Another home birth story

Guion, Moses, and I are very pleased to welcome the newest member of our family: Felix. He arrived at 6:44 a.m. on Saturday, July 31, in the following fashion.

We went to bed early on Friday and tried to wind down. I wasn’t feeling like anything was happening and was feeling frustrated. Even though Friday was his official due date, I was very tired of being heavily pregnant at the end of July and hopeful that we would have another timely boy (Moses arrived the day after his due date). Aside from very regular Braxton-Hicks contractions, nothing else seemed to be happening.

As we read in bed, we suddenly discovered an apropos moment of “meta-confluence,” the made-up term that Guion and I use to refer to a strange reference or resonance found in two different works of art or media. Guion was reading W.G. Sebald’s novel The Rings of Saturn, and I was reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s new history of the Sackler dynasty, Empire of Pain. Within a page of each other, Sebald referenced St. Felix, and Keefe mentioned that Arthur Sackler named his second son Arthur Felix. Guion looked at me and said, “It’s a sign. He’s coming tonight.” I still didn’t believe him, but I wanted it to be true.

I was very restless in bed, so Guion went upstairs to sleep in the guest room. Even though I’d closed my eyes for an hour or so, I woke up around 11 just wired. I was wide awake and full of energy. I even had the completely illogical and completely out-of-character thought that I should just get up and go for a run (at midnight, 9 months pregnant). It was around then that contractions started to feel a little painful and crampy and I got up and started preparing the house for a birth. I started timing them a bit myself and then walked upstairs and told Guion to wake up; things might be happening for real.

Even still, I was in denial. My contractions were coming about two minutes apart and picking up in intensity, and I was still telling myself that maybe this wasn’t the real thing. When I called our midwife to give her an update around 2:30 a.m., I asked her if maybe I was just in prodromal labor. She just started quietly laughing at me on the phone. “Prodromal labor, that’s a good one,” she said. “No, this is real.” Within an hour, our same birth team for Moses had assembled: Kelly, our fantastic midwife; Sara, her marvelous assistant midwife; and Meredith, our God-given, extremely gracious doula.

I spent the early part of labor standing and bouncing on the birth ball in the kitchen. Pacing the kitchen and gripping the counter was comforting to me. I was trying to meditate on the famous image of the Hokusai painting of the wave, which I had just seen the night before at my parents’ Airbnb. Visualizing the contractions as riding that precise wave was partially helpful. Guion and Meredith rubbed my back and pressed my hips and encouraged me through each intensifying contraction.

From there, I moved into the living room, where the birth tub had been set up, and this provided some welcome distraction and relief for a time. I wasn’t able to stay in one place for long, though, and soon moved back and forth from there to the bathroom to our bed. In contrast with Moses’s birth, which was frankly a traumatic fog (even though an ultimately positive experience), I felt so much more lucid this time around. I knew what to expect, and I knew it would get harder before it got easier, but I wasn’t as frightened.

Another difference with this labor and Moses’s was the fact that this time, I experienced much longer periods of rest between contractions. This alarmed me some, as I worried I was regressing or not bringing Felix out into the world in the right way. But the rest was very welcome at the same time.

I continued moving around the house and felt that things were intensifying. I focused on changing the register of my yells, which had been so high-pitched with Moses, and trying to send them down and bring Felix out. I would still resort to high screams from time to time and have to correct myself repeatedly, but I think some of the more primal yells began to become effective. Guion remarked afterward, “You tapped into something… wild.” I remember feeling so grateful that my parents had taken Moses to sleep at their Airbnb that night, just as a trial run, because I definitely would have woken him up with my “vocalizations.”

I returned to the tub for a few pushes but felt like I couldn’t stay there; I needed a stronger, more stable position, and I felt like standing. I got out of the tub and told Guion I wanted to stand and push. With my arms wrapped around his neck and shoulders, I pushed and, praise God, Felix’s head came out. At this moment, I heard him start to cry, and the birth team all started laughing. I couldn’t see it, of course, but they said he was swiveling his head around like The Exorcist, looking around and wailing, before the rest of his body was out. In another blessed push or two, he was out. Sara caught him and handed him to me and guided us to the sofa, where we rested and marveled.

This time around, I felt so much more joy and relief and accomplishment, due in large part to the fact that Felix took about six hours (and only about 45 minutes of pushing), compared with 23 hours with Moses and nearly 5.5 hours of pushing. Felix was a whole pound bigger than his brother, clocking in at 8 lbs., 10 oz., and yet the birth and recovery have already been so much smoother. Power of the body being ready the second time around, I suppose!

We’re so grateful for another positive, affirming, and empowering home birth experience and for the incredible support of our midwives and doula. Moses is mildly interested in his new baby brother and adapting well to the new environment, thanks to a lot of help from my parents this week. (He seems to be much more excited about the present that “Felix” got him: a tool set.)

We’re resting well at home and enjoying figuring out what the two-boy life looks like, filled with gratitude and that still-familiar mixture of exhaustion and awe.

Not the center of the universe

I was talking recently with some writer friends about the lost art of omniscient narration. Today, they said, if you submit fiction to an MFA program that’s in third person, it’s considered shocking, avant-garde. Almost everything now is wrapped in a first-person perspective. Even articles that may have once been written as straightforward journalism are peppered with “I,” centered in the author’s voice.

