Away from victimhood and into strength

The Winged Victory of Samothrace
The Winged Victory of Samothrace. By Lyokoï88; Creative Commons license.

For all of its well-deserved successes, the demagoguery of the #MeToo movement has led to this widespread belief that all women are powerless victims, controlled by and subjected to the sexual appetites and whims of all men. American women, according to 21st-century progressive feminism, are perpetually under the boot of The Patriarchy and are helpless to save themselves from men, who are, by nature, evil.

I call bullshit. Women, are we childlike puppets, or are we free agents, equal in intelligence and power to men?

Of course, there are vast, interconnected systems of injustice still at work in our country. It is both blind and naïve to pretend otherwise. And many continue to perpetuate the myth that women are weak and bad and less than. But what I cannot fathom is why modern feminists are repeating this very same lie. Can we not see that we are working with misogynists when we invest so much in this victim mentality?

We lose—and our daughters lose—if we continue to parrot the myth that women are powerless. As a recently pregnant person, I am overwhelmed by the tremendous strength of women. It is one of the hallmarks of our sex. We are incredibly powerful, capable, and beautiful creatures. We are long-suffering and determined. We are intelligent, wise, collaborative, and creative. We bring forth life, for God’s sake. (Relatedly: Stop patronizing pregnant women.) I trust women immensely, and I trust us to take our lives in our own hands.

Yes, men continue to perpetuate great harm against women, every day and all across the world. Yes, countless women live in daily fear because of the men in their lives. Yes, I continue to conduct myself as a person who should mistrust unfamiliar men, choosing the routes I walk and the public places I frequent with great caution.

And this may be our situation for a while. I hope and pray that the world continues to get safer for and more supportive of women everywhere, as it has been trending toward lately. But I think so often of the shallow platitudes that we offer our little girls. We read them books about Rosa Parks and Amelia Earhart and tell them about “girl power” and dress them in silly onesies that declare that “the future is female,” but we don’t seem to believe any of it ourselves, wallowing instead in fear and investing in this fashionable identity of helplessness.

We are doing the dirty work for our oppressors: You want women to be subservient? Great, we’ll strip ourselves of power so you don’t have to! We’ll continue to only talk about ourselves as underlings and victims. That’ll make it easy for you to carry on with the oppression and fear tactics and stereotyping. You’re welcome.

Womenfolk, let’s return to our true selves and to our deep, inborn reservoirs of strength. Let’s look to our mothers and grandmothers and all who came before us. Let’s stop talking about ourselves as if we’re indentured servants in a vast, conspiratorial patriarchy. There is much to be done. Less whining, more work.

You don’t need to go to the gym

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Walking around Praiano on our last night there.

I love our doula for a number of reasons, but one of the first moments in which she stole my heart was when she looked and me and said, “You don’t need to go to the gym.”

She didn’t say this because I’m exceptionally fit; she said it because she believes that no one has to go to the gym. I have always believed this, but now, thanks to her, I finally have a more comprehensive philosophy to back up this long-held personal conviction.

Before sharing a short primer on what I’ve learned, here are the cards I brought to the table.

Gyms are a waste of time, money, and emotional energy

The American relationship to “exercise” has always struck me as counterproductive. It clearly has roots in our Puritan heritage, in which “no pain, no gain” breeds a vicious cycle of guilt and self-flagellation, then more guilt and more self-flagellation.

“I’ve been bad,” my friends say. “I haven’t been to the gym in a week.” We create a direct relationship between our personal worth and our time exercising. If we’ve been “good” at working out, we can call ourselves righteous and actually feel superior; we love ourselves (and our bodies) a little bit more. If we’ve been “bad,” we feel guilt—but a guilt that only has a superficial effect on changing our behavior (i.e., we don’t actually end up going to the gym more or feeling joy in our hearts when we do). And then we get trapped in this hellish, Spandex-y cycle. The problem with this legalistic approach to our bodies is that it doesn’t work.

Gyms haven’t made us any healthier. The United States has far more health clubs and gyms than any other country (although Brazil is gaining on us), and yet our nationwide obesity rate continues to rise with no sign of slowing down. (Six states last year saw their obesity rates increase, and no states saw their obesity rates decrease. Another interesting side note: Brazil’s obesity rate has also skyrocketed. The gyms aren’t working for them either.) Furthermore, gyms are generally a big waste of money: 67% of gym members don’t even go to the gym that they pay so much for.

