Follow me on Substack instead (goodbye, WordPress!)

Since I started using the internet as a teen, I’ve enjoyed recklessly treating it as a diary. But blogs are dead, and while I’ve used WordPress for a dozen years, it gets worse and worse with every passing year.

So I’ve started a Substack. Subscribe for occasional life updates, book reviews, skincare recommendations, child-rearing musings, and home-renovation screeds.

https://abbyfarsonpratt.substack.com

Follow me there instead, if you like, as I shall be closing the coffin lid on this old blog. God be with you, dear reader.

Our only way forward

In the early 1990s, bloodshed was commonplace in South Africa. The tumultuous period of negotiations to end apartheid was marked by almost daily violence. At the many public funeral services for victims of massacres, a bespectacled, impish man was often found behind the pulpit: Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

In 1992, after the Boipatong massacre that killed 45 people, Tutu was able to defuse the outrage of the thousands of mourners in a township soccer stadium. Instead of whipping the audience into a justifiable fury, he led the crowd in songs, singing with the people as they declared their love of God and themselves as a community.

Tutu, who died this past Sunday, became known for his gracious, effective leadership in the face of agonizing horrors and injustices.

When Nelson Mandela became president, he appointed Tutu to lead the truth commission that sought to create racial reconciliation in the bitterly divided nation. While listening to testimony after testimony of the numerous murders and tortures, the archbishop often wept. And yet, as the commission published its findings and held many accountable for human rights violations, Tutu said, “Without forgiveness, there is no future.”

Despite the terrors that his people had suffered for decades, Tutu knew that the only way for his nation to heal was to forgive. He later expanded on this difficult concept, saying:

“Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering—remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.”

Tutu lived what he believed, and his life leaves us with a powerful reminder: Forgiveness is not weakness or passivity. It’s our only way forward.

Excerpt from this week’s Story Matters.

. . .

These two boys had a very merry Christmas. All of the trappings of Christmas—the lights, the trees, the stockings, the songs—are much more fun to me now that I have these little dudes. It is clichéd, but their wonder at the little things of the season makes my heart continually glad.

My baby made me go deaf

Sort of.

Who me? But I’m so cute and innocent.

I have been losing my hearing for the past few years, but when pregnant with Felix, my hearing loss became acute. A few weeks after he was born, I finally got the diagnosis I had been suspecting, that I had otosclerosis, a progressive hearing loss disorder that is accelerated by pregnancy. (Just one of the many super-strange things that pregnancy can do to a body!) It’s a genetic condition, and my maternal uncle also has it, so I’d suspected this was the reason for losing my hearing at a relatively young age. The good news is that I’m a candidate for surgery to correct this loss (by getting some new faux tiny ear bones, how chic), and I hope to schedule that sooner rather than later.

Overall, the experience of gradually going deaf has created space for all kinds of new observations.

Masking has been a real trial for my new handicap. The pandemic is inconvenient to many of us in many different ways, but the constant need to mask in social situations has been a real drag for me. I have to ask everyone to repeat themselves multiple times. I can’t watch their mouths to guess at the words they might be making. It’s incredibly frustrating.

Related to this frustration is an increased social anxiety. I’ve always been introverted, but losing my hearing has made me want to avoid casual interactions with people. With masks and my gradual hearing loss, I miss so much in conversation, and I feel ashamed and irritated. I try to disclose my deafness, but people often don’t turn the volume up vocally. It’s terrible to admit, but I feel happy when a cashier doesn’t try to make small talk, for instance, but bags my groceries in silence. It’s more peaceful that way.

Accordingly, I pretend a lot of the time now. I pretend like I heard the punchline to a joke. I pretend like I understood the question. It’s not efficient—I should just ask people to repeat themselves. But I hate having to always do that. So I just look at them vacantly and nod and try to mirror whatever facial expression they’re making. Ah, she’s grimacing; I should express concern. OK, he is smiling; I should smile and nod too.

I have a harder time hearing men, because of the lower tones of their voice (especially men speaking quietly). Guion jokes that this is just an expression of my feminism: refusing to ever listen to the patriarchy.

I suppose this is a small PSA more than anything. If I seem ruder to you than normal, know that it’s not intentional. I probably just didn’t hear you. I hope I will be able to hear you again soon. In the meantime, feel free to shout.

A chorus of voices

As children, we learn a simple, flattened version of American history. The pilgrims and the Native Americans were buddies and ate corn on the cob together! Now put on this funny hat and make a googly-eyed turkey.

As we grow up, we hopefully learn that the story isn’t that straightforward (or cheerful). Instead, it’s a tale fraught with murder and plunder, political recklessness and social injustice. More often than not, history is the story of the strong taking advantage of the weak.

It’s especially troubling to learn that our ancestors could be—simultaneously—heroes AND villains, regardless of how they got here. Certainly, some were more villainous than others, especially when power and money were involved. But the more we study history, the harder it becomes to see everything as a clean struggle between good and evil. It’s more like sometimes-good vs. sometimes-evil, or good-at-this-moment vs. evil-at-this-moment.

This does not sit well with us. We like tidy narratives from a single perspective. They’re easier to listen to, easier to spin into an animated feature film. Stories told from a range of viewpoints, with overlapping motives and complex characters, are uncomfortable and difficult. They make us squirm.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’m all for a little more squirming.

Let’s collectively take a harder look at our history, especially as we look with hope toward the future. Let’s not rest on one-dimensional narratives. Our history isn’t a Marvel movie. The “good guys” are, at times, hard to identify. Instead, we find ourselves in a shatteringly complex novel, reaching back over centuries, replete with a dazzling array of characters and competing perspectives.

Let’s be grateful, as Americans, for a difficult heritage. May it force us to be more gracious with one another. May we lean in and listen a little more closely to the multiplicity of voices who call this land home.

Excerpt from this week’s Story Matters

Two little American voices I’m thankful for.

Not the center of the universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From this week’s issue of Story Matters

. . .

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

— Alan Jacobs, Breaking Bread With the Dead

. . .

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

Rather than in the world itself

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

When the lights of health go down

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excerpted from this week’s issue of Story Matters.

. . .

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

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

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

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

Don’t get a dog if you also want kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The joyful thread

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

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

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

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

Excerpt from this week’s issue of Story Matters.

. . .

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

— Marilynne Robinson, “Theology for This Moment”

. . .

This is the land that feeds you

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

. . .

Moses in field, in December.