, Go Ask Alice, which kept me away from drugs for a very long time because Alice was a pretty sweet, innocent kid (like me) and look what happened to her when she used drugs just once, and she didn’t even mean to! And it was a true story! (Except, it wasn’t. But we didn’t know that then. And by “we,” I might mean only myself and the writer I just linked to, possibly the two most naive teenagers of our era. I bet she read 1950s YA, too.)
All of which is to say that, for me, books were entertainment and companionship and guides for living, and the portal to them was the library. The nearest bookstore was a B. Dalton’s all the way out at the mall, and I didn’t have anything like enough money to buy all the books I needed even if they’d had a large stock of them, which they didn’t. My habit only deepened when I got my first job, which was (of course) at our local public library, where my favorite task was sorting the books for shelving. That’s how I discovered all kinds of books I’d never previously encountered, including a guide to teen-age sexuality that I snuck out of the building and never returned, and which was the source of my mortification when, as a college student, I realized that my mother must certainly have found it when she cleaned out the closet in which I’d hidden it.
I’m such a library addict that I purposely hooked my kids on it, too. When they were preschoolers I’d take them to the library, and right after that we’d go to McDonald’s, where they would play in the Lord of the Flies-esque play area and I would eat french fries and read a few pages in peace (or what passed for peace in those years). It was a total win-win. I knew exactly what I was doing, and I did it on purpose. I wanted them to love the library like I did, and I knew that associating it with McDonald’s–because we almost never went there at any other time–was a sure-fire way to get them hooked create that love.
(Remember, it’s all my mother’s fault. She started it.)
Now, I find myself in a season of life with much more opportunity to read, but I’m still not the kind of reader I was in 6th grade. While I’m no longer responsible for the feeding and physical survival of young humans, I do still have a life of my own I need to keep going in a reasonably healthy manner, and there are no such things as whole days spent on the couch with a book. When I do let myself indulge in a couch/book treat, I pretty much always fall asleep after just a few pages. Most of my reading is done in snippets–before bed, in the bathroom, while I’m waiting for water to boil or sauces to simmer, when I’m eating. Sadly, there are far, far more books that I want to read than can be read in the snippets available to me.
So, if I know I can’t read all the books I check out, what is my library habit really about? I’m not sure, but it’s a real thing, my librarioholism. It means I visit regularly, always leaving with a large haul that I fully intend to read, even as I know that I will not have (make?) enough time to read it all. Oh, I suppose I could, if I just wouldn’t let myself return for more until the books I already have are finished. But after about a week away, I get twitchy to go back, and I’ve come to accept that I’m not going to stop doing what I’m doing.
Maybe I’m hooked on the endorphins I get from anticipating a book, more than on anything I get from reading the book itself. (If I were Dinky Hocker and she actually shot smack, looking for books would be my smack.) Maybe what I’m really hooked on is the fix of the new and all its possibilities, all the different versions of myself that they promise I might be–a graceful homemaker, a fiber artist, a serious writer, a person who understands what the hell is happening in the world, to the world–and, by extension, to myself and those I love. Many of the books I check out are more aspirational than anything else. They are books I want to want to read more than I want to actually read, and I rarely get past the first pages of them, if I even pick them up at all. But still, I take them home. They teach me something about what some part of me–maybe a part I’m not even conscious of yet–wants or needs.
Hmmm… maybe it’s even deeper than that, and my habit is really some sort of hedge against death, against potential or probable annihilation of various kinds. See? my stack of books say to me. There is still time to be all of the things you might be and to live in the kind of world you want to inhabit. There are still people writing books about how to put on a nice dinner party, so maybe that’s something that might still matter and that you can still learn how to do. I have long joked that if the apocalypse comes and the grid goes down, I will not join the hordes looting the grocery stores; no, I will be looting the library, a space I’ve long claimed as my church, a sacred place to go for answers and community and comfort. Although I’ve been tongue-in-cheeking the addiction metaphor, maybe my habit truly is not so different from the addict’s drug or the believer’s religion, just another way of coping with fear.
