Inscrutable titles

The backyard garden has become a bizarre Seussian jungle. Guion grew these giant elephant amaranth plants from seed. From seed! They are now between five to six feet tall.

“Do you ever feel lonely in your particular brand of Christianity?” I asked Guion last night, as we ate dinner on the back deck. The evening was mild, with scant humidity. The mosquitoes were out but I daresay as a reduced horde. We took our time with our food. We had been talking about the meteoric (terrifying, seemingly unflappable) rise of Donald Trump and then we took a turn toward religion. “What do you mean?” he asked. “I sometimes feel like I have more in common intellectually with agnostics or atheists than with mainstream Christians,” I said, with a fretting tone. “And what worries me more is, What if the mainstream version of Christianity really is true Christianity and I’m just clinging to this specific, progressive, grace-filled Christianity that I—and our church and Mockingbird—believe in, which isn’t real Christianity at all? Is that a problem? Do you ever worry about that?” He paused, took a sip of (weird, juicy) red wine, and said, “No. I don’t worry about that.” And so maybe I shouldn’t either.

Semi-related humbling observation/note to self: Abby, when you are eager to write off an entire swath of people, based around some media-generated stereotypes or some fervent book you just read, go meet a person from this group. Learn his name. Ask her what led her to be a part of this group. Imagine her at home, alone, with her thoughts, or him interacting with his dog in a tender way, or taking care of his mother. And let go of the judgment.

I love inscrutable, lyrical blog titles, if you can’t tell. There is usually no rhyme or reason to them; most often, they are plucked at random from the brain, frequently related to some musical phrase I have been privately enjoying.

“All I really want to do with my life is sit on the couch and eat Sabor de Soledad,” Jonathan told me recently. That about sums it up for me too.

An urban farm tragedy

Home and garden, May 2015
Our fenced garden area. Coop is on the right behind the shed.

On Friday afternoon at lunch, I went to check on our chickens. I could only find one in the fenced garden area, which was strange. All three of them are usually happily pecking around or hiding under the woodpile, especially during the heat of the summer. But I could only spot one, and she was hiding near the shed, curled up underneath the sprawling mint. This seemed odd, but I thought nothing of it. Sometimes they like to wander and do inscrutable chicken things.

An hour later, I went to check on them again, and once more, I could only find one. This time, she had migrated outside the fence to the shade of the neighbor’s boxwood. Still curious. Still couldn’t find the other two, but I couldn’t detect anything awry.

Two hours later. I opened the back door to let the dogs out, and I heard the horrible sound of avian screaming. Serious distress noises. I started cursing under my breath and booked it to the back of the yard.

Breathless, I rushed into the garden fence, looked left, toward the sound of the shrieking. There, to my horror, was an enormous, gorgeous red-tailed hawk on the ground a few yards from our fence. Eating one of our hens.

Red Tail Hawk.JPG
“Red Tail Hawk” by Kfearnside at en.wikipedia. Public domain. Not the killer of our hen, but I wanted a good photo to display how BIG and INTENSE this bird is.

(Insert many more defeated, sad-sounding curse words from me. Like, really sad, morose f-bombs.)

I lacerated my hand trying to open the gate. I scared the hawk away, but it was far too late for the hen. But her screaming sister, who was less than a foot away from the dining hawk, hidden in some brambles, was unscathed. I’m sure the hawk was just eyeing her casually under the foliage and saying, You’re next, my pretty. 

Guion mercifully came home right at this moment and retrieved the traumatized but unscathed hen from the brush. I was convinced at this point that we had only had one chicken left. But when we brought her back into the coop, her sister crawled out from under the shed, where she had apparently (intelligently) been hiding during the entire bloody ordeal.

Survivors Fumiko and Mayumi.
Survivors Fumiko and Mayumi.

So, now we have two, Fumiko and Mayumi. (We have decided that it was Chiye who died. We really can’t tell any of them apart.)

