Life is short, and the days pass quickly, especially in winter, when we wake up and come home in darkness. My perennials have been stricken by the frost; they appear to have been caught totally off-guard, their leaves curling up with blackened edges. A carpet of red dogwood leaves fills up half of the front yard. I am loath to rake them.
A family of finches is trying to nest in our wall-mounted mailbox. I hear them landing on the metal lid in the morning and catch them poking their heads in the side. They’ve amassed a small collection of building supplies in the mailbox: tiny twigs, bits of green moss, skeins of grass. I’m curious to see how far they can get with this project, what with the daily disruptions from the mailman.
Regular fires in the living room, surrounded by our books and antsy German shepherds, keep the spirits bright. We are getting a new front door installed the week after Thanksgiving, and I remember it eagerly every morning as I curse the hated storm door. But we are lucky, to have warmth and share words with one another.
“My favorite part is connecting the ideas. The best connections are the ones that draw attention to their own frailty so that at first you think: what a poor lecture this is—the ideas go all over the place and then later you think: but still, what a terrifically perilous activity it is . . . How light, how loose, how unprepared and unpreparable is the web of connections between any thought and any thought.” — Anne Carson, “Uncle Falling,” Float
Thoughtful conversation does not happen easily. I admire and envy people who can speak fluidly, in full sentences with fleshed-out ideas. I speak haltingly. I hedge. I go back on what I previously established; I come out with an opinion too quickly. But this quote from Carson makes me feel a little better. If even Anne Carson feels that the web of connections between thoughts is unprepared and unpreparable, then maybe I’m not so alone.
Still, I’d like to be more intentional. I’d like to use better words.
I did not appreciate Sebald in Austerlitz, but I appreciate him now, greatly, in The Rings of Saturn. It is dreamy and rich and full of life.
Something I dislike: Going to a party in which the men only speak to the men and the women only speak to the women.
I’m going to hazard a generalization here, but this happens far more often when we’re in our Christian circles than when we’re not. Christians, even modern ones like us, still mistrust the sexes. There’s a lot of gender baggage there, skating under the surface.
Non-Christian men, in my experience, tend to talk to me as if I were an equal, as if I could generate a conversation that would interest them as much as a conversation with my husband. They ask me about what I’m reading or what I think about some recent event or to weigh in on a dog breed dispute. This is not so with most churchgoing menfolk or womenfolk. The women talk in a corner about womanly things (probably babies), and the men talk at the mantel about manly things (sports, news, culture). God-fearing men will speak to me kindly, but only as long as they have to.
At gatherings such as these, I am grateful for female company, because it is safe and comfortable, but I am often looking longingly at the closed circle of male conversation. I could do without the football analysis, but they are often talking about ideas. They’re debating some theological point or evaluating some political story. I want to talk about ideas! I don’t mind hearing about people’s children—I love my friends’ children—but I like a healthy mix of baby stories + everyday philosophy.
I have guesses as to why we women, especially in these circles, shy away from discussing ideas. It’s not that we don’t have any ideas, but again, it’s the experience of growing up in and living within a highly gendered culture. We’re wired to take care of things, whether it’s our houses or spouses, besties or babies. Caregiving, more often than not, leaves little room or energy for theory-making. And so we talk about the people or things we look after: our jobs, our kitchens, our children. We leave the debates to men, who have that kind of mental leisure.
I am perpetually frustrated by this division, but I accentuate it in my own way, too. I like talking about my charges with other women. I like taking care of my house and my incorrigible dogs. And I will always love—and preference—the company of women. But I also like talking to men. Like any restless animal, I want a diversity of conversation. I want to talk about diapers and cryptocurrencies. I want to discuss recipes for homemade cleaning products and half-baked defenses of predestination. I dislike feeling excluded or relegated to only one sphere.
And so I try to do my part, whenever I host dinner parties or gatherings, to mix company, to seat women next to and across from men, to create a space for conversation that can involve everyone at the table. We could learn a great deal from each other if we would take the time.
It’s been a very slow year for me with my calligraphy business, somewhat intentionally, and I’ve been really happy about it. It is a nice thing: To come home after working for eight hours and not have another two hours or more of work every night.