(Diet, of course, is an enormous part of a holistic portrait of health, which I won’t address here. There are a million polemics and books about it from far more qualified sources, and you already know the Pollan dicta: Eat real food. Mostly plants. Not too much.)

So, here’s the rub: Americans love to strip pleasure out of everything. Eating? It’s a chore; let’s do it as fast as possible, preferably in our cars or in front of a TV. Let’s obsess over calories and carbohydrates and develop deeply unhealthy relationships to our bodies! Physical movement? It’s a moral obligation; let’s pay an absurd monthly fee to do it indoors, on machines, and judge each other and ourselves while we do it!

The whole concept of “doing exercise,” as if it were this one-hour cardio burst you have to check off your list and then you can laze around on the sofa for the next eight hours, is ludicrous. I lived with a young woman in college who lived on a diet of chicken breasts, literal platefuls of ketchup, and egg whites. She’d then go to the gym for an “intense workout,” in the hopes of earning herself a “free pass” for the rest of the week, but then she’d collapse at home on the sofa or on her bed, exhausted and malnourished.

This is nonsense, and, I think, a terrible way to live. (And I have thought this for years; see a post from 2014, meditating on my time in Japan and how Japanese women don’t get fat and don’t go to gyms.)

If you enjoy the gym, that’s fine; knock yourself out. I also like spending money on unnecessary things, like Korean skincare and handmade beeswax candles! We all have our thing; we’re American, after all. But we’re all so overworked and undernourished. And gyms aren’t helping us with these problems. Our American approach toward “exercise” creates a deeply messed-up attitude toward our bodies and the way we move them. It’s no wonder we’re so fat and so sad.

Learning from people who never go to the gym

Thanks to my doula, I now have a more unifying worldview in which to place these long-held convictions. She introduced me to Katy Bowman and Nutritious Movement. Bowman is a biomechanist who advocates, in a nutshell, for moving a lot more, in highly variable, natural ways, to break us out of our deeply sedentary modern lifestyles. (Watch this 5-minute video for a quick introduction to her philosophy.)

“Modern living does not require that we move, and to add insult to injury, it actually limits full use of our body. For example, a couch, although super comfortable, limits the full use of your ankles, knees, and hips. It sets the distance over which your legs and hip muscles can work. If you’re leaning against something right now, that something is doing the work your core muscles would be doing were that thing not there. We’ve effectively outsourced the use of our bodies to our stuff. And then when we ask our bodies to hold us up, and hold stuff in, they fail. Make no mistake, it’s not only the tissue that’s broken; it’s the habitat.” — Katy Bowman, Diastasis Recti

Before I had even heard about Bowman, I thought a lot about the locals we saw and lived next to in the Amalfi Coast this past May. We were worn out by the extremely terraced layout of the towns of Positano and Praiano, which are carved into cliffs. Furthermore, we were gobsmacked by the very old people who were climbing hundreds of stone steps a day with no assistance, no walkers, no human aides. (Praiano is perhaps the least wheelchair-accessible town I’ve ever seen.) They passed us easily on the steps, while we (many of the family in knee braces) had to pause often to catch our breaths.

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A typical road in Praiano.

This discrepancy made sense, though, once we started watching the locals a little more closely. Almost everyone had a garden, and all throughout the day, senior citizens could be seen tending their little plots of land: their tomatoes and olive trees and rows of tidy vegetables. We also watched them walking back and forth from the little markets, carrying their bundles and baskets with aplomb. Old men and women spent time eating and drinking with friends on balconies, hanging their laundry up to dry, and fastidiously sweeping and cleaning their homes. They had lived their entire lives moving up and down these impossible and endless flights of stairs. Living there is hard work, and that’s the point. They’re all probably going to live to be 115.

“The Mediterranean lifestyle is walking with friends and family. Instead of thinking of exercise as something that you have to do, just walk or dance or move in joyful ways.” — Kelly Toups, nutrition director for Oldways, quoted here

Likewise, my time in Japan influenced me profoundly when thinking about lifestyle and movement. There are hardly any gyms in Japan. People eat well and walk everywhere. They take good care of their homes; they garden; they participate in neighborhood clean-up day with their children (photo below). And they also live forever.

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My neighborhood in Japan participating in clean-up day as a community (June 2008).