Ah, look at me. I’ve written myself into a bit of a corner, and a dark one at that. And it’s Sunday morning and I’ve promised myself that I will post here once a week, ready or not. What’s the way out? I don’t know, any more than I know how to neatly tie up this package of words, but I’m guessing that if an answer can be found, it’s probably at the library. Better figure out how to fit a trip there into my plan for the day.
This post was prompted by a book I’ve been loving, Susan Orlean’s The Library Book. When I read about it, I thought it might be a little boring. It isn’t.
If you, too, are a librarioholic, you might enjoy these reads about our happiest place on earth:
This article was everywhere a few weeks back–or maybe it just seemed that way to me because so many people sent it to me and/or so many library friends shared it.
But more important than that previous article is this take on it from one of my favorite librarians.
I would go visit these gorgeous libraries, glorious as any cathedral.
And, currently on my Likely to Be Overdue ListBecause I’m Actually Reading Them:
The Inviting Life by Laura Calder (648). I want to live this kind of life. I’m getting there.
On the Bus with Rosa Parks by Rita Dove (811.5) Don’t read this because it’s Black History Month. Read it because it’s good poetry.
Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport (303.4833)–This one was recommended by my friend Marian, and now I’m recommending it to you. More on this later.
Daily Rituals Women at Workby Mason Currey (704.042). These are short, fascinating reads about the daily habits of women across various creative fields and eras. The chapters are like Lay’s potato chips: Small, savory, and you can’t eat just one.
The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch (Fic). I avoided this when it was published. I’m ready for it now. I’ve only just started it, but…Wow.
Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by Steven Pressfield (808.02). Many things about Pressfield annoy me. I’m reading this book because Anne Lamott can’t be my only writing teacher. We should rub up against what annoys us from time to time.
The Things that Matter by Nate Berkus (747.092) Not your typical interiors-porn coffee table book. Though it is a coffee table book with gorgeous interiors. I’m reading it for the stories, not the pictures. Really! OK, for both I guess.
My father doesn’t understand how I can keep up on current events, as I don’t watch television news and I don’t get a print newspaper at my home.
“How do you know anything that’s going on?” he asks.
I used to tell him that I got much of my news listening to NPR in the car, but that’s not true any more. I stopped sometime last winter. I’m more prone than I like to admit to feeling a little ragey behind the wheel (OK, a lot ragey), and listening to the news–even NPR news, which feels less inflammatory than any other–only exacerbated that.
I tried listening to music stations, but the inane patter of the DJs also made me ragey. And driving is boring. Or it forces me into my head in a way I’ve had a hard time tolerating in recent years. Or the internet has rewired my brain such that I can no longer peacefully endure a lack of mental stimulation. Or I have ADHD that’s getting worse. (Seriously. I just took a self-quiz. Yikes.)
For whatever reason, my old ways of being in the car just weren’t working, so I started listening to audiobooks when driving. My friend Kate recently asked me to recommend some, and over-thinker that I am I soon realized that I couldn’t do so without some tips, caveats, and explanations:
1. The narrator is everything. If you don’t like the narrator, it doesn’t matter how good the book is. The narrator will ruin it for you. Xe Sands was one of the narrators of Chuck Wendig’s The Wanderers, and I almost returned it before I’d hardly started because her inflection drove me crazy. I finally accepted it as part of the character she was reading–it did fit her–but I sampled another book she narrated and her way of reading was exactly the same and it kept me from buying it. The other reader of the Wendig book, Dominic Hoffman, was one that I mostly liked, but he’s also now on my (Probably) Do Not Listen list. I recently finished The Starless Sea, and although there is much I love about his voice, I’ve realized from that one that I can’t stand the way he reads women. They all have a slightly British accent, and they all sound simpering and breathless, whether they are badass scientists (Wanderers) or badass otherworldly beings (Starless Sea). Which brings me to my second caveat:
2. Complex structures aren’t great for an audiobook format.The Starless Sea is comprised of 6 different recurring books with characters and plots that intersect over places and times, and time is a construct the author is playing with so the multiple narratives aren’t linear. I now want to get the print version of the book and read it; I know I missed big chunks of it because I was consuming it in bits and pieces and I couldn’t re-read. Multiple times I told myself to give up on it and return it because I was just sort of lost in it, and I got tired of so many things smelling or tasting like honey and various twee old things and things that don’t really have a scent/taste but that sound kinda literarily hip when you are told that they do, but I wasn’t sure if my irritation was really with the writing or just the challenge of taking the story in through my ears rather than my eyes. I did finish it, though. Tommy Orange’s There, There is another example of a book that might not be the best candidate for audio. It is a powerful, beautifully-written book and the audio version has fabulous readers, but it has many narrators and characters, and they re-appear throughout the story. Multiple times I wanted to be able to flip back to an earlier part of the book to remind myself of something that came before. I suppose you might be able to do that, sort of, with an audiobook, but it feels too cumbersome, even if I wasn’t driving while listening.
