A little jolt of hope

Most of the folks we know (including ourselves) seem buoyed by a sense of optimism this week, which has been a welcome emotion after one hell of a year. No, we’re not out of the woods, but it is exciting to be near the end of the accursed 2020 with a little jolt of hope.

Croquet conclusion this week.

We continue to play croquet every Sunday and count it as a blessing. This Sunday was absurdly warm (not mad about it), and we also witnessed two hot air balloons lifting off from the nearby field.

. . .

I go through cyclical obsessions, during which I throw myself into a topic and try to learn everything I can about it in a given period of time. The latest? Housekeeping.

This obsession was sparked by visiting the house of friends and feeling personally affronted by how clean and organized it was. I consider myself a decently tidy person, but these kitchen cabinets put me to shame. (I felt even more shame when recalling that this super-clean person in this household also built the handsome cabinetry by hand. I can’t even put together an Ikea side table without help!)

I have also sensed that I need to up my game because Guion is constantly leveling up in his abilities as a chef. (Our division of labor in the household is that he makes all food and I clean all things.) I feel that I must also ascend in my abilities as a housekeeper, but I am also not entirely sure what that looks like. Hence this quest.

I am finding fresh inspiration for the never-ending task of keeping our home. Specifically, I am giving myself daily and weekly cleaning tasks and then larger monthly aspirations. Today, I spent a stupid amount of time trying to clean the gross microwave above the stove (a poor excuse for a range hood), and I booked a window/gutter cleaner, which just feels like Christmas morning to me. I am going to do it! I am going to be less gross!

A thought that has brought me peace is the consideration that it is never over. You are never finished housekeeping. Until you die, your house must be tended. I once had this false expectation that if I really tidied the coat closet well, I’d never have to do it again. This is a lie. I will always have to do things over and over again, because we are living here. It’s a comfort.

How do you motivate yourself to keep cleaning?

. . .

“We have taught ourselves to describe our moral convictions as ‘personal desires,’ implying thereby that they need not significantly affect others. In fact, however, there is no morality that does not require others to suffer for our commitments. But there is nothing wrong with asking others to share and sacrifice for what we believe to be worthy. A more appropriate concern is whether what we commit ourselves to is worthy or not.”

The Peaceable Kingdom, Stanley Hauerwas

. . .

Our little dude is 18 months old today and continues to be very weird and amuse us greatly.

Favorite activities include talking about the moon; making sure we observe and admire all passing planes, helicopters, trucks, and cars; requesting story time; asking to be held when Mom is currently trying to do three different things; and eating figs from the fig tree every morning with Dad. He’s having a great time! (And his hair is slowly but surely growing back, praise be.)

For your ears only

I belong to the kind of obnoxious large family who believes we are both more interesting and more hilarious than all other people. We are so invested in this belief that we hardly take notice of newcomers.

Our conversations are composed of long strings of inside jokes, vulgar sarcasm, and pointed but unserious interrogations. God have mercy on a stranger at the dinner table. It is best to just buckle up and go along for the ride. My long-suffering husband and brother-in-law are accustomed to our merry brand of family solipsism by now, but they will often excuse themselves to “run errands” (code for “get a beer and decompress about how exhausting Farsons are”).

I felt immediately aligned with David Sedaris when I heard him read from his essay “Now We Are Five,” in which he says “though I’ve often lost faith in myself, I’ve never lost it in my family, in my certainty that we are fundamentally better than everyone else.”

Because our stories are so cryptic and laced with interpersonal signs and symbols, we are not the most hospitable storytellers. We find each other deeply amusing. Dropping a single reference (that time Dad made Aunt B a bikini out of an old curtain, that time Kelsey said she was “proud to be an American” on the block at the swim meet) elicits instant laughter and applause. Our method of discourse is, naturally, highly enjoyable to us, but I admit that this is not the practice of the gifted storyteller.

Gifted storytellers are, by instinct and by nature, welcoming. They can swiftly adapt a narrative to an audience. They can manage the references and edit the metaphors at will, customizing a story for maximum comprehension. They fine-tune the doses of insider information depending on the crowd.

Storytellers must be skilled in this kind of narrative shape-shifting, being both willing and eager to look up from the table and beyond to reach listeners they may not know intimately. They know when to turn the volume up or down on a particular character or plot detail, depending on who is listening. For different people in different rooms, the shape of the story can change dramatically. I admire this flexibility and wisdom in storytellers, this capacity for empathetic telling — even as I confess my long-formed love of a tall tale told only for blood relatives.

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

. . .

