Over the past few years, I keep telling myself that I am going to read less because I want to read more slowly. I continue to fail at this, but I started the year with the weighty final installment of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, in an attempt to force myself to slow down. It’s 1,200 pages long, and I’m a little over halfway done, and loving the tedium. I don’t know why I find him so addictive and riveting. He took a 300-page diversion to discuss young Hitler, and I was just rapt, every sentence, every page.
. . .
“This is what learning is, seeing that which lies outside the confines of the self. To grow older is not to understand more but to realize that there is more to understand.” — Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle (Book 6)
. . .
The faintest hints of spring lift my spirits: a few brave daffodils blooming, birds singing in small bursts, evenings that seem a little less dark. I am looking forward to being out in the world more in this spring and summer. We were so much indoors last year, in those blurry newborn months, and I crave the hot sun on my skin. I feel like we missed it last year. I’m looking forward, particularly, to taking Moses out into the garden and introducing him to our plants. I am eager to start a little herb plot and get his “help” with it.
. . .
In other news, I continue to be very much into our baby. Moses is a sunny, flirty 9-month-old now, spending most of his days pulling to stand on furniture, falling down and whining about it, and babbling to himself or anyone who will listen.
Things are so much easier now than they were in those early months, and I can confidently say that I recommend motherhood to anyone who is on the fence. Do it! Have a baby, if the Lord wills. Those first few weeks, I did feel, a little, that everything was ruined. This is no longer the case! We are so fond of our little blond boy and more than a little obsessed. He is a delightful labor, seems well worth the effort.
My beloved grandfather went to be with his wife, my dear Ma-Maw, on January 2. Following is the eulogy I gave for him at his memorial service.
It is a strange thing, to suddenly be without any grandparents, but I am so grateful for the ones I had and repeatedly comforted by my memories of them.
. . .
Pete Johnson was the only person I’ve ever heard of who successfully renamed himself as a child.
Kids ask to be called different things, and some nicknames stick for a few years, but I have yet to meet another person who chose a new name for himself as a child and then never went by another one.
When he was a little boy, he got in trouble for acting up in Sunday school. The teacher said, “Little boy, what’s your name?” He said, “My name is Pistol Pete.” She shook her head and said, “No, little boy, what’s your real name?” He answered again, “My name is Pistol Pete.” This happened a third time. “Little boy, what’s your name?” “My name is Pistol Pete,” he said, resolutely. “But… when my mother is mad, she calls me Edwin Rushing Johnson.”
From then on, until he died, everyone called him Pete. I never heard a single person call him Edwin.
This little anecdote could serve as an analogy for his character: Even when he was a small boy, he had a determination and clarity of mind that set him apart from his peers. Pete Johnson was a boy who knew who he wanted to be. And he grew up to be a remarkable man, a man I am proud and honored to have known as my grandfather.
. . .
Pete was a soft-spoken man, exceedingly gentle and patient. For most of our childhood, Da-Dan—as he was so named by us grandkids—was quiet. He would sit in his armchair and read the paper or a book of history, finish a jigsaw puzzle, or tend to the dishes as needed. But he didn’t say much. Then, in late 1999, he got cancer, lymphoma. And as he went through treatment and survived and his ring of hair gradually returned, it was as if the floodgates of speech had opened. He wouldn’t stop talking, telling stories and starting conversations. Once you touched on a topic he loved, he would just keep going, breathlessly, without pause. It was as if he was making up for lost time. This loquacious tendency continued up until his passing, and I think it surprised and delighted all of us.
And it was a true pleasure to hear him talk. He was a gregarious and talented conversationalist and a memorable storyteller, just like all of his siblings. I won’t even attempt to replicate his soft and lovely Alabama accent. It was the kind of genteel Southern accent that seems increasingly rare. And he was a rare man.
In all my life, I never heard him speak ill of anyone. He was endlessly fair and good-natured. He never raised his voice or lost his temper. He was never sarcastic. Never rude. Never harsh. Never cynical. Never unkind.
He once told me a story about when he worked as a bag boy at a grocery store in Charlotte. He was the soul of politeness, even as a teenager, and he followed the rules. One day, an African-American woman came through the checkout line, and Pete said, yes, ma’am, and no, ma’am to her while bagging her groceries. His boss overheard him and rebuked him, saying, “Don’t you say ‘ma’am’ to her,” and probably something much worse. But, Da-Dan said, looking down at me, “Even though my boss told me that, I knew he was wrong. And so I kept saying it anyway.”
He had an obedient and compliant nature, but he knew when it was just and right to break the rules.
. . .
Edwin Rushing Johnson was born June 30, 1932, in Samson, Alabama, to Ralph and Delia Johnson. Pete was their third child, preceded by Lib and Buck, and followed by baby Joe. He grew up in Alabama and then, after graduating from Wofford College in South Carolina, returned to Charlotte to become a banker. It was in Charlotte that he met the love of his life, a Miss Lucy Land, at a church social. She had just rejected a date for being too short when she set her eyes on the lanky, dapper Pete Johnson, who was just the right height, according to her rigorous standards. He started sitting next to her in the pew during church and was so nervous that he held the hymnal upside down.
