Inspired by the horrors and paradoxes of our current cultural moment (and a Paris Review article by Claire Dederer), I wrote a short piece for Mockingbird: “Love the Art, Hate the Artist?”
When a politician misbehaves, it’s easy (in theory) to wave our hands and say, “Politicians! They’re all filthy.” But when our favorite novelist or comedian or musician misbehaves, we feel conflicted. We feel like we’ve been implicated ourselves. This is how I felt when I learned that Virginia Woolf, one of my all-time favorites, dressed in blackface to a party and was famously cruel and anti-Semitic. We want our artists to be as blameless as we think we are. Our beloved artists made something so good, so beautiful; shouldn’t the end product match the content of their souls?
This is the tricky thing about art: Great art can be created by terrible people.
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.
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.
Buy nice hand soap. Make your home a warm and welcoming place for guests. Be a kickass business owner who isn’t afraid to negotiate, with everyone, for everything. Never settle for uncomfortable jeans, even if they’re on sale. Take care of your nails (stop painting them). Sit down and eat a good meal, mostly derived from the earth, and don’t worry so much about hard-core exercise. Tend a garden. Take walks.
Take care of your face. Invest in expensive face creams. Be proud of your family; tell them how proud of them you are whenever you see them. Create and cherish family traditions. Find your signature scent and do not deviate. Write and send cards to people on every conceivable occasion.* (*At Ma-Maw’s funeral, a woman came up to me and told me that Ma-Maw sent her dog a birthday card.)
Be direct with people about what you want; don’t hedge. Laugh a lot: loudly and daily. Tell stories and crack jokes in every social interaction. Making fun of people is a nice way to show that you care. Consider the needs of dogs, first and foremost. Take risks and do not give any weight to cultural opinions. Show off your legs.
My sister Kelsey
Be confident about yourself and your appearance. Marie Kondo your entire home; if you bring home one new thing, throw out one old thing. Reserve time for kissing and cuddling. Take care of everyone around you; be uncannily prescient about predicting others’ needs. Prioritize your own needs on a long road trip (e.g., chicken nuggets and a milkshake).
My sister Grace
See the whole damn world. Do what you want with your life and ignore conventions. Hoard creative material and ideas and make no apologies for the rats’ nest that is your childhood room/closet. Dress like you just went on a trip to Japan and found out that your life calling is to be a potter (who also owns a motorcycle and two pit bulls). You can never have too many notebooks.
My great aunt Lib
Read everything and write long letters full of great sentences. Tell stories in every conversation. Invent your own catchphrases and use them liberally. Preserve an irreverent sense of humor in all circumstances. Be a lady who gets things done and doesn’t let anyone stand in her way.
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.
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.
(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.)
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:
We were delighted to host Win and Tracy for the weekend in London. We had a full (and fortunately quite sunny) weekend with them, including a marvelous dinner at Dishoom (thanks, Granddad! We love you!), an afternoon at the Tate Modern (including the newly added wing), and a day exploring the gorgeous Hampstead area. Photos ensue.
We are celebrating six years of marriage in Berlin today! While we’re experiencing the city with Grace and Jack, I am increasingly convinced, as I look over at Guion, that there isn’t anyone else I’d rather have with me during our European summer—and during the whole of my life, however long it may be.
This passage from Woolf’s diary expresses so much of what I feel about the daily work and magic of marriage:
Arnold Bennett says that the horror of marriage lies in its ‘dailiness.’ All acuteness of a relationship is rubbed away by this. The truth is more like this: life — say 4 days out of 7 — becomes automatic; but on the 5th day a bead of sensation (between husband and wife) forms which is all the fuller and more sensitive because of the automatic customary unconscious days on either side. That is to say the year is marked by moments of great intensity. Hardy’s ‘moments of vision.’ How can a relationship endure for any length of time except under these conditions?
— Virginia Woolf, autumn 1926 (A Writer’s Diary)
As all of the days pile up, I am inexpressibly grateful to be accumulating them with Guion.