On a quiet holiday season

Thanksgiving in the Pines

I still can’t read the news, because it makes me queasy, so it was nice to remove myself from a screen for a long weekend. We retreated for the Thanksgiving holiday to spend the time with Guion’s family, and it was very nice.

Thanksgiving in the Pines

One supreme benefit is Georgia. This is Georgia. She belongs to Guion’s parents, and she is probably the best dog who has ever lived. She really likes holding hands.

We enjoyed long conversations and memory-sharing at the dinner table; ate sumptuously; and took extensive warm-weather walks.

Thanksgiving in the Pines

(Guion also continues to be very good-looking.)

We are at peace, despite our increasingly doomed country. I let him get his first Christmas tree* of our marriage this year, and he is very happy about it. The morning after we put it up and decorated it, I found him sitting in the dark living room next to it, lights on, drinking his tea. I felt a surge of guilt for being such a Scrooge, for having crushed his childlike spirit for so many years. But we have it now. And Christmas joy permeates the house.

(*”Tree” is a grandiose term; the thing is barely 3 feet tall. My wifely generosity has limits.)

Thanksgiving in the Pines

Shakshuka by the fire

Fatniss Turkeydeen 2016Family is always a solace!

In times of general nationwide gloom, there will always be Fatniss Turkeydeen. (We were delighted to host Kelsey and Alex this past weekend for our Third Annual Fatniss, to celebrate Kelsey’s birthday, cram our gullets with good food, and watch an apocalyptic film.)

It is good to spend time together, as much as we can spare, even if it is loose and unstructured and mostly just punctuated by food and drink. Talking about people we once knew well. Sitting by the fire and having overly spicy shakshuka for breakfast. Walking the dogs on narrow sidewalks and musing about domestic architecture. (I’m thinking about this great little essay from the New York Times about the myth of quality time: There is no “quality” time. You just need time. Don’t put that kind of emotional pressure on time; we resist it.)

And now, for more feasting and more family time, we head into the Thanksgiving weekend.

Having met my reading goal for the year, I am going to take December slowly and start my second read of War and Peace (translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky). I am going to force myself to savor it. And allow myself the time to take as long as it takes. Read the dialogue in French before looking at the translation in the footnote. Re-read a whole page if I didn’t catch the gist the first time. Don’t worry about the fact that I still have 1,100 pages to go.

I want to read fewer books next year. I am so competitive with myself that I find it hard to slow down and dive into the long, complex things. I just want to tear through as many books of essays and short novels as I can. But this is a bad orientation to literature. I am trying to fix it.

Here is a photo of Pyrrha, taking herself seriously:

November home life

I don’t know where to begin

Nature therapy day

How deeply I looked forward to celebrating our first woman present; how sincerely I dreaded the other outcome, the one we now have.

I will only say a few things, because my filtered version of the internet is daily bursting at the seams with astonished essays, angry stances, assignments of blame, and other iterations of deserved and palpable grief. I am right there with it all. But I have had to turn away from it, if only to preserve my sanity. That is what we did on Sunday; we left our screens and went to the woods with the dogs.

Nature therapy day

Some thoughts on surviving the next four years.

  • Celebrate the tiny things. I went to the library book sale this weekend, and this thought actually ran through my head: “At least I can still read. At least we can find solace in books still.” It sounds silly to say out loud, much less to write, but it was sincerely comforting to me at that moment.
  • Champion the women and people of color in your life. We need each other now more than ever.
  • Spend time with mute creatures. Like babies and dogs. They have no idea what is going on and in this way can be infinitely calming.
  • Make art. In whatever form most calls to you, create something with your mind or your hands. Artists tend to make their best work under the shadow of frightening regimes.
  • Support nonprofits who are doing the hard work every day. I’m giving to New City Arts Initiative, the ACLU, Oceana, Planned Parenthood, and the NAACP. There are hundreds and hundreds of amazing organizations all over this troubled country who need us. Find one that speaks to you.
  • Kiss your loved ones.
  • Turn it off when it gets too much. Go outside. Read a novel or a random Emily Dickinson poem. Write your grandfather a letter.

(Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing)

The good:

My beloved sister and brother-in-law are coming this weekend for our annual feast. I love my new job, my new teammates, the things I get to think about at work. Our dogs are stupid but were so happy and carefree on our hike. This beautiful golden basin of a city that we live in. Sumi ink. Liturgy. Guion.

(My soul also is greatly troubled)

A piece of a wasted hour

October with Wei
Virginia is perfect this time of year. (A vineyard nearby.)

