Tending a plot

garden-in-june_34963862081_o
Backyard herbs in the summer.

By all accounts, I am a lazy gardener, but I relish the time for scheming that winter provides.

Gardening offers such rich mental pleasures. It opens a private world for planning and discovery. The plot itself becomes a little space for experimentation and redemption, yielding up the freedom to fail and fail grandly. I am already eager for spring, and my mind is filling up with inchoate plans for the front yard. My campaign to kill the lawn continues, if tediously, and I have grand designs for the plants to move and add to continue to colonize the grass.

Gardening has made me more comfortable with failure. We have failed, in many respects, this season. We didn’t clean up the monstrous overreach of our blackberries. We didn’t plant garlic in time, long a staple crop of our backyard. We didn’t support the enormous elderberry bushes very well, and we have no idea what to do with our three sickly apple trees. The yard is also a mess right now. After a busy summer and fall, the backyard looks more shabby than usual. But I feel uncharacteristically calm. Spring brings new life, unfilled time, the chance to start again.

Because this is the comfort of gardening: Gardening is never done. You’re never finished tending. There is no end in sight. And that is a deep, renewing joy.

. . .

Every fall, I forget about the tremendous joy I experience when I switch our bed from a quilt to our down comforter. The warmth and weight of the thing makes me feel a little less rage at the frigidity of the season.

. . .

two petals fall
and the shape of the peony
is wholly changed

– Shikibu

. . .

Thankful for

  • A week full of dinners with friends
  • An aging dog who still greets me with veritable leaps in the air
  • Yorkshire Gold tea
  • Cashmere sweater dresses
  • The linen tea towel of the Proust questionnaire that Guion bought me in Paris, which I’m finally using (life is too short to not use precious things)
  • Sugar maples
  • These Chelsea boots, to replace much-loved synthetic ones
  • Anne Lamott
  • Hair being finally long enough for a bun
  • The public library, always and forever

Who you were

Abby (Childhood)
My young self, enjoying athletics like a natural.

On a whim, I bought a domain for this blog because the ads are so awful. I despise chum boxes in all instances and thoroughly dislike the fact that anyone who comes here (however tiny the number may be) is unwillingly subjected to such garbage.

Upon doing so, however, I was revisited by the uncomfortable feeling I get when I find posts I wrote here seven or eight years ago. Strong waves of nausea and embarrassment wash over me when I uncover them. I sound very childish, and I feel very different from who I was then. (I have also shifted the way that I think about writing here; now I am far less personal and open.)

I am reminded of the ludicrous notion, which we often cherish when we are young, that we are fixed entity. I was BORN this way, we like to think. I have always been an INDIVIDUAL. This is deeply false. We change so much, by the year, by the week, almost. We are not who we once were. And that is OK.

Sure, there are some constants in my personality (I have loved words since I was tiny, I have always been bossy, etc.), but I have changed a great deal. And I expect I will continue to. This prospect, of lifelong personal change, is pleasing to me.

. . .

“I will do anything to avoid boredom. It is the task of a lifetime. You can never know enough, never work enough, never use the infinitives and participles oddly enough, never impede the movement harshly enough, never leave the mind quickly enough.”

— Anne Carson, Plainwater

Anne Carson, patron saint of my aspirational mental state.

. . .

Living in the library

the ones that got away: apr.
Stacks at Davis Library, UNC-Chapel Hill (research for my thesis, circa 2009).

Once a week, when we were small, Mom let us loose in the public library for a few hours. These were some of my favorite mornings in my memory of our elementary school years. She brought an enormous canvas tote (it could comfortably fit our three-year-old brother inside of it; the bag was a gift from our father, and he’d had her nickname—Mookie—embroidered on the side with navy blue thread). We were allowed to fill this bag to the brim with books, but we could not overflow the bag. We became strategic about how we packed our selections in the bag, ensuring that each of our carefully chosen titles would make the final cut.