“The book was in her lap; she had read no further. The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark. The lines that penetrate us are slender, like the flukes that live in river water and enter the bodies of swimmers. She was excited, filled with strength. The polished sentences had arrived, it seemed, like so many other things, at just the right time. How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?” — James Salter, Light Years
Sweet, sad Pyrrha, my older dog, has been in a lot of pain lately, and it’s incredible to me how much this has affected my well-being. I feel this pit of dread in my stomach when I think of her, whenever I hear her whine, whenever I let her out in the morning or look over and see her ears pinned back to her head. (It’s probably her hips, which is almost an inevitable ailment with German shepherds, but I’ll take her to the vet next week for a more in-depth assessment.) Just today, I was trying to tell Guion I was worried about her while pumping gas, on our way to work, and these fat tears were rolling down my face. Ugh. She’ll be OK. It’s me that might not be. Emotions! Hate them.
Anyone who knows me well knows that I go through seasonal obsessions. I decide to learn everything I can about a particular topic, and then I move on to the next topic.
This past season, my obsession was skincare science. (Who can say where these things come from? The prior season, it was native plants.) I spent untold hours reading articles, peer-reviewed papers, blogs, reviews, and ingredient dictionaries. I still don’t really understand chemistry, but I now have a decent grasp of the science behind what you put on your face.
So, buckle up: Here are the seven most important things I’ve learned.
1. Sunscreen every damn day.
Even in the winter. Even if you don’t like it. You have to wear sunscreen. It doesn’t matter if you use antioxidants and moisturizers and the whole shebang: If you don’t wear sunscreen, everything else you’re putting on your face has been rendered worthless.
There are two types of sunscreen: physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens physically block the sun and are usually composed of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Chemical sunscreens absorb the sun and are also known as organic sunscreen. Both work; it depends on what your skin prefers.
SPF matters. Your daily SPF should be at least 30 (broad spectrum, protecting you against both UVA and UVB rays). Anything much over 50 isn’t really giving you additional protection, so don’t go crazy and think that SPF 150 will protect you from the sun’s rays for all eternity. Chill.
Finding an excellent sunscreen is The Great Quest for all skincare adventurers. It is very difficult, and you will fail many times along the way. Thankfully, there are many others walking this perilous path who have written great reviews; this is a nice place to start, and here is a very helpful overview about how to wear sunscreen well and why it matters.
Favorite sunscreens I’ve tried
Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Liquid Daily Sunscreen, SPF 70 (I know that the 70 is overkill, but the composition is excellent and it layers beautifully)
Olay Complete Daily Defense All Day Moisturizer with Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin, SPF 30 (Olay needs to COOL ITS JETS with the product naming; my fingers are so tired from typing that)
2. If you’re over 20 and you’re not using a retinoid, you might as well just end it all now.
Just kidding. I only found out about retinoids last year! But they are the powerhouse ingredient of skincare. There’s, like, nothing they can’t do: even your tone, texture; reduce acne and sun damage; lessen wrinkles and fine lines, etc. As Into the Gloss says:
“The results are almost too good: With regular use, retinoids promise to improve skin texture, wrinkles, sun damage, visibly enlarged pores, acne, and blackheads. Science can’t prove that retinoids will make you a more likeable person, but doesn’t hurt to try for that, too.”
Before you go crazy, here are some basic rules of thumb:
Start using retinoids gradually. Start using it just once a week until you build up a tolerance. Retinoids are known to cause irritation. I destroyed my moisture barrier by going crazy with retinoids, so don’t be like me. Go slow.
Use a retinoid or retinol product at night. There’s some evidence to indicate that retinoids are rendered useless when exposed to sunlight.
You only need a small amount. Slapping on more product doesn’t make it work better.
Don’t give up! Retinoids take weeks, like 8-12 weeks or even longer, to start making a difference. The biggest mistake people make with retinoid is quitting too soon. Don’t be like those people. Fight the good fight.
Um, what are you waiting for?