We invest so much, as 21st-century readers, in the identity of the speaker. 

In our cultural moment, flooded with an endless stream of media, it has become imperative to know who the writer is, where they went to school, what they look like, and how they vote. Because we’re confronted with so much text all day long, it seems efficient to make snap judgments about an author’s biography before we invest in reading a piece. When a writer puts herself into the story, too, we perceive this as a credentialing, comforting gesture. We demand to know some surface-level facts about the author before we will deign to hear her story. 

I may be a naïve, old-fashioned English major, but I miss the detached writing of bygone eras. Returning to the omniscient voices of Tolstoy, Flaubert, or George Eliot is deeply refreshing to me. I yearn for the austere, deliberate journalism of decades past, written by the likes of John McPhee or the Pulitzer Prize–winning power couple Susan and Neil Sheehan, who would not dare to insert themselves into the stories they were relaying.

As my own writing suggests, however, it is far easier to place ourselves at the centers of the stories we tell. But what would it take for us to remove ourselves from the narrative? What is lost if we keep insisting that our point of view is the only way a story can be told?

To take a cue from Tolstoy, we lose the great benefit of exploring other perspectives. Consider how much less rich and gloriously multifaceted War and Peace would have been if Tolstoy had written it in first person. We’d only ever hear Natasha’s thoughts from a drawing room, which would frustratingly limit our grasp of the created universe. 

If we are so invested in storytelling from our exclusive vantage point, we grow blind to the ideas and motivations of others. Perhaps we ought to practice detaching ourselves more often: to consider that other stories, especially those that diverge from our own, might be just as worthy. 

Maybe my thoughts aren’t the fulcrum of the known world. Maybe other people have tales to tell too. Maybe I could be a vessel for other voices, if I could put myself aside for just a moment.

From this week’s issue of Story Matters

. . .

“Surely this is just the theme with which we began: the way an environment of high informational density produces people of low personal density. A world that seems to give us infinite choice actually makes choice nearly impossible: the informational context chooses for us. And what that means—Rousseau brings us something new here, something essential—is that our web of information determines what we love. Thus Saint-Preux: from day to day, ‘I cannot be sure what I will love.’”

— Alan Jacobs, Breaking Bread With the Dead

. . .

Moses turned 2 on Mother’s Day, fittingly, and he seems to become more and more like a kid every day. Still has no idea what’s coming in a few months, that his charmed, solipsistic life is about to be totally upended by a little baby. It’ll be good for him (for all of us, I hope).

Rather than in the world itself

The older I get, the more I care about understanding history. I pretend like I have a basic grasp of the sequence of modern world events, but the more I read, the more I realize how facile and shallow my understanding has been. (This is always one of the great, humbling pleasures of reading, in my experience.) To this end, I have been enjoying two riveting books: The House of Government, by Yuri Slezkine, and Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe.

The House of Government is a saga of the Soviet Revolution, with an enormous cast of real-life characters presented in a Tolstoyan array, which makes for very enjoyable reading. This is a big benefit, because the book is nearly 1,100 pages long. You’re going to want it to be interesting and well-written. Slezkine is a talented historian, with a far-ranging grasp of his subjects, and a personal investment in the history, being a former Soviet himself (who is now a professor at UC Berkeley). I’m learning a lot, and my mistrust of socialism (and of the American young people who claim to love it) only continues to grow.

Say Nothing traces the forgotten murder of a widowed mother of 10 in Northern Ireland in 1972, weaving her tragic story into the overall scope of IRA activity during the Troubles (especially focused on some high-profile IRA actors, such as Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes). Aside from watching both seasons of the (excellent) show Derry Girls, I have been woefully under-educated about the terror and violence that afflicted Northern Ireland for decades, and this book is making quick work of amending this gap in my information.

. . .

“What if we got rid of television? The Internet? It would give us back our sense of place, but also our pain, and for that reason it’s a nonstarter, absence of pain being what we strive for and have always striven for, this is the essence of modern life. It’s why we live in the image of the world rather than in the world itself.”

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, “Idiots of the Cosmos,” from In the Land of the Cyclops

. . .

Moses is growing up quickly, and it is hard for us to believe, in the parlance of parents, that he will be 2 next month. He is chatty, curious, and bossy, and we love spending time with him in the garden or squiring him around to all of the local parks. His little curls are coming in quite nicely, too, which makes us loath to give him a much-needed haircut.

It will also be hard for him to believe that he’s getting a baby brother, due late in the summer. Sometimes, I confess, I also forget about this, but that’s becoming increasingly harder to do the larger I get. (And this is a boisterous dude, who is really enjoying kick-punching me as much as he can.)

Guion and I are both excited and frightened about having another baby, as the memories of the doldrums of newborn life are never far from me. (A friend from my writing group just reminded me of the existence of the witching hour, and I felt a fresh sense of panic about that happening again.) But there are sweet things, too, right? Like: Swaddling, putting them in baskets or other small receptacles, smelling their heads and skin, laying them down on the floor and watching them not be able to go anywhere, etc., etc. These are nice things about babies.

53 best books for 1-year-olds

Moses loves reading, which makes me incredibly happy, of course. One of his favorite things to request is “Cozy Mosey,” which is when we wrap him up in a fuzzy blanket on the sofa and read as many books to him as we can stomach without feeling crazy. He would sit there all day, taking the books in and going hard on his thumb, asking for us to read the book “again! again!” as soon as we finish.