On September 5, 1953, Pete and Lucy were married here at St. John’s by their beloved Dr. Claude Broach. Pete and Lucy were members of St. John’s for 42 years, and Pete served as the youth minister here. Later, they were faithful members for another several decades at First Baptist Church of Albemarle.
Pete and Lucy had three children: Mary Elizabeth, now Betsy Almond; Teresa Lynn, now Teresa Farson, who is also my mother; and Edwin Rushing Jr., also known as Rush. From my vantage point, each of them carry on key qualities they inherited from their father: Betsy, or my Aunt B, shares his unwavering devotion to his family. My mom, Teresa, shares his deep sense of justice and clarity over right and wrong, and my Uncle Rush carries on his talent as a storyteller and his personal integrity. Pete and Lucy delighted in Betsy, Teresa, and Rush, and in the 10 grandchildren that were to follow.
. . .
After their own kids were grown, Pete and Lucy moved to sleepy little Norwood, to a beautiful Victorian house with gingerbread trim and a wraparound porch, right on Lake Tillery. Most of our happiest childhood memories involved the summer afternoons and early evenings spent on the lake with Da-Dan, whether he was at the helm of that old tank of a pontoon boat or standing on the dock with us, patiently teaching us how to fish.
I think I can speak for all 10 of us grandkids when I say that their home in Norwood held a very special place in all of our hearts. Whether it was gathering around the fire Da-Dan built at Christmas or hunting for Easter eggs in their yard in the spring or jumping off the dock at their big Fourth of July party, many of our happiest memories were at their house.
In March 2016, after Lucy’s, or Ma-Maw’s, memorial service in Albemarle, all 10 of us looked at each other, and said, “We have to go. We have to go back to the house one more time and say goodbye.” So, Matt, Emily, Kelsey, Grace, Sam, Hunter, Pete, Parker, Mary Elizabeth, and myself—along with spouses Ashli, Guion, and Alex—all jumped in our cars to take a final pilgrimage. And as we headed down that familiar route to 46411 Sapona Lane, my eyes filled with tears: with gratitude, for the many happy years we had spent there, and for the home away from home that our grandparents had created for us.
Someone had given us a key to their house, and we unlocked the front door and silently split up. It was this magical, hushed scene: Each of us wandered through the house, everyone taking a separate path, seeking out the room we had most loved. It was as if we were giving the house its final rites, holding a silent farewell ceremony to a place that each of us would treasure in our hearts forever.
. . .
Da-Dan had a soothing, magical quality with children and animals. They were drawn to him. Perhaps it was his gentle and quiet nature, but he could tame the fussiest baby or the most cantankerous beast.
One of those beasts was this mean-spirited black cat, Punkin. (Note the pronunciation: It’s not “Pumpkin,” but Punkin, the Southern way—named by my cousin Matt, who found the kitten on Halloween.) Punkin was a dreadful killing machine, a primarily feral animal. I once watched him leap several feet in the air to swat a baby bluebird out of the sky in midflight and then bite off its head. He would scratch or snap at anyone who came near him. He’d upset Ma-Maw by dropping the corpses of little baby rabbits on the doorstep for her to find. But when Da-Dan was near? He transformed into the sweetest little lap kitty. No one else could come near him, but with Da-Dan? That spiteful cat would curl up peacefully in his lap and purr for hours and hours. Indeed, Punkin was Da-Dan’s constant companion as he recovered from chemo and radiation.
As wild children, we were equally drawn to him: He was an incredibly patient grandparent. In all the years we 10 grandkids spent with him, being rowdy and whiny and dripping lakewater all over their oriental rugs or throwing his carefully cultivated gravel into the lake or shooting down the neighbor’s rafts with BB guns, he never once raised his voice at us, never lost his temper. In most of the old snapshots from our childhood, Da-Dan can be seen in a corner, holding a baby in his arms or opening a present for one of the kids with his little pocket knife. As my brother Sam wrote to him on his birthday, June 30, 2006, in a note my parents found saved in Da-Dan’s nightstand at The Pines: “You are a grandpa people dream of.”
Da-Dan was a great-grandfather as well, and as an enduring credit to his memory, both of his great-grandchildren bear his name: my cousin Matt and his wife Ashli’s son, Covin Edwin Pierce Kemo, born June 24, 2016, and my husband Guion’s and my son, Moses Edwin Pratt, born May 9, 2019.
Moses got to meet his great-grandfather just once, this past Thanksgiving. Da-Dan was brought down the hall in a wheelchair, and when he spotted Moses, his eyes lit up. He reached out his hands and held him confidently on his lap as we talked. It was a short moment, but a sweet and meaningful one.
I look forward to telling Moses all about his great-grandfather as he grows up. We pray that Moses will have his gentleness, his deep sense of honor and respect for others, his love of justice, his skill in storytelling, his quiet but abiding faith, his long-lasting devotion to his family, and his legendary patience.