Guion has instituted a new Sunday tradition: croquet in the park with friends. Every Sunday afternoon, we have been gathering for a few games while the babies and kids roll around on picnic blankets and we try to have a few snippets of conversation. It has been a spirit-lifting tradition in a time otherwise marked by seclusion and anxiety.

. . .

“For the vast majority of human beings, religion is the only path leading to a spiritual life and an ethical conscience. Without religions there would be no such thing as human coexistence or respect for the law or any of the essential covenants that sustain civilized life. One very great mistake, repeated many times over in the course of history, has been the belief that knowledge, science and culture would eventually liberate man from the ‘superstitions’ of religion, until progress made religion obsolete. Secularization has not replaced our gods with the ideas, knowledge, or convictions that might have taken their place. It has left a spiritual void that human beings fill as best they can, sometimes with grotesque substitutes or multiple forms of neurosis or by heeding the call of those sects which, precisely because of their welcoming and tight-knit nature and their meticulous plan for all the instants of physical and spiritual life, offer balance and order to those who feel confused, lonely, or lost in today’s world.”

— Notes on the Death of Culture, Mario Vargas Llosa

. . .

Currently Reading

  • Weather, Jenny Offill
  • Cross-Cultural Design, Senongo Akpem
  • Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, David Shipler
  • The Undying, Anne Boyer
  • A Book of Common Prayer, Joan Didion

I intend to know you better

Over the past few weeks, little jewels began to appear on our fence line. Pale green gems, about an inch long, were attaching themselves to the underside of the top rails. After consultation with our neighbor, we learned that the gilt-edged capsules were monarch butterfly chrysalides* (*plural of chrysalis; also new favorite word). These unbelievably beautiful baubles look as if a masterful painter of Fabergé eggs had taken the tiniest brush, dipped it in gold, and embellished them solely for delight. We check on them every morning and wonder why they are so pretty and try to guess when each will emerge by noting which chrysalides have darkened, revealing the body of the butterfly underneath.

Chrysalis on our fence (photo by Guion).

Learning what to call these inchoate backyard inhabitants deepened our affection for them. Knowing that they were monarchs, not just any old bug, enhanced our care and consideration. We now feel protective and compassionate toward them; we worry about their welfare; we wonder about their future as the weather turns. None of this would have happened if we had never learned what they were called. Because we’ve rarely left our home this year, we’ve observed so much more of the natural world and been driven to find out the proper names of our neighboring flora and fauna. I now know that a Carolina wren is the possessive little bird that chirps at us on the deck every evening. I learned that red-tailed hawks were the ones performing a dramatic mating dance in the neighbor’s garden. The weed that gives me so much grief is ground ivy, and the big spider that tries to trap me every morning by spinning a web over our front walk is an orange marbled orb weaver.

We have also tried to extend this practice to the human beings in our neighborhood. I am far from a natural socialite, but in pandemic life, I have suddenly become the chatty neighbor out on a walk. (I use the funny blonde baby on my hip as an ice-breaker.) Now that I know so many neighbors’ names, I see them and their houses differently. I see the whole street with a refreshed gaze, refocused by attachment.

I’m a broken record, but naming strikes me as a critical skill of storytellers. Without a curiosity for names and an attending capacity to remember them, our stories grow pale, unmemorable, weak. Our relationships with others depend on our knowledge of names. A storyteller necessarily has a great facility for forming and preserving relationships between creatures. In contrast, a storyteller who was uninterested in names would be a poor storyteller indeed. To ignore the names of people, places, and things indicates a serious deficit of curiosity, which often results in a deficit of respect. 

The desire to learn a name and remember it speaks to a deep well of intention. Inquiring about a name says, I intend to know you better, whether you are a fabulous insect or a new acquaintance. The best way to do that is to begin by knowing your name.

(Letter from this week’s Story Matters, the email I get to write for work.)

. . .

Eating an apple he picked from the backyard.

Meanwhile, this little dude continues to be extremely entertaining and cute. He’s 16 months old and has lots of opinions about how the household should be run. Specifically, if he got to enact his policy mandates, he would subsist exclusively on a diet of (expensive) berries, pull all things out of all cabinets at all hours of the day, never be put in his “independent play” room, walk to the park every day, and dance slowly to Sufjan in the morning, without interruption.

We had to shave him some weeks ago, because he decided that his new sleep routine involved pulling his hair out by the fistful. I miss his flowing flaxen hair! Maybe it will grow back.

. . .