Following is a list of his most-loved, most-requested books from his year as a one-year-old, categorized by broad theme. Some you’ll recognize, and some, I hope, may be new to you.

Realistic Life

We ascribe to the Montessori philosophy that argues that it’s important for babies to read as many books about the real world as possible (and to keep them from fantasy for as long as you can). I’m always excited to find books, especially illustrated ones (in addition to the photography books mentioned below), that achieve this. These are some of Moses’s favorites in this category.

  • The Midnight Farm, Reeve Lindbergh
  • All the World, Liz Garton Scanlon
  • Everywhere Babies, Susan Meyers
  • Ten Fingers and Ten Little Toes, Mem Fox
  • My Heart Fills With Happiness, Monique Gray Smith
  • Peekaboo Morning, Rachel Isadora
  • A Perfect Day, Carin Berger

The Natural World

Related to our preference for books that depict realistic life, I like to find books for Moses that show animals behaving in natural ways (e.g., not speaking, not drawn fantastically, etc.).

  • Some Bugs, Angela DiTerlizzi
  • One Gorilla, Anthony Browne
  • The Home Builders, Varsha Bajaj

Photography

Similarly, I’m always excited to find a high-quality book featuring photographs rather than illustration. These were some of his most-requested books with photos throughout the year.

  • Let’s Find Momo!, Andrew Knapp
  • Global Babies, Global Fund for Children
  • Global Baby Boys, Global Fund for Children
  • Baby Play, Skye Silver
  • Look and Learn: Birds, National Geographic for Kids
  • Curious Critters of Virginia, David FitzSimmons
  • Creature: Baby Animals, Andrew Zuckerman
  • First 100 Words, Roger Priddy

Animal Protagonists

Animals are usually the center of kids’ stories, for whatever reason, and Moses adored these in particular.

  • Good Morning, Farm Friends, Annie Bach
  • Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, Bill Martin, Jr.
  • Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What Do You Hear?, Bill Martin, Jr.
  • Little Owl Lost, Chris Haughton
  • Bear Snores On, Karma Wilson
  • Giraffes Can’t Dance, Giles Andreae
  • Rosie’s Walk, Pat Hutchins
  • Ooko, Esme Shapiro
  • A Good Day, Kevin Henkes
  • Little White Bunny, Kevin Henkes
  • Owl Babies, Martin Waddell
  • Harry the Dirty Dog, Gene Zion
  • Time for a Hug, Phillis Gershator

Art and Culture

It was kind of the cutest thing ever to hear baby Moses saying “Matisse! Matisse!” at bedtime, requesting his favorite painter, set to rhyme.

  • In the Garden with Van Gogh, Julie Merberg
  • A Magical Day with Matisse, Julie Merberg
  • Home, Carson Ellis
  • What a Wonderful World, Bob Thiele

Interactive Books

If the book has flaps or some kind of game, Moses is IN.

  • Peter Rabbit’s Touch and Feel Book, Beatrix Potter
  • Lois Looks for Bob at the Beach, Nosy Crow
  • Peek-a-Who?, Nina Laden
  • Press Here, Hervé Tullet

Books for Baby Christians

I find so many books about Christianity for babies to be absolutely insipid and unbearable (do not even get me started on the outrageous narcissism of On the Night You Were Born), but these three did not bother me, and Moses really liked them as well. (Sally Lloyd-Jones is hard to beat in this category!)

  • Found: Psalm 23, Sally Lloyd-Jones
  • Loved: The Lord’s Prayer, Sally Lloyd-Jones
  • Who Sang the First Song?, Ellie Holcomb

Classics, Old and New

I mean, they’re classics for a reason!

  • Goodnight Moon, Margaret Wise Brown
  • The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Eric Carle
  • The Wonderful Things You Will Be, Emily Winfield Martin

Funny Books

One-year-olds have a sense of humor! Moses loves to laugh at these books in particular.

  • The Pout-Pout Fish, Deborah Diesen
  • Mustache Baby, Bridget Heos
  • I’ll Love You Till the Cows Come Home, Kathryn Cristaldi
  • King Baby, Kate Beaton
  • Hug Machine, Scott Campbell

Things That Go

Boys are apparently born with a gene that makes them love vehicles.

  • Alphabet Trucks, Samantha R. Vamos
  • Little Blue Truck, Alice Schertle
  • Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site, Shelly Duskey Rinker

What else should Moses have read this year?

When the lights of health go down

For most of the century, we have done a marvelous job at removing the specter of disease and death in the Western world. Death is often presented as a problem that can be solved, or at the very least, battled and delayed for as long as possible. We prefer not to ever think or talk about it. The pandemic, however, has forced us to confront the closeness of death—and the unpredictability of our citizenship in the country of the well. The prospect of illness raises our primal hackles. We want to hide ourselves away, find safe refuge, and locate and then hoard a cure.

I’m in a weird place with my own mortality, as I suspect many of us are, and I’ve been thinking and reading a lot lately about the landscape of illness. It is a terrain that is marked by paltry language and often poorly told stories. We don’t know how to talk about our bodies; the paradoxes of medicine confound us; words fail. We are often at a loss for words to describe how we feel in our mortal frames. How can I express the pain I feel to someone who is not feeling it? Are our bodies our allies? Or are they our enemies, liable to betray us at any moment? When will we pass over into that shadowy country of sickness?

