Spring has been good, life has been good; I have had little time to write here or to generate even mildly interesting topics.
Lately: Our families visited us on back-to-back weekends, and we had a marvelous time with everyone. Calligraphy work has been slow but steady. I read, of course, and talk to the dogs, of course. I apply sheet masks. I neglect to do any creative writing, even though I am in a wise and continually motivating writing group. I derive a deep sense of obsessive pleasure in watching my plants come back to life in the front yard. (My Japanese maple is out of control, but so is everything else, after all this rain.) I continue to love my new(ish) job. I think about London and our time there last year and sometimes feel a pang of sincere wistfulness (wist?).
In a brief, mortifying encounter at Trader Joe’s a few weeks ago, my age was finally impressed upon me.
Per usual, I had some bottles of wine in my cart, and the cashiers are generally persistent about asking for my ID. This afternoon, I had my ID out and ready to hand over. The cashier, a middle-aged man with a sparse beard, started ringing up items and putting them in my bag. He did not ask me for my ID, but I handed it to him in an automatic reflex, interrupting his movement of the avocadoes to the bag.
“Oh,” he said, “sure, I guess.” And he looked at my DOB with a quick, obligatory glance and then went back to ringing me up.
Well, then. I thought, blushing. That’s a tidy way to embarrass oneself. Because, I mean, clearly. I do not look under the age of 21. But it was nice to think that I did, for a time. To pretend like I was trying to sneak three bottles of beaujolais out of a Trader Joe’s, back to my sorority or whatever.
But alas. Age has marked my face. And I am OK with it. Really. After that flash of tiny humiliation, I am leaning into my last year of my twenties and learning to accept those wrinkles.
Winter is a time for burying yourself under a faux-fur blanket by the fireplace and disappearing into books while your German shepherds whine for attention. Here are the 10 best things I read this winter.
01. The Complete Stories, Clarice Lispector
The marvelous strangeness of Clarice Lispector is a never-ending delight. I read her Complete Storieswith deliberate patience, taking a full month, savoring and pondering each one. The delicious sorcery of Lispector is that she changes you. I found my actual decision-making patterns being shifted by her own incantatory, all-encompassing logic. In the excruciating darkness of the world, during which I still felt weighed down by the election, I read Lispector and thought, At least we still have this.
02. The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories, Joy Williams
No, I didn’t just love this because there’s a German shepherd on the cover. I’m utterly smitten with Joy Williams and with this collection of stories, which are incredibly strange and gorgeously written. The Visiting Privilegeis dense with delights, with characters who are at once familiar and foreign.
03. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
I devoted myself to re-reading War and Peace over the winter, and it was the perfect thing. It was my first time with Pevear and Volokhonsky’s celebrated translation, and it was as purely enjoyable as everyone says it is. It is immensely readable and spiritually nourishing. We may never have a genius like Tolstoy again. What a pleasure it is to live in a world where art like this exists and can be returned to again and again.
04. The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq, George Packer
If there’s only one book you read about America’s involvement in Iraq, it should probably be this one. George Packer writes an impressively incisive and concise history of America’s disastrous occupation of Iraq under the George W. Bush administration and presents all of the complexity of this grand failure with clarity and tact. Packer is a gift, and in these days of the Trump regime, we could all do more to study the mistakes presidents have made—and will continue to make—in the days to come.
05. A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams
This is the third time I’ve read this play, but every time feels like the first time. Don’t care if that sounds cliché; it’s true. It kills me every time. It’s a superbly readable play, a play that seems to be intended to be read, and I recommend it to everyone.
06. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, David Foster Wallace
Here is a saying worthy of all to be received: Read DFW avidly. And then do not read him, for five or six years. And then read him again. The pleasures are manifold in this collection of essays.
07. Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin
A heartbreaking and beautifully told little novel of a star-crossed couple in Paris. I’m always grateful to be reminded of James Baldwin’s extraordinary gifts with each encounter. He has such range and impressive economy of language.
08. Is There No Place on Earth for Me?, Susan Sheehan
They don’t make journalism like this anymore. In this incredibly researched and riveting book, Susan Sheehan follows a woman with schizophrenia for the better part of two years. It’s a gripping and heart-rending portrayal and calls into question most of our commonly held assumptions about mental illness and psychiatric care.
09. Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style, Virginia Tufte
Guion got to hear Lydia Davis, Queen of my Heart, speak at UVA this fall. In the lecture, she said that she loved to refer to Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentenceswhen she wrote or when she felt stuck, if merely to be reminded of the extraordinary variety of English and all the innumerable ways one can put a sentence together. I studied and devoured this delightful and useful book. I keep it on a shelf at work and turn to it in moments of crisis.
10. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Audre Lorde
A powerful and extremely relevant collection of essays and lectures from Audre Lorde. It is galvanizing and exciting to read her work back to back in this fashion; I had only ever read snippets and quotes before. And I am neither the first nor the last to say this, but Lorde is an essential member of the American feminist canon. It’s a good time to shut up and listen to her.
It’s going to be a beautiful spring for books, too. What have you read recently that you enjoyed?
I’ll turn 29 this week, and so naturally, I am thinking about death.
And about how we’re supposed to improve, at least morally, with age and about how that doesn’t ever really happen. Because here’s the thing: Kids are jerks, sure, but adults are just jerks in a different way.
For example, I picked a fight at brunch a few weekends ago. (In my defense, I was hungover for the first time ever, which felt timely, as I am lurching toward the grave.) It was a fight over identities and definitions. I knew no one would agree with me, but I felt like ruffling feathers. It didn’t go well. Everyone thought I was a bigot by the end of the morning, and I still felt like emptying my stomach in my sister’s tidy bathroom. But I let the lectures roll in. I let the topic die. We played cards and everything was fine.
The special thing about this relatively unpleasant scene that I caused was how calm I felt afterward. In my youth, being wrong or being told I was wrong affected me profoundly. It’d ruin my entire month. I’d agonize over it.
But now, almost 29, I feel I am gentler and less self-assured. I still have strong opinions, of course (you can’t praise a pug or a French bulldog in earshot of me without getting the sternest of lectures). I still hate being wrong. But I’m learning to let the thing die. (Learning, Guion! I said learning.)
I’m still a jerk — but in a different way. Not sure if that’s something to celebrate but I am pondering these minute emotional shifts. Life is short. Soon we’ll all be gone. It’s good to let things go, when you can.
I don’t know how it happened or who is to blame,* but I have fallen down the weird and wonderful rabbit hole that is Korean beauty. I buy sheet masks like it’s my job and think about my skin in an absurdly devoted way. Pros: I am taking better care of my skin than I ever have, and it’s about time, because I’m hurtling toward 30. Cons: I think I may have experimented with too many things all at once, because I was seeing more breakouts at first. So, go slowly, if you decide to venture into the wild, magical wonderland of South Korean skincare.
If you have no idea what I am talking about, familiarize yourself with the 10-step Korean skincare routine. Yes. Ten steps! Each one more valuable than the last!
It’s a little overwhelming, I know. I’m not doing all 10 steps, but I am taking some principles to heart. Namely: Cleaning my face a lot better and pampering my skin.
Here are some of the favorite things I’ve tried in the past four months of adventuring in Korean beauty.
Benton Snail Bee High Content Steam Cream. This face cream has snail mucin (aka snail slime) and bee venom in it. Yes. And it dramatically helps with scarring and pigmentation. I have some persistent acne scars from my youth that I am eager to erase, and this cream is one of the few things I have used that seems to make a difference. I use it nightly. ($20)
The Face Shop rice water cleansing oil. Cleansing oils are where it’s at. If you’re not using one, trust me, your life has a particular sadness about it. This stuff is incredible, and it’s super-affordable too. You massage it into your dry face, and then you start to rinse it off slowly. It gets the day’s grime and your makeup off in the most refreshing and thoroughly cleansing way. Your face will feel like silk. ($10)
Missha Time Revolution First Treatment Essence. I still don’t know what an “essence” is, but I love this. (They say an essence is like the love child of a toner and a serum, but that just confuses me.) It is the most calming and cleansing final step before moisturizers. And I am always a little appalled at how much comes off my face. This is the thing that is least convincing to me, in terms of end result, but I find it so pleasant and satisfying that I am loath to give it up. ($49)
Belif foaming cleanser. This is the most luxe and moisturizing face cleanser I’ve ever tried (and I’ve tried a lot). Will be buying a full size once my travel size cleanser runs out. ($26) *Pro tip if you want to try some of these Belif products without shelling out the big bucks: Buy their really generous travel sampler for $20 (limited release). It will last you quite a while, and I think you will love everything in it, as I have.