. . .
But as much as Pete loved his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, there was never any question about his ultimate love: Lucy.
It was always and forever Lucy. Their delight in and affection for each other lasted their entire lives. They were sweet and devoted and loyal, as was fitting, but they also had a great deal of fun; they were constantly teasing each other and joking together. Watching a marriage unfold like that, a union full of such energy and devotion and humor, makes a lasting impression on a child. Even a small child could look at them, as we all did, and know that this was a relationship built on an unshakable foundation. Pete and Lucy created a full life side by side, raising their three children, looking after their 10 grandchildren, serving at church, opening their home to others, and traveling the world.
When Ma-Maw died, at the end of February 2016, a good part of his spirit died with her. It was as if he didn’t know how to be anymore. How could he be a person without Lucy? They had been married for 62 years. When I reflect on their marriage, I feel that I am able, for the first time, to begin to understand that mystical phrase from Genesis, of a husband and wife being “one flesh.” Lucy was a part of him, and he was a part of her. They were indivisible. You could not have Pete without Lucy.
Toward the end, when he was asked what he wanted or needed, he would only repeat two things: I want to go home. And I want to see Lucy.
And now, praise God, he has done both. We can celebrate and give thanks for that, just as we give thanks for the gift of Edwin Rushing Johnson’s good, long, and loving life.
In 2019, I have craved knowledge with more than my usual fervor. I still read a bit of fiction, but it was not the memorable, moving year in novels and short stories that it has typically been.
As a happy consequence, 2019 was a banner year for outstanding nonfiction.* I am excited to share my favorites with you.
1. Self-Portrait in Black and White, Thomas Chatterton Williams
Thomas Chatterton Williams writes about the personal and public conundrum of racial identity with stunning clarity and beauty. (It didn’t have to be so beautifully written, but it was!) This was easily, handily, remarkably the most thought-provoking book I’ve read all year. I want to talk about it with everyone I meet. Even if you disagree with his conclusions, these are ideas worth pondering as race-obsessed Americans. Many thanks to Wei, who eagerly pressed a copy into my hands. I’d like to do the same for others. (Get a copy)
2. The Little Virtues, Natalia Ginzburg
Human relationships have to be rediscovered every day. We have to remember constantly that every kind of meeting with our neighbor is a human action and so it is always evil or good, true or deceitful, a kindness or a sin.
Gorgeously written and wise. The moving titular essay is what drew me to it, but the rest of the collection is stirring and imaginative. I’m becoming a big fan of WWII-era Italian writers, apparently. (Get a copy)
3. The Braindead Megaphone, George Saunders
The best stories proceed from a mysterious truth-seeking impulse that narrative has when revised extensively; they are complex and baffling and ambiguous; they tend to make us slower to act, rather than quicker. They make us more humble, cause us to empathize with people we don’t know, because they help us imagine these people, and when we imagine them—if the storytelling is good enough—we imagine them as being, essentially, like us. If the story is poor, or has an agenda, if it comes out of a paucity of imagination or is rushed, we imagine those other people as essentially unlike us: unknowable, inscrutable, incontrovertible. — “The Braindead Megaphone”
Worth reading for the title essay alone, in all of its chilling timeliness and prescience (written circa 2003, describes the media hell of 2019 perfectly), but everything in here is a delight. (Get a copy)
4. What If This Were Enough?, Heather Havrilesky
Living simply today takes work. It takes work to overcome the noise that has accumulated in our heads, growing louder and more pervasive since we were young. It takes work to overcome the illusion that we will arrive at some end point where we will be better—more successful, adored, satisfied, relaxed, rich. It takes hard work to say, ‘This is how I am,’ in a calm voice, without anxiously addressing how you should be. It takes work to shift your focus from the smudges on the window to the view outside. It requires conscious effort not to waste your life swimming furiously against the tide, toward some imaginary future that will never make you happy anyway. — “The Miracle of the Mundane”
Fresh, insightful, funny: This book stands boldly against so much of the greed and distraction and soul-crushing malaise of modern life. I wanted this to be twice as long. I do not often finish an essay collection and feel sad that it’s over, but Havrilesky is a rare oracle for our time. Warmly recommended. (Get a copy)
5. The Red Parts, Maggie Nelson
I know what I want is impossible. If I can make my language flat enough, exact enough, if I can rinse each sentence clean enough, like washing a stone over and over again in river water, if I can find the right perch or crevice from which to record everything, if I can give myself enough white space, maybe I could do it. I could tell you this story while walking out of this story. I could—it all could—just disappear.