Two luminous writers always come to my mind on the subject of the sick: Virginia Woolf, in her essay “On Being Ill,” which you can read in its entirety online, and Susan Sontag’s short, deep book Illness as Metaphor, written after her cancer diagnosis.

Both Woolf and Sontag discuss landscapes and countries when they reach for language about health. Sontag references “the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick,” and Woolf writes, eloquently,

“Consider how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view, what precipices and lawns sprinkled with bright flowers a little rise of temperature reveals, what ancient and obdurate oaks are uprooted in us by the act of sickness….”

When the lights of health go down, we retreat inward—and somehow find ourselves in an “undiscovered country,” as Woolf says. I have found it helpful, in my own illnesses, to have a richer internal language about sickness. The country may still be unknown, but its borders may now have ramparts supported by a stronger vocabulary. In this vein, I’ve gathered stories about the body and what happens when its machinery runs predictably and when it doesn’t. Stay warm, and be well, dear reader.

Excerpted from this week’s issue of Story Matters.

. . .

I’m a poor excuse for a real Episcopalian, but I have enjoyed, since my conversion, participating in the liturgical calendar. The season of Lent feels especially poignant this year, in the endless pandemic. We are finding ways to be more intentional about it this year: to read more poetry, light more candles, watch less TV, pursue fewer mindless distractions. The weather is an absolute nightmare, so it has been a fitting time to be somber and meditative. There’s nothing else to do: no one to see, nowhere to go. We think about all of the things we have to be grateful for, and we feel humbled to count so many.

Moses, for his part, is very thankful for snow plows:

And I was thankful to spy these four hidden deer in the woods on a cold morning walk with Pyrrha:

We are quiet and we are trying to be at rest, but we are more eager for spring than ever.

Don’t get a dog if you also want kids

This is something I wish someone would have told me when I was childless, although I definitely wouldn’t have listened to them.

My passion for dogs was (and sometimes still feels) blinding. I have always loved them. I dream about them. On the street, I still look at dogs far more than I look at people or children. I want to talk to all of them. Even though I am writing this essay right now, I confess that, in downtime on the internet, I browse profiles of dogs who need to be adopted in my area. I look up breeders for rarer breeds that I want to acquire one day (a silken windhound! A kooikerhondje!), as if that were a decision I was even remotely close to making. Like my father and grandmother before me, dogs are a defining passion of my life.

As soon as I married, getting a dog was the next thing on my to-do list. I read 65 books (not kidding) about dog behavior and training. I started a blog about dogs to temper my enthusiasm while I waited for us to move into a rental that would let us get one. After a few years, my kind, endlessly patient husband, despite not being much of a dog fan himself, finally accepted a move to a mold-infested cottage that allowed dogs, and we welcomed a dog into our home. And not just any dog—a dog who, despite receiving nothing but gentleness from him for nine years, still despises and fears him. We adopted her, a traumatized German shepherd from a rescue, and subsequently welcomed seven other traumatized German shepherds into our home as fosters in the course of the next two years, including adopting another psychotic but affectionate shepherd for a stint of four years.

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I say all of this to emphasize that I have done my TIME. I am not a dog-hating witch. If anything, I write this warning because I love dogs as much as I do, and I wish someone had asked me to think about the long-term commitment to a canine a bit more carefully.

I get why this is a trend. Millennials, like myself, tend to get dogs first rather than have children, because dogs are much cheaper and a far, far less significant investment of your life. They also happen to bring unconditional love and companionship, which are huge bonuses. Most of the couples we know did what we did: Get a dog in the early, child-free years of marriage, have fun, and then have kids later, when the poor dog is old and when you will start to resent it for the tiny amount of time and energy it demands from you. It is a sad but very familiar pattern.

Sweet Pyrrha is nearly 10 and continues to live with us. Daily, her life grows a bit more constrained. Our toddler has started the phase of recognizing that he has power over her, if he wants, and we are teaching him every day that he has to be gentle and that he cannot pull her tail or ears while she begs for food from his perch in his high-chair. Still, she is patient and gentle, even if we do our utmost to protect her from him. They’re not allowed to be in the same space unattended, ever. This requires daily traffic control, and already, I can feel it getting tedious. She gets far fewer walks than she ever did, because I can’t walk her and keep Moses from running into traffic at the same time. And yet, she doesn’t complain. She’s as sweet and gentle as she ever was, and she has adapted to her second-class role admirably.

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And so, here’s the thing: I love my kid. I also love my dog. It’s BECAUSE I love my dog that I now wish we didn’t have her. It’s not fair to her. She was the center of my world for eight years, and now, even though she hasn’t changed at all and is still the easiest dog in the world, I find myself resenting her. Does she have to sleep in the hallway and trip me and the toddler every day? Has she always kind of smelled? Is the shedding always this horrible? Have I always had to vacuum two to three times every day? She irritates me now, and it breaks my heart to admit it. She’s still the super-weird, terrified, sweet, sweet dog that she has always been. But our life has changed profoundly. And it’s changed to her detriment.

What’s a childless, dog-loving but maybe-child-wanting person to do?