I remember feeling like I needed to “exercise” and go for runs in Japan (this, even though I was bicycling and walking miles to school and eating the best seafood of my life). My host mother Keiko was utterly baffled by this. “But, Abby-san,” she said, “why? I don’t understand. What are you running for?” She was worried about me. She looked at me like I was crazy. Indeed. What was I running for? Because that’s what college girls did; that’s what they were supposed to do so they wouldn’t hate themselves later. Thankfully, I grew up and out of this toxic attitude.

The healthiest people in the world—people like the elderly men and women in Praiano and my Japanese host family—don’t go to gyms.

Because who has time for the gym, really? No one does. Instead, movement should just be a part of our everyday lives, worked into every part of our day.

How I’m moving now

I share all of this with you with great joy, not at all with judgment! I am simply so happy to have discovered an approach to movement in life that is free of gym memberships and guilt and polyester tank tops with built-in bras. I just want to share the good news with you. So, here are some the happy ways that I am moving.

  • I’m walking as much as possible. We’re lucky that we can walk to work and to church, and so I have been walking every day for the past few weeks—even though it’s winter, even though I hate the cold, even though it gets dark so soon. I now walk at least 2 miles a day, and I’d like to work up to more than 5 miles a day (which I accomplish only on the weekends, when I take Pyrrha for longer jaunts around town). We use the car so much less now, and when I do, I park as far away as possible from my destination.
  • I’m sitting as little as possible. This is difficult, because I have a desk job, but I’m moving around a lot at work. I downloaded a Chrome extension that reminds me to get up and walk every hour, and I change my position a lot. I will sit in seiza on my chair; fold my legs in different positions; refuse to use the back of the chair and sit in straight alignment instead. When my boss or clients aren’t around, I will also sit on the floor in various positions with my laptop. I also realized that I don’t need to sit when I’m offered chairs. When I’m in a waiting room, I now stand awkwardly near a wall. It’s fun.
  • I’m resisting the inclination to sit when I get home. Now, I try not to sit down when I get home at the end of the day until dinner. While Guion cooks, I sweep; I tidy; I walk the dog; I read a book or write a letter standing up. If we watch TV, I sit now on the coffee table or floor or on an exercise ball.
  • I’m rejecting supportive shoes and heels. This one threw me for a loop. Birkenstocks and Dansko shoes are not helpful, and heels are absolute murder on your body’s alignment. Heels turn us into misaligned monkeys, and supportive shoes are big casts for our atrophied feet, which have been ruined by decades of walking on flat, manmade surfaces with cushy soles. The most minimal footwear possible (zero rise) is preferable to re-train and strengthen our feet. I’m also trying to walk on varied terrain as much as I can, which means walking in the grass or in the woods or on pebbles instead of on concrete or asphalt. Pyrrha also prefers this.

There’s a lot more that I can do, and I’m far from breaking myself out of a sedentary mold, but I feel energized by the progress I’ve made thus far. I’m excited about the weather warming up and returning to gardening, which is one of my favorite activities.

In sum, I feel very joyful about moving through life this way. It has been a pleasure to adopt these new practices, because it doesn’t feel like a chore. It’s honestly been easy and pleasant. Treadmills and yoga classes have always felt like absolute drudgery to me. I’ve always hated being in a room with other sweaty people, performing exercise. Now, I can just live and move and breathe, with a little more philosophical support behind this lifestyle I had already bought into without knowing it.

Further reading

 

Stop patronizing pregnant women

My beautiful mother, upon having recently brought me into the world.

One of the more unpleasant surprises in my first trimester was my discovery of the widespread condescension heaped upon the pregnant.

I did not expect this. I have lived in and managed my body for three decades now. I have been married for eight years. I have been working for ten. I have a mortgage. I have managed to keep myself alive thus far. But should I be trusted to gestate? All on my own? That doesn’t sound safe.

I don’t know if there is an American pregnancy lobby, but I have felt affronted by it just the same. As soon as I made the terrible mistake to start reading articles about pregnancy, I discovered this looming paternalistic conspiracy to treat women like ignorant cows. Women are thick-minded mammals who won’t question “science” or the accuracy of “studies,” even when they plainly contradict themselves. They don’t know enough to keep themselves from killing their babies willy-nilly! They don’t get that babies are the most important thing! Without us, the sanctified lobbyists of American pregnancy, they wouldn’t have a clue about how to take care of their bodies or their babies!