3. The longer the book, the better. I tried getting audiobooks from the library, but I couldn’t figure out how to make that work well for me and I’m not very motivated to because I have a Gold Monthly subscription to Audible. I pay $14.95 each month for one credit. Most books cost more than $14.95, so I get a bit of a discount by having the membership, and there are often sales and free books, as well. But, I only get the one credit a month and I’m on a self-imposed austerity plan, so I do pay attention to the length of the book. I recently finished Stephen King’s The Institute, which clocked in at just about 19 hours. That was a good, long listen, which took just about a month for me to consume. Every time a student used to choose a book based on the number of pages, it felt like a tiny piece of my soul died, but I guess I’m now that kid.
4. Fluff books and audio go together like cheap wine and cheddar cheese. Which is to say: Kinda wonderfully, especially if you’re thirsty or hungry and too tired to cook and aren’t looking for a nutritious meal. As a person who spent her formative years immersed in the worlds of Pine Valley, Port Charles, and Llanview, I am not averse to high drama, shallow characters, quick action, and a little suspense. I’m not ashamed to admit that I like a soapy, fast-paced, easy-to-follow story where all I really want to know is what happens next, especially when I’m listening while merging onto the freeway during rush hour. Some recent favorites in this category: Ruth Ware’s Death of Mrs. Westaway, Kate Morton’s The Lake House, Linda Holmes’s Evvie Drake Starts Over, Taylor Jenkins Ried’s Daisy Jones & the Six, Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone, and any of Liane Moriarty’s books read by Caroline Lee. There are a few historical novels I’d also put in this category: Lilac Girls and The Alice Network are two recent ones I liked well enough.
5. Non-fiction can be just as good a listen as fiction. I prefer fiction. My audiobook habit is about escaping the world more than entering it, but there have been a few non-fiction titles that have a quality of story to them I really enjoyed. Favorites include Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (which has a pretty strong soapy element to it), Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (which is only 3 and a half hours, but so good). My hands-down favorite in this category is Michelle Obama’s Becoming, a book I resisted because it was such a thing when it was published, but it’s one of my favorites in any category. Hers is an amazing story, well-told, and I can’t imagine anyone else reading it–so I’m glad she is the narrator.
6. There is a sweet spot, but it can be hard to find. Books with easy-to-follow structures, some good drama, a little (or even a lot) of literary weight, and a narrator I like take me to it. In this category, I’d put: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Jean Kwok’s Searching for Sylvie Lee, (which I almost put on the soapy list, but it’s got a bit more heft to it than the others there), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. The only drawback with any of these is that sometimes I’d really like to savor the language a bit, or go back and re-read some passages.
But what about my dad’s concern–which is really a concern that I am somehow not paying enough attention to the world and am not aware of all that is wrong? Is my new audiobook habit just another manifestation of my privilege, a way of turning away (because I can) from engagement with the barrage of injustice and corruption that we’re all living with and through?
Maybe. But maybe not.
I’m not going to connect all the possible dots for you that are informing my thinking about this question, but I can list some other questions that I think are useful to consider as we all figure out how to consume information and be OK(er) in the world. (One more caveat: I am fully aware that in many regards, the world/my country has always been as bad as it is right now for many people. I know that my relatively recent understanding of that is a sign of the protected places I’ve occupied. In my thinking/search for coping strategies, I’ve been turning to those with much longer and deeper experience of living with/through hard things than I’ve ever had.)