Thank you for the unsettling of our lives

If you had told me back in March that the pandemic would still be raging, with no end in sight, in mid-August, I think I would have had a nervous breakdown. And yet here we are, pressing on like everyone else. I am anxious about the fall and winter, but I have been learning that anxiety is fruitless. So I don’t read the news; I stay off social media; I allow Guion to share one headline with me per day. In this way, I at least maintain a semblance of calm.

. . .

I am currently reading and loving Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass. Many people have recommended it to me, and I am grateful that I finally made time for it: What a gem of a book! One quote to whet your appetite:

“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.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

. . .

Moses is 15 months old and continues to be a busy little bee. He has a lot to say (although the vast majority of it isn’t English) and loves inspecting nature on our daily walks. Every parent says this, but it is so refreshing to be in the presence of a small child when outdoors. They are so rooted in wonder.

Fashion Moses, before the big chop. (Wearing one of Guion’s vintage rompers.)

We are grateful for many things, and Moses is often chief among them. He makes these long days lighter.

. . .

Almighty God, whose Mary-like beauty compels our attention, give us hearts that jump within us with the good news of your salvation. We confess that amidst the tedium of the everyday our worship of you sometimes feels like a job—just “one more thing.” Thank you for the unsettling of our lives, wherein we discover the splendor of the kingdom made possible by your Son, Jesus Christ. We pray that you will ever be here, unsettling our attempts to domesticate the wildness of your Spirit. Amen.

Stanley Hauerwas, Prayers Plainly Spoken

Uncomfortable stories

50014093218_e6ad4f2edc_k

Like many families, my family enjoys retelling stories of my own idiocy or deviousness.

There was the time I ruined dinner at the campsite by knocking the entire pot of pasta into the dirt; the time I locked my brother in the shed for the better part of the hour; or the time that I stood on my baby sister’s hands, grinding them into the floor, and professed I did not know why she was whimpering. They all laugh at these memories, and I squirm. I don’t like to be reminded of my past mistakes, or more seriously, my own inner darkness.

Uncomfortable stories are never our first choice. We don’t want to listen to or think about difficult things. We use Netflix as a salve and drift along the shallow seas of outrage on Facebook and Twitter. We keep ourselves from the hard stories. The complicated stories. The stories without tidy endings. The stories that might require too much of us as a person, that might urge us to change our minds or talk with our neighbors.

We are all very tired, and we need more grace for each other than ever. But I’d contend that it is a good moment to sit with our discomfort a little and listen to something challenging. Listen to a story that makes us squirm. Listen to a story that shows us ourselves. And perhaps, in this tragic time, such stories may resurrect our imaginations.

(Opening letter from this week’s Story Matters, the little email that I get to write and send for work.)

. . .

50030589137_755a9cb9ff_k

This is how we spend most of our free time now. What else is there to do?

Moses continues to be great fun, nearing his fourteenth month. He is inquisitive and sweet, sensitive as a spring flower. We take daily walks, we work, we read, we try not to talk too much about coronavirus, we focus on the moment (when we can, when visions of the future don’t send us into a hypothetical tailspin). I have nothing meaningful to say about the space we find ourselves in, as a country, except that we are all finding ways to persevere and extend grace when we can.

. . .

Formlessness and a first birthday

I talked with Kyo recently while ironing a pile of summery clothes that I wonder if I’ll ever have the occasion to wear. (T-shirts and ugly slippers rule the day.) We used FaceTime but both agreed that video calls were soul-crushing. As human animals, we are motivated to fill the grievous lack of in-person interaction with calls: calls for work, calls for friendship, calls, calls, and more calls. Our days fill up with scheduled conversations.

Kyo remarked that these conversations, as a consequence of quarantine, have become incredibly boring. We’re all doing more or less the same thing: There is nothing new to report. We don’t go out. We look around our house and wait for something to happen. We try to balance work and the other beings we have to care for. Why have these calls at all, then? Because we don’t have a better alternative. Because none of this is normal or natural. Because we are hungry for flesh-and-blood connection. Because the cheap substitute is all we have. We agreed on all of this and more. Even still, it was nice to “see” him.

. . .

For several nights in a row, gigantic European hornets congregated in our living room. The first night, when Guion trapped one, we considered it a fluke. He asked me if he should kill it, and I was all: No, the delicate ecosystem! Every blessed creature has its place, its sanctified role to play! Do not lay a hand upon this ungainly bug! But then the next night came, and three more hornets found their way inside, one after the other, and I changed my tune. Fear struck my heart. Was this how we were going to live out the rest of the pandemic? With these flying marauders? And he asked me what to do with them, and I said, Kill them now, fast, and be merciless. Hang their bodies from the lintels; send them all a message.