Favorite retinoid products
The Ordinary Granactive Retinoid 2% Emulsion. There’s really nowhere else you should look, IMHO, for a retinoid. This is the most potent, gentle, AND affordable thing on the market. I feel like I should buy it in bulk. I’ve been using this one for about 5 months now, and it’s a dream. Never caused me any irritation and my fine lines and skin texture have improved dramatically after months of faithful use. I’m in love and I don’t care who knows it!
Differin. I didn’t have a bad reaction to Differin; I just preferred the texture of The Ordinary’s product, so that’s what I’m using. Differin is also cheap and now available in drugstores without a prescription. It’s strong (you only need a pea-sized amount for your whole face), and it may cause you to purge (i.e., break out even more) at first.
3. Don’t trust product claims: Read and understand ingredients.
Everyone is trying to sell you something. If there is anything Americans need to learn, it is this.
Companies will say literally anything to get you to buy stuff; they will promise you the moon and invisible pores in just one week.
Trust no one. Instead, school yourself on some skincare science and cosmetic ingredients.
This is very exhausting if you are not a chemist, but again, the internet is Full of Wonders. I’ve learned so much about what to look for and what to avoid after just a few hours of education. Resources below.
Semi-related caveat emptor: Don’t get sucked into the popular myth that all “natural” beauty products are better for your face. There ARE a lot of natural ingredients that are awesome for your skin, but a lot of “natural” cosmetics companies have poor formulations that are not well tested, not backed by research, and/or do next-to-nothing for your skin. Some natural products are downright damaging on your sweet little face (e.g., lemon, vinegar, essential oils, coconut oil if you’re acne prone, etc.). Step away from the pantry. Trust science and solid formulations. (There are some “natural” brands I love, like Yes To and Derma E, and there are also many natural brands that are just overpriced garbage.)
Paula’s Choice: Ingredients dictionary: Don’t recognize an ingredient? Look it up here! This is a fantastic place to get thorough, scientific, and yet understandable explanations for which ingredients are great and which will murder your precious epidermis.
Beautypedia: Take some reviews with a grain of salt, but in general, this is a pretty trusty place to get science-based reviews of beauty products. This site is the brainchild of Paula Begoun, she of Paula’s Choice fame, who is worshipped (and sometimes decried) by skincare enthusiasts the world over.
CosDNA: Don’t get scared about the Chinese. This is a crowd-sourced database where people can analyze the ingredients of a million cosmetics products. The system then flags common irritants or inadvisable ingredients.
4. Respect the pH of your face.
If, like me, you have a problem with breakouts and texture, and swing between dry and oily skin, balancing the pH of your face is crucial.
Your skin’s natural pH is about 5.5. Many popular cleansers and products, however, have pH levels that fluctuate in wild directions on either end of the scale (lemon, for example, has a pH of 2; many foaming cleansers have a pH of 9).
The most important components of this lesson are to choose the right cleanser and hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
Use cleansers with solid ingredients that have a pH between 4 and 6; 5 is ideal. Many popular cleansers are really harsh, which I was surprised to discover. Oil-based cleansers can’t be pH tested, and I love them. They’re super gentle and not stripping, so I heartily recommend them as well. Here’s a place to start to determine the pH of your cleanser, using the crowd-sourced genius of the web.
Favorite cleansers (all with good ingredients and low pH)
Fun fact: Drinking water is great, but it really doesn’t do much to hydrate your face. (At least, there’s little evidence that it makes a difference.) Instead, commit to high-powered hydrators and moisturizers every day. A common misconception is that people with oily skin don’t need moisturizers. They do; I do. Balance your skin’s overproduction of oil by keeping it balanced and moisturized. Every day!
Hada Labo Gokujyun Hydrating Lotion. Miraculous stuff! It’s like a hydrating toner that turns into a super-light moisturizer. Incredibly affordable and immediately effective; I put this on my face twice a day, every day, and it’s helped me tremendously with hydration. The bottle will also probably last me a year.
Benton Snail Bee High Content Steam Cream. I’m in love with this weird-smelling stuff packed with snail slime. Powerful ingredients, and you only need a tiny amount to cover your whole face with goodness. It’s the last step of my nightly routine.
Glossier Priming Moisturizer. I’m not enamored with this moisturizer, but it’s been working well for me for the past few months. I imagine I’ll need something heavier in the winter, because it’s very light, but it delivers what it promises.
