The joys of spring are so apparent that they’re almost not worth naming. I part the curtains with anticipation every morning, noting the growth of my long-nurtured perennials and the return of familiar weeds. We continue to walk every day, observing how quickly the trees shed their blossoms and mature, how insane the songbirds have become in courtship and competition. I walk slowly now, but I am still walking. This seems to be what counts.
I have always tended toward loving home and domesticity, but this instinct seems to have kicked into high gear, now that I’m nearly nine months pregnant. I don’t want to go anywhere or do anything. My first instinct at any invitation is to say no, definitely not (much to my extroverted lover’s chagrin). I am staying put. I am waiting here, where I have been planted for the time being.
. . .
Perhaps one of the strangest sensations I’ve encountered, poised on the brink of motherhood, is the fact that even though I am reading copiously about babies and parenthood, I don’t know anything more than I did before. All of this knowledge hasn’t transformed into preparation or prediction. I still have no idea what it will be like. In almost every other realm, I can read dozens of books and walk away with at least some increased knowledge. This does not seem to be the case concerning child-rearing. It’s all still a grand mystery. Maybe it always will be.
These days, most people ask us, “Are you ready?” And I always say no, of course not. Who is ever really ready for this?
I skimmed an interview with a designer, a mother of two, who used this metaphor for the voyage from childlessness to parenthood: You lived on Earth, very happily, for many years. Then you’re packed onto a spaceship and sent to another planet. You can always see Earth from your new planet, and you know you can never return. Sometimes this stabs you in the heart. This other planet is very different and strange at first, but you come to love it. It has its own joys and pains and secrets and pleasures. You accept it as your new home, remembering Earth as a distant, fond memory.
. . .
To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.
To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.
When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.
The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.
But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.
— Susan Sontag, lecturing on Nadine Gordimer, quoted in Brain Pickings
I had always expected that once I got pregnant that my adoration of dogs would wane. But here I am, lumbering well into my third trimester, and I continue to find dogs far more interesting than children. They catch my eye on the street far more than babies do. Perhaps I will love dogs less once I have a child of my own. I will, at least, expect to be less focused on them. But I think they will always matter to me. My grandmother, Loretta, shown above, never lost her lifelong love of dogs. We used to joke that she knew more about the family’s dogs than she did about her own grandchildren. And yet we did not resent her for it; it was part of her everlasting charm. She craved the company of dogs, perhaps because they shared her boundless enthusiasm for life.
Whenever I’m away from home, I look for dogs everywhere. They make me feel less homesick; they instantly brighten my mood. While in Charleston, Guion knew I’d want to linger by a dog park and so he let me ogle like a creep by the fence, just to watch the pups play for a bit. I recently returned from SXSW in Austin, where there was no shortage of street dogs to admire. A dog-loving colleague and I would take pains to point dogs out to each other. And then, when I come home to Pyrrha, I am Lazarus, fresh from the tomb: You never saw such rejoicing! Such disbelief! Such yips of ecstasy!
How can you not harbor a lifelong obsession with such a creature? A silent, joyful, juvenile wolf who sleeps in your home and gives you daily offerings of unending love?
. . .
In thinking about our unknown child, our fast-approaching firstborn, I wonder about the unseen inheritances that he or she will receive. I am particularly interested in the personality traits that skip a generation or two. Will she have her great-grandmother’s infectious laugh (and fixation on canines)? Will he have his great-grandfather’s gift of playing music by ear?
“Unseen” is the word that comes to me, although it is perhaps not quite right. “Unknown” or “unanticipated” are probably closer to what I mean. But I like the idea of being blindsided by a familial similarity. You look at your kid one day, when she is six years old, and you realize she has her grandmother’s eyebrows and her great-grandfather’s genteel manner of storytelling.
This interests me. I am not sure how to say more about it than that.
. . .
“The digital clutter of our lives doesn’t merely make us anxious, interrupting our train of thought and blocking us from longer periods of silence and the deeper thinking that can go with it. Our digital clutter redesigns our world around the temporary. Constant interruptions turn us into amnesiacs who are required to respond, reply, and react from moment to moment. This is why we have so little memory of what happened last week, let alone what happened last year or twenty years ago. We are constantly threatened with interruption, so we experience each moment as something that could easily be discounted, could easily be erased or subsumed by some more important message. Our minds, in other words, are filled with the clutter of what comes next: messages and tweets and texts yet to be received. We live in a world of past and future clutter. We are boxed in. There is no space for where we are right now.”