Sheet masks. Of course. The grand foundation of all Korean skincare. I am still getting used to them, to be honest. My face is apparently rather small, and the masks tend to be a little large for my face. And they make me feel weird for the first five minutes (and scare Guion and the dogs), but my pores afterward! The texture of my skin! It cannot be matched. I’ve bought packs of Tony Moly sheet masks on Amazon and ration them like a troll. Fun fact: Urban Outfitters has also started selling a lot of legit Korean sheet masks.
If you’re curious about more of the Korean beauty revolution, the blog The Klog is an excellent source for product reviews and information.
*My friend Wei is to blame for this obsession. I think. In any event, we are acolytes in the Church of Collagen and Sheet Masks for Life.
Disclaimer: I was not asked to write any of these things. I write about beauty products out of the goodness of my vain and snail-mucin-loving heart.
Sidebar: Because I feel like I have to say this to people all the time now: Your beauty products are not killing you. Just remember, ladies: The word “natural” on a bottle doesn’t mean anything. It is not regulated by government agencies. “Organic” does not mean it’s safe for your skin. Companies can call just about anything “natural,” and many are gung-ho on misleading labeling (like saying conditioner is “sulfate free,” when conditioners never contain sulfates in the first place). Don’t get suckered by the “green” beauty craze without doing some research first. As the author of that post says, “beauty is a business; it’s not a philanthropy.” So-called “natural” cosmetic companies want to sell you their wares just as much as NARS does.
Previously in me writing about beauty products for fun/no monetary compensation:
(Is it more complicated and more meaningful than we tend to think?)
Housekeeping is an easy thing to denigrate. It has always been “women’s work.” A man went out and killed dinner or worked in a coal mine, and the woman raised the urchins and swept the dirt floor. Women have done this for centuries upon centuries. Although it was a woman’s full occupation, taking care of the domestic realm has never been considered very important.
Now, men and women share more of the housekeeping and child-rearing and money-making responsibilities with one another. (Men help more than they have in previous generations. Women still do a lot more housekeeping.) It’s the 21st century: Women are not the only ones who can cook any more. Men are not the only ones who get the corner office. Housekeeping, as a virtue, as a thoughtful pursuit, has become rather passé. Being a self-made gourmet is really trendy right now. So is making your own clothes or growing tomatoes on your front porch. Or being a take-no-prisoners lady executive. But being great at keeping a tidy, well-run home? That’s not cool. No one wants to do that.
This is not a hectoring post about how we should all be better at picking our underwear off the floor or how those who fail to disinfect their kitchen sponges every week are bound for domestic purgatory. This is not that.
I just want to think about it a little, about what it might mean to reclaim housekeeping as a thoughtful, hospitable pursuit, and to rescue the word itself from its lowly connotations.
As with most things, we women learn about housekeeping from our mothers. My mother is a superb housekeeper* (*see how that sounds negative? Like she’s just good at mopping?), and I mean it in the fullest sense of the word. She has an eye for beauty and a perspective of welcome. And I like the way she taught me to think about keeping a house. I still ask her for housekeeping advice all the time.
There are two things Mom taught me about homes and living in them.
First, her posture toward the home and home-making has always been one that centered on hospitality. A beautiful and welcoming home was something to desire and to strive for because of how it made visitors feel — not because of how it made you look fancy or rich or smart or artistic. A home is a place of invitation and generosity, not of arrogance or selfishness.
Second, Mom taught me that good housekeeping is also concerned with order. She was not focused on perfect cleanliness (is that sink spotless?) but rather on arrangement and organization (is the room free of clutter?). An orderly home leads to a peaceful life.
And we think about all of this because we know that homes create moods. They both shape and contain our emotions. A home that is uninviting makes people feel uneasy. A home that is chaotic makes people feel restless and anxious. A well-reasoned approach to housekeeping starts with our posture first and foremost.
We can’t (and don’t) all have bright, flawless Scandinavian lofts or Provençal cottages with stone floors. We have the homes we have. And so we learn to love them.