5. Exfoliate with acids instead of with bits of rock.
Exfoliation is a critical part of having a smooth, even complexion, but I had no idea that you could exfoliate chemically. Physical exfoliation—harsh scrubs that everyone used as a teen and still can’t put down, rotating face brushes—can work too, but you’re at a much higher risk of damaging your skin. Korean women, the ruling goddesses of skincare, rarely, if ever, use physical exfoliants and they have perfect skin, so I’m listening to them. Instead, be like a Korean goddess and exfoliate chemically, with acids!
There are two kinds of acids that are great for your face: alpha hydroxy acids (AHAs) and beta hydroxy acids (BHAs). I have worked both into my routine, but I am trying to help myself reintroduce them gradually, because they’re potent and I freaked my skin out a bit at first.
Paula’s Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid. When you start reading skincare blogs, this is THE most-mentioned holy grail product in the acids space. Everyone raves about it. My advice: Go slow! Don’t be like me. Start once a week and then increase use based on how your skin tolerates it.
Your face needs vitamins too! Antioxidant-rich serums and moisturizers are an important step toward healthy, glowing skin. Vitamins and antioxidants can be a little tricky, because there are so many of them, and sometimes they don’t play well with others (especially the acids), but they have tons of benefits. I’ve worked a few favorites into my normal routine.
Favorite antioxidant serums
Mad Hippie Vitamin C Serum. I’ve done more reading about vitamin C than any other skincare product because vitamin C is (a) really great for your face, but (b) really difficult to get right in the formulation. The big problem is that it’s very unstable (i.e., it oxidizes, or goes bad, rapidly), and it often does not mix well with other products. That’s why people like this Mad Hippie serum, because it’s a more stable form of the vitamin, mixed with the super-beneficial ferulic and hyaluronic acids. Here’s an incredibly persuasive review of the stuff.
Glowing reviews are seductive. We’ve all been there: rushing out to buy something a friend told you was amazing, only to be sorely disappointed when it doesn’t work for you (or causes a pizza-level breakout).
The primary thing I’ve learned in my skincare voyage is what works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. You may hate a lot of stuff that I love, and that’s OK. Every face is different!
Learn to love and respect the skin you have. Heed the messages it sends you.
And this, my friends, ends the skincare saga. For now.
Disclaimer: I was not paid or asked to say any of these nice things about these products. This is all from the goodness of my skincare-obsessed heart and depressed wallet.
On the precipice of 30, I am learning how to enjoy for enjoyment’s sake. L’art pour l’art.
In my youth, I felt I had to master anything I loved. But then, inevitably, my inability to master a thing diminished my passion for it. For instance, I loved ballet. I loved watching ballets, studying ballerinas. I took ballet lessons as a girl, and then, as a young adult, read Apollo’s Angels and took two beginner’s classes. I was, and still am, a terrible dancer. I am neither strong nor flexible and I have none of the free courage of movement that dancers require. My inability to master ballet itself dimmed my love of the art form. My ballet slippers collect dust in a drawer upstairs; I have forgotten all of the warm-up stretches I used to try every morning. It is a sad and frustrating conclusion to a brief flicker of interest. I never thought I’d become the next Margot Fonteyn, but I expected more from myself. I let myself down quickly.
I’ve been thinking about this false exchange in one particular realm lately. I have loved fiction since I was a child and still do. I read, on average, 50 to 60 novels every year. I study novelists; I drink up their Paris Review interviews; I am obsessed with the craft. And yet, despite all of this, I do not think I can write fiction. I keep trying and loathing myself.
Maybe I will get over it; maybe I won’t. Maybe I will finally write that thing that has been rattling around in my head for years. But either way, I am now repeating to myself the fact that love and mastery do not have to go hand in hand. I can love a cello concerto without ever having to pick up or know anything about the instrument itself. I can adore Italian film without having to learn key phrases. I can devour fiction without having to write a novel. It’s a little freedom I am giving myself.
“Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.” — Robert Penn Warren
I do not think I will ever be in the mood to read Don Quixote. Can I take it off my to-read list, where it has been languishing for seven years?