“Still, a great deal of light falls on everything.” — Vincent van Gogh, in a letter

Annals of Everyday Sexism, No. 1,204

I told him some about my new job and what I would be doing and how I was so excited about it, about the work itself and about all of the new challenges and opportunities it would bring.

“It sounds like Guion and I would be better at that job than you would be,” he said as soon as I finished.

I blinked. “No,” I said. “I don’t think so.”

“Really?”

“Yes,” I said, and then with uncharacteristic firmness, “I am going to be great at this job.” My blood was feeling hot in my face.

He furrowed his brows, implying he didn’t believe me. But for once, I had a retort ready.

“Just because I’m not constantly talking about myself and how great I am all the time doesn’t mean I don’t have any skills,” I said, turning away.

“Oh, you’re adorable,” he said, in the purest of patronizing tones. And all this despite the fact that he is several years younger than me.

(You are not surprised when it happens, this kind of thing, because it has been happening all your life, but you are now almost 30 and ready to say something about it when it does. To name a thing, to call it what it is, to not hedge anymore.)

That said, I just finished the first week at my new job, and I am feeling all of the good feels: happy, grateful, fortunate, enlightened, challenged, hopeful, thrilled, capable, eager.

“Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mystery probed?” — Annie Dillard

I just finished The Abundance, which I thought was a new collection of Annie Dillard essays because I didn’t read the subtitle carefully. It isn’t; it’s almost entirely old stuff, repackaged. But her old stuff is still beautiful and challenging and mind-expanding, and I was happy to re-read it. If I ever were to aspire to nonfiction in this way, Dillard is all that I could ever hope to be. Her boundless curiosity, her lyricism, her patience, her directness. It will always be difficult to convince me than any other American essayist can surpass her.

Up next on the reading docket: A big haul from the library book sale (somewhat thick, heady European novels that have been on my list for a long time + James Baldwin + John McPhee + Simone de Beauvoir’s short stories) and the Complete Stories of Clarice Lispector (I’m scared).

Night and day

I recently found my 100-page diary (titled Night and Day), which I maintained in a password-protected Word doc from the summer of 2006 to the summer of 2009. It’s solid-gold humiliation material. So much moony behavior; so deadly serious most of the time, too. I was very dramatic about boys, of course, and there was a lot of hyper-piety in there, too, along with some vapid musings about what I was reading and thinking about. It’s tremendously entertaining and it wants to make me bite all my nails off. 

Ten years hence, it is nice to be older, to be relatively self-aware. I no longer look at myself as this grandstanding literary heroine. I feel very subdued and normal and problematic. But I still wonder if I will feel a similar sense of shame when I am 38 and I stumble on this blog.

(Probably.)

Original 6
Original 6 with Scoop. (We have a habit of stealing neighbors’ dogs.)

My life is so good right now, and I wouldn’t change anything about its domestic arrangement, but I was thinking about how fun and lively it was when it was just the nuclear family: the four siblings and Mom and Dad, at home together all the time. We had a really good time together, the Original 6. We were noisy and all-consuming and imaginative. We spent a lot of time outdoors, and if we were indoors, we were dressing up in costumes and building sofa forts and Lego universes. Mom and Dad gave us this childhood that I recall as this unbroken reel of happiness. I shared a big bedroom (the Harem) with Kelsey and Grace during my last years at home, and it was the most fun and the most annoying all at once. We were always in each other’s business.

(I’ve been digitally archiving piles of family photos, and it’s making me feel nostalgic.)

This rush of nostalgia helps me understand, for the first time, how sad my family was when I went to college. Being the eldest, I was the first to go; I was elated and I couldn’t even fathom why they were so gloomy. But I understand a bit of it now. They weren’t going to miss me (I was a skinny tyrant) — they were mourning the loss of wholeness of the family.

It is necessary and good that children grow up and want to leave home. Can you imagine the hellishness if we all still lived with our parents and tried to replicate our childhood relationships with them and our siblings, forever? I recognize this fully. But I still like to indulge in that sweet sadness of remembering what was. It is good to remember and to be happy for what you shared together.

Farsons
Original 4 on Kelsey’s 9th birthday.

Even if not a soul sees one

Kirkstone Pass
Zooming through the Lake District this past June.

The weather turns just a few degrees and instantly my thoughts turn to cashmere.