If you’ve ever looked at a patronizing pregnancy app, you get hit with this tone immediately. The consistent approach of these popular apps made me batty. Early on, I was curious about how the baby was developing and what was happening inside me at each week. I downloaded two apps, BabyCenter and The Bump, but I eventually stopped looking at them altogether because of all of the condescension mixed with fear-mongering. The apps present you with (1) a feed of terrifying articles (one was literally titled, “Top 50 Pregnancy Fears.” Others: “Are you miscarrying right now?” “What happens to baby if you have just one drink”) and (2) a flood of condescending advice that is written as if for an ignorant child. And then there’s typically a message board from the pit of hell, with hordes of terrified women asking and giving each other medical advice. In sum: Pregnancy apps are bad. Don’t use them.

But you know what’s also bad (or less than great)? OB offices. My office, which is presumably composed of nice doctors, told me to have a six-week visit with their “pregnancy education nurse,” whom I’ll call Janice. This is basically a visit so that a nurse can lecture a pregnant woman, who is, by all accounts, a knocked-up dodo who has no clue what she’s just gotten herself into. Janice, at least, talked to me this way. Janice was a well-meaning senior citizen. She wore a giant platinum crucifix and struggled with her Dell laptop during the duration of our visit. She calculated my due date with a hand-held plastic wheel (which I thought was a cute, old-fashioned touch).

Janice was friendly, but she was also the peculiar mixture of being both condescending and deeply uninformed at the same time. She ran me through a litany of commandments without explaining the rationale behind a single one.

“And you’re not drinking, right?” she asked, pen hovering over a check box. I wasn’t, but what if I was? What if I had been, just a few weeks ago, before I knew I was pregnant? What a terrible way to lead into that question. And then she didn’t give me any reasons why I shouldn’t drink. All of her questions were framed this way. Another exchange went like this:

“You don’t eat sushi, right?”

“Well, I do enjoy sushi, yes. Why shouldn’t I have sushi?” I asked.

“Because of the mercury.”

“But mercury still exists even in cooked fish.”

“Well. Yeah. I guess that’s true. But you still shouldn’t have it.”

I didn’t ask another “why” because I knew she didn’t have an answer. (I knew the answer, and I knew that sushi really isn’t that dangerous; if you are sketched out by the quality of a sushi place, don’t eat there, regardless of your gestational capacity.)

Later, I was given unsolicited advice from a male osteopathy student about what position I should give birth in if I don’t want to “tear horribly.” The best position, according to him? And I quote: “The traditional way, flat on your back.” Aside from the absurd use of the word “traditional,” this was his counsel, despite the veritable reams of evidence that birthing on your back is the worst position in which to bring a baby into the world. (Importantly, it has only been considered “traditional” since we started having male OBs deliver babies instead of midwives, because it was more convenient for them to catch babies if the woman was working against gravity, on her back.)

This is the American baby bias—baby trumps mother, every damn time—that makes me feel insane. The sacred fetus is to be protected at all costs from that woman it’s growing inside. Women’s knowledge about their own bodies and their own wisdom about birth is repeatedly discounted in favor of the establishment, which often seems to feature a loud chorus of male voices.

As Rachel Cusk writes in A Life’s Work (which is extremely grim for different reasons, and which I do not recommend):

“The baby plays a curious role in the culture of pregnancy. It is at once victim and autocrat. It is a being destined to live only in the moment of perfection that is its birth, after which it degenerates and decays, becomes human and sinful, cries and is returned to the realm of the real. But in pregnancy, the baby is a wonder, a miracle, an expiation.”

The mother is a dangerous interloper. She can’t be trusted! She’s a clueless breeder! She may be creating the all-important life, sure, but does she really know what she’s doing? She needs to be told. She needs to be bossed around and micromanaged. She needs a long list of everything she’s not allowed to do anymore, and then she should be shamed repeatedly, for the rest of the child’s life, if she forgets or ignores a single thing.

As Danya Glabau writes in “Sins of the Mother,” published in Real Life:

“The imperative to do more and be better is not only a question of the well-being of the person carrying the child. At stake (so we are told!) are concerns that are bigger than us and yet seem to depend on us: the future of the national economy and the health of the species. When pregnant people fall short, they fail not only themselves but the imagined heirs, nations, and biological kin by whom they could have done better.”

I’m already sick of it, and I’m only halfway through this pregnancy. Because here’s the thing: Yes, children are precious. Yes, some mothers-to-be could be knocked-up dodos. But we must stop treating women like they are no more intelligent than the infants they’re carrying and then scaring them into submission.