We were set free inside the large, three-story library and told to meet back at a particular spot in a few hours. I went to my typical shelves (young adult fiction, baby name books, dog books, books about Japan); Grace gravitated toward the heavy art books that you couldn’t check out; and Kelsey and Sam were often found playing computer games upstairs. I have no idea what Mom did. (I hope she found a sofa somewhere and took a nap.)

I relished these hours alone, discovering books I had never heard of, pulling them off the shelves just for the joy of holding them in my small hands. The sense of independence—both physical and intellectual—from library mornings formed me deeply. I was simultaneously overwhelmed and motivated by all that I had not read. I felt (and still feel) this driving compulsion to read as much as possible before I die. When I think of this lifelong pursuit, I think of the shelves at the public library of my childhood, stretching before my mind endlessly, full of promise and provocation.

Although we were homeschooled in a strongly evangelical, conservative community, my mother was wisely relaxed about reading. In a time when her peers were throwing fits about Harry Potter or other “worldly,” dangerous books their children might encounter, she was calm about what we found to read. (She knew, as many of her fellow homeschooling moms seem to have forgotten, that censorship would only make the desire for the banned books burn even brighter.) Instead, she let us read whatever we found. She was careful about other things—like TV and movies—and we were not allowed to watch anything on a screen without parental permission (and the answer was usually “no”). But books were an open field.

I asked her once, years later, why she was so relaxed about books with me, in particular. “Are you kidding?” she said. “I didn’t have time to read everything you were reading. You read too much. I trusted that you’d figure out, in the end, what was good and true and what wasn’t.”

Just the weight of God

Clifton Inn
Date night at the Clifton Inn, recently.

After weeks and weeks of rain, a few consecutive days of sunshine feels like being born again.

I am not a particularly emotional person, but I am reminded of the tremendously profound effect of weather on my disposition. I don’t know how people in the British Isles take it year round. (There may be something wrong with British people, it could be said. We lived in London in the summer, which is arguably the best time to live in London, and the Brits we knew complained when it was hot and bright and sunny. They, like swamp aliens, longed for the cold mist and rain and fog!)

All this aside, October has been very good to us. Most notably, we gained our second godson, and we love him so much already. His tiny self and his wonderful parents fill us with great joy.

. . .

I am hopeful about a growing, generalized malaise around the internet and life lived on screens. The world wide web has failed to make us more intelligent, more moral, more peaceful, more charitable. Many seem to be waking up to this reality.

I recently finished Maryanne Wolf’s new book, Reader, Come Home, about reading in a digital world. Her warnings and findings are not new or surprising (the internet has ruined our capacity for deep thinking and deep reading), but her focus on children felt particularly chilling. I recommend it, to anyone who loves reading and has found their capacity for it diminishing, and especially to the parents of small children.

A short selection from her book, as a taste of what she covers:

“When you read carefully, you are more able to discern what is true and to add it to what you know. Ralph Waldo Emerson described this aspect of reading in his extraordinary speech ‘The American Scholar’: ‘When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant.’ In reading research, the cognitive psychologist Keith Stanovich suggested something similar some time ago about the development of word knowledge. In childhood, he declared, the word-rich get richer and the word-poor get poorer, a phenomenon he called the ‘Matthew Effect’ after a passage in the New Testament. There is also a Matthew-Emerson Effect for background knowledge: those who have read widely and well will have many resources to apply to what they read; those who do not will have less to bring, which, in turn, gives them less basis for inference, deduction, and analogical thought and makes them ripe for falling prey to unadjudicated information, whether fake news or complete fabrications. Our young will not know what they do not know.

— Maryanne Wolf, Reader, Come Home

A positive development: After several months of studiously detaching from my phone, I find it less and less interesting. It contains nothing that I really want (and certainly nothing that I need). I still check Instagram once or twice a day and perhaps look at a few emails, but I don’t even really want to be doing that. I’ve deleted the apps that were distracting (Twitter) and kept the main screen limited to simple functions (clock, camera, weather, maps, etc.), which aren’t very interesting anyway. I still have much to regain, by way of attention and mindfulness, but I am feeling freer on the whole.

. . .