(We’re still not sure where they’re coming from or why, but Guion suspects there is a nest in the chimney. He blocked a small hole after a quick inspection, and we’ve been three days with no hornet invasions. Fingers crossed.)

. . .

Moses turned one this past weekend! It has been such a delightful year with him. He acquires new skills and interests every week. He wants us to know that he’s very busy and has a lot of important work on his plate: stacking wooden bowls, talking to babies in board books (his only friends! Sob!), caressing shrubs, and singing along with his favorite song by the Talking Heads (“Psycho Killer”: thanks, Guion).

01IMG_2746

Eating his cupcake:

He has been our little light in this gloomy time.

What you do not have you find everywhere

As a profoundly emotionally illiterate person, I have been rocked by how much my feelings have fluctuated during this time. (I have no emotional coping mechanisms! Someone help me!) One day, I feel bright and hopeful; we’re outside and Moses is crawling in the grass and the sun is warm and healing on our necks. The next day, I am in the pit of despair; a fragment of a grim news story repeats on an endless loop. I feel that life will never be normal again, that we’ll never be able to hug anyone without a stab of fear, that we might all be homeless. This is how it goes for me right now. Up and down, up and down.

We are presently healthy, which is a mercy, and we are learning how to both work full days while minding the boy. Every day has its own share of minor victories and minor struggles. And I enjoy Guion so, so much, which is also very helpful. He is a tremendously valuable partner, chef, problem-solver, and parent. I would surely perish without him.

. . .

Why Fish Don't Exist - By Lulu Miller (Hardcover) : Target

I have a book recommendation for you as well. It’s just the thing for this time of seclusion and meditation on the inherent chaos of life.

Lulu Miller’s new book Why Fish Don’t Exist is radiant. I read it ravenously, devouring most of it in a single sitting. Her 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. Highly recommended.

. . .

Provision

W.S. Merwin

All morning with dry instruments
The field repeats the sound
Of rain
From memory
And in the wall
The dead increase their invisible honey
It is August
The flocks are beginning to form
I will take with me the emptiness of my hands
What you do not have you find everywhere

. . .

moses-outside49762484286_3b1a449cd0_k

Here is a baby who is almost a boy who very much wants to be walking. He will stand and bounce from time to time, but he has not yet developed much interest in taking steps. He has been forced to content himself with crawling around in the grass and trying to sneak as many nibbles of grass, mulch, and flowers as he can. He is busy, curious, and solemnly observant of the natural world. His favorite plants are red Japanese maples and boxwoods, which he loves to reach out and grab. We tried to get him to play with privet and Japanese hollies, which very closely resemble boxwoods, but he can’t be fooled. He is only interested in boxwoods, like the true Virginia gentleman that he is.

. . .

Currently reading

  • The Satanic Verses, Salman Rushdie: Found a cheap copy; wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
  • John McPhee Reader: A selection from many books by one of the greatest essayists of our time.
  • Gulf Music, Robert Pinsky: Time to read through all of the poetry books we own but I have not yet touched.
  • The Immoralist, André Gide: I’m not very interested in this.

Lockdown life

How quickly things change! Here we are, huddled at home, like the rest of the world. It continues to feel surreal, like an irritating dream that resembles everyday life but is more… horrible somehow. That said, we are all well, learning a new routine as we figure out how to work at home and mind the boy. I am grateful for many things, and Guion and Moses are chief among them, along with our jobs, which we still have and are able to do remotely, and our weed-filled yard, which has needed the extra attention.

I have nothing profound to say about this strange moment, except that I have faith that it will end, one way or another.

. . .

When the library shut down, I panic-ordered $100 of used books from ThriftBooks. I am not worried about running out of toilet paper, but running out of new books to read is a real threat to my well-being. I gravitated toward lots of serious, crisis-heavy tomes, whether about the dictator Trujillo’s murderous reign in the Dominican Republic, the fall of the Soviet Union, or the excesses of the Roman Empire. They comfort me, these catastrophic histories. Things have been dark before. They will be dark again. But hope persists.

In my reading life, I also acknowledge that this time of quarantine is an opportunity to read all of the thick tomes that have been languishing on my shelves for years (Don Quixote, Life: A User’s ManualThe Hemingses of MonticelloHirohito, The Golden Notebook, to name a few). To that end, I am also enjoying taking my time and reading through the books that have long been gathering dust on my shelves.

I started Don Quixote, which I have been putting off for at least a decade, and it has utterly enchanted me. Why didn’t anyone tell me how deeply funny it is? I hold you all responsible. It has provided a strange and charming sense of reprieve and escape from the news, which I no longer read at all.