What does it mean to be informed?
How can we stay informed and engaged without playing into the hands of those who are using media to manipulate us and control our political systems (this is a global question, not just a US one)?
How do we both stay informed/engaged and stay mentally healthy?
How is our current media landscape changing our brains and how we process information?
Things aren’t always what they appear to be on the surface. Contrary to what my dad fears, my turn away from broadcast media and local news outlets is not a way of sticking my fingers in my ears and singing la-la-la-la-la while Rome burns. And it doesn’t mean I am uninformed; I still keep up on the news through trusted print resources whose aim is to adhere to standards of ethical journalism. Listening to audiobooks rather than broadcast news is simply one way of preserving my well-being so that I can stay aware and informed and engaged. I’m not burying my head in the sand; I’m simply recognizing that miring myself in muck isn’t going to do any more good to heal my country of its sins than wearing a hair shirt would.
So: If you have audiobook recommendations, please do share. I’m all ears.
This historian’s analysis of each day’s events has become indispensable to me. She posts daily on Facebook, but if you’re off FB (as we should all probably be), she also shares through a newsletter: https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/
In my very first job out of college, I was an editorial assistant for an educational publishing company. We imported reading programs from New Zealand (which, I was told, had the highest literacy rates in the world), and my job was to “Americanize” the texts for the US market.
That meant the obvious–changing “colour” to “color,” and the like. It also meant sanitizing stories that would be considered too dark or grim or scary for US schoolchildren. I learned that in New Zealand, schools didn’t shy away from sad or hard things in their reading program stories because they believed children needed to learn about fear and how to address it. They felt that facing it and working through it was the way to build strength and resiliency.
I’ve thought about that a lot over the years, but especially lately. As I watched Greta Thurnberg address the United Nations last week, it was awfully hard not to feel as if we are all now living through the plot line of an apocalyptic (probably YA) novel. Because, let’s face it: We probably are. We are aren’t too far past the exposition stage of the narrative, I suppose, and it’s hard to know exactly how this story will play out, but the action is rising quickly. You know shit’s getting real when the birds start dying and the oceans start warming. In those narratives, that’s always a portent of worse to come.
Like the New Zealanders, I’ve never shied away from stories about hard things. I’ve needed those works to help me through them. If anything is my religion, it’s probably literature. So, today, I thought I’d share some of my favorites from a genre I think of as Extinction Lit, stories about people facing and living through mass extinction events. Because–and this is important–in these stories there are always people who live through.
Feed isn’t quite an extinction novel, but it’s the next-closest thing. (Technically, it’s cyberpunk.) In 2002 M.T. Anderson pretty much imagined a world with smart phones embedded into our bodies–before smartphones were even a thing. I haven’t read it since the early 2000s, so I don’t know how it might have aged, but I’ve thought of it often since 2008ish. This is YA, so steer clear if you don’t like teen-age protagonists.
I picked up Station Eleven in an airport, before it became kind of a phenomenon. I thought it would be a fluffy airplane read, but it wasn’t. This one isn’t quite an extinction story, either, but it is about the collapse of civilization via disease that takes out almost everyone. This is my favorite one on the list, crushing in all the right ways because it shows you how beautiful we are. Or at least, can be.
The Age of Miracles is the book that prompted this post; I read it last week. I picked it up because during the summer I read the author’s latest novel (The Dreamers). Both are about inexplicable events that tear at the fabric of society, but I’m linking to Age of Miracles because it is more extinction-y that The Dreamers. (But I thought The Dreamers was a better book.) As Goodreads reviews note, this isn’t a book for the hardcore sci-fi fan (which I’m not). This is an adult title that skews YA; the narrator is a young woman in her 20s looking back at what happened to the world when she was 11 and the earth’s rotation began slowing.
Life As We Knew It is another one (YA) I haven’t read in years, but unlike a lot of other books it hasn’t faded from my memory. Like Age of Miracles, what intrigues me about this one is watching the relatively gradual change that comes to the characters’ way of life. Things change in a pretty big way all at once, but in many ways life keeps going on as it had before the big change event. It reminds me that even in the midst of calamity, things can seem almost normal–can actually be almost normal. It was the first in what became a series, but I tried and couldn’t stick with the second book.