Things I cannot resist

  • Sliced cucumber on a plate
  • Watching a dog intently as it trots past me
  • Moonlight on the counter
  • Buying Anne Carson books wherever I spot them
  • Telling Pyrrha how much she sheds
  • Stationery of European origin
  • Linen napkins

. . .

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

— Emily Dickinson (who else?)

Murmuration

Ash Lawn Highland
James Monroe at Ash Lawn Highland, recently.

This morning, while I waited for water to boil for tea, I watched a tremendous current of starlings fly just above the tree line in our backyard. Pyrrha stood on the back deck and seemed to be watching them too. They flew in a seemingly endless stream from the west. I imagined they were all communicating to each other about the hurricane, cheerfully fleeing en masse, and I wondered where they were going. What refuge do hundreds of starlings seek?

. . .

Even though we will see some flooding and minor wind and nothing much worse, the hurricane has produced this low level of dread in me. We will be completely fine, unlike many in our beloved home state of North Carolina, and so it feels almost callous to worry, when we have so little to worry about. But my hum of anxiety serves to reinforce the main thing I have learned from the past year: Never, ever read the news. The news is engineered to ratchet up your anxiety. This is the only thing to remember.

. . .

I am finally tackling David Copperfield, which I want to talk about because I harbor such a general distaste for Dickens. (Bleak House was pretty good, but I can hardly stand the rest of it.) To my surprise, I am 200 pages in and quite enjoying myself. It’s pleasant to read something that isn’t my typical moody, postmodern fictional fare; it’s nice to meet a character and read the author’s description of his face and know instantly, Oh, this is a villain because he has a dark brow and cleft chin! Or oh, this is an angel! She has glossy blonde hair! It’s pleasing to feel like you can predict almost everything that is about to happen. You shall shortly be orphaned! Your stepfather will continue to terrorize you! You shall be beaten by the headmaster! You will work full-time in a dismal place even though you are only 10 years old! It’s fun. I admit it.

. . .

I have also felt a revival of interest in poetry. I think it’s because of the anticipation of fall; I always want to read poetry in the fall. I have started Passing Through by Stanley Kunitz, and I can already tell I’m going to be a fan.

. . .

“I felt sorry for us, for both, for all of us, such odd organisms under the sun. Large minds, abutting too close on swelling souls. And banished souls at that, longing for their home-world. Everyone alive mourned the loss of his home-world.” — Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow

Alteration is what we keep

Ischia
Castello d’Aragonese, Ischia, this May.

Summer slipped through our fingers.

Here we are at the end of August, a bit dazed by how quickly the season left us. We are going to New York soon, to see old friends and eat a good deal of food and ogle modern art, and it feels like a fitting conclusion to what was otherwise a quiet and domestic summer. This summer has been marked by much thinking about our house and a possible addition; exquisite meals made by Guion; the basilica cocktail; daily walks with Pyrrha; near-daily thunderstorms; roaring symphonies of cicadas; a return to evening reading; and breathtakingly oppressive humidity.

. . .

A sweet thing: A husband who reads a poem by Danez Smith to me in the morning, while he is finishing his breakfast, and when he finishes the poem, he looks up and me and his eyes are rimmed with tears and he laughs and says, “It’s too beautiful,” and looks up at the ceiling.

. . .

Gratitude works quickly on the mind. I am always pleased to discover and then rediscover this.

Lately, I have been astonished by the power of the mere reminder to be grateful. Guion also deserves credit for this. As I have been absorbed in planning our home addition and finalizing plans with our architect, I have taken to griping about things in the house that have bothered me. I hate the rattling storm windows, which are impossible to clean. I loathe the sloppy molding and the cheap hollow-core doors. I detest that multicolored berber carpet upstairs. And sometimes (more often, lately) I say so.

Guion has taken to reminding me that nothing is wrong with our house (echoing the sentiments of a new favorite writer, Kate Wagner). It is good. Each room has something to be grateful for, to give thanks for.