Harrowing, beautifully written account of personal and familial trauma. Approached with a rare clarity of mind and forcefulness. I am silenced and in awe. (Get a copy)
6. The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt
Lukianoff and Haidt present a gripping (and often disheartening) look at the intolerant intellectual environment that characterizes so many American universities today and explore its cultural causes. I appreciate that they didn’t just stop with diagnosis but concluded with practical steps that parents, schools, and university administrators can take to stem the epidemic of youth depression/anxiety and create environments that encourage freedom of thought. (Get a copy)
7. He Held Radical Light, Christian Wiman
Beautiful, clear; a quick meditation on how poets reckon with their chief obsessions of death, faith, and art. Christian Wiman has a graceful humility and deep-seated wisdom that seem rare among many of his compatriots. (Get a copy)
8. Dreamland, Sam Quinones
Gripping. Relayed in short, episodic little chapters, this book presents a well-researched and heart-rending account of how the opiate epidemic started in America. There are so many different players (Mexican farm boys, disreputable doctors, greedy pharmaceutical execs, sad white kids, devastated parents, law enforcement, etc.), and Sam Quinones juggles them all with ease and skill. (Get a copy)
9. Blood Horses, John Jeremiah Sullivan
Beautifully written, especially the horse bits. I do wish this had been either a book exclusively about horses or exclusively about his father, instead of both. But John Jeremiah Sullivan is such a delightful stylist, with a particular brand of confidential levity that I enjoy. (Get a copy)
10. My Private Property, Mary Ruefle
Terrifically fun and experimental little essays. Mary Ruefle, with levity and feeling, delivers just the kind of thoughtful jolt that I love in an essay collection. (Get a copy)
Educated, Tara Westover
Seculosity, David Zahl
Because Internet, Gretchen McCulloch
Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, Joshua Cohen
Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder
The Book of Delights, Ross Gay
300 Arguments, Sarah Manguso
The Gardener’s Essential Gertrude Jekyll
When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris
The Story of the Human Body, Daniel E. Lieberman
Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss
Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport
Dancing at the Edge of the World, Ursula K. Le Guin
Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel
A World Lit Only By Fire, William Manchester
Never Home Alone, Rob Dunn
*Because of the necessarily niche audience, I have not included in this roundup the 40 or so books I read about pregnancy, birth, and babies. Will write a separate post sharing my favorites. Later.
Far and away, I read a lot of incredible nonfiction in 2019. The stories and novels did not hold my attention as much this year, which I could blame on the baby, perhaps. Postpartum, I was so hungry for information (even non-baby-related information) that I was not able to focus much on stories. That said, these were the 10 best works of fiction I read this year.
1. History, Elsa Morante
I’m perpetually interested in the favorite authors of my favorite authors. Elena Ferrante repeatedly cites Elsa Morante as one of her chief influences, so one of my reading goals of 2019 was to find and read a Morante novel. Her work is not widely translated in English, and many of her novels that were translated are out of print. I asked our lovely local bookstore to order me a copy of History, Morante’s sprawling novel about a Jewish woman on the outskirts of Rome during and after World War II.
History traces the dark and darkly humorous life story of Ida Mancuso, a widowed teacher who discovers that she’s Jewish. After a young German soldier rapes and impregnates her, she gives birth to an unusual and remarkable little boy — whose survival becomes Ida’s passion.
It is absolutely unreal, as a novel, unlike any other historical fiction I’ve ever encountered. Morante writes with force and tireless energy, and her characters are everlasting types, simultaneously and paradoxically embodying both the universal and specific beauty of the human condition. Would rave about it all day long if you let me. (Get a copy)
2. Selected Stories, Nadine Gordimer
Marvelously composed, startling short stories. I took my sweet time with this collection; Gordimer’s incisive, insightful prose invites such a slow, pleasurable reading. Deep and far-ranging, this collection was the perfect introduction to her brilliant narrative mind. (Get a copy)
3. Across the Bridge, Mavis Gallant
In the bleak streets of Montréal, we find Mavis Gallant and her remarkable characters. Beautiful, strange, complex, matchless. (Get a copy)
4. The Emigrants, W.G. Sebald
Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down on the earth from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.
I read a good deal of this aloud to my newborn son while nursing; I dare say the strangely plain and strangely moving paragraphs soothed us both. (Get a copy)
5. Honored Guest, Joy Williams
Death, dogs, and dreams! What’s not to love? (Get a copy)
6. Escapes, Joy Williams
Admittedly, I’m not sure I can distinguish between this one and Honored Guest, but if I read Joy Williams in any given year, she will definitely be in my top 10. (Get a copy)
7. Vertigo, W.G. Sebald
Lovely, and unlike anything else (except other Sebald). I liked it perhaps a bit less than his other novels, but it was still beautiful and thought-provoking. Made me want to go walk all day through an old European city. (Get a copy)
8. The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende
Allende has such an expansive imagination, and that is what primarily makes this novel sing. I followed along happily (with a few small narrative reservations) as she spun this complicated family history in Chile. The characters are memorably complex and unusual, which is always a favorite combination of traits. I did not love the blips of first-person narration from Esteban Trueba, cutting into the majority third-person omniscient narrator. Even though the end makes that choice a bit more sensible, it was distracting to me. Only a small complaint. (Get a copy)
9. Two Lives and a Dream, Marguerite Yourcenar
Not my favorite Yourcenar (can anything compare to Memoirs of Hadrian?), but it is still an outstanding set of three little novels, because she is a genius. Her particular gift for inhabiting the psyches of historical figures is preserved here with a straightforward sense of joy and clarity. (Get a copy)
10. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong
I am writing because they told me to never start a sentence with because. But I wasn’t trying to make a sentence—I was trying to break free. Because freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.
