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.
Once a week, when we were small, Mom let us loose in the public library for a few hours. These were some of my favorite mornings in my memory of our elementary school years. She brought an enormous canvas tote (it could comfortably fit our three-year-old brother inside of it; the bag was a gift from our father, and he’d had her nickname—Mookie—embroidered on the side with navy blue thread). We were allowed to fill this bag to the brim with books, but we could not overflow the bag. We became strategic about how we packed our selections in the bag, ensuring that each of our carefully chosen titles would make the final cut.
We were set free inside the large, three-story library and told to meet back at a particular spot in a few hours. I went to my typical shelves (young adult fiction, baby name books, dog books, books about Japan); Grace gravitated toward the heavy art books that you couldn’t check out; and Kelsey and Sam were often found playing computer games upstairs. I have no idea what Mom did. (I hope she found a sofa somewhere and took a nap.)
I relished these hours alone, discovering books I had never heard of, pulling them off the shelves just for the joy of holding them in my small hands. The sense of independence—both physical and intellectual—from library mornings formed me deeply. I was simultaneously overwhelmed and motivated by all that I had not read. I felt (and still feel) this driving compulsion to read as much as possible before I die. When I think of this lifelong pursuit, I think of the shelves at the public library of my childhood, stretching before my mind endlessly, full of promise and provocation.
Although we were homeschooled in a strongly evangelical, conservative community, my mother was wisely relaxed about reading. In a time when her peers were throwing fits about Harry Potter or other “worldly,” dangerous books their children might encounter, she was calm about what we found to read. (She knew, as many of her fellow homeschooling moms seem to have forgotten, that censorship would only make the desire for the banned books burn even brighter.) Instead, she let us read whatever we found. She was careful about other things—like TV and movies—and we were not allowed to watch anything on a screen without parental permission (and the answer was usually “no”). But books were an open field.
I asked her once, years later, why she was so relaxed about books with me, in particular. “Are you kidding?” she said. “I didn’t have time to read everything you were reading. You read too much. I trusted that you’d figure out, in the end, what was good and true and what wasn’t.”
After weeks and weeks of rain, a few consecutive days of sunshine feels like being born again.
I am not a particularly emotional person, but I am reminded of the tremendously profound effect of weather on my disposition. I don’t know how people in the British Isles take it year round. (There may be something wrong with British people, it could be said. We lived in London in the summer, which is arguably the best time to live in London, and the Brits we knew complained when it was hot and bright and sunny. They, like swamp aliens, longed for the cold mist and rain and fog!)
All this aside, October has been very good to us. Most notably, we gained our second godson, and we love him so much already. His tiny self and his wonderful parents fill us with great joy.
. . .
I am hopeful about a growing, generalized malaise around the internet and life lived on screens. The world wide web has failed to make us more intelligent, more moral, more peaceful, more charitable. Many seem to be waking up to this reality.
I recently finished Maryanne Wolf’s new book, Reader, Come Home, about reading in a digital world. Her warnings and findings are not new or surprising (the internet has ruined our capacity for deep thinking and deep reading), but her focus on children felt particularly chilling. I recommend it, to anyone who loves reading and has found their capacity for it diminishing, and especially to the parents of small children.
A short selection from her book, as a taste of what she covers:
“When you read carefully, you are more able to discern what is true and to add it to what you know. Ralph Waldo Emerson described this aspect of reading in his extraordinary speech ‘The American Scholar’: ‘When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant.’ In reading research, the cognitive psychologist Keith Stanovich suggested something similar some time ago about the development of word knowledge. In childhood, he declared, the word-rich get richer and the word-poor get poorer, a phenomenon he called the ‘Matthew Effect’ after a passage in the New Testament. There is also a Matthew-Emerson Effect for background knowledge: those who have read widely and well will have many resources to apply to what they read; those who do not will have less to bring, which, in turn, gives them less basis for inference, deduction, and analogical thought and makes them ripe for falling prey to unadjudicated information, whether fake news or complete fabrications. Our young will not know what they do not know.”
— Maryanne Wolf, Reader, Come Home
A positive development: After several months of studiously detaching from my phone, I find it less and less interesting. It contains nothing that I really want (and certainly nothing that I need). I still check Instagram once or twice a day and perhaps look at a few emails, but I don’t even really want to be doing that. I’ve deleted the apps that were distracting (Twitter) and kept the main screen limited to simple functions (clock, camera, weather, maps, etc.), which aren’t very interesting anyway. I still have much to regain, by way of attention and mindfulness, but I am feeling freer on the whole.