I’m furious about it, and I’m enjoying using my fury in productive ways for the remainder of this pregnancy. Here’s to smart, capable women, who have been bringing human beings into the world for millennia—and down with all of the misogynistic fear-mongers who lurk behind every baby app and cash register and desk.

Further reading that does not patronize the pregnant

(What do all of these pieces have in common? Women authors. I’ll listen to thoughtful, educated men on most occasions, but I’m not taking any birthing advice from them.)

Best fiction I read in 2018

Transcendent short story collections and novels by non-Americans led the way for me in 2018.

In Transit

1: In Transit, Mavis Gallant

Unreal. I found myself utterly enamored with these gorgeously rendered stories. Each story stands alone, wholly independent from its predecessors, and Mavis Gallant manages this effortless style, creating characters that are at once entirely like us and fully alien. I’m ashamed that this was the first time I had read her, and I’m now committed to consuming everything else she published. (Amazon)

Ninety-Nine Stories of God

2: Ninety-Nine Stories of God, Joy Williams

The brilliant, incandescent, strange, and illuminating Joy Williams tries her hand at microfiction, and the results are perfectly odd and wonderfully thought-provoking. (If you love Lydia Davis, as I do, you’ll love this collection, which can be read in a few hours.) It is almost not fiction; it is so close to prose poetry that these tiny stories demand several readings.

(Yes, the cover has four German shepherds on it; no, that’s not the only reason I loved it.) (Amazon)

A Heart So White

3: A Heart So White, Javier Marías

Dreamy and beautiful in all the right ways. A Heart So White is an exploration of memory and all the secrets we try to keep from those closest to us. Marías has a delightful, rambling, Proustian style, which I imagine the translator took pains to preserve (as he worked with Marías to finalize this), and although it sometimes makes the mind wander, it’s a deep pleasure all the way through. Looking forward to reading more from him. (Amazon)

Thérèse Desqueyroux

4: Thérèse Desqueyroux, François Mauriac

I felt totally astonished by this novel. Thérèse is such a voracious antihero, an absolute treasure to encounter on the page. I promise you haven’t met anyone else quite like her. (Amazon)

Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings

 

5: Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, Jorge Luis Borges

There is some nonfiction in here, but it’s the stories that really stick with you. This collection made me realize, perhaps more than this other work, that Borges really was one of a kind. His intellect is astounding; his passion for history, literature, philosophy, metaphysics is boundless. I do not think I am intelligent enough to have grasped everything here, but I loved the experience, from start to finish. (Amazon)

Spring Snow

6: Spring Snow, Yukio Mishima

I was caught completely off-guard by the beauty of this novel, tracking Japan at the turn of the century, when Japanese tradition is breached by Western influences. I had read Mishima before, but I didn’t know he could be like this. It’s a lovely, fluid translation from Michael Gallagher, which often seems so hard to achieve when Japanese migrates to English, but this translation preserves so much stylistic facility and power.

The fraught friendship (laced with some desire) between Honda and Kiyoaki, and the latter’s fateful passion for Satoko, are deeply memorable, as well as the wealth of visual images and metaphor that strike the mind so powerfully. Overwhelmed by this, in a thoroughly pleasing way, and I finished it quite excited to complete the rest of the Sea of Fertility tetralogy. (Amazon)

Midnight's Children

7: Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

I read this novel for the second time this year, for my book club, and it was thoroughly delightful and mesmerizing to encounter again. Rushdie handles the madness of this narrative with ease. It’s also just a lot of fun, which I don’t think gets mentioned enough when this hefty novel is discussed. (Amazon)

Collected Stories

8: Collected Stories of William Faulkner

So many stories! So many finely spun narratives from one of the very best America ever had. (Amazon)

Florida

9: Florida, Lauren Groff

Pervasively ominous, beautifully written stories that deal with snakes and storms and (often) the travails of motherhood and marriage. I harbor no fondness for Florida, and this collection underscores much of what I dislike and distrust about the state, but the swampy oppressiveness of the land contributes to the magic of this collection. (Amazon)

King, Queen, Knave

10: King, Queen, Knave, Vladimir Nabokov

I rely on a yearly dose of Nabokov for a stylistic pick-me-up, a requisite lyrical jolt. This novel is particularly fun and tightly focused. It is neither ambitious nor serious, and I think this is why I enjoyed it so much. (Amazon)

Honorable mentions

  1. Near to the Wild Heart, Clarice Lispector
  2. The Night in Question, Tobias Wolff
  3. The Church of Solitude, Grazia Deledda
  4. The Perfect Nanny, Leïla Slimani
  5. The Death of the Heart, Elizabeth Bowen
  6. Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado
  7. White People, Allan Gurganus

Previously: The best poetry and the best nonfiction I read in 2018.