So many beautiful passages and lines, as to be expected! But it is a rather exhausting reading experience. I wanted a break from all the lushness and metaphor, just a bit of reprieve! I always want to tell poets who write longer fiction, “It’s OK: Every sentence does not have to be a poem. Sometimes it is good to have plain, hardworking sentences.” Even still, it is fun to dive in with this, especially if you can treat it like a very long prose poem, which I was admittedly unable to do. (Get a copy)
I have been seized by an inexplicable urge to decide the names of the rest of our sons. I am convinced that if we have other children, we (a) will only have boys, and (b) must determine their full names posthaste. I cannot explain either the origin or urgency of this feeling.
. . .
Unexpected consequences of parenthood thus far
We have become extremely concerned about other babies, even fictional babies. We were watching a comedy series that shall not be named, and Jason Sudeikis left a baby in another room with swords hanging on the wall. The baby was not a critical character in the scene, but Guion and I looked at each other and said in unison, “Someone better go check on that baby!”
We cannot listen to music with any high-pitched crooning, wailing, or wind instruments, because it all sounds like an upset baby—specifically, our upset baby.
We have separately taken on various baby grooming tasks with such devotion that now the other parent does not know how to do the task. Guion trims Moses’s nails, and I give him baths, and we cannot switch duties. I do not know how to trim his nails, and Guion does not know how to give him a bath. I am sure that we both could learn, but we are too far gone in these individual areas of expertise. We will likely carry along on this trajectory until the boy is a teen.
We have effortlessly and guilelessly become those parents who show people photos of our baby that they did not ask to see and have no desire to see and then wait for them to affirm what we know to be deeply, unquestionably true, that he is The Cutest Baby to Have Ever Lived. We have likewise become incapable of detecting dismay or boredom in the faces of our captive audience. We think everyone sees with the same love-blind eyes that we do.
We have started saying things like “It’s such a fun age” without a trace of sarcasm.
We cry whenever someone talks about Mister Rogers.
. . .
“Not claiming your blessedness will lead you quickly to the land of the cursed. There is little or no neutral territory between the land of the blessed and the land of the cursed. You have to choose where it is that you want to live, and that choice is one that you have to keep making from moment to moment.”
— Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved
. . .
This baby is almost seven months old (sob) and recently discovered the incomparable joy of a teddy bear.
In my youth, I read the Bible every day. I was particularly fanatical about it in my early teens, pushing myself deeper into study and memorization. I wanted to know more about the Bible than anyone else, as far as it was within my (overinflated sense of) power. I wrote about scripture every morning, memorized the book of Ephesians and much of 1 Corinthians 15, and ultimately had read through the whole Bible three times by the time I turned 18.
I mention this not to brag but to confess. This obsession with the Bible shape-shifted into a dark, unhealthy thing in my young life. My fanaticism broke something in me. The Book was the method through which, I believed, God would grant me favor and a better standing in the heavenly brackets. (Clearly, I was not absorbing some crucial elements of the good news from those books at the end, the ones with the red parts.) And yet this did not happen. All of this intense Bible reading did not improve my character. I was still as horrible as I’d always been, but now, I was self-righteous about it. Worn out from the posturing and performance, by the time I’d graduated college, I was ready to walk away from the faith of my youth for good.
As it happens, I didn’t walk away, which is another story entirely, but I did stop reading the Bible. My reconfiguration of faith made reading the Bible — an act that was once so vital, so critical to my daily functioning — difficult, even distasteful. For the past eight years, I haven’t been able to read the Bible on a regular basis, as much as I’ve tried. I bought new translations, handsomely bound pocket editions, concordances, gigantic ones with commentary. I told myself I’d start memorizing scripture again; I’d read through books during Lent; we’d study the Bible together before dinner. None of it appealed to me (and none of it worked or lasted). It’s not that I wasn’t reading; I was still reading 100 or more books a year. But none of them were the Bible.
I’m still unsure how to fully explain this lapse in Bible reading, but what I do know is that this eight-year break has been restorative. This is a weird thing to say, and my inner evangelical recoils with shame. (To admit such a thing — that not reading the Bible has seemed good for me — verges on serious blasphemy in the circles of my youth.) But it has been. I have been able to enjoy scripture with some distance from it, hearing it every Sunday at church, but I have not buried myself in it; I have not approximated that personal, daily closeness that I once had.
Still, these many years later, I have missed that fervent reader I once knew. Over the past year, I have felt I’m in a healthier, safer place (thanks to the grace of our church, chipping away at my grotesque heart for nearly a decade now), and I have wondered how I could start reading the Bible again. What would it take?