Wait. Please. For the sake of your future dog and future self as a parent, wait. Volunteer at a shelter. Offer to pet-sit or walk a neighbor’s dog. My father has found an outlet for his extreme dog-love over the years by functionally adopting his neighbors’ dogs. They are often found at my parents’ house, eating from his hand and sleeping at his feet, or riding along with him on trips to Lowe’s. Again, I wouldn’t have listened if you told me to wait, but I am saying it now, in penance. 

Compromise: If, like me, your passion for a dog is a blinding force of your life, ponder this counsel. If you think you don’t want kids for a few years yet, adopt a senior dog from a rescue. For God’s sake, don’t get a puppy. Give that senior dog the best life possible for whatever years he or she has left. By the time you have to say goodbye, you’ll be ready to consider child-rearing and be dog-free.

If you already have kids, wait until your oldest is solidly in elementary school AND you feel like you have the spare energy and interest to take care of another living creature. The first is because babies, toddlers, and dogs often don’t mix well (mostly because it’s hard to teach either of them anything that sticks), and dog bites are a serious consideration with young ones. Any dog can bite. Do not underestimate this or expect your dog to be the adult in every situation. You be the adult and protect your dog and your kid from each other. This makes me crazy.

On my second point: Dogs require a lot of work, especially if they live in your home, as the majority of dogs today do. It’s not like the olden farm-dog days, when you sent them out to pasture and threw them some kibble now and then. You’re welcoming an animal into your house, and that requires a LOT of patience and training. The “puppy” stage can last for a year or two. Think long and hard about that.

Don’t make the decision lightly. A dog, especially a young one, is a commitment of a decade and then some. I wish I had thought more seriously about the prospect of children back then, even though I know I wouldn’t have ultimately taken this advice. I know you won’t listen, because I wouldn’t have, but I felt compelled to share, all the same. God bless and keep you and your pups and progeny.

The joyful thread

I was talking to Zack yesterday about information overload. He was listening to me complain about all of the micro-decisions and risk calculations that the pandemic foists upon us. I confessed that I had been falling prey to the temptation that more information could give me the answers I was looking for: more studies! More vaccine dashboards! More gloomy line graphs! More news stories! Maybe they would tell me what decisions were safe to make.

Zack listened to me whinge for a while and then patiently reminded me that people weren’t built to handle this much information. We don’t have the internal mechanisms—much less the emotional foresight—to process this much data. We’re not robots, even if we offload much of our daily tasks onto them. The conflicting statistics, studies, and stories are stressful noise to us. We’re not capable of making sense of it all, try as we might. Rather, the flood of information swamps our brains. We fail to make rational decisions (if we were ever making them to begin with). And yet we can’t stop reading the news, checking our phones, listening to the next alarming narrative—at least, I can’t.

I wish I could be more like my toddler, who is obsessed with just one story at a time. This week, his fixation has been telling and retelling us about the snowman he and my husband architected in the backyard. They built and decorated it together, and now it’s all he can talk or think about. The snowman prompted his longest sentence to date: “Rocks… for… some… buttons.” He lives for the snowman. “Snowman” is the first word out of his mouth when I get him from his crib in the morning, and it’s the last word on his lips before he goes to bed. He wants to see it out the window, check on it, make sure it still has its pinecone nose and stone buttons. Yesterday was a little traumatic because the snowman’s head fell off (melted), and some first aid was required before dinner time. But he’s recovered, and I know he’s counting down the hours until he can visit it again. (The slightly warmer weather this week is going to be a real blow to the boy.)

I’m not saying that we should ignore what’s happening or that we should be as relentlessly single-minded as a 20-month-old. But there is something to be said for focusing on a single story, a joyful thread, a hopeful snippet of a tale, or even a local news report. We need to give ourselves a break. We’re still laying claim to the fact that stories matter. But perhaps right now, fewer stories matter even more.

Excerpt from this week’s issue of Story Matters.

. . .

“A marvelous light falls over the beginning of things and over us also, inclined as we are to pick up a shapely stone or a pretty shell. None of this is at all incompatible with a profound sacredness of Being. Early Darwinism was virtually identical with racial theory, the races to be ranked, so it was thought, as stages in human development. Therefore the sophistication of these nonhumans continues to surprise. They are burdened by our prejudices. Surely it is much more scientific to relax the hold of old error and take it as true that the world is as wonderful in its mystery as any theology could hope to express, and that science, rather than impoverishing it of mystery, lavishes new marvels on us day by day.”

— Marilynne Robinson, “Theology for This Moment”

. . .

This is the land that feeds you

I’ve persistently believed that any human intervention in nature is bad. Whatever we do on Earth, it seems that we make things worse. Maintaining our precious lawns leaches poison into the soil. Species go extinct at alarming rates. Oil and trash choke the ocean. All the trappings of modern life have accelerated the graphic death and destruction of nature on seemingly every level. 

I am so inured to this gloomy reality that I hardly stop to question it. But then I read a beautiful book by an ecologist and botanist named Robin Wall Kimmerer, whom I’ve surely written about before. Her story challenged the story I have so long accepted as truth.

In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer, who is also a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, describes a path forward for reclaiming a beneficial, grateful relationship between human beings and the natural world. She shares a study from one of her graduate students, who discovers that sweetgrass flourishes when raised and harvested by people. Rather than thriving when left to its own devices in the wild, sweetgrass grows more prolifically from season to season when it is harvested regularly by the conscientious basket-makers who live nearby. 