Best nonfiction I read in 2018

2018 was a banner year in nonfiction for me. I read so much great stuff that it was difficult to choose. Here are my top 10 favorites from the year, along with a hefty list of honorable mentions (which are all also worthy of your time and attention).

The Gene: An Intimate History

1: The Gene: An Intimate History, Siddhartha Mukherjee

Siddhartha Mukherjee is one of those infuriating people who happens to be at the top of his (non-literary) professional field and a brilliant writer. I’ve loved everything he’s published (both his other books and his essays, which often appear in the New Yorker), and I devoured this gorgeously written and riveting history of genetics. It’s written for the layperson but constructed with all the force of his analytical, medical mind. I read it ravenously on a plane, flying from here to Minneapolis, and deeply resented anyone trying to speak to me as I finished it. (Amazon)

Plainwater: Essays and Poetry

2: Plainwater: Essays and Poems, Anne Carson

Anne Carson works on me like a drug. I’m always in the mood for her, and I can never get enough. Her free-wheeling mind and her absolute, inviolable independence as a writer and thinker are addictive.

This, like much of her work, is a multifaceted collection, featuring a long poem, short “talks,” travel diaries with various lovers, and meditations, among other things. It does not disappoint. (Amazon)

Known and Strange Things: Essays

3: Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole

I might be a bit in love with Teju Cole now. (It’s OK; Guion knows.) I feel like a fangirl, like I might drive an unreasonable distance just to hear him speak for half an hour?

This is a beautiful, engaging collection of essays, spanning so many subjects—and so many that I am already delighted by: W.G. Sebald, Virginia Woolf, the aforementioned Anne Carson (!), etc. His style and captivating logic worked on me in a powerful way. This is a collection I regret not owning, as I would press it urgently into the hands of everyone I met. (Amazon)

Gravity and Grace

4: Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil

Although I had already encountered most of these essays in an anthology of Weil that I read last year, it was a renewed pleasure to read this free, unfiltered version of her earliest work. Her mind is powerful; you can fall into it like a dark pool. And her way of thinking is one that we need now more than ever. (Amazon)

The Rituals of Dinner: The Origins, Evolution, Eccentricities and Meaning of Table Manners

5: The Rituals of Dinner, Margaret Visser

This book randomly called to me at the library book sale this year, and I’m so glad that it did. I knew nothing about it, but I was intrigued by the title.

Margaret Visser, a professor at the University of Toronto, provides a delightful tour through the history of table manners, from ancient Greece to 20th-century North America. I especially loved her meaningful reflections on culture: how we form it and how it forms us. Her style is meandering, and she seems to find it difficult to focus on one topic, but I liked her vast, wandering approach, and it seems fitting for the subject matter. Recommended for casual history buffs and students of human culture. (Amazon)

Second Nature: A Gardener's Education

6: Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, Michael Pollan

Before he became famous for his real-food polemics, Michael Pollan was puttering around in his New England garden.

This book, published in 1993, is a pure delight and total inspiration to a gardener of my ilk (invested in a garden that balances itself with nature, values native plants, eschews foolish hybrids, and strives to eradicate the lawn in all its iterations). His presentation of a gardener’s ethics was also deeply motivating. I hope to return to it again and again in my gardening life, and I recommend it heartily to anyone who enjoys nurturing plants and a small plot of land. (Amazon)

The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia

7: The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, Masha Gessen

Utterly gripping. Anyone who naively thinks that history is progressive, that we’re all moving forward in an enlightened direction, should spend a little time with this book.

Masha Gessen writes with all the force and the authority of an excellent researcher, journalist, and Russian native. The book is a clear, salient introduction to Russia’s troubled recent history (1980-present), and it sticks with you after you put it down. (Amazon)

My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

8: My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, Ari Shavit

In a series of high-profile interviews, interspersed with personal and national history, Ari Shavit tells a story of Israel and all of its victories and failures, challenges and complexities.