And it’s working on me. I am pleased with the small things: the way my bare feet feel on our hardwood floors in the summer. The actual tininess of our bedroom, because we do not need it to be bigger. The fact that we have two bathrooms, even if they are not in the right place. The good choices that the previous owners made when they renovated the kitchen. The long flat yard, which has allowed our gardening imaginations and experiments plenty of room to flourish. I even like the pale green color of our ugly asbestos siding. Sure, there are things I still want to change, and I still hope we get to do this addition, but even if we don’t, I am thankful.

. . .

“Alteration”

By Hayden Carruth

You thought growing older
would be more of the same,
going a little slower,
walking a little lame.

But you knew, or you were a fool,
that alteration is what we keep;
tonight will not be the equal
of last night, even in sleep.

At home, in Charlottesville

Home sweet home #charlottesville
Sunset in Charlottesville (2014).

On the first anniversary of the alt-right rally that rocked our town of Charlottesville, we are quiet at home, just a mile away from the crowds and cops that have gathered on the downtown pedestrian mall near the parks and still-standing statues. I have a cup of black tea and a stack of books (Runaway Horses, Yukio Mishima; My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh; Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow). Guion is playing the guitar, accompanying our gentle neighbor on the cello. They speak to each other very sparingly; they sip Negronis and the wooden coasters clatter to the floor when they pick up their drinks. Pyrrha sleeps on the knotted wool rug in the hall. She sometimes watches them with one eye.

We have deliberately had a still weekend, but we also ventured downtown to eat. Not as a declaration of anything, but just because it’s what we’d do on any other weekend. We passed through the police checkpoints. We stiffened a little when a man yelled from the street; when, later, a cop car blasted its sirens down the street, but nothing happened. Nothing was visibly awry. We are still happy to call this place home. We do not know what the future holds. We know we are still far from equity in many respects. We maintain a shape-shifting hope for tomorrow.

. . .

If I grieve for anything, it is for the cruelty of aging, for the ways that it brings my beloved family to struggle and suffer in their final days. I still expect dying to be fair.

. . .

“Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”

— Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star

Whole against the sky

Italy
Chapel inside Castello Aragonese, Ischia; May 2018.

Sometimes I falter when people ask me what I do. You’re a content strategist? What does that mean? I wrote a long answer, explaining what I think about all day: 7 Steps to Content Strategy That Serves Human Beings

. . .

The latest letter from Leah Finnegan is speaking deeply to me right now. I can’t explain it half as well as she can, so just read the letter. She captures precisely how I feel about the unfortunate state of our public (but increasingly, private) discourse—especially on such unrelenting cesspools as Twitter and Facebook.

You know how I feel about Facebook, but I’ve also recently stopped looking at Twitter, and I’m immensely happier online. I also unfollowed about half of the people I was following, especially anyone who tweeted about politics or the news, and now it’s mostly crazy dog ladies (my goofy acquaintances from my dog-blogging days), no context Terrace House, Lulu, and Wei. I’ll still tweet every now and then, if I write something new, but I have deleted the app from my phone and the links from my browsers. I have not missed it at all.

I’ve also stopped reading almost all news, except for longform, investigative journalism. In 2018, I’m only interested in the slow news, in the stories that it took one intrepid reporter (and her invisible editors, no doubt) eight months to tell.

Consequences of the further narrowing of my internet life? An increased sense of daily happiness and calm. An increased desire to read books. An increased gratitude for the physical world. An increased desire to walk to work. An increased attention to my long-suffering houseplants.

. . .

“Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.”

— Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters: 1910-1926

The earth soaks up the sun

Italy
View from Castello Aragonese in Ischia (May 2018).

Mavis Gallant is my latest obsession. (Dear friends had a beautiful baby girl yesterday, whom they named Mavis, and the name feels especially precious right now.) Gallant was a French-Canadian short story writer, and I feel simultaneously alarmed and elated that I had never read her until now. This is always such a pleasurable feeling, to discover a brilliant writer, after decades of reading, whom no one you know has ever told you about. (Anne Carson, I suppose, cannot count as someone I know.) She feels like a private discovery even though I am extremely late to the party.