Pretty sure I’ve mentioned Wanderers in passing here before. It’s a big, sprawly, Stephen King-like tale of near-extinction, with lots of bad guys and biohazards and mystery. Honestly, I got a bit lost near the end, but that might be because I was listening to it rather than reading it. It was in some ways the airplane read I thought Station Eleven would be, but it is definitely a novel that nods hard at current people and situations, so it’s more than just dystopian horror. (Maybe there’s no such thing as “just dystopian horror” right now? )
To be honest, after some responses to my last post I feel a little hesitant to publish this one. Some part of me is always, constantly alarmed about what’s happening in our world (just as some part of me is always carrying low-grade stress about work), but another part of me is just fine, thank you. For real. Some days I’d give anything to feel a little pre-2016, and if I project too far into the future I can feel panicked, but right now, today, everything’s mostly fine, especially for someone like me (and probably many of you who are reading here). Although these books are about hard, dark, very grim circumstances, they help me see that even in the midst of those (far worse than most things happening in our world right now), there’s still joy and light and hope. People still want to–fight to–live. These dystopian tales help us understand why, which is probably the real point of them.
Thinking about what to write in this post, I searched out articles on toxic positivity, a concept that seemed to be everywhere for a hot minute last spring. Pretty much every article I found talked about the negative effects on an individual’s mental health from insisting on a positive attitude about everything, but I think there’s another (maybe greater) collective danger in relentlessly turning our gaze only to the bright side, or insisting that reality is only a matter of attitude: It keeps us from seeing things we need to see about larger systems and causes of suffering that exist outside of individuals.
As James Baldwin famously told us, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Extinction Lit–and all the youth activists begging us to pay attention to climate scientists–can help us face what’s in front of us and what’s coming at us. If nothing else, it can help us prepare for it, even if we can’t change it.
Last week I was reading a book written in 2010. It was, in many ways, a lovely book. In 2010, I might have found it rather compelling. It is about the aftermath of a tragic car accident in a small town in Maine, in which a bride and groom are killed on the short trip from their wedding ceremony to their reception. It is about how that event rippled into and through the lives of each of their family members.
Last week, though, I found it hard to care much about their career and marital crises, the permutations of their grief. One of the families is Jewish, and one of their members a Holocaust survivor. In the other family, a young Cambodian girl is an adopted daughter. The mother of the bride is a wealthy academic who lives in the town only during the summers; the mother of the groom cleans her house and scrapes by during the winters.
This book could be about so many things–and it is, tangentially–but what it’s really about is the grief of people who are living in America in the early 2000s, in which such issues as class difference, discrimination, trauma survival, and inter-cultural adoption are, seemingly, mostly tangential. At least to the narrator, and most of the characters. While those issues were present in the story, politics was not. No one was worried about modern-day detention camps. There were no suggestions that any of the characters should be sent back to anywhere. There was no homelessness or opioid addiction.
It felt like reading historical fiction. It felt like visiting a time and place that’s gone.
Apparently, the Federal Elections Commission, the federal agency that oversees compliance with election laws, is, for the foreseeable future, a moribund entity. In a week of terrible news (which means, a week not unlike most), this item chilled me. In order to keep functioning–go to work, feed myself, pay the bills, take care of what is mine to take care of–I have become largely numb to stories that once would have shocked and horrified me. Stories about harm to people and the planet. I am still horrified, but not shocked, and I quickly set my horror aside because if I do not I will not be able to function.
I shared the news on Facebook, something I rarely do with news any more (figuring that those who care already know and that those who do not care or cannot cope do not need me to share), but I shared it because I could not put that horror away as quickly as I usually do. Because I understood in the moment of experiencing it just how much I am hoping for a regime change in 2020. Because I understood that, increasingly, voting is the only power I feel I have, we have, and if that system is corrupt with nothing left to check the corruption, then that hope is gone. I understood how much I need that hope to function. And then, understanding that those who care already know and that those who don’t or cannot cope do not need me to share, I deleted it.