I just finished the exciting, bizarre, and beautiful Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, a Heian-era (circa 1000 AD!) courtesan with a sophisticated ear for poetry. She’s kind of like the ancient Japanese version of Lydia Davis, if you ask me. Micro-fiction-like fragments and lots of mundane things that get on her nerves. She is an utter delight and the perfect distraction from this miserable election. A sampling:

16: Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster

Sparrows feeding their young. To pass a place where babies are playing. To sleep in a room where some fine incense has been burnt. To notice that one’s elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy. To see a gentleman stop his carriage before one’s gate and instruct his attendants to announce his arrival. To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.

It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of rain-drops, which the wind blows against the shutters.

And so, in homage:

Things that are unpleasant

Meeting someone in person whom you only “know” online and having to start a conversation with him/her. Stepping in something wet while wearing socks. Donald Trump saying, “No one respects women more than I do.” Watching Christians contort themselves to try to defend Trump. Christians defending Trump at all. A whiff of spoiled milk. The way a dying spider’s legs curl into its body after it has been stepped on.

I cut my hair extremely short (for me), as a celebratory gesture, and I think I like it. It felt risky. It changes my behavior. It makes me feel like I have to comport myself differently now.

We know we are very special

Rijksmuseum
The library in the Rijksmuseum.

One of the few things that makes me look forward to child-rearing is reading to my (hypothetical) children. I am going to read them everything. I think about my beloved Great Aunt Lib, who was my pen pal for many years. She raised these two brilliant children, and family lore holds that she spent a year reading aloud to them from War and Peace when they were still small.

I hope to have children who want to read so much that I cannot keep up with them. That I have to turn them loose in the library, as my mother did, and say, “Good luck, Godspeed, see you in a few hours.”

How many of you have parents who are voting for Trump? Or, how many of you have parents who are not voting at all? How scared should we all be right now?

It’s taking just about all of my willpower to resist the urge to turn this into a political screed. But I am tired. The election is on my mind all day, every day. Before I fall asleep, I turn to Guion and say often, “Guion, fix it,” à la Zuzu to George Bailey. As if he could somehow harness that white maleness, wave a wand, and make it all go away. We are just about a month away from the election, and I feel a plain sense of terror. Mixed also with sadness. How did things get this bad?

At least we still have Lydia Davis. And Goodreads. And Solange Knowles. And dogs.

We know we are very special. Yet we keep trying to find out in what way: not this way, not that way, then what way?

— Lydia Davis, “Special”

Multitudinous selves

Day two
From our second day in Paris; magical mini-canal in some park.

(It’s the most cliché thing, but re-reading Proust makes me feel like I should live in Paris. We should all live in Paris. It’s the only city, right?)

Totally blissed out, throwing so much shade #gsdofinstagram #germanshepherd #doglife #shade
Eden, on Saturday.

I think about dogs a lot; probably 30% of my waking life is thinking about dogs. And I have two extremely high-maintenance dogs who are constantly underfoot, and I write a dog blog, and YET, whenever I see photos of dogs in a news story or a live dog walking down the street, my first thought, every single time, is: I need MORE dogs in my life. I inherited this brokenness from my father. I asked him once why he thought we were both so obsessed with dogs, to an almost debilitating degree. And he answered quickly, without thinking: “It’s probably because our parents didn’t love us enough.”

Walt Whitman lived at peace with the fact that he contradicted himself. He said that he contained multitudes. Proust asks the next question. How much of one’s multitudinous self can a person reveal or embody at one time? The first answer is plain common sense; it all depends. It depends on many things, from chance and volition to memory and forgetting. The second answer is categorical. No matter how we go about it, we cannot be all of ourselves all at once. Narrow light beams of perception and of recollection illuminate the present and the past in vivid fragments. The clarity of those fragments is sometimes very great. They may even overlap and reinforce one another. However, to summon our entire self into simultaneous existence lies beyond our powers. We live by synecdoche, by cycles of being. More profoundly than any other novelist, Proust perceived this state of things and worked as an economist of the personality.

— Proust’s Way, Roger Shattuck

Discussing Swann’s Way with my book club next week, and I am doing an unnecessary amount of prep to lead the discussion, but I love it so much; I love being steeped in it.

I feel really happy and hopeful and distractible. I am trying to write more, and it is going mostly badly, but I feel free about it. And maybe that, that sense of liberty, has been the goal all along.

Best books I read this summer

The best books I read (and re-read) while living in Europe and then upon returning home.

May

Troubling Love

Troubling Love, Elena Ferrante. Creepy, sexy, unsettling; filled that Ferrante need in my life.

Up from Slavery

Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington. Gripping and yet also very sad, to think about how grieved Washington would be if he saw America in its current state.