— Heather Havrilesky, “Stuffed,” from her new book, What If This Were Enough?
. . .
Learning more about birth continues to cement my feminist leanings. I continue to trust in the incredible power and strength and wisdom of women. The main things I have gleaned thus far are that women should labor in the place they feel safest, and women should guide other women through labor and birth, as they have done for millennia. I’m not sure this is a realm where men get to have much say (and, in this way, it feels right to treat birth as holy, in the “set apart” sense of the definition). We’ll see how it goes. I am trying not to have any expectations, because I know that none of it can be organized or planned. It will be a great exercise in surrender, an act that I do not typically welcome.
We went away to Charleston for a long weekend, a final, celebratory jaunt as a family of two. We walked miles and miles every day and ate incredible amounts of delicious food (on any holiday, walking and eating are my primary ambitions). And then we spied some of the most grand old rowhouses, cheerful dogs, a trio of dolphins, and an injured bald eagle and maimed kestrel (at the aquarium, where they somewhat incongruously reside).
After eight years of marriage, we’ve become very compatible travel companions. He knows that I will be unnecessarily anxious about the airport (not about flying, but about being in an airport, for which I reserve a special kind of loathing) and accommodates in advance to reduce my fretting. I know that he will find the best restaurants in any given city, so I don’t spend any time researching them. He knows that I will want to find some animals to admire, wherever they exist, and I know that he will want to stop and photograph unfamiliar flowers or vines or shrubs. We rarely need to even voice our desires, which frees us up to have conversations at dinner about inconsequential abstractions (gender politics, music theory, creative expression, the value of performance art, the frequency with which one should shampoo).
If there is anything I fear, it is the dread of the unknown, the simmering concern that a new person in the family will ruin our happy relationship. Parents we trust and respect tell us that raising children will, in time, deepen our relationship. Our sorrows and joys will both be more extreme. But as an emotionally illiterate person, I can’t help but hear this reassurance as deeply troubling.
. . .
“Lord, give us what you have already given.” — A character in Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa
. . .
I’m feeling burnt out on baby books, so I have been reading a history of the heroin epidemic, a field guide to North American trees, and a hefty novel by Elsa Morante. I am now feeling a little bit more like myself. Baby books are stressful.
I despise the cold, but I’m finding some joy in the winter this year. This attitude has been helped along by daily walks, with the aid of competent warm-weather gear and my good German shepherd, the perfect walking companion; more time to read, and read by the fire; and the quietness of the landscape. This winter, more than others, feels like this restful season of anticipation. Spring brings new life (literally for our household this year), and I am enjoying thinking of winter as a time for appropriate dormancy.
A poem along those lines:
How exactly good it is
to know myself
in the solitude of winter,
my body containing its own
warmth, divided from all
by the cold; and to go
separate and sure
among the trees cleanly
divided, thinking of you
perfect too in your solitude,
your life withdrawn into
your own keeping
to be clear, poised
in perfect self-suspension
toward you, as though frozen.
And having known fully the
goodness of that, it will be
good also to melt.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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
. . .
A week full of dinners with friends
An aging dog who still greets me with veritable leaps in the air
On a whim, I bought a domain for this blog because the ads are so awful. I despise chum boxes in all instances and thoroughly dislike the fact that anyone who comes here (however tiny the number may be) is unwillingly subjected to such garbage.
Upon doing so, however, I was revisited by the uncomfortable feeling I get when I find posts I wrote here seven or eight years ago. Strong waves of nausea and embarrassment wash over me when I uncover them. I sound very childish, and I feel very different from who I was then. (I have also shifted the way that I think about writing here; now I am far less personal and open.)
I am reminded of the ludicrous notion, which we often cherish when we are young, that we are fixed entity. I was BORN this way, we like to think. I have always been an INDIVIDUAL. This is deeply false. We change so much, by the year, by the week, almost. We are not who we once were. And that is OK.
Sure, there are some constants in my personality (I have loved words since I was tiny, I have always been bossy, etc.), but I have changed a great deal. And I expect I will continue to. This prospect, of lifelong personal change, is pleasing to me.
. . .
“I will do anything to avoid boredom. It is the task of a lifetime. You can never know enough, never work enough, never use the infinitives and participles oddly enough, never impede the movement harshly enough, never leave the mind quickly enough.”
— Anne Carson, Plainwater
Anne Carson, patron saint of my aspirational mental state.