Having a baby, apparently, was what it took. For the past month, in the early hours of the morning, I have read the Bible while nursing Moses. I read it on my phone, needing a free hand to baby-wrangle, which is a new (and not entirely awesome) experience for me. (I’m using the ESV app, which is super-glitchy and full of glaring UX flaws, but it has one of the least gross text interfaces I found.) But it has been working. I have been, to my outrageous surprise, sticking with it.
Leading thoughts thus far? It’s good to be back. And it was right to be away.
I have realized that the Book is still so much with me (and always has been). Even though I clearly didn’t learn much and did not become a better person, all of those years spent reading the Bible shaped my brain and memory. I can still recall scripture easily and with joy. My purity of heart remains Level: Garbage Dump/100% Unrepentant Sinner, but I can remember a weird quantity of the early prophets and the Pauline epistles.
And yet there is still much that surprises me. This is the dual-sided nature of returning to the Bible: I remember so much, and I remember so little.
Specifically, while nursing Moses at 4 in the morning, I was floored by this exchange from Psalm 77, which struck me as just the thing.
I consider the days of old,
the years long ago.
I said, “Let me remember my song in the night;
let me meditate in my heart.”
Then my spirit made a diligent search:
“Will the Lord spurn forever,
and never again be favorable?
Has his steadfast love forever ceased?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”
I’d forgotten about how delightful that experience is, when reading scripture, when you stumble on just the thing — the small word, the errant phrase that is precisely what you needed. This is the pleasure of such a vast, beautiful Book: It lives alongside you.
I read this and actually said aloud, astonished, “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” Moses paused and looked up at me and grinned.
In all of these long years away, I had forgotten many things. The remembering has brought a rush of pleasure and contemplation. Returning, now, has felt like the right thing, considering the days of old, the years long ago.
. . .
It’s super-lame when parents say, “This is such a fun age,” but good grief, this IS such a fun age! Moses is five months old now and narrowly holding onto his title as World’s Best Baby. (Woke up at 3:30 in the morning chirping like a pterodactyl, not sleepy at all! Sleep is silly!)
Our dear friend Kyo came to visit for the weekend, which was a real delight, as he always brings a lot of levity and thoughtfulness to every conversation. One of my favorite conversations oriented around this Emily Dickinson poem, which he shared with us:
In many and reportless places
We feel a Joy —
Reportless, also, but sincere as Nature
Or Deity —
It comes, without a consternation —
Dissolves — the same —
But leaves a sumptuous Destitution —
Without a Name —
Profane it by a search — we cannot
It has no home —
Nor we who having once inhaled it —
It has been rolling around in my mind all weekend — the fluctuating, dissolving nature of mundane joys. I have been thinking of these vanishing delights as I light the beeswax candles or repaint the grout on the bathroom floor or pick up Moses in the morning from his crib.
Perhaps it is fruitless to dissect or name these pleasures, as Dickinson suggests, or even to try to replicate them. They come and go as they please, and we’re left in that ineffable state, resting in our sumptuous destitution. As summer burns away and fall approaches, I find that I am more mindful of these domestic, everyday joys. It shall soon be time to stay in the dull, reportless places, and yet even there, we are experiencing the richness and fullness of life.
The poem hits me strongly because of autumn, but also because of baby.
Now, in month four with Moses, I sense a return to old ways and old pleasures. I didn’t think I’d feel this way in those traumatic early days. I kind of felt ruined, if I’m being honest. And now, things are forever different, of course — gone are the days of spiriting away to a restaurant on a whim! Ne’er shall we leave the house without a tremendous amount of infant paraphernalia! — but the small activities that buoyed the spirits are now capable of being rediscovered. Such as: Painting one’s toenails. Reading a book. Making oatmeal the slow way. Writing words down in a notebook.
Yesterday, for the first time since Moses was born, Guion and I enjoyed one of our “quiet nights” — a screen-free evening for reading and writing. In our recent childless days, we used to enshrine them in our week. These evenings are much harder to come by since we’ve added this little person to our home, but I felt last night how deeply I have missed and needed them. I read a little of Nell Zink’s new novel, Doxology, and tried to get through John O’Donohue’s Anam Cara but couldn’t (it’s almost too lyrical) and felt a vast pleasure wash over me. The days with Moses are full and heartwarming, but the evenings without him can be also (especially now that he’s sleeping through the night!).
(Upon copying the text of the poem, I’m also reminded that Anne Carson has played with it in Men in the Off Hours, splicing Dickinson’s letters to Thomas Higginson with some thoughts on the way we read women. Have you a little chest to put the Alive in? Dickinson! What a bone-chilling genius! I have come off the weekend convinced that we do not talk about her nearly enough and feel that I need to read the giant tome of her complete poems daily, like a liturgy.)
. . .
Obligatory baby photo: Enjoying his first flight! Visiting dearly beloved (and missed) friends in Chicago.
Before having a baby, I appreciated hearing from other moms that the deep/eternal/life-altering mother-love doesn’t always happen instantly. Even my mom, the paragon of virtuous motherhood, admitted she didn’t love me at first. “You were this strange little big-eyed alien,” she said. “I loved my nephew a lot more than I loved you, and you were my baby!” My dad also chimed in to add that he didn’t really love any of us until we were at least six or seven months old.
Thus established, it now feels freeing to confess that I don’t think I loved Moses at first. The primary emotion I had, after giving birth, was Thank God that’s over, not Bring the light of my life to my chest so that I can gaze upon his perfect brow! I liked him, sure, and I wanted to meet all of his needs and keep him safe and happy, but I wouldn’t call it love. Especially during that brutal first month, my primary emotional state was a mix of bewilderment and exhaustion.
Today, now that we are three months in, I am pleased to say that the feeling has come. I think about him all day long now. I want his little body to be close to mine as much as possible. Securing his joy seems like the only task that matters in life. He is also so CUTE. Just the cutest. I don’t care if I’m blinded by bias; it’s all I can think when I look at him. I mean, look at this little doofus:
All this to say: I am happy that the feeling has come. I suspect it will last. And then, soon, in a matter of months, when he becomes more cognizant, his father and I will both have to work hard to keep him from becoming a spoiled little princeling, lest all this overbearing love make him totally unbearable.
. . .
Perhaps it is a sign that I am getting old, but I long for moderation. I want to regulate and conserve my life. I want to use what I have. I want to keep the company of temperate people.
. . .
“The advantage of motherhood for a woman artist is that it puts her in immediate and inescapable contact with the sources of life, death, beauty, growth, corruption. … If the woman artist has been trained to believe that the activities of motherhood are trivial, tangential to the main issues of life, irrelevant to the great themes of literature, she should untrain herself. The training is misogynist, it protects and perpetuates systems of thought and feeling which prefer violence and death to love and birth, and it is a lie.”
— Alicia Ostriker
. . .
A lovely neighbor, the mother of two beautiful boys, sent me an email after Moses was born, asking me how I was adapting to my new life. She wrote, of her own experience with her firstborn son, “I was all strung out and anxious and generally uncomfortable and homesick for my old life for a lot of those early days.”
I loved her use of the word homesick, because I think it perfectly captures this new state of being. It’s a curious homesickness, because all of the trappings of your old life are still there: Your home hasn’t changed. It is the same, and yet your experience of it is completely altered. It is hard not to miss the old ways. I find myself frequently telling Guion, “I miss you.” I feel like I never see him anymore, even though we arguably see each other more than we ever did before.
It is a long period of adjustment, I suppose. At least the reason for all of this internal upheaval is very cute. That helps.
I apparently have a wretched memory for lyrics, demonstrated by my fraught desire to sing hymns to him while he drifts off to sleep. I can only get through a verse before I start making up lines.
I have, perhaps, idolized having a sense of “control” over my daily life.
It is therefore hard to have one’s idols toppled.
I consistently miscalculated how hard this would be.
It is silly to be frustrated with a baby.
Babies cannot be reasoned with.
But I will still try, and I will drive myself to the edge of madness trying to apply reason to the baby’s behavior.
I thus become comfortable with living on the edge of madness.
This edge of madness seems like a new (albeit claustrophobic) home.
So I settle in to this new habitat, congratulating myself for showering, remembering how to drive, and speaking a full sentence in the morning without mixing up any of the nouns.
The new habitat also reveals that kissing babies is extremely delightful.
It is best to do it as many times as possible on any given day.
. . .
As I suspected, I continue to be very interested in dogs, but I am also more interested in babies on the whole, babies as a universal concept and lived experience. This I did not expect. I even find other people’s babies pretty interesting now. I want to stare and them and find out what they know.
. . .
Pyrrha, our German shepherd, has been a silent angel during these past two months of life with Moses. I wasn’t sure how she’d behave, and I’ve been impressed and grateful for her calm acceptance of this new, often bewildering, creature. She greets him in the morning with a gentle lick to the back of his head or feet, and then she quietly lies down on her rug in the hall, waiting for someone to give her a little attention. She doesn’t stress when he screams (making her the calmest family in the moment).
The other afternoon, I was in the kitchen when he woke up from a nap, and I swear Pyrrha had the purest Lassie moment. I didn’t hear his cries at first, and so Pyrrha got up from her post in the hall, walked up to me in the kitchen and looked me in the eye with concern. She then walked back down the hall toward the baby’s room and stood in front of the door, glancing back at me, as if to say, “Lady, the baby needs you! Please follow me and perform your God-given duties before I have to intervene.”
She’s a good girl.
. . .
During my maternity leave, I was a little depressed to learn that reading is rather difficult while nursing. I can do it if I have a lightweight and semi-floppy paperback that I can hold with one hand, but because Moses has been a rather high-maintenance feeder, I’ve only read a few books during my leave, which is almost up. This has been a bummer. (And no, I don’t want a Kindle. I hate reading on them so much that I’d almost rather not read anything at all.)