A month after the rally of hatred, our parks are still in turmoil. The Confederate statues are covered up with gigantic trash bags in the morning; in the evening, an unauthorized group of men is tearing them down (which we witnessed last night, walking back to our car). Insipid tourists pose for photos, cheesing in front of the Lee statue, which irritates me to no end. (It’s such an insensitive and weird impulse, to want to pose with this now-infamous statue, which you never would have cared about, much less noticed, before a woman died in the street.)
One thing that has comforted me lately is the presence of excellent local journalists—namely, Jordy Yager. We heard him speak in a panel of other journalists on the topic of race and racism in the news, and I was so impressed with and grateful for his deep grasp of Charlottesville, its history, and the white supremacy that controlled and still controls so many of its institutions. There is still much to be done, but there are many who are fighting the good fight for the long haul.
The past year has caused me to stop following the news with such voracious interest. I learn about things piecemeal; I look further into them if I am interested. But I no longer try to read everything that is happening. I am over hot takes; I am over the outrage machine. I have books to read and dogs to walk and friends to eat with. And, in spite of it all, the earth melting and the bombs falling, I am happier than I was a year ago.
The weather has been in that unspeakably gorgeous middle ground lately: the humidity is fading away and the air feels light, burnished, sweet.
Ah, how much easier my life would be without these two German shepherds, and also how much sadder.
“To notice is to rescue, to redeem; to save life from itself.” — James Wood, The Nearest Thing to Life
Currently reading: The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt (which inspired me to start trying to read short stories in Japanese again; it is taking me an embarrassingly long time and yet I feel uplifted and exhausted by it); Sanctuary, William Faulkner; A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin.
If you were following the news in the US this weekend, you know that Charlottesville, our little town, became an epicenter for a terrifying rally of white supremacists, Nazis, alt-right instigators, and domestic terrorists from across the country. One woman was killed in an act of terrorism straight out of the ISIS playbook, and 19 more were seriously injured.
We live less than a mile from Emancipation Park, shown above, which was the center of the violence and rage. Our church is right across the street from this park. Since Saturday, we’ve been decompressing for hours on end, like many of our neighbors and friends.
In the aftermath, the most unsettling quote I have read came from University of Virginia alum and Nazi agitator Richard Spencer, who said: “Your head’s gonna spin, how many times we’re going to be back here . . . We’re going to make Charlottesville the center of the universe.”
My stomach fills up with dread when I read those words. I pray that it won’t be true, that days like Saturday don’t become commonplace in our town.
And yet it jars us all out of our complacency. We realize we’re not inoculated from hatred; it breathes and grows right under our feet, right next door. Charlottesville has a dark history of racism that it covers in a veneer of prestigious history and genteel Southern charm. In my bubble, on my street in a hippie neighborhood, it is easy to believe that we don’t have a problem with racism. Clearly, we do.
“If we are to be blindsided by history, it will probably be the consequence not of unresolved disputes but of unexamined consensus.” — Marilynne Robinson, “Value,” in The Givenness of Things
So, what’s to be done?
If ending white supremacy is the goal, tweeting about it shouldn’t be my primary action. The older I get, the more I am convinced that tweeting about racism and white supremacy doesn’t do much, if any, good. Hearts and minds aren’t changed by social media posts. The internet just serves up our own opinions, whatever they are, and calcifies them. Facebook doesn’t soften our hearts—or change the minds shrouded with hate that need to be changed.
If the echo chamber of the internet doesn’t have concrete solutions, where else should we look? Here are a few actions that I’ve been thinking about lately.
Stay in your church or whatever community you belong to. Stay and do the hard work there of talking about white supremacy. Don’t leave because discussions aren’t happening at the pace you want; start the discussions yourself. Don’t wait for someone else to.
Talk to people. Talk to your relatives who voted for Trump. Withholding judgment, listen to them. (I find this particularly hard to do, but I’m learning that it’s vitally important if we are ever going to be able to get through to someone.) Ask them questions. Lots and lots of questions.
Form relationships with people whose opinions you find repulsive. This, especially, is the primary way to create significant change in our communities. It has to start at the very small, very local, very intimate level. One person at a time.