In all honesty, I am impressed that they lasted this long. Backyard chickens in this town seem to have a lifespan just slightly longer than goldfish. I expected a fox to get them first, because I’ve seen a few in the neighborhood. I didn’t anticipate a hawk. I was lulled into a sense of security by the hens’ constant access to the woodpile, the shed, and the coop, which all keeps them out of sight. (They free range during the day and then we lock them up in the coop at night.) Alas. Hawks also apparently like to target bantams because of how small they are. They are much easier to take down. In some ways, it was gratifying to see their beautiful killer. So many have lost chickens to unknown predators.

We are weighing options. I know murder is just part of the backyard chicken gambit, but I am still sad. You get attached, when you feed a creature every day and concern yourself with its livelihood on a daily basis. Should we let them free range again and risk it? A flock of two isn’t ideal; three is apparently the smallest recommended flock. Should we rehome them to a larger, more protected flock? Should we totally redesign the coop and build a giant wire structure so they can range in safety? Not really sure what tactic we’ll take at this point. We are somber, but we knew this day would eventually come.

The view from my window is a constant reminder

Front yard in July 2015
Daylilies in the front yard. July 2015.

“In my youth, I considered Cicero’s claim, that all a man needs to be happy is a garden and a library, utterly bourgeois, to be a truth for the boring and middle-aged, as far as possible from who I wanted to be. Perhaps because my own father was somewhat obsessed with his garden and his stamp collection. Now, being boring and middle-aged myself, I have resigned. Not only do I see the connection between literature and gardens, those small areas of cultivating the undefined and borderless, I nurture it. I read a biography on Werner Heisenberg, and it’s all there, in the garden, the atoms, the quantum leaps, the uncertainty principle. I read a book about genes and DNA, it’s all there. I read the Bible, and there’s the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. I love that phrase, “in the cool of the day,” it awakens something in me, a feeling of depth on sunny summer days that hold a kind of eternal quality, and then the winds from the sea come rushing in the afternoon, shadows grow as the sun sinks slowly on the sky, and somewhere children are laughing. All this in the cool of the day, in the midst of life, and when it’s over, when I’m no longer here, this view will still be. This is also what I see when I look out my window, and there’s a strange comfort in that, taking notice of the world as we pass through it, the world taking no notice of us.”

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, in Windows on the World, by Matteo Pericoli

Unbroken reel

Home (August 2015)
Living room in August. Fiddle-leaf fig is clearly hungry for more light.

One sign of people growing on each other: Once we get in the car and start driving home after a dinner or a party or some social function, we say some pat, predictable things about the event (“That was nice,” “the food was good,” etc.) and then we suddenly, almost simultaneously, say the exact same, small, specific observation to each other. “Wasn’t it strange the way that cat was nibbling on the ends of the rug?” “Absolutely!” “Didn’t you think his opinion about Mumford & Sons was surprisingly nuanced?” “Why, yes, I did; I thought the exact same thing.” This is perhaps, I think, one of the tiny reasons that people stay married, to have that comforting confirmation of one’s own observational debris.

Thanks to the recommendations of our friends Zaynah and Forrest, we have been watching “The Story of Film: An Odyssey” and taking notes on all of the important, beautiful films we haven’t seen and then lining them up on our queues. The melodramatic narrator drives me a bit crazy at times, but it’s been an excellent overview of the history and development of cinema as an art form. Along with Jonathan, I am feeling especially wild about Yasujiro Ozu. The fact that his complete oeuvre is on Hulu makes the subscription totally worth it. I want to steep myself in All Things Ozu.

I am interested in and appreciative of selfies. I think it’s only a matter of time before a book-length thesis on the Millennial mindset regarding self-preservation and self-documentation is published (if it hasn’t been already). But I won’t be writing it, because I am not especially adept at explaining why I like selfies, especially other people’s. I, for one, have never taken a good photograph of myself.

Face diary
Notes on your face. 14 August 2015.

But I sincerely like other people’s selfies, especially people I love. I don’t even mind the ones with poorly disguised motives. Here is a photo of myself looking my most luminous, my most attractive, etc. Those are most common. But I am especially interested in self-deprecating selfies. Here I am with my natural blue–black bags under my eyes. Here I am with baby vomit in my hair. 

I don’t know. I know I am making limited sense, but there is something cheerful to me about people posting selfies. Because the people who do are saying Here is my face. This is my body. I am happy with it. I suspend judgment. I applaud them quietly.

Late summer

#woolenmills #homesweethome #rivanna
Rivanna River, a few blocks from our house.

August! So blissful. This month, we have no travel and no house guests and thus time just to BE at home. We’re finishing little projects around the house and yard, planning some perfunctory hikes, and spending our free time reading, dining with friends, preventing the hens from brooding, and walking the dogs.

Primary emotions lately:

  • Compulsion for domestic order is high. I’ve realized that sweeping the entire main floor after I get home from work every day really helps me calm down and feel like my world is safe and good. Today, for instance, I am sincerely looking forward to cleaning and reorganizing my calligraphy studio. I have a supplies situation that looks and feels like it is spiraling out of control.
  • Related to that sensation, the desire to keep paring down my possessions, namely clothes and beauty products.
  • Heaviness of heart when I think about the obdurate brand of American racism; have been thinking a lot about Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which I think should be mandatory reading for all white Americans. I’ve also been thinking a lot about my very racially segregated community.
  • Desire to read more books. Desire to read all of the books that I own but haven’t read yet (rough estimate of 30 unread titles languishing on shelves).  Desire to read all the books in the public library, more or less.
  • Tenderness for my husband. Tenderness for the psychologically damaged Pyrrha. Marginal tenderness for the crazy Eden.
  • I am not ready to be cold all the time. Can’t summer stay a little bit longer?
  • Eager fear and excitement when I realize that our European summer is less than a year away now. (We will be living in London for three months next year. I’ll be working out of my company’s branch there, and Guion will get to come with me, because he can work from anywhere. Whee!)
Home (August 2015)
Dining room at midday.

Oh, still peeved

A minor incident from my youth, which should have been taken as a strong sign that I was destined to become a copy editor:

I was 16, and I was taking a composition class at the local community college for college credit. My teacher was a young-ish, brown-haired woman with a pleasant disposition, which is all I can remember about her, save for this one moment.

We had been assigned to write a dramatic retelling of a childhood memory. I wrote a heavy-handed, theatrical essay about the girls-only club I started in fourth or fifth grade and about the club’s tragic demise when I, the self-appointed president, stumbled upon my minions meeting in secret to make a unanimous decision to dethrone me. (I was, after all, a pigtailed tyrant.)

After the papers had been graded, the instructor called me to her desk at the end of the session. “This was excellent,” she said, “you got the highest grade in the class.” I beamed. “But I had to take off a point for a spelling error,” she said, raising her eyebrows and flipping to the offending page. I was astonished and crestfallen. “There,” she said, pointing to a sentence in a concluding paragraph. “You wrote, ‘O, the cruel injustice of mutiny!’ but it should be ‘Oh,’ with an H.” I blinked and nodded and took my paper.

But as soon as I got in the car, I raged audibly. Oh, with an H? Had this plebian never read any ode, any poem, any ancient drama?? Clearly, she didn’t get  it; clearly, she had never read literature. My fury knew no bounds.

The fact that this story is still vivid to me today, some 11 years later, is damning. O, the tyranny of the perfectionist child. O, the lack of grace for the classically uninformed. O, the inability to let the most minute things go.

70 years after Hiroshima

Hiroshima aftermath. Photo by the “Enola Gay” bomber pilot Paul Tibbets. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The second week of my home stay in Tokyo, in 2008, my host mother, Keiko, greeted me at the breakfast table with a large book. “Abby-san,” she said, “this is a book you should look at. It is important for you to see.” As I took it, I saw that it was a Japanese photographic history of Hiroshima, with horrific photographs and stories of the aftermath of the atomic bomb. I didn’t know what to say to her, except to bow slightly and say thank you and promise that I would read it.

My heart broke a little that she seemed to think that I had never seen these photos before or that I was unaware of what had happened in Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. The next morning, I told her thank you again for the book and said, gently, that we had seen some of these photos in history class in school. She raised her eyebrows slightly, in mild surprise, and then said, “Never forget them, Abby-san.” On this 70th anniversary of that evil day, I haven’t.

For those who are interested, John Hersey’s 1946 piece about Hiroshima in the New Yorker  is essential reading.

Favorite books from July

The best books I read in July (all fiction this month!):

Coup de Grâce

Coup de Grâce, Marguerite Yourcenar. This is the third novel of Yourcenar’s that I’ve read, and I’m increasingly convinced that she’s perfect. Her psychological analysis is unmatched. This tiny novel is narrated by an egotistical young Prussian who is in love/hate with a damaged and yet strong young woman.

My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love

My Struggle, Book 2, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Karl Ove. How’d you get to be so wonderful.

The Story of a New Name

The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante. If you can’t tell, summer 2015 is the year of dueling masterful series for me: Knausgaard and Ferrante, Ferrante and Knausgaard. I am reading them both breathlessly, in quick succession. This is book two of the Neapolitan Novels series, and it’s just as dazzling as the first, although a heckuva lot darker.

Victory Over Japan: A Book of Stories

Victory Over Japan: Stories, Ellen Gilchrist. I’d never heard of Gilchrist before, but this was a completely charming and engrossing series of stories featuring powerful, memorable Southern women in starring roles. A lovely summer read, actually. I am usually reading very seasonally inappropriate books, but I’d recommend this to someone for a beach vacation.

What was the best thing you read in July?

Previously:  Favorite books I read in March, April, May, and June.

Front yard, before and after

The (fuzzy) listing photo of our house, October 2013; when we saw it for the first time:


Front yard now, circa July 2015:

front yard, July 2015

Plants (and shutters!) make all the difference. I’m still scheming about how to improve the exterior. I desperately want a new front door (I can’t wait to toss that storm door), and I’d love to completely renovate the front stoop (get rid of that concrete and use slate slabs and beef up those skinny columns) and the old concrete front walk. So many plans, so few monies…

Habits of a habitual reader

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

Routines, habits, tics of an obsessive reader:*

*Noted not as recommendations for anyone else but rather for personal reflection on the cherished idiosyncrasies of my gravely, gravely Type-A self…

  • To mark passages worth remembering and writing down: In books I own, I make small brackets with a pen and note the page number on the last page of the book, often with a one- or two-word description of the passage. In library books, I use sticky plastic flags with a clear tab to mark a passage. The clear sticky tab is somehow very important to me; a normal sticky note won’t do.
  • I am in the library weekly and am on a first-name basis with the front-desk librarians. I always put books on hold; I never browse. I have never had an overdue book in the five years that I have lived here.
  • As soon as I add a new book to our library, I stamp the colophon with a rubber stamp that I had made, of my handwriting, that says “EX LIBRIS / Abby and Guion.” Eden has decided that this stamp is hers, and she has tried to eat it twice. Guion glued it back together, but it isn’t the same.
  • I am a bit precious with books as physical objects. I will yell at anyone who breaks a spine, bends a cover, or creases a page.
  • Books I am planning to read soon live in my nightstand; everything else is appropriately filed on the shelves (alphabetized by author surname within proper genre).
  • For the past two years, I have kept a running Google doc with reading notes, complemented by my physical notebook. I start a new doc for each year.
  • I have about two dozen reading lists (e.g., Pulitzer Prize winners, National Book Award, Book Critics Circle, Nobel laureates, Francine Prose and Mary Karr’s lists of books to be read immediately, etc.) on Google Drive, which I revisit from time to time.
  • One book perpetually lives on my nightstand and and two or three reside in the kitchen, for meal-time reading.
the ones that got away: oct.
The little independent bookstore I worked at in high school.

What are some of your habits while reading?