This spring Laura Mary Philpott published a book of essays called I Miss You When I Blink. I bought it because it was all over my social media feed and recommended by people I like and I loved one of the essays that I read from it. It is the kind of book I might write, if I were going to write a book. It is the memoir of a middle-aged white woman who has children and a decent husband and good marriage and economic security in America and, still (because she is human), encounters some difficulties being OK in her life. (It is not exactly a book I could write, not having had good marriages or the same kind of economic security, but, you know. Close enough.)
But as I was reading it, I thought: Huh. This doesn’t seem terribly relevant right now. I enjoyed it well enough, but I live in a small house with limited bookshelf space and so I donated it to a charity soon after reading it.
When I read it, I also thought: This is why I’m not writing. I just don’t see how I can have much that is important to say during this time we are living through. This is a book by and about and for people like me, and even I just don’t care that much about the existential crises of this writer, who seems like a truly lovely person I could likely be friends with. (She seems very nice and funny and thoughtful, but there’s an edge. All the people I love best have an edge.) I’m sure I would have cared more in 2010, or even 2015 (if 2015 hadn’t been a truly awful year for me personally), but today, in 2019? Not so much.
We recently had dinner with friends C. and T., and we realized we hadn’t seen each other since the Women’s March in 2017, which feels like years and years ago. I remember that along with the fear we carried that day, we also carried tremendous hope and even some joy. Look at all of us in the streets! Look at all our pink hats! Surely it can’t get that bad. Surely our systems will protect us! Surely we are all still Americans, this is still America!
In 2017, C. and T.’s Jewishness was tangential to our common story. I mean, it was an important fact. That C.’s parents were Holocaust survivors was an important fact. But it was not important to me in the way it is now, in 2019, and that’s not just because I’m not nearly as colorblind now as I once was (in, say 2010). Other facts–all the things we have in common, our shared interests and worries and values and hopes–were at the core of our mutual affection and regard.
As we sat after our lovely meal in 2019 drinking coffee and tea and eating delicious chocolate, I found myself thinking of Germany in the 1930s. I looked at my beautiful, lovely friends, he with his deep laugh and she with her expressive hands and gentle voice, and all the Holocaust stories I inhaled as a child–for they were, it seemed, everywhere if you were a child who read books in the 1970s–were instantly real in a way they had never been before. I lost my breath, disoriented, imagining the friends in my living room packed into a cattle car. I could not comprehend how such a thing could be possible, could hardly contain the horrors of it in my mind. The two horrors, which are not commensurate, but which are both terrible: That my friends could be packed into a cattle car and that I could have that thought about them at the end of our lovely dinner together because of the things happening now, here. I have never had such thoughts in the presence of Jewish friends at any other time in my life. Not, at least, in the same way I had them that night. And yet, my friends, if they had been alive in that time and in that place, they could have been on those trains, and for the first time in my life, instead of just understanding the horror of it, I truly felt it. And still, my mind went to: It’s not possible. Even as I know it is.
Was this how it was then, in mid-1930s Germany, for friends having dinner together? Of course, the cattle cars hadn’t yet started, none of what would follow had happened yet, so those earlier people could be forgiven in a way that we cannot for not knowing sooner the horror they were living in and through. I thought about how history repeats itself, but never in exactly the same way, which allows some of us to make the kinds of rationalizations we make for what is happening to people at our southern border. I know that many Germans, Jews and not-Jews, told themselves, even as the water approached boiling, Surely this is still Germany. We are still Germans.
Later, alone in the kitchen with T., she told me that C. is worried. Talked about wanting to leave. I felt the same disorientation, thought again of the books I once read, of how, when I was young, it was so hard for me to understand those Jews who didn’t leave when they could. The signs, in hindsight, were so clear. Now that I am not young, I understand all it would mean to leave a whole life and start over in a new place. I understand the barriers that one would have to overcome. I understand how it doesn’t feel real, the idea that the foundation upon which you’ve built that whole life–a foundation so seemingly sound you hardly realized it was there–could be crumbling.
But what I think and feel and understand from that evening feels inconsequential, tangential to the bigger story of what is happening all around me.
I recently also read There, There, Native writer Tommy Orange’s novel of the modern-day urban Indian experience. It was everywhere when it was published in 2018, all over my social media feeds for a while.
