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.
This, then: the vast and strange beauty of the world and all the living things in it.
Trees have families and can recognize their children by their roots. One in twelve men are color blind. The production of almonds consumes 10% of the state of California’s water supply each year. Emily Dickinson was buried in a white coffin with a Lady’s Slipper orchid. Japanese macaques bathe together in naturally occurring hot springs and throw snowballs at each other for fun.
O Lord, refresh our sensibilities. Give us this day our daily taste. Restore to us soups that spoons will not sink in, and sauces which are never the same twice. Raise up among us stews with more gravy than we have bread to blot it with, and casseroles that put starch and substance in our limp modernity. Take away our fear of fat and make us glad of the oil which ran upon Aaron’s beard. Give us pasta with a hundred fillings, and rice in a thousand variations. Above all, give us grace to live as true men — to fast till we come to a refreshed sense of what we have and then to dine gratefully on all that comes to hand. Drive far from us, O Most Bountiful, all creatures of air and darkness; cast out the demons that possess us; deliver us from the fear of calories and the bondage of nutrition; and set us free once more in our own land, where we shall serve Thee as Thou hast blessed us — with the dew of heaven, the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine. Amen.
— Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb
We went to North Carolina this past weekend, taking a fast-paced tour of siblings, parents, and grandparents, and it was a pleasure to feel that rush of nostalgia for the state. In Chapel Hill, we walked through the arboretum and saw the tree where we got engaged and the church where we met and were married. As we drove, we remarked on the landscape and architecture and felt that it was a little foreign to us, now that we have lived for seven years in Virginia. But it’s not really that different. We just like to think that it is.
Problems I enjoy: Too many books to read. Too many plants to plant. Too many German shepherds in the kitchen.
Latest obsession, because I always have one: Native plants!
I just finished Nancy Lawson’s book The Humane Gardener and have felt the full error of my amateurish ways. I have planted a handful of native southeastern plants, mostly by accident, but I am so ready to focus on them and eschew the imported, exotic interlopers. (Gardening with native plants makes you sound really xenophobic really fast.)
There are so many plants that gardeners hold up as a standard of aesthetic beauty that are non-native and often invasive — and offer zero benefits to the insects, birds and mammals that cohabitate with us. I was also reminded, by Lawson, of how arbitrary the definition of a “weed” is. Unless it really is an invasive non-native plant, “weeds” generally serve useful purposes in your local ecosystem. I am more inclined to leave (some of) them, having been more informed of what “weeds” actually belong in Virginia (such as that wild violet that I keep ripping up).
I found Lawson’s book so heartening, because it made me realize that my little yard is actually my most powerful weapon against the grave tide of climate change. I can’t do anything about the Paris Accord. I can’t do anything to persuade China or the United States or India to reduce their carbon emissions. But I can garden for my native ecosystem, and in this way, boost a little bit of the earth that falls under my purview.
A few photos of the native plants that we have thus far:
Natives planted but still growing: Purple coneflower, more spiderwort volunteers, pokeberry (which I previously ripped out but will now allow in select areas, having been informed of its usefulness to Virginia wildlife).
Next garden ambition: To turn the area that was formerly a chicken run in the backyard into a native wildflower mini-meadow, to attract lots of pollinators and let things grow a bit wild and unchecked.
All summer long, I am happiest when I am eating an unadvisedly large quantity of cherries.
“I write to find out what I think about something.” — Anne Carson, quoted in her Art of Poetry interview, Paris Review
I haven’t been putting thoughts down here lately, because, as you can see, we got a used patio table for the back deck. And when I’m not at work or slaving away at calligraphy in the attic, I’m sitting at this table. Telling Eden not to dig more holes in the yard and reading Cheeveresque novels or feminist screeds. As one does in mid-May. As one does.
To look hard at something, to look through it, is to transform it, / Convert it into something beyond itself, to give it grace. — Charles Wright, from “Looking Around”
My fundamental opinions have not changed. But the older I get, the more likely I am to be willing to hear “the other side.” This seems like a simple virtue. I loathe the common trend toward censorship, toward the declaration of opposing opinions as heresy.
Thanks to my work colleagues, and Wei, we’ve been quite interested in the enneagram recently. Yes, personality typing can seem fruitless and limiting (I was skeptical at first and resistant to even reading about it), but this system is far deeper and broader than others I have dabbled in (StrengthFinders, Myers-Briggs). We’ve found it enlightening for our marriage and for navigating the principal ways that we relate to other people. We probably refer to it too much in conversation now, though, and are learning how to tone it down. (For those in the know, I am most likely a 5 with strong 1 tendencies.)
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.
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?