Of course, this is one small example amid many that tell a darker tale. But hearing this story gave me such a welcome boost of hope. Indeed, Kimmerer’s entire book is a gentle but powerful rebuke of our tendency to feel despair and cynicism about the planet. Rather than throwing up our hands and saying it’s a lost cause, Kimmerer tells us to plant gardens. Learn the names of the trees and wildflowers that grow in your neighborhood. Behave as if the planet can be redeemed. As she writes:

“Being naturalized to place means to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit. To become naturalized is to know that your ancestors lie in this ground. Here you will give your gifts and meet your responsibilities. To become naturalized is to live as if your children’s future matters, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it. Because they do.”

In what continues to be a difficult season, I am encouraged to discover stories that challenge narratives I’ve swallowed as truth. I am hungry for hope, in almost any format, and I am humbled to find it challenging my long-held assumptions.

(Excerpt from this week’s issue of Story Matters.)

. . .

“The land loves us back. She loves us with beans and tomatoes, with roasting ears and blackberries and birdsongs. By a shower of gifts and a heavy rain of lessons. She provides for us and teaches us to provide for ourselves. That’s what good mothers do.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

. . .

Moses in field, in December.

Best fiction I read in 2020

It seems that I read less and less fiction every year, but I still love it and crave it in particular seasons. This was a year of tackling books that I had long owned and needed to get to (and was surprised to find that I loved) as well as discovering some (new to me) authors.

The Collected Stories

1. The Collected Stories, Grace Paley

What a thrill! I feel almost resentful that no one urged me to read Grace Paley before now. I can’t believe it took me so long to encounter her brilliant, febrile, wholly unusual fiction. Every story is wrapped with a radiant, wry humor, suffused with the diction of Brooklyn, and packed with tiny surprises. Let me now be the one to urge you: Your life will be a little brighter for having read Grace Paley. (Get a copy)

The Golovlovs

2. The Golovlovs, Mikhail Saltkov-Shchedrin

A profound (and at times darkly comic) parable of generational misery. Just brilliant: I am astonished that it is not better known or more widely read. I somehow ended up with this old 75-cent mass market paperback copy, and it gathered dust on my shelf for the better part of a decade. I always put it off, because I had never heard anyone mention it. But I am so glad that the pandemic urged me to read all of these forgotten books I own, because wow: This novel stings and dazzles. Arina Petrovna, the conniving matriarch of the Golovlov family, centers the story (and reminds one often of a Russian Lucille Bluth, particularly in her relations with her worthless sons), set when serfdom is overturned, leaving many hapless estates to languish and decay. As time rolls on for this deeply unhappy family, the story shifts to her son Porfiry, who becomes exclusively known as Judas the Bloodsucker, for reasons that become apparent, and his niece, the orphaned erstwhile actress Anninka. I was captivated, from beginning to end, despite it being a story with almost no redemption, no forgiveness, no hope. It is a strange, cold country, Mother Russia, and its people have suffered for many generations. (Get a copy)

Don Quixote

3. Don Quixote, Miguel de Saavedra Cervantes (translation by Edith Grossman)

Totally delightful! I should not have put it off for 10 years. (It only took being locked inside during a pandemic to get me to finally read it.) A sprawling and essential novel, and most of it is laugh-out-loud funny. A thoroughly fun escape. (Get a copy)

The Lying Life of Adults

4. The Lying Life of Adults, Elena Ferrante

“What happened, in other words, in the world of adults, in the heads of very reasonable people, in their bodies loaded with knowledge? What reduced them to the most untrustworthy animals, worse than reptiles?”

A searing novel of adolescence from the inimitable, unflinching Elena Ferrante. All of the elements that made the Neapolitan Novels so transfixing are present here but reconfigured to focus on a different angle from the violent country of young womanhood: one’s fractured relationship with adults (specifically, parents and a persuasive, fearsome aunt), the attending breakdown in trust and authority, and the search for self amid the pressures of sex. Brava! (Get a copy)

5. My Struggle, Book 6, Karl Ove Knausgaard

“No matter how broken a person might be, no matter how disturbed the soul, that person remains a person always, with the freedom to choose. It is choice that makes us human. Only choice gives meaning to the concept of guilt.”

A daring ending to a daring series. Knausgaard reckons with what he has written and wrought in this final installment, which I read hungrily, from start to the finish of its 1,230 pages. His long exploration of young Hitler, Nazism, and the dangers of collective identity (more or less) is also impressive, along with his typical blend of no-holds-barred self-loathing, domestic living, and rumination. It is an accomplishment. (Get a copy)

Sweet Days of Discipline

6. Sweet Days of Discipline, Fleur Jaeggy

“So there I was, with my beret and the initials, on the other side of the world, on that side where one is protected and watched over. I foresaw the pain, the desertion, with an acute sense of joy. I greeted the train, the carriages, the compartments, all split up, the burnished alcoves, the velvet, the porcelain passengers, those strangers, those obscure companions. Joy over pain is malicious, there’s poison in it. It’s a vendetta. It is not so angelic as pain. I stood a while on the platform of a squalid station. The wind wrinkled the dark lake and my thoughts as it swept on the clouds, chopped them up with its hatchet; between them you could just glimpse the Last Judgment, finding each of us guilty of nothing.”