We live in a 1959 nondescript Cape Cod; they seemed to have churned them all out of factories because there are three identical houses (including ours) right in a row on our street. Our siding is made of asbestos. I cannot keep the paint on the front banisters from peeling, no matter how hard I try. The carpet in the top floor is a weird, lilac-gray berber mess.
But I love our house. I am so happy I get to live there with Guion and our two outrageous German shepherds.
I can’t change a lot about our space, but I am happy to approach it with my mother’s posture of hospitality + order. Even if my décor isn’t spot on, even if the kitchen sink has started to look scummy, so long as people feel welcome and peaceful, I feel like I have succeeded.
“More begets more. It stands in the face of reason, but when we have too much stuff we’re likely to amass still more of it. We forget what we have. We start looking for solutions to contain what is already there, and in the process we bury what we started with and add to our ever-growing pile. We end up overwhelmed.” — Erin Boyle, Simple Matters
An important component of my stance toward housekeeping is reducing clutter.
Clutter doesn’t bother some people. To many, a kitchen drawer full of utensils, sticky soy sauce packets, and expired coupons is not distressing. Life goes on. No one in the household worries about that drawer; on the contrary, they keep adding stuff to it, and soon you can’t even open it anymore. No one is upset. I am not, however, this person or this household; I am upset. I worry about that drawer. I fixate on it. I can’t sit down and have a cup of tea unless that drawer is cleaned out. (This is my weakness. You have yours.)
Still. Even if you are the soy sauce packet hoarder, I would like to posit this: Clutter is emotionally burdensome. It is taxing on our physical space, of course, but I also think it is taxing on our psychological space. Too much stuff is overwhelming and depressing.
As Erin Boyle implies with that quote, until we can break the cycle of clutter, we will remain trapped in its vicious loop. Stuff begets stuff. I used to think that stuff was the answer to my stuff problem, back in the early days of marriage and housekeeping life. I thought if I could just get more closet space or just buy more plastic bins from Target, THEN I’d have my organization problem solved. The organization wasn’t the problem. It was the stuff itself.
My sister Kelsey and brother-in-law Alex are masters of the clutter-free life. They live in a 500-square-foot studio apartment, and they run a tight ship. Kelsey has boundaries: We can only have five magazines at a time. We cannot accept any gifts of kitchen tools or mugs. We have everything we need.
The older I get, the closer I get to living out of this mentality of sufficiency and simplicity.
Here’s the surprising secret: Getting rid of stuff makes me want less and less. This still amazes me. We tend to think that throwing things out will make us regretful, and then we’ll have to go buy it again. Nothing could be further from the truth, in my experience. Once I let it go, I realize how little I needed it in the first place. And now that my shelves are so clear and orderly, I cringe at the thought of packing more stuff in there.
We go through life, floating on the highs and lows of fragmentary emotion, and our homes hold us in. They shelter us in our best and worst moments.
Homes deserve a little gratitude. I rely on habit to help me care for my home. We’re all creatures of habit, some of us more than others, and I, for one, love creating domestic rituals around “home care.”
Houseplants get watered every Sunday morning. The main floor gets vacuumed and mopped once or twice a week. Clothes are always folded and put away at the end of the day, even if you don’t feel like it (you usually won’t). If you’re not traveling for a while, you can buy yourself some fresh flowers for the table. Air dry most of your clothes and take pleasure in how the fabric reshapes itself.
I don’t always follow all of my own rules. Sometimes the house gets gross. Sometimes the dogs undo an hour of cleaning in two minutes. Life happens. But I am at peace. In consistency, I have order.
I am still piecing together my domestic philosophy, as I’m sure you can tell, but I like the challenge of putting it into words. More, perhaps, to come.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear about how you approach housekeeping. What inspires you about your house? What are your aspirations, tangible or intangible, for your home?
A pair of colorful beach towels, folded so that they resemble books on a shelf, reside in my coat closet. I have left them there, undisturbed, for almost a year now. They belonged to my grandmother. She died a year ago today.
Oddly enough, I have strong memories of these towels. Ma-Maw would wrap us kids up in them when we’d dash into their house from the lake. We’d be shivering in the freezing house, dripping all over her floors in our Disney one-pieces, and she’d have a stack of these big beach towels by the door to fold us in.
The towels came into my possession when my mother gave me three framed prints from Japan that lived in my grandparents’ house.
I had always loved these prints, as a child, because of my study of Japanese, and I was honored to receive them. To protect the frames in the car, Mom had wrapped them in these two towels.
When I unwrapped the prints, shortly after her funeral, I burst into tears in my dining room. Not because of the art but because of the towels. The towels smelled exactly like her. It was as if she was suddenly in the room next to me. My eyes still swim with tears when I remember this, which is strange, that the mere memory of a scent could produce such a strong reaction.
The towels don’t really smell like her anymore. Over the past year, they’ve absorbed our scent, whatever it is (probably a mix of old books and German shepherd dander), and lost hers. But if I bury my face in them, nose deep into the well-worn fibers, I can pick up the faintest hint of her.
I am not sentimental about objects. I throw everything away with gleeful fervor. But these towels, weird as they may be, may always live in my closet, untouched, unused.
The last time we saw my grandparents’ house was the day of my grandmother’s funeral. All 10 of us grandkids went together, as a final pilgrimage to the house that we so adored.
We silently split up and wandered through the house, each of us taking a separate path, seeking out the room we had most loved: And I remember how sad and somber it felt, because she was not there. The house itself seemed to wilt. There were mildewy patterns on the gingerbread trim. Even the shadows seemed gloomy. The things that were once cute—a concrete owl on the front porch, her numerous rabbit figurines—now were strange and sad.
“It was as if the house knew they weren’t living there anymore,” I told my mother, and she agreed. The house took on a grief of its own.
The house is sold now, and I am glad of it. Not only because of the needed income for my grandfather but because it would be horrible to keep thinking of it empty, without the two of them. The house needs a new life, just as we do.
I don’t think I’ll ever get over the loss of her. I don’t expect to. But it is comforting to remember her, in all of the ways that she resurfaces in my life.
“Dear Jenny: The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something—anything—out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something—anything—as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again—top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time. What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version—if it did not exist—you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short, you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day—yes, while you sleep—but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.”
— John McPhee, a letter of advice to his daughter, quoted in his 2013 New Yorker piece
The truth of the matter: My (formerly beloved) liberal media outlets are making me feel like a conservative these days (don’t worry, never will be, would rather pluck my eyebrows off than vote Republican). The outrage is daily and continuous and we’ve all lost big time, but I don’t think I can sustain this level of indignation for four years.
I feel like I can’t even have lunch with someone without having to append some policy-oriented aside to every comment. “It is a good sandwich, but my enjoyment of it is diminished because, as you know, the lettuce subsidies are getting out of hand, and Trump of course is in Monsanto’s pocket…”
We all need to put our sandwiches down and go outside and pet a dog and spend time with people we love. And not mention DJT even once.
In light of this need to escape the outrage machine, here are some nonpolitical things to enjoy and think about.
Joy Williams’s short stories, because they make me feel insane with delight
I am not sure of many things anymore. I want to write something revolutionary and moving, but I am tired. I am so tired. I am tired of the news, of Trump’s face leering behind the desk in the Oval Office, of self-appointed pundits on the left and the right.
I am not sure how to balance this emotional/intellectual/mental exhaustion with the need to fight back. The threats seem very real and yet the actions seem to be merely theoretical in effect.
I have nothing profound to say in response to this new American order that has not already been said. I take refuge in the flesh-and-blood people in my life and in books.
In dark times, at least we still have poetry.
I have been enjoying more poetry lately; it feels especially fitting in a gloomy winter, in a political season that seems to only get more evil with time. At least we still can read Adrienne Rich. At least Trump hasn’t taken our books from us yet. And so I leave you with her.
What Kind of Times Are These
There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.
I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.
I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.
And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.
“We are American writers, absorbing the American experience. We must absorb its heat, the recklessness and ruthlessness, the grotesqueries and cruelties. We must reflect the sprawl and smallness of America, its greedy optimism and dangerous sentimentality. And we must write with a pen—in Mark Twain’s phrase—warmed up in hell. We might have something then, worthy, necessary; a real literature instead of the Botox escapist lit told in the shiny prolix comedic style that has come to define us.”