Starting with myself. I hope I can become less horrible, in the wake of all of this, and be more gentle and gracious. It is difficult and seemingly endless work, but I hope and pray Charlottesville is in it for the long haul.
Fam came for the weekend, for Mom’s birthday, for kayaking down a very low river and for visiting a winery and Monticello. Time with them is always very good; it always goes by too quickly.
I used to keep much more fluid and interesting blog elsewhere. I wrote about people and events as if I was writing in a private paper diary. It’s a little shocking to me now, rediscovering my late high school and college blog, but I also think I was a better writer back then. Sure, I was self-righteous and affected, but it was far more scintillating. Now, when I look at this thing, which I have maintained over the course of seven or eight years, my mind feels empty. I have nothing, it seems, to say.
Things I enjoyed reading online
20 Ideas on Marriage, The Book of Life. I found all of this incredibly readable, heartening and true.
For the past seven years, I have been in a serious book club with some delightful people at my church. I am the youngest member by a few decades. Once a month, we sit politely around a large table in the church library and discuss classic literature (mostly fiction). We conclude our comments in precisely one hour. We do not eat or drink anything (water in paper cups is sometimes proffered), and we do not talk much about our personal lives. The book is what matters. It is the most pleasant, no-nonsense book club I can imagine.
We grouse at each other about our literary likes and dislikes. We’re not afraid to speak strongly about our feelings. By this point, we know each others’ preferences quite well. They make fun of me for my absurd love of Woolf and Nabokov, neither of whom they enjoy much, and my strong distaste for Dickens; they’re always trying to put him on the ballot. I make fun of them for casting moral judgments on characters or writing off a novel because some heroine had a bad attitude.
I inherited administrative control of the book club after it was started by a young teacher (or perhaps a lawyer) who eventually moved away. Following his original intent, we aim to only read “classics” (although the meaning of that term vacillates), and we vote on books we want to read and plan our reading calendar about two years in advance. When we take recommendations for the next slate of books, I create a ballot that has an equal number of male and female authors. I learned somewhat early that if I didn’t do this, we would read books by men 90% of the time.
The idea of a classics book club is very appealing to people. Church folk come up to me all the time and say they want to join, that they’ve seen the list and want to read all those books they “should” have read but never got around to. I maintain the email list, and people frequently email me and ask to be added to the list. The list now has almost 100 names on it. But, month after month, there are only six of us who show up on a regular basis. The Core Group. It used to make me feel a little disenchanted, this contrast between aspirational and actual readers, but I have come to depend on The Core Group. I am deeply content. I am, of course, always happy to have new members, but I am also happy with the solid six.
For a recent book club discussion, I bought a copy of The Tempest at a used bookstore downtown. The kindly shop owner asked me if I was in school. I told him that I wasn’t and that I was buying a paperback copy of the play for a book club I was in.
“Oh, my,” he said. “A serious book club. You don’t hear about many of those these days. So many people read such drivel.”
I nodded. I find it so pleasant, to take such a small thing as reading so seriously, and to have six other people in my life who feel similarly.
“’The best piety is to enjoy—when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates.’”
— Will Ladislaw in Middlemarch, George Eliot
I can’t read too many articles about climate change because I get too paranoid and sad. (I start feeling like John B. McLemore, I really do.) I am inspired to keep planting native plants and do my small part where I can, walking to work and being less trash-y, but I do feel a profound sense of sadness when I think about Earth. We have such a beautiful planet. We are so fortunate in so many ways. Guion and I were sitting on the back deck in the evening, being slowly devoured by mosquitoes and watching the blush-pink clouds sweep past, and I said, “I don’t want to watch the Earth die.” And he replied, “We probably won’t have to. That’s the lot of the next generation.”
That’s the rub, isn’t? It’s like having to deal with two facts of mortality: your own and the planet’s. Facing one death is enough of an existential challenge. I think this is why it is so easy for us, the people living now, to be complacent about our dying planet (dying, at least, in the way that we know it). It’s too much to process, on top of our own death.
And so for now, the best piety is to enjoy. And be considerate of what we have and what the future may not have. We’re all going to be dead soon anyway.