. . .

I am thankful for technology, but I am sick to death of video calls. They are a poor substitute for human interaction. They leave a bitter taste in my mouth, like artificial cherry flavoring when you were wanting the real, fleshy taste of a perfect cherry.

. . .

biz-moses-IMG_9755

At least one member of our family is perpetually cheerful, living proof that ignorance is bliss. He will be a year old in early May, which is hard to believe. He will not get to have the birthday party I had hoped for, gathering all of our family and dearest friends at a park, but I’m the only one who is disappointed by that. He has no idea. We will give him his first taste of refined sugar in the form of a cupcake, take a few photos, and say, “Congrats, boy, welcome to adulthood,” and call it a day. And he will be happy, thinking it just a slight variation on any normal day, which he now spends happily destroying his “safe room” while his parents try to work and take dozens and dozens of… video conference calls.

Love to you all; be of good cheer. This will end one day.

Change your mind

Over the past few years, I keep telling myself that I am going to read less because I want to read more slowly. I continue to fail at this, but I started the year with the weighty final installment of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, in an attempt to force myself to slow down. It’s 1,200 pages long, and I’m a little over halfway done, and loving the tedium. I don’t know why I find him so addictive and riveting. He took a 300-page diversion to discuss young Hitler, and I was just rapt, every sentence, every page.

. . .

“This is what learning is, seeing that which lies outside the confines of the self. To grow older is not to understand more but to realize that there is more to understand.” — Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle (Book 6)

. . .

The faintest hints of spring lift my spirits: a few brave daffodils blooming, birds singing in small bursts, evenings that seem a little less dark. I am looking forward to being out in the world more in this spring and summer. We were so much indoors last year, in those blurry newborn months, and I crave the hot sun on my skin. I feel like we missed it last year. I’m looking forward, particularly, to taking Moses out into the garden and introducing him to our plants. I am eager to start a little herb plot and get his “help” with it.

. . .

In other news, I continue to be very much into our baby. Moses is a sunny, flirty 9-month-old now, spending most of his days pulling to stand on furniture, falling down and whining about it, and babbling to himself or anyone who will listen.

Things are so much easier now than they were in those early months, and I can confidently say that I recommend motherhood to anyone who is on the fence. Do it! Have a baby, if the Lord wills. Those first few weeks, I did feel, a little, that everything was ruined. This is no longer the case! We are so fond of our little blond boy and more than a little obsessed. He is a delightful labor, seems well worth the effort.

49517961946_d17262247c_c

Claiming your blessedness

48964416726_4a9ae42269_c
We still have a dog! She is good and sweet and quiet. Here we are on a family walk in a field.

I have been seized by an inexplicable urge to decide the names of the rest of our sons. I am convinced that if we have other children, we (a) will only have boys, and (b) must determine their full names posthaste. I cannot explain either the origin or urgency of this feeling.

. . .

Unexpected consequences of parenthood thus far

  • We have become extremely concerned about other babies, even fictional babies. We were watching a comedy series that shall not be named, and Jason Sudeikis left a baby in another room with swords hanging on the wall. The baby was not a critical character in the scene, but Guion and I looked at each other and said in unison, “Someone better go check on that baby!”
  • We cannot listen to music with any high-pitched crooning, wailing, or wind instruments, because it all sounds like an upset baby—specifically, our upset baby.
  • We have separately taken on various baby grooming tasks with such devotion that now the other parent does not know how to do the task. Guion trims Moses’s nails, and I give him baths, and we cannot switch duties. I do not know how to trim his nails, and Guion does not know how to give him a bath. I am sure that we both could learn, but we are too far gone in these individual areas of expertise. We will likely carry along on this trajectory until the boy is a teen.
  • We have effortlessly and guilelessly become those parents who show people photos of our baby that they did not ask to see and have no desire to see and then wait for them to affirm what we know to be deeply, unquestionably true, that he is The Cutest Baby to Have Ever Lived. We have likewise become incapable of detecting dismay or boredom in the faces of our captive audience. We think everyone sees with the same love-blind eyes that we do.
  • We have started saying things like “It’s such a fun age” without a trace of sarcasm.
  • We cry whenever someone talks about Mister Rogers.

. . .

“Not claiming your blessedness will lead you quickly to the land of the cursed. There is little or no neutral territory between the land of the blessed and the land of the cursed. You have to choose where it is that you want to live, and that choice is one that you have to keep making from moment to moment.”

— Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved

. . .

This baby is almost seven months old (sob) and recently discovered the incomparable joy of a teddy bear.

moses-bear49170965357_4379b0df90_c