As a consolation, I’m really into email newsletters right now. Nicole Cliffe’s has been a daily delight, along with her wise and often hilarious advice column at Slate, Care and Feeding. (Leah Finnegan’s Leah Letter is my other favorite newsletter, but she only writes once every few months. But when she does, it’s worth the wait.) I just wanted to give some public thanks to Nicole Cliffe for getting me through much of my maternity leave with amusing ideas and great articles to add to Pocket and read during that long 3 a.m. feed.
. . .
My esoteric titles are a holdover from my moody days as a teen blogger, which is a real shame, but I can’t help it. I don’t often write posts focused on a single topic, and so choosing some title that could have been a tantalizingly vague AIM away message, circa 2005, well, it continues to appeal to me. No regrets.
In my current state, I am not to be trusted with basic tasks. I rarely know the day of the week. I was once very adept at remembering names, and now I have a hard time recalling the names of people with whom I’m casually acquainted, people whose names I really ought to know. The burners on the stove have been left going for an uncomfortably long time. Four or five times since Moses was born, we’ve left the front door either (a) slightly open or (b) with the keys in the lock all night long. It’s amazing we’re all still alive, unmurdered, safe in our beds. We may have all of our limbs, but we do not have all of our faculties.
I am also strangely clumsy, in a way that I was not before. I trip over things; I stub my toes; I catch myself going up and down stairs. Moses has been an unfortunate victim of my clumsiness as well. The other day, I dropped the small portable sound machine on his face while trying to put him down for a nap. He released that scream of betrayal, winding up with soundless rage and then releasing a florid wail; it’s such a genuinely heartbreaking sound. I bumped his legs against the outdoor umbrella. I caught his foot under the arm of a rocking chair. I somehow scraped his temple with the prong of my engagement ring. Guion watches me do all of these things and looks at me with silent (but still gentle) reproach. I know, I know; I don’t know what’s wrong with me either.
Despite these notable declines in my ability to function, I have become extremely efficient in simple domestic tasks. In the hour or so of free time I get between feeds (if I’m lucky), I run around the house, possessed. I can finish a small calligraphy print in half an hour. I can clean both bathrooms in 10 minutes. I can unload the dishwasher, get dressed, and make our bed before the little dragon wakes.
I am not sure how to relax. Everyone tells you to “sleep when the baby sleeps,” and I’m all for that between the hours of 9 p.m. and 9 a.m., but I can’t seem to master the art of daytime napping. I’m too distracted; there are too many (little, meaningless) things on my to-do list. To sleep in the day seems to squander what little productive time I have. It is difficult to give up this mindset. Perhaps I am not meant to be productive right now. I have already done a hell of a lot of producing. See example below:
He is six weeks old now, and while we are still in the thick of it, I feel less afraid. I no longer dread nights. (By all accounts, for his age, he seems to be a pretty good sleeper. Some nights are much better than others.) I do not spend my waking hours wondering if he is OK. I am pretty sure he is OK. He will live. One day, he will be a small boy, and then a man.
. . .
I loved reading this column by poet Sabrina Orah Mark in the Paris Review while pregnant, and it has taken on a greater resonance now, now that I too have a son. She writes beautifully about fairy tales and the intersection of these long-held fables with her work raising boys.
I dropped Noah home, and ran off to Target. I pass the girl’s department, and a T-shirt flashes at me: THE FUTURE IS FEMALE. Sorry, Nibs, Tootles, Slightly, Curly, Twin One, and Twin Two. Sorry, John and Michael. Sorry, my sons: the future is female. Sorry, Peter Pan, we’re over you.
I think a lot about boys. About raising mine to be sensitive, and effective, and strange, and lovely, and kind, and funny, and brave. I want them to be boys who keep their shadows on, and who belong to a future. Boys who understand the difference between a thimble and a kiss. Worry picks at me like Hook’s metal claw. I want their boyness to bloom. I want to keep them safe.
In our well-intentioned desire to give girls as much chance and confidence as boys have been historically given, I sometimes fear that we have swung too far. Our feminism for our daughters is notoriously shallow, rooted in empty slogans and engineered to pit girls and boys against each other. These days, among adults of our social order, girls are better; girls are prized. Boys are difficult; boys are troubled.
I’m guilty of buying into it myself. While pregnant, I wasn’t shy about expressing my hope that our baby would be a girl. Everyone else seemed to want a girl too. Girls are marketed as easier to raise and temperamentally superior.
Now, of course, I feel differently. I want to openly reject this paradigm; I lament that I was seduced by it. Girlhood ultimately does not profit by our denigration of boyhood. Both girls and boys must be allowed to blossom in free, natural ways, ways inherent to their natures. Specifically, I reject this expectation that boys, if they are to be labeled “good,” should conduct themselves — in play, in public, in school — like girls.
I don’t know anything yet about raising a child. I’m still figuring out how to keep a baby and myself fed every day. But I want to be more thoughtful about raising a boy. I want to start pondering that work now, to consider how I can help Moses’ boyness bloom. The future is his as well.