The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature

The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James. Really fascinating and super-relevant, even today.

Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf. I cannot even begin to describe what a sincere pleasure it was to read this novel, for the fifth time, in the city of its occurrence. London! “Like the pulse of a perfect heart, life struck straight through the streets.”

My Struggle: Book 4

My Struggle, Book 4, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Teenage boys are terrible things.

Hunger

Hunger, Knut Hamsun. Read the entire thing, in a feverish terror, on an old Kindle on a runway (waiting for our plane to take off for Berlin).

The Way We Live Now

The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope. Apparently, not much has changed in England: Everyone is still obsessed with class.

June

The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays, James Wood. James Wood makes me feel good about myself, because he validates all of the opinions I already hold (e.g., Paul Auster is shallow and Lydia Davis, once married to Auster, is an absolute QUEEN).

Some Prefer Nettles, Junichiro Tanizaki. A small, beautifully written novel about the slow dissolution of a marriage.

Summer, Edith Wharton. In this short, under-read novel, Wharton pulls of a great trick of characterization. (I won’t tell you what it is.)

The Seagull, Anton Chekhov. Chekhov persists in perfection.

The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco. While it was hard to get Sean Connery out of my head, I enjoyed this; I was surprised by how academic it was.

July

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley. Fantastic portrait of a very complex and important American leader and activist. I regret it took me so long to read this one.

Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust; translation by Lydia Davis. A true delight to savor this one for the second time, in preparation for a book club discussion of it.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman. A gorgeously written and compelling portrayal of the tension between a Hmong family and Western medicine. Who is “right,” and what does that even mean in this context?

Persuasion, Jane Austen. Read for the second time. Such a mature and measured novel. Austen exhibits such impressive restraint.

In Defence of Dogs, John Bradshaw. Yeah, I was even able to read dog books while in London. This one is great.

Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, Evan Osnos. China is complicated! Like we all have known for a long time. But Osnos explores a variety of issues with skill and well-researched brevity.

August

The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector. Clarice Lispector wants to melt your brain. (Seriously. Prepare for a novel that will implant itself in your mind and keep feeding on you.)

The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois. Powerful and chastening, especially considering how many challenges America still has to overcome.

The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson. Magic and tremendously readable. Maggie Nelson covers a lot of ground here and holds everything with such admirable looseness.

Loving, Henry Green. A novel about people who don’t quite seem like people.

A Field Guide to American Houses, Virginia McAlester and Lee McAlester. If you have even a passing interest in domestic American architecture, this book will be a total delight.

The Association of Small Bombs, Karan Mahajan. An active and skillful novel about the intimate ramifications of terrorism.

What did you read and love this summer?

Putting things in order

Friday night

“I always liked to arrange things. I guess it’s my only real vocation. By putting things in order, I create and understand at the same time.”

The Passion According to G.H., Clarice Lispector

In a similar fashion, I am calmed and comforted by arranging. I feel a strong correlation between the appearance of my home and my mental state. But I like this extra component that G.H., in Lispector’s fashioning, adds: that order brings both the ability to create and understand. I have always felt this innately but never made the direct connection. I enjoy creating, but unlike stereotypical “creative types” (e.g., my sister, an artist who thrives amid piles and piles of objects), I have always needed the prerequisite of order. Otherwise, for me, there is no creation. There is no understanding.

There were a few famous novelists stalking around town last week. On the way home from the library the other day, I feel fairly certain that I saw our old landlord haranguing one of these novelists on a street corner. Old Landlord was talking and gesturing and Famous Novelist was listening silently, tight-lipped, while Old Landlord’s patient dog was sitting by a hydrant. I wanted so badly to pull over and eavesdrop. I don’t even know if I saw what I thought I saw, but I wanted to see it, and so now I have.

To end on a grave note: This is the only thing we should be talking about right now. Black lives matter. Say it every day.

And then, fellow whites, let us think about this for a moment, in humility.

I will state flatly that the bulk of this country’s white population impresses me, and has so impressed me for a very long time, as being beyond any conceivable hope of moral rehabilitation. They have been white, if I may so put it, too long; they have been married to the lie of white supremacy too long; the effect in the personalities, their lives, their grasp of reality, has been as devastating as the lava which so memorably immobilized the citizens of Pompeii. They are unable to conceive that their version of reality, which they want me to accept, is an insult to my history and a parody of theirs and an intolerable violation of myself.

— James Baldwin, “The Price May Be Too High” (1969)