It is perhaps impossible to find an objective source on what Israel was and what it has become, but this excellent book comes close. Shavit is uniquely positioned, as the great-grandson of one of the first colonizing Zionists, as a former detention camp guard, as an anti-occupation journalist, to handle this narrative. Perhaps this is the only way to learn about such a vast, seemingly unsolvable conflict: stories handed down from one person to another, arranged loosely around a long, troubled timeline of the Jewish people. (Amazon)

Daybook: The Journal of an Artist

9: Daybook: The Journal of an Artist, Anne Truitt

American sculptor Anne Truitt keeps a loose-limbed diary, including thoughts about her work, inspiration, motherhood, ambition and provision. The result is a readable, motivating record of a driven artist. She was once a nurse and trained as a creative writer, and both of her capacities for generosity and creativity shine through in this lyrical, finely crafted journal. (Amazon)

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

10: Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman

More than 30 years ago, before we could even conceive of a personal internet or carrying powerful computers around in our pockets, Neil Postman made a chilling prediction the state of American discourse and politics in 2018. Donald Trump is so purely a product and consequence of the Age of Television. It is a gripping and somehow affirming read, backing up all that I have felt this year about wanting to get away from TV, Twitter, Instagram, and the rest of it. Although it’s “old,” it reads quickly and is well worth your time. What remains to be seen is whether we can recover from our addiction to entertainment. (Amazon)

Honorable mentions

  1. Autumn, Karl Ove Knausgaard
  2. Spring, Karl Ove Knausgaard
  3. Agua Viva, Clarice Lispector
  4. How to Write an Autobiographical  Novel, Alexander Chee
  5. Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
  6. Reader, Come Home, Maryanne Wolf
  7. Boys Adrift, Leonard Sax
  8. The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton
  9. At Large and at Small, Anne Fadiman
  10. Operating Instructions, Anne Lamott
  11. Men in the Off Hours, Anne Carson
  12. Letters to a Young Novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa
  13. Calypso, David Sedaris
  14. Come as You Are, Emily Nagoski
  15. The Smartest Kids in the World, Amanda Ripley
  16. And Now We Have Everything, Meaghan O’Connell

Previously: The best poetry I read in 2018. Up next: The best fiction I read in 2018.

Best poetry I read in 2018

I continue to have no idea how to talk about poetry, but here are the collections of poems I liked best in 2018.

Stag's Leap: Poems

1: Stag’s Leap, Sharon Olds

Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey

2: Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey, Hayden Carruth

Plainwater: Essays and Poetry

3: Plainwater: Essays and Poetry, Anne Carson

New Collected Poems

4: New Collected Poems, Tomas Tranströmer

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude

5: Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay

Leaves of Grass

6: Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

Grace Notes: Poems

7: Grace Notes, Rita Dove

Worshipful Company of Fletchers

8: Worshipful Company of Fletchers, James Tate

Passing Through: The Later Poems, New and Selected

9: Passing Through, Stanley Kunitz

Our Andromeda

10: Our Andromeda, Brenda Shaughnessy

Up next: Best nonfiction and fiction that I read in 2018.

Everything that has been excluded

Christmas cards
Christmas cards going out, from years past.

I’m always thinking about reading, but I have been thinking about it in a more targeted way lately, as it pertains to my job as a content strategist/designer.

In Journey Group’s publication on Medium, I decided to make the case for preserving deep reading online: Digital Readers Deserve Better.

. . .

My appetite for fiction waxes and wanes throughout the year. I typically keep a steady diet of 50% fiction/50% nonfiction, but lately, I have found it difficult to concentrate on novels and short stories. I am very slowly working my way through Tolstoy’s first novels — Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth — composed as episodic, unconnected vignettes, and even though I adore him, I am not terribly interested. Nonfiction, however, has been holding my attention with great force.

As I make my top 10 lists of the best things I read in 2018, this preference for nonfiction bears out; I read a ton of excellent nonfiction this year, apparently, and just a handful of excellent fiction. Lists to come soon.

. . .

“The most effective stories are those that resemble ramparts from which one can gaze out at everything that has been excluded.”

— Elena Ferrante, Frantumaglia

. . .

With cold nights and cold mornings, I have a passion for lighting candles during this season. I now have candles strewn about in every conceivable living space in our home: kitchen counter, coffee table, bedroom, dining table, etc. It is a small thing, but it makes winter bearable.

Closing side note: If you, like me, are nurturing a passion for candles, I have a recent discovery to share with you: This excellent and very affordable beekeeper in Michigan who makes beautiful 100% pure beeswax candles. I just got my first order of taper candles from him, and I am extremely pleased.