. . .
Things I cannot resist
Sliced cucumber on a plate
Watching a dog intently as it trots past me
Moonlight on the counter
Buying Anne Carson books wherever I spot them
Telling Pyrrha how much she sheds
Stationery of European origin
. . .
The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside
The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue
The one the other will absorb—
The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—
This morning, while I waited for water to boil for tea, I watched a tremendous current of starlings fly just above the tree line in our backyard. Pyrrha stood on the back deck and seemed to be watching them too. They flew in a seemingly endless stream from the west. I imagined they were all communicating to each other about the hurricane, cheerfully fleeing en masse, and I wondered where they were going. What refuge do hundreds of starlings seek?
. . .
Even though we will see some flooding and minor wind and nothing much worse, the hurricane has produced this low level of dread in me. We will be completely fine, unlike many in our beloved home state of North Carolina, and so it feels almost callous to worry, when we have so little to worry about. But my hum of anxiety serves to reinforce the main thing I have learned from the past year: Never, ever read the news. The news is engineered to ratchet up your anxiety. This is the only thing to remember.
. . .
I am finally tackling David Copperfield, which I want to talk about because I harbor such a general distaste for Dickens. (Bleak House was pretty good, but I can hardly stand the rest of it.) To my surprise, I am 200 pages in and quite enjoying myself. It’s pleasant to read something that isn’t my typical moody, postmodern fictional fare; it’s nice to meet a character and read the author’s description of his face and know instantly, Oh, this is a villain because he has a dark brow and cleft chin! Or oh, this is an angel! She has glossy blonde hair! It’s pleasing to feel like you can predict almost everything that is about to happen. You shall shortly be orphaned! Your stepfather will continue to terrorize you! You shall be beaten by the headmaster! You will work full-time in a dismal place even though you are only 10 years old! It’s fun. I admit it.
. . .
I have also felt a revival of interest in poetry. I think it’s because of the anticipation of fall; I always want to read poetry in the fall. I have started Passing Through by Stanley Kunitz, and I can already tell I’m going to be a fan.
. . .
“I felt sorry for us, for both, for all of us, such odd organisms under the sun. Large minds, abutting too close on swelling souls. And banished souls at that, longing for their home-world. Everyone alive mourned the loss of his home-world.” — Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow
Here we are at the end of August, a bit dazed by how quickly the season left us. We are going to New York soon, to see old friends and eat a good deal of food and ogle modern art, and it feels like a fitting conclusion to what was otherwise a quiet and domestic summer. This summer has been marked by much thinking about our house and a possible addition; exquisite meals made by Guion; the basilica cocktail; daily walks with Pyrrha; near-daily thunderstorms; roaring symphonies of cicadas; a return to evening reading; and breathtakingly oppressive humidity.
. . .
A sweet thing: A husband who reads a poem by Danez Smith to me in the morning, while he is finishing his breakfast, and when he finishes the poem, he looks up and me and his eyes are rimmed with tears and he laughs and says, “It’s too beautiful,” and looks up at the ceiling.
. . .
Gratitude works quickly on the mind. I am always pleased to discover and then rediscover this.
Lately, I have been astonished by the power of the mere reminder to be grateful. Guion also deserves credit for this. As I have been absorbed in planning our home addition and finalizing plans with our architect, I have taken to griping about things in the house that have bothered me. I hate the rattling storm windows, which are impossible to clean. I loathe the sloppy molding and the cheap hollow-core doors. I detest that multicolored berber carpet upstairs. And sometimes (more often, lately) I say so.
Guion has taken to reminding me that nothing is wrong with our house (echoing the sentiments of a new favorite writer, Kate Wagner). It is good. Each room has something to be grateful for, to give thanks for.
And it’s working on me. I am pleased with the small things: the way my bare feet feel on our hardwood floors in the summer. The actual tininess of our bedroom, because we do not need it to be bigger. The fact that we have two bathrooms, even if they are not in the right place. The good choices that the previous owners made when they renovated the kitchen. The long flat yard, which has allowed our gardening imaginations and experiments plenty of room to flourish. I even like the pale green color of our ugly asbestos siding. Sure, there are things I still want to change, and I still hope we get to do this addition, but even if we don’t, I am thankful.
. . .
By Hayden Carruth
You thought growing older
would be more of the same,
going a little slower,
walking a little lame.
But you knew, or you were a fool,
that alteration is what we keep;
tonight will not be the equal
of last night, even in sleep.