I picked it up and started it, but then I put it down and then it was due at the library, and I returned it without finishing it. I wanted my reading to be an escape. I still do. I felt like a shallow, weak person for turning away from it, but I did it anyway.
But this month I was working with teachers who are going to be assigning it to their students this year, and it is the Multnomah County Library’s Everybody Reads title for this year. So, I listened to the audiobook version of it. I listen to audiobooks in the car now. Not the news. Not even music. I consume the news in small, controlled doses now, mostly from print sources, and music does not occupy my mind enough when I’m driving. I don’t know if my inability to tolerate the space that opens up in my mind while driving is because technology has rewired my brain or because I cannot stand the questions my mind cannot leave alone these days. Probably both.
So, it was both escape and not escape, that book. It was gorgeous and heartbreaking and compelling and important. If it were a physical object in my house, I would make space for it on my bookshelf.
One of the characters, questioning what it means to be Native now, says: “I feel bad sometimes even saying I’m Native. Mostly I just feel I’m from Oakland.”
Another, reflecting upon his ancestry that is both white and Native, thinks:
“You’re from a people who took and took and took and took. And from a people taken. You were both and neither. When you took baths, you’d stare at your brown arms against your white legs in the water and wonder what they were doing together on the same body, in the same bathtub.”
Sometimes I feel I lived through a time in which most of us could, regardless of our history, mostly feel we were just from whatever city it is we called home. A time in which most of us, regardless of when and how we got here, felt ourselves both: part one thing and part something else. I used to think that was fundamental to what it means to be American. I don’t know, though, if that feeling is a sign of ignorance born of privilege or if it is true that we are now in a different time. Maybe we (Americans) are not losing anything now. I mean, I know that many, many Americans are losing a great deal right now. Maybe when I write “we” I mean people mostly like me. Maybe the only things we are losing are our illusions. I don’t know. There’s so much I don’t know now.
I miss feeling sure of things. When I try to define what it means to be American now, there is no there, there.
My daughter is making plans to move to Sweden, at least temporarily. I have been learning Swedish with Duolingo. I have been reading Swedish writers. I have been cooking recipes from Scandinavian cookbooks.
Yes, she had a wonderful experience with a study abroad semester, but it would be wrong to think that she is being swayed by some utopian fairy tale. She is a serious person. She was born serious. In the NICU, she was different from the other babies. She stared at everything, intently. “That’s really unusual,” one of the nurses told me. “The sensory stimulation is too much for most preemies. They look away. But she looks right into your eyes, all the time.” My mother told me, when my daughter was only days old, that she has an old soul. She has always made connections that others don’t, has seen beneath the surface of things. She has always been a careful planner. She loves a color-coded spreadsheet. She is pragmatic.
She came home for a visit in June. It was wonderful. As always, it was in being with her that I felt how much I miss her when she’s gone, how much I keep those feelings at bay in her absence. I am a person who connects deeply with only a few others, and she is one of my people.
After the visit this June, I understood in a new way that she no longer lives with me. I understood that she is likely not coming back here. I understood that she needs to decide where and how she can make the best life for herself. I understood why she feels that might not be here. I understood that here might not actually be the best place for her. I felt bereft in a way I have not felt since the day she left for college, and in exactly the same way: So grateful for the opportunities she has, and devastated that they cannot be here, where I am, and guilty for feeling anything other than happy for her. And also: Devastated that I cannot make the case that she could have a better life here. I mean, I know that, perhaps, she could. But it doesn’t look that way right now, in 2019. Especially if you are young.
“You know the joke about how to tell a Millennial from a Gen Z, right?” she asks me.
I don’t, I tell her.
“Millennials are the generation who grew up believing they’d have all the opportunities their parents had, and now they’re bitter because they’ve lost hope. Gen Z never had it.”