Merry Christmas, all! Hope your season is merry and bright.

Slow thinking

Morning calligraphy practice + a donut + Yorkshire Gold tea.

Since the 2016 presidential election, the level of public discourse among Americans has tanked. We’ve never been particularly intelligent expressing ourselves online, but our capacity for thinking deeply seems to have disappeared entirely from public forums.

Both sides of the political spectrum are equally guilty of this; the left is no wiser than the right. Conservatives and liberals live in deeply entrenched extremes: You are either a good guy or a bad guy; the issue is always black or white. There is no middle ground. We have lost the ability to even ponder nuance, to give gray space even a second’s consideration.

Most forms of social media, especially Twitter and Facebook, encourage us to think shallowly. We are urged to publish every thought as soon as it crosses our minds. No hesitation. No research. No contemplation. There’s this horrible pressure for “public figures” or talking heads or anyone who has a modest “following” to have immediate reactions to every item in the 24/7 news cycle. And they capitulate. The rest of us follow suit: Nearly 60% of us share articles without even reading them. This is no way to process information. We’re bad at it. We can’t think well in such a reactionary environment (of which our president is a perfect example/consequence).

I find all of this troubling, and I also believe this loss of deep thinking is intimately connected to the “continuous partial attention” that we’ve all been trained in since we became addicted to screens a decade or more ago.

We’re so incapable of giving our full attention to anything that we miss everything. We’ve never been good at multitasking, even though we all like to secretly believe that we are. We live in a state of constant distraction, eagerly seeking more distractions as we slog through the day. These are not habits that lead to thinking well.

In light of these trends, I feel increasingly convicted of the need for slowness in my everyday life. This is why I’ve stopped using social media. It’s helped a great deal in reducing distractions and in the amount of time I use my phone, but I am still tempted by other things: email, the feed of news articles, mindless internet surfing that I tell myself is “research” for something.

I sense a need to overhaul my expectations of screens. The internet is useful; I approach it as a utility in my daily life. I work on it, I find information, I buy things. But I need to stop thinking of it as entertainment or as a salve for loneliness or lassitude. The people I know who think well and deeply seem to also approach the internet in this way. They’re not news junkies; they consume content deliberately and slowly, and most of it is offline. They’re not dependent on their phones for distraction or validation. I want to learn more from them and study their ways.

I don’t think I’ve ever been a deep thinker, but I am realizing this growing gulf between my desire to think well and my ability to actually attempt it. This is a small new year’s resolution to keep turning away from internet frippery and to find the useful ways to interact with screens without killing my capacity for thought.

Meanwhile, I’ll just be waiting here, trying to figure out what all this means for my inner life (and trying not to think about when the next season of Terrace House airs).


Mystical confluence

Typical winter scene.

Winter is a season to light candles and be grateful. It is a time to argue about whether we should get a little Christmas tree (him: for, me: against; he’s been winning the past few years), to go to bed early with great gusto, to read heavy books that never look appealing during the summer, and to make as many fires in the fireplace during the week as we can muster.

I loathe the cold, but I am happy about the season.

. . .

Guion and I have a term for a phenomenon that occurs when you are reading or otherwise consuming content across a variety of media, produced by very different people, in different eras or genres — and then they suddenly start communicating with each other or referencing the same specific thing.

It’s one of my favorite experiences. I started calling it “mystical confluence,” and now we like to share our encounters with each other. For example, you’re reading a history of table manners and a strange Anne Carson poem, and then they both suddenly reference Lazarus being raised from the dead. Or you’re listening to Joanna Newsom and reading an account of medieval cosmology, and now they’re both talking about meteors. Mystical confluence is deeply enjoyable. It always makes me feel that (1) the world is very small, and (2) we are all eminently connected, in ways that we often cannot fathom.

. . .

“The Kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, but men do not see it.”

— Christ, quoted in the Gospel of Thomas

. . .

Qualities that I increasingly appreciate in other people, as I age

  • Conversational graces
  • The ability to set a table properly
  • Disinterest in the news cycle
  • Rejection of small talk
  • Capacity to disagree politely but honestly
  • Eschewing the use of phones at the table
  • Handwriting

Tending a plot

garden-in-june_34963862081_o
Backyard herbs in the summer.

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

. . .

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

– Shikibu

. . .

Thankful for

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