Here is how Gallant starts her immaculate short story The Wedding Ring:

“On my windowsill is a pack of cards, a bell, a dog’s brush, a book about a girl named Jewel who is a Christian Scientist and won’t let anyone take her temperature, and a white jug holding field flowers. The water in the jug has evaporated; the sand-and-amber flowers seem made of paper. The weather bulletin for the day can be one of several: No sun. A high arched yellow sky. Or, creamy clouds, stillness. Long motionless grass. The earth soaks up the sun. or, the sky is higher than it ever will seem again, and the sun far away and small.”

Her prose has this unbelievably effortless quality to it, and the stories unfold in this strange yet natural way. I have been devouring them at breakfast. I feel a strong urge to buy everything she’s ever done.

. . .

A friend, with her bright-eyed baby on her hip, passed me in church after the service and said, as an opening salvo, “Summer is the best time to be alive.” I lit up, agreed, said something vapid about the food and the heat. I love conversations that start in this way, with a statement instead of a predictable question. And I felt the imperative truth of what she said. If we do not eat the earth’s bounty every night, if we do not walk every morning, the season will pass us by and soon we will descend into the darkness of winter. This is the blessedness and urgency of summer.

. . .

Life is very short and yet happy. My houseplants are suffering. I have had them for many years and just this season, they seem to be waning away, after years of moderate health and growth. The bird’s nest fern hanging over the armchair was so happy in that spot for a year, and now it looks burned and angry. The fiddle-leaf fig just keeps growing taller and taller and has no strength and keeps flopping over, weeping with its large leaves that I perpetually neglect to dust. I need to re-pot the six-year-old jade plants, growing in odd ways out of the cracked yellow urns, but I am lazy. I look at them and think about this every other day: You need my help and I am lazy.

. . .

“I always ran Home to Awe when a child, if anything befell me,
He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none.” — Emily Dickinson

Too porous?

Italy
Somewhere along the Amalfi Coast.

Sometimes I worry that I am too easily persuaded, that I am too porous. If I spend too much time with someone I like, I start to pick up her hand gestures, I start to mimic his philosophical cant. Some days I feel anxious about this, but on others, I think: This is just what humans do. In good company, we’re always bleeding into each other, picking up one another’s stories and making them our own. Over time, we become more and more like our spouses and close friends and neighbors. It is alarming sometimes, for sure, because we cherish this notion of ourselves as peerless individuals, untainted by external influence, but as I age, I am finding it comforting. I am OK being a sponge. I happily soak up other people.

. . .

A small side-step from porousness: I been married for eight years, and every year seems different from the last.

Last night in Praiano
Praiano, May 2018.

Recently, I have delighted in this simple duality: familiarity and surprise. There is this pleasant sense of comfort and ease that comes from living with someone for so long. We finish each other’s sentences (sandwiches); he can typically predict what I am about to do or say or which gesture or joke I’m going to deploy, and vice versa. And then, at the same time, amid all of this charming predictability, marriage is still full of surprises. We uncover a previously hidden aspect of personality (or one that is just developing). We find a fresh angle in a perennial disagreement. Who knows what could happen next? We certainly don’t.

. . .

Yesterday, we were enduring a trip to Giant, and I was, I thought, helpfully putting ears of corn into a plastic bag Guion was holding. I was apparently being too forceful, however. The bag split and the corn tumbled onto his sandaled feet, bruising his toes. He cursed a little under his breath as I picked up the corn. Later that night, I reminded him of how angry he’d been about that corn. “It’s because you were throwing it in the bag like Zeus throwing lightning bolts!” he protested immediately, and I started crying from laughter. And then it was hard to fall asleep.

. . .

I continue to move faithfully away from the news and Twitter, and with each day that passes, my happiness increases. Twitter has been a particular cesspool lately.

. . .

Things I harbor strong opinions about despite knowing very little about

  • The evil of college sports, especially football
  • The dangers of motorcycles
  • The origins of poodle mixes
  • Philip Roth and John Updike
  • Almond milk