Absolutely savage. A thrilling, gorgeous novella on the psychosexual machinations of teen girls. (Get a copy)

Mortals

7. Mortals, Norman Rush

A marriage novel that becomes an adventure novel and then a marriage novel again. It was just the right thing to get lost in, during quarantine, and I admit that I may have liked it less if I had read it at a different time and place, but Norman Rush’s energetic and wide-ranging vocabulary was a sustaining delight. His deep pleasure in words and in using them animates this fat novel, set in Botswana and concerned with the life of Ray Finch and his wife, Iris. A perfect distraction. (Get a copy)

Dept. of Speculation

8. Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill

“There is a man who travels around the world trying to find places where you can stand still and hear no human sound. It is impossible to feel calm in cities, he believes, because we so rarely hear birdsong there. Our ears evolved to be our warning systems. We are on high alert in places where no birds sing. To live in a city is to be forever flinching.”

This was just the thing; I am glad I reattempted this tiny book after abandoning it some years ago. It is a “novel” in the sense that Lydia Davis books are “novels,” but that is just what I love about it. Fragmentary, brilliantly spare. (Get a copy)

A Breath of Life

9. A Breath of Life, Clarice Lispector

“I write as if to save somebody’s life. Probably my own. Life is a kind of madness that death makes. Long live the dead because we live in them.”

In which Clarice Lispector, herself dying of cancer, imagines a metaphysical dialogue between an author and a character, called Angela Pralini. Beautiful and aphoristic, unfinished and raw. (Get a copy)

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

10. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Tokarczuk

A Polish murder mystery for vegans! It’s fun. The voice of the narrator is delightful and unique. Tokarczuk has many pretty turns of phrase, I presume, as translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. An enjoyable end-of-winter book with a great title and a memorable narrator. (Get a copy)

Honorable Mentions

  1. Every Day Is for the Thief, Teju Cole
  2. Weather, Jenny Offill
  3. The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake
  4. Independence Day, Richard Ford

Best nonfiction I read in 2020

A year for consuming information! Not much else to do when you’re trapped at home, am I right? Here are the 10 best nonfiction books I read this year, along with a hefty list of honorable mentions.

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

1. Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer

“Being naturalized to place means to live as if this is the land that feeds you, as if these are the streams from which you drink, that build your body and fill your spirit. To become naturalized is to know that your ancestors lie in this ground. Here you will give your gifts and meet your responsibilities. To become naturalized is to live as if your children’s future matters, to take care of the land as if our lives and the lives of all our relatives depend on it. Because they do.”

Beautiful, gracious, and healing. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s natural wisdom feels like a balm (particularly in these grim times). Her writing is also lovely, merging a scientist’s knowledge with a poet’s sensibilities. Many essays circulate back to her goal of being a good mother — a seemingly pat phrase that Kimmerer endows with new and meaningful life. Mothering, for her, is deeply connected to how she mothers not only her two daughters, but also how she mothers the plants and animals in her care — and is then, in turn, mothered back by the Earth. She gracefully draws on wisdom from her people, the Potawatomi Nation, and makes so much of that wisdom accessible and applicable to her readers. Her insight on how we can restore healing, reciprocal relationships with the Earth is one that all of us would do well to heed. A gem of a book.

“We can choose. If all the world is a commodity, how poor we grow. When all the world is a gift in motion, how wealthy we become.”

(Get a copy)

The White Album

2. The White Album, Joan Didion

I get it now: why everyone raves about Joan Didion. She is that good. Whip-smart, pitch-perfect prose in unfussy essays that present one of the clearest portraits of the 1960s in America. (That scathing little piece on the women’s movement! It got to me.) (Get a copy)

The Years

3. The Years, Annie Ernaux

Marvelous. A brilliant record of a life and, more broadly, a record of tumultuous, defining decades in France from 1940 through 2000. Ernaux, at least here translated into English, writes with beautiful, spare prose, handling the use of “we” with breezy facility. I am very impressed. (Get a copy)

A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam

4. A Bright Shining Lie, Neil Sheehan

An incredible accomplishment. I cannot fathom the time, commitment, and energy it must have taken to create a book of this magnitude and scope. Through the life of the tenacious antihero John Paul Vann, Neil Sheehan explains the doomed American engagement in Vietnam with compelling, unflinching clarity. I am not typically interested in war histories, but this appropriately massive biography (of both Vann and the Vietnam War) held my interest for all of its 800 pages. It is a humbling and relevant tome that describes the catastrophic failures of leadership and American hubris that led to the inevitable disaster in Vietnam. Highly recommended. (Get a copy)

Notes of a Native Son

5. Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin

“I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

As timely as ever. (Get a copy)

Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society

6. Notes on the Death of Culture, Mario Vargas Llosa

“We all like to escape from objective reality into the arms of fantasy. This has also been, from the beginning, one of the functions of literature. But making the present unreal, changing real history into fiction, has the effect of demobilizing citizens, making them feel exempt from any civic responsibility, making them believe that they are powerless to intervene in a history whose script has already been written, acted and filmed in an irreversible way. Along this path we might slide into a world without citizens, only spectators, a world where, although democratic forms might exist, society has become a sort of lethargic society, full of passive men and women, that dictatorships seek to implant.”