In a shop selling vintage wares, I found a book called Journalism and the School Paper, published in 1958. Of course, I had to read the section on the future of media, where I found this:
In the first half of the twentieth century the ideal of democracy was challenged by the philosophy of dictatorship. In the military struggle the democratic countries overcame the dictatorships of Hitler and Mussolini. In these years of the “cold war” the democracies likewise give evidence of being more flexible and durable than dictatorships. Democracy, however, could crumble through weaknesses from within as readily as from outside attacks. In communities where less than half the eligible voters turn out for an election, democracy is threatened.
The survival of democracy rests upon the free flow of information and exchange of opinion. Even in the United States, newsmen and newswomen have to be on guard against forces that would close the doors of information. Skill in writing and presentation will be required to show the relationship of various currents of news to the fundamentals of democratic life. For those whose talents fit them for a career in journalism, the opportunity is a challenging one.
Last week, Mary Laura Philpott published an essay in the New York Times called “The Great Fortune of Ordinary Sadness.” If it were a book, I would keep it on my shelf. I would put it next to There, There.
In it, she acknowledges the sadness she feels over the ending of her children’s childhoods, the ending of family life as they’ve always lived it, and she acknowledges the privilege inherent in such sadness, living in such a time as we are. When she describes feeling weepy in the grocery store, I recall my own episode of produce-driven tears, and for the first time I am grateful that I was able to experience it in 2016, when things were already bad, but not the kind of dumpster-fire bad they are now. I am grateful that I could feel it in a time when it felt OK to call it a big grief, rather than now, when it feels like it can only be, as Philpott writes, a “tiny, self-indulgent grief.”
But that is not why I would put the book on my shelf. It is for her closing words, the ones that let me know we really could be friends. The ones that made me think there might be some point to writing such as hers, and mine here:
And if you, too, are thinking “I thought I had more time” for any reason — a loss large or small or so eclipsed by refracted rays of joy that you’re ashamed to call it a loss at all — come cry quietly by the fruit with me.
We don’t even have to talk, unless … well, would you mind telling me to turn my oven off? It’s so easy to miss the moment when things begin to burn.
It is, isn’t it? So easy to miss the moment when things begin to burn. So important to have friends who remind us that the stove is on.
We’re an odd couple, Lisa and me. She grew up in Miami, and I in Seattle. She is heat and wildfire and in-your-face and I am cool and rain and passive aggressive. She owns a pair of green leather pants and a bright yellow Mustang convertible. I wear a whole lot of denim and drive a tired Volkswagen Jetta. But there is no one on this planet I laugh harder with than Lisa, which is why we are friends.
The last surprise, no-obvious-reason-for-a-gift she gave me was a black belly-dancing bra covered with gold beads and sequins. Not because I belly dance (I don’t). But because I “needed it.” (I kinda did, but that’s fodder for another story, for another time.) So, I felt a little thrill of anticipation when I read her words. I never quite know what to expect from Lisa, which is one of my favorite things about her.
I think she may have clapped her hands in delight when handing me her gift:
I’m pretty sure I did when I saw it. “Oh, I want to read it right now!” I said.
“I know. I really debated when to give it to you. I thought about waiting until the end of our visit so you wouldn’t be distracted the whole time.”
I devoured about half the book in my first sitting, and now I’m doling it out to myself in little bits at a time. I love it because it is a book for those of us who love books. It’s not serious or weighty (something I sorely need these days), but some letters deliver a good, sharp punch. Really, the best word I can come up with for it is delightful–funny, poignant, witty, smart. It’s full of insider book nerd/librarian jokes, and while you might need to be a bit of the former to enjoy it, I don’t think you need to be the latter. It’s a book I wish I had thought to write (and then actually written), but I’m sure I couldn’t have written it as well as the author has.
While I love it for its own self, I know I love it even more because it was the most wonderful kind of gift: one given for no other reason than the giver saw it and knew the recipient should have it. Which means, of course, that the giver has already, in so many ways, truly seen the recipient. And what better gift is there than that–to be truly seen by someone you love?
(This was written in response to a Facebook challenge to post photos of the covers of 7 favorite books in 7 days with no commentary. Clearly, I’ve broken the no commentary rule–shocker! I’m not as compliant as I once was and tend not to follow rules that seem arbitrary. Who says the 7 days have to be in a row? And why 7? Not sure how many I’ll do. Feel free to nominate yourself for the challenge.)