Searing! Just the kind of jolt I have been hungry to receive, feeling adrift on a sea of empty modern essays that appear to be angry but have no philosophical core, no thoughtfulness, no ultimate impact. Mario Vargas Llosa rails against a “culture of spectacle” in the West and all its attending consequences, especially for arts and letters, religion, journalism, and sex. (His essay “The Disappearance of Eroticism” was one of my favorites in this collection.) He writes with conviction and clarity, and although I do not agree with all of his positions, I take many to heart.

“Light literature, along with light cinema and light art, give the reader and the viewer the comfortable impression that they are cultured, revolutionary, modern and in the vanguard without having to make the slightest intellectual effort. Culture that purports to be avant-garde and iconoclastic instead offers conformity in its worst forms: smugness and self-satisfaction.”

(Get a copy)

Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land

7. Arab and Jew, David K. Shipler

An insightful journalist’s overview of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from a writer who is neither Jewish nor Muslim and who spent many years reporting in Jerusalem for the New York Times. It is obviously a snapshot of the conflict from the early 1980s (with an update to many chapters written in the early 200s), but even then, it is a useful and fair-minded portrait of the virtues and vices of both sides of the conflict. A difficult work to write, for sure, and an impressive and far-ranging book, drawing mostly from scores and scores of interviews from men, women, and children, whether Israeli Jews, Arabs, Druse, Bedouin, and Palestinians. (Get a copy)

The John McPhee Reader (John McPhee Reader, #1)

8. The John McPhee Reader

A master class in essay writing. A marvelous introduction to the depth and breadth of John McPhee, a journalist’s journalist, one of the finest living nonfiction writers. It is perhaps preferable to read these books in full, rather than the snippets that are presented here, but this is a great way to encounter McPhee for the first time, in this well-edited sampler of his greatest hits. I was familiar with a good number of these selections, but the book piqued my interest in several books of his that I haven’t read yet (particularly The Pine Barrens and A Roomful of Hovings and Other Profiles). Enthusiastically recommended, especially to would-be essayists and those with boundless curiosity about the known world. (Get a copy)

9. Why Fish Don’t Exist, Lulu Miller

“When I give up the fish, I get, at long last, that thing I had been searching for: a mantra, a trick, a prescription for hope. I get the promise that there are good things in store. Not because I deserve them. Not because I worked for them. But because they are as much a part of Chaos as destruction and loss. Life, the flip side of death. Growth, of rot.”

Incandescent! I read ravenously; Lulu Miller’s winsome prose is addictive. The complicated story of scientist David Starr Jordan merges with Miller’s own life and years of grappling with Chaos. As anyone who has listened to her radio work knows, she is a reporter and writer with seemingly infinite stores of empathy and creativity, and all of her gifts are on display in this remarkable book. (Get a copy)

The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

10. The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed

Although much of the book repeats the phrase “we simply cannot know,” Annette Gordon-Reed is a talented storyteller and historical analyst. Parsing through letters, little details, cultural mores, and flights of sociological reasoning, Gordon-Reed presents a strong case for a meaningful (and unlikely coercive) long-term relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. I felt especially moved by her continual repetition of the fact that Jefferson and Hemings were individuals, not universal emblems of a stereotype (e.g., white slave owner, black enslaved woman). They were both deeply complex and at times confusing and contradictory. The Hemingses of Monticello often reads like a Russian novel, with an ever-growing cast of complicated characters, many of whom share the same name and often a bloodline. I started reading this hefty history during the early days of COVID-19 lockdown, and it made me appreciate how much my city of Charlottesville has witnessed and endured. There are many histories buried on this ground, and many tales of endurance and hope. Sally Hemings and her remarkable family are a testament to the endurance of the human spirit, and I hold their memory dear, thanks to Gordon-Reed’s deep, insightful, and ultimately moving history of their time at Monticello. (Get a copy)

Honorable Mentions

  1. Essays One, Lydia Davis
  2. Decreation, Anne Carson
  3. The Book of My Lives, Aleksandar Hemon
  4. The Reformation, Diarmaid MacCulloch
  5. When Death Takes Something from You Give It Back, Naja Marie Aidt
  6. Talking to Strangers, Malcolm Gladwell
  7. Knocking on Heaven’s Door: The Path to a Better Way of Death, Katy Butler
  8. The Peaceable Kingdom, Stanley Hauerwas
  9. Intimations, Zadie Smith
  10. In the Dream House, Carmen Maria Machado
  11. Feel Free: Essays, Zadie Smith
  12. The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
  13. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard
  14. Underland, Robert Macfarlane
  15. Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino
  16. Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, Stanley Hauerwas
  17. The Astonished Heart, Robert Farrar Capon
  18. Interior States, Meghan O’Gieblyn
  19. Plant Dreaming Deep, May Sarton
  20. Of Wolves and Men, Barry Lopez
  21. Design for Cognitive Bias, David Dylan Thomas
  22. The Library Book, Susan Orlean
  23. Simplicity Parenting, Kim John Payne
  24. Cross-Cultural Design, Senongo Akpem
  25. Prayer Plainly Spoken, Stanley Hauerwas
  26. Elevating Child Care, Janet Lansbury
  27. The Montessori Toddler, Simone Davies
  28. Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren