The latest letter from Leah Finnegan is speaking deeply to me right now. I can’t explain it half as well as she can, so just read the letter. She captures precisely how I feel about the unfortunate state of our public (but increasingly, private) discourse—especially on such unrelenting cesspools as Twitter and Facebook.
You know how I feel about Facebook, but I’ve also recently stopped looking at Twitter, and I’m immensely happier online. I also unfollowed about half of the people I was following, especially anyone who tweeted about politics or the news, and now it’s mostly crazy dog ladies (my goofy acquaintances from my dog-blogging days), no context Terrace House, Lulu, and Wei. I’ll still tweet every now and then, if I write something new, but I have deleted the app from my phone and the links from my browsers. I have not missed it at all.
I’ve also stopped reading almost all news, except for longform, investigative journalism. In 2018, I’m only interested in the slow news, in the stories that it took one intrepid reporter (and her invisible editors, no doubt) eight months to tell.
Consequences of the further narrowing of my internet life? An increased sense of daily happiness and calm. An increased desire to read books. An increased gratitude for the physical world. An increased desire to walk to work. An increased attention to my long-suffering houseplants.
. . .
“Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.”
Mavis Gallant is my latest obsession. (Dear friends had a beautiful baby girl yesterday, whom they named Mavis, and the name feels especially precious right now.) Gallant was a French-Canadian short story writer, and I feel simultaneously alarmed and elated that I had never read her until now. This is always such a pleasurable feeling, to discover a brilliant writer, after decades of reading, whom no one you know has ever told you about. (Anne Carson, I suppose, cannot count as someone I know.) She feels like a private discovery even though I am extremely late to the party.
Here is how Gallant starts her immaculate short story The Wedding Ring:
“On my windowsill is a pack of cards, a bell, a dog’s brush, a book about a girl named Jewel who is a Christian Scientist and won’t let anyone take her temperature, and a white jug holding field flowers. The water in the jug has evaporated; the sand-and-amber flowers seem made of paper. The weather bulletin for the day can be one of several: No sun. A high arched yellow sky. Or, creamy clouds, stillness. Long motionless grass. The earth soaks up the sun. or, the sky is higher than it ever will seem again, and the sun far away and small.”
Her prose has this unbelievably effortless quality to it, and the stories unfold in this strange yet natural way. I have been devouring them at breakfast. I feel a strong urge to buy everything she’s ever done.
. . .
A friend, with her bright-eyed baby on her hip, passed me in church after the service and said, as an opening salvo, “Summer is the best time to be alive.” I lit up, agreed, said something vapid about the food and the heat. I love conversations that start in this way, with a statement instead of a predictable question. And I felt the imperative truth of what she said. If we do not eat the earth’s bounty every night, if we do not walk every morning, the season will pass us by and soon we will descend into the darkness of winter. This is the blessedness and urgency of summer.
. . .
Life is very short and yet happy. My houseplants are suffering. I have had them for many years and just this season, they seem to be waning away, after years of moderate health and growth. The bird’s nest fern hanging over the armchair was so happy in that spot for a year, and now it looks burned and angry. The fiddle-leaf fig just keeps growing taller and taller and has no strength and keeps flopping over, weeping with its large leaves that I perpetually neglect to dust. I need to re-pot the six-year-old jade plants, growing in odd ways out of the cracked yellow urns, but I am lazy. I look at them and think about this every other day: You need my help and I am lazy.
. . .
“I always ran Home to Awe when a child, if anything befell me,
He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none.” — Emily Dickinson
Sometimes I worry that I am too easily persuaded, that I am too porous. If I spend too much time with someone I like, I start to pick up her hand gestures, I start to mimic his philosophical cant. Some days I feel anxious about this, but on others, I think: This is just what humans do. In good company, we’re always bleeding into each other, picking up one another’s stories and making them our own. Over time, we become more and more like our spouses and close friends and neighbors. It is alarming sometimes, for sure, because we cherish this notion of ourselves as peerless individuals, untainted by external influence, but as I age, I am finding it comforting. I am OK being a sponge. I happily soak up other people.
. . .
A small side-step from porousness: I been married for eight years, and every year seems different from the last.
Recently, I have delighted in this simple duality: familiarity and surprise. There is this pleasant sense of comfort and ease that comes from living with someone for so long. We finish each other’s sentences (sandwiches); he can typically predict what I am about to do or say or which gesture or joke I’m going to deploy, and vice versa. And then, at the same time, amid all of this charming predictability, marriage is still full of surprises. We uncover a previously hidden aspect of personality (or one that is just developing). We find a fresh angle in a perennial disagreement. Who knows what could happen next? We certainly don’t.
. . .
Yesterday, we were enduring a trip to Giant, and I was, I thought, helpfully putting ears of corn into a plastic bag Guion was holding. I was apparently being too forceful, however. The bag split and the corn tumbled onto his sandaled feet, bruising his toes. He cursed a little under his breath as I picked up the corn. Later that night, I reminded him of how angry he’d been about that corn. “It’s because you were throwing it in the bag like Zeus throwing lightning bolts!” he protested immediately, and I started crying from laughter. And then it was hard to fall asleep.
. . .
I continue to move faithfully away from the news and Twitter, and with each day that passes, my happiness increases. Twitter has been a particular cesspool lately.
. . .
Things I harbor strong opinions about despite knowing very little about
I am always obsessing over something, and right now, it’s these seven writers. I consider them essential, and now I shall badger you to move them to the top of your reading list.
1. Clarice Lispector
Want to feel unsettled and amazed all at once? Look no further than the brilliant (and beautiful) Clarice Lispector, a Ukrainian-Brazilian socialite with a wild mind and incandescent, hypnotic prose. She’s unlike anyone else out there.
What must it be like to have a brain as powerful as Anne Carson’s? Anne Carson is a classics professor, poet, translator, and essayist, and she writes some of the smartest, strangest books I’ve ever encountered.
There’s nothing quite like a Joy Williams short story: Everything is familiar and foreign all at once. The humans behave in mostly unhuman ways and yet you feel like you know them, like you’ve also felt this strange conglomeration of emotions and desires, like you also have been trapped in a moment like this one. I could read her all day long (and have).
His florid, intense personality (and infamous suicide) garnered him almost as much attention as his writing, but he remains the master of modern Japanese literature. Mishima’s Sea of Fertility tetralogy is incredible and moves you seamlessly into another world, wrapped in mystery and expressed with power.
Elena Ferrante is the pseudonym of an Italian novelist, and she’s all I’ve ever wanted to be. I re-read My Brilliant Friend while in Ischia last month, and experiencing that story again in a portion of its setting was a magical, transformative experience. Her novels will stick with me for years to come.
This irritable, beleaguered genius wrote some of the most unusual and lucid modern philosophy on faith, reason, government, and individual agency. Eminently quotable and pleasantly readable, Weil was a woman that her troubled world needed.
Penelope Fitzgerald gets far less attention than she deserves. She produced these tidy, perfect little novels, masters in form, and did it all quietly while raising a brood of children in England (her literary career began when she was 58!). They’re quick and surprising, delightful from start to finish.
(Definitely not the first person to make this observation, but I’m going to make it anyway.) When you are well, your body is invisible. The body is this lovely, useful scaffolding, like a shoe so comfortable you forget you are wearing shoes.
But when you are unwell, the metaphor is no longer useful. Illness is not an uncomfortable shoe; illness is a mutiny. When you are unhealthy, you feel betrayed. You turn your back and see that your team has abandoned you; your family, those you knew and loved, have not only rejected you but decided that you’re the target now. They’re out to get you, and you never thought this day would come, not from your beloveds, not from the heartbeat that was so strong and regular, not from the hearing that never faltered, not from the immune system that shielded you day in and day out. The feeling of betrayal is really what lurks beneath that pervasive grief of illness, especially chronic illness. The traitorous war is never over, and you’re always on the losing team.
Coming home and wanting to come home
Fireflies, standing on the back deck and watching them light up the dark trees with G.
Friends who make us dinner and let us talk about Italy, even though it’s really boring to listen to people talk about their trips, they always act interested
Friends who went to Italy and shared slideshows with us and let us try our best rendition at Neapolitan pizza on them
A flourishing front yard, even though I’m anxious to transplant things I underestimated
“Love came to confirm all of the old things whose existence she only knew of without ever having accepted or felt them. The world spun under her feet, there were two sexes among humans, a line connected hunger to satisfaction, animal love, rainwater headed for the sea, children were growing beings, in the earth the sprout would become a plant. She could not longer deny… what? She wondered in suspense. The luminous centre of things, the confirmation underpinning everything, the harmony that existed beneath the things she didn’t understand.”
May was a terror of a month, but near the end of it, we flew off to the Amalfi Coast and then to an island near Naples, and we have returned, restored and refreshed (and filled to the brim with amazing food and wine). Our yard is a swamp meadow, because it apparently poured every day we were gone, and the German shepherds smell like a fish market, but we are glad to be home and glad for all of the adventures we shared with family and with each other, concluding with commemorating our eighth anniversary on the gorgeous island of Ischia.
Buckle up for a photo dump, sans context.
Arrivederci, Italia! What a pleasure to have encountered you.
You know that cherished 21st-century feeling when you find a blog so wonderful you stop everything you’re doing (researching the price points of respectable American-made shoes) and read every single post since the blog began?
I felt this when I found McMansion Hell. Kate Wagner loves architecture and roasting bad American homes. She’s funny and a great teacher and a fellow North Carolinian, so I feel a particular kinship with her.
As Kate charminglyevisceratesMcMansions, you realize that so much of the horror of these incredibly American homes is self-evident—even if you know nothing about proportion and architecture, like me. So if a total amateur like myself can see the grossness after a few minutes of Kate’s tutelage, why are so many of these monsters built? Why do so many people elect to live in these architectural trash heaps? Is everyone blind to the ugliness?
Here’s my short (probably incorrect) theory: Our desire to appear wealthy vastly overpowers our appreciation of aesthetics.
Having eleven roof lines and a four-car garage satisfies our human craving for approval and respect far more than an architecturally balanced home. This is Trump’s country, after all: The appearance of wealth is practically an American virtue.
Lately, because of Kate Wagner and a stack of architecture books I got for a few bucks at the library book sale, I’ve been thinking about proportion and design in mass-produced little homes like ours.
We live in a basic 1950s “Cape Cod,” the original floorplan of which is a straightforward box. The rooms are small and the ceilings are nothing to write home about. The main bathroom and the closets are very small. The exterior is shingled with pale green asbestos siding, which has not been touched for decades.
Here’s what it looked like the day we bought it, in October 2013:
How bare, how sunny!
We’ve made small exterior improvements, namely to the yard (to which I am foolishly devoted), and added a pair of shutters, a new front door, and tiny amendments to the stoop.
Here’s what it looks like now:
It’s still a little off-kilter and shingled with asbestos, but I am happy about the progress we’ve made. That grass is high on my kill list. Can’t wait to get rid of it and fill it with native plants. One day I want new windows. And I am so eager to jack up our ugly concrete walk and replace it with pea gravel. But all in due time. Our quirky little house is fine as it is; we are content.
My opening salvo on McMansions has little to do with our home, except to say that I am learning the virtues of contentment and patience. I am thinking more about the beauty in all humble homes, even in mass-produced little ones like ours, and how we can appreciate what we’ve been given.
April weather has been fickle, but I pull open the curtains every morning with pleasure and note how my front yard is coming back to life. I’ve been in a mood lately and studying English cottages and gardens with my typical fervor. I have such strong ambitions for my meager garden, and I feel like a failure more than half the time, but the context of English gardening has made me feel more relaxed. First, it is very loose and impressionistic. Gardens are simply packed with every conceivable flower and shrub, with little form or order imposed. Second, the English have been gardening for hundreds and hundreds of years. A refined plantsman in one of the books said his garden was so young; it was only 20 years old. This surprised and comforted me. I recall that my garden is four years old; it is but a mewling thing, inchoate and desperate to be tended. I have a long way to go until it feels finished, and I am happy about that. Because maybe a garden is never finished.
Next: To figure out how to persuade Guion to jack up our horrible concrete walk and replace it with pea gravel. (I mean, I’ll help, but it’s such man’s work.) This project feels incredibly essential to me right now. I’m also hankering after a Virginia rose, but I can’t find one anywhere.
There is a very old tin of Burt’s Bees’ lemon butter cuticle cream at my desk; I use it infrequently. When my grandmother was alive, I’d give her this cream every year for Christmas. She’d clasp the little circular tin in her narrow fingers and say, “Oh, I have needed this! My cuticles get so dry!” She’d say this every year as she unwrapped it, even though she probably knew she was getting the same thing she got every year, and it pleased me. Whenever I use the stuff, the faint lemony scent makes me think of her, and I smile.
Now that I am 30, I have put childish ways behind me:
I think I’m still in college, but then when I meet an actual college student, I think, Good grief, look at this infant.
I have to repeatedly Google the meanings of acronyms that my young colleague uses in Slack.
I want to be in my bed, skincare routine complete, by 10 every night.
I cannot fathom wearing a bikini in public. It now feels inappropriate, to show this much flesh in my old age.
Recently, in reading life:
I’ve fallen in love with Teju Cole, and I feel a particular bitterness toward my boss for loving him before I did, as if I have to lay claim to an author first, before anyone else recommended him to me, as if that mattered at all. If I heard that Teju Cole was speaking somewhere nearby, I’d probably travel an unconscionably long while just to hear him. I read the infinitely strange Two Serious Ladies, by Jane Bowles, and I have been thinking about her ever since; I lent it to a colleague, and he gave me the slim volume of Paul Bowles’s Tangiers diary, and I am curious about what kind of marriage they must have had. I’m reading Spring, the latest little release from Karl Ove Knausgaard, and it charms me in all the predictable ways that he works on me. Specifically, he has this magic for making me ponder questions that I don’t encounter anywhere else. The one that has been haunting me lately is what is personality FOR? What is its function? I’ve been asking lots of people this question lately, and Grace M. gave the best answer I’ve heard yet: That human animals have personality because it makes society better; different personalities fulfill different roles, and so we have a collaborative, healthy, diverse community because of the multiplicity of temperaments.
I feel like I should surrender as a creative writer. I sat down to write a story recently, and was feeling into it, coasting along in this great groove, and then I stopped and re-read the character I thought had sprung from my fresh mind. I had just written an exact replica of Elio from Call Me By Your Name, down to the lounging on a mattress listening to classical music daydreaming about boys. What a hack! My brain is a thief. I give up.
I have only rarely felt physically unsafe around a woman. This is not the case for everyone, I am sure, but it’s probably true of the majority of people, regardless of their sex. Women are safer than men.
I have felt unsafe around men many times, more times than I can count. Men have taught us, over and over again, that they are not safe. I am not alone in this feeling; a veritable legion of women, half the Earth, has shared this feeling with me, at one point in their lives or another.
(Sometimes it not just a feeling. Sometimes the danger is tangible, experienced.)
In the company of men, especially unknown men, I have no expectations that I will be safe (free from bodily harm). I am far more alert, on edge, ready. In the company of women, I relax. I let down my guard. I exhale and trust that my body is safe, unhindered, mine. Unconsciously, I do not make the assumption of physical safely around an unfamiliar man in an unfamiliar place. I am on the edge of caution.
Women can and do, of course, make one feel emotionally injured. We’ve all been there, wounded by a stray barb thrown at a party or in passing in the break room. But this is not the threat of physical danger, which looms large. It can take over rational thought. And men can be afraid of women too. But as Margaret Atwood said, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
(How long will fear have to flicker in our minds? Or is this merely woman’s “natural state”?)
“Nature” is on everyone’s minds these days, in the regular news onslaught of another man accused or convicted of sexual assault or harassment. Is this simply how men are? Roving around, threatening and challenging anyone who crosses their path? Andrew Sullivan, and many others who place their full faith in hormone levels, would like us to think so. Men are beasts, ruled wholly by testosterone and rapacious urges. If this were not the case, the argument goes, why else would the sexes languish in this everlasting tension between force and fear?
This line of reasoning makes me feel very tired. To Sullivan and to others fixated on hormone levels: I submit that humans are not purely animals.
It is futile to look at the ways that mice or lions or baboons or fruit flies interact and assume that this is the way the human sexes relate. Even our closest animal relations differ wildly from us in their sexual mores and practices. Extrapolating animal behavior onto human behavior is an interesting thought experiment, but that may be all that it is. We have studied every other species far more deeply than we have studied ourselves. We are still a profound mystery, perhaps because we are always spanning a duality: we are our bodies and our minds, our strength and our souls, our biology and our society.
Biology is not everything. And socialization is not everything, either. When it comes to being men and women, it’s always both. It’s your body and it’s your culture. You act “like a man” partly because of your biological impulses, which are always and forever interacting with society, with expectations, with how you were raised. It is nature and nurture, all the time. (Neurogeneticist Kevin Mitchell parses out the so-called biological differences between men and women, and how they express themselves, rather neatly in this post.)
If this is the case, that testosterone and estrogen are not fate, we need a broader vision for male and female relationships. Banking on worn-out stereotypes (men are devils, women are angels; men are heroes, women are witches) is circular and shallow.
I am cheered by those who are still able to cast a vision for harmony and mutual respect between men and women. I still hope for this. I have no hope in evangelical leaders and sleazy politicians alike, who both claim, nauseatingly, that (1) this is just the way that men are and that (2) men should still be in charge of all spheres of public and private life.
Harmony cannot be achieved if we throw our hands up and say, “Boys will be boys!” By all means, let’s call it like it is: Men have a lot of reckoning to do. The murdering and molesting and raping and war-mongering are overwhelmingly the purview of the male sex, even in our presumably enlightened, developed country. But do we stop there? Do we have no hope for the future? Do we really not believe that men can resist the pull of biology when faced with a dynamic, expansive, civilizing culture? It’s a culture that is riddled with error, of course. Progress is slow, of course. But we have to believe in—and then pursue—some kind of progress, no matter how slight.
We must have higher expectations for one another. Nothing changes if we cannot.
Spring is coming slowly to Virginia. I feel fairly desperate for it, on the eve of snowfall.
I have been thinking about the season and its association with new beginnings. Recently, I was in Austin for SXSW with my team, and a subtle theme emerged from many of the presentations: Maybe technology isn’t all that good for our well-being. Maybe so much “innovation” is just making us sad and insane and lonely.
We were pondering the ways that people in 2018 are trying to become more human again. Increasingly, we’re feeling this urge to sever our ties to social media and detach from our soul-crushing dependence on digital devices.
In the midst of these conversations in Austin, I was plowing through Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart. This passage kept coming to mind as a tangential example of life, the freedom of the mind and body, the particular independence that we have as liberated creatures.
“To the person out walking that first evening of spring, nothing appears inanimate, nothing not sentient: darkening chimneys, viaducts, villas, glass-and-steel factories, chain stores seem to strike as deep as natural rocks, seem not only to exist but to dream. Atoms of light quiver between the branches of stretching-up black trees. It is in this unearthly first hour of spring twilight that earth’s almost agonised livingness is most felt. This hour is so dreadful to some people that they hurry indoors and turn on the lights—they are pursued by the scent of violets sold on the kerb.” — Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart
What a pleasure to be alive in such a season! And all of these details, so finely observed, could only come from someone who has never gotten a crick in her neck from staring at her Instagram feed for an hour.
You can tell from my recentposts, but 2018 is my year of fighting against being hijacked by technology. I want to be alive and in the world the way that Bowen was. Following are some of the small ways I’m reclaiming my life.
Focus on print.
I’m reading all the time, all day long, but I want to read for depth and comprehension. If this is my aim, the best way to read is in print. It’s far better for our brains and eyes and memories.
I am still a print-only reader of books, but in further pursuit of this effort, I’ve greatly reduced my online news diet. I try to read a bit in the New Yorker when it comes and receive a few newsy email digests, but that’s it now. I don’t keep up with the news in this feverish way that I once did. And it’s wonderful. I’m so happy about it. (For more inspiration in this area, see Farhad Manjoo’s piece in the New York Times about how he only read print newspapers for two months.)
Treat my phone like a landline.
Guion and I have been trying this one out: When we’re home, our phones live in one place. We don’t take them around the house with us, from room to room. We deposit them on a particular counter when we come home, and that’s where they live.
This small domestic habit has surprisingly profound effects on our ability to resist distraction and read and write and talk to each other. It is both depressing and heartening, to discover that such a small behavioral shift can have such a significant impact on our evenings.
Check Twitter only once or twice a week.
Twitter is so unfortunate! These days, I avoid it as much as I can and post primarily to complain about my dogs or share a quote. I sense my anxiety, my babbling technostress, and my cynicism increasing the longer I scroll through my feed. Now, I log on mostly to see what beautiful paintings Rabih Alameddine has posted or if Lulu has any new quips. That’s it.
Wait without looking at my phone.
I’ve been working on resisting the allure of my phone whenever I’m waiting. It’s a small choice, and one that seems to reek of sanctimony, but I’ve sincerely enjoyed this new habit.
Whenever we’re alone, our necks are tilted down at our phones. I do it too. And it’s incredible how blank the mind goes when we’re looking at a screen. We just turn off to the world. We barely exist in a given environment when we’re deep in our phones.
The smartphone is a pacifier. The device is burning with heat in our pockets, and we can’t resist it: We don’t want to feel or look lonely. It’s frightening to be too intimate with our thoughts and fears and desires. The phone distracts us from our inner life, makes us feel busy, envious, mildly piqued—anything but alone.
This insignificant choice, waiting without relying on my phone to comfort me, has had such a powerful effect on my mental state. I did not expect it. It’s as if I was remembering how to see again, how to observe the world around me. I’m particularly floored by this one. It made me realize how reliant I have been on my phone to placate me when I’m alone.
Consider the body.
It’s well documented that our devices are bad for our minds (pick a modern plague, any plague: anxiety, addiction, stress, self-esteem, fake news, porn, etc.). But our phones and laptops are also bad for our flesh-and-blood bodies.
This practice of waiting without looking at my phone has also made me incredibly conscious of my body: how it works for me, how it feels, how I carry myself. My posture has been wrecked by years of peering at screens. I still need to work on this one. If anyone has any good posture tips for maintenance throughout the day, please share; I’m all ears.
Hold things in the mind.
I rely on my phone to remember everything for me. I used to have a strong memory; I used to memorize full speeches and poems, and once, in my fervent youth, entire (albeit short) books of the Bible. But now? I have to make a list even if it just contains three items. Our memories have grown despairingly weak. Because we don’t need to remember anything anymore: This is what our devices are for. Convenient props for the mind.
I’ve been thinking about memory for years, since being so fascinated by Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, and I have realized how much my brain power improves when my device isn’t a mental crutch. For me, an act as small as taking notes by hand, with a pen on paper, is a tiny step in the right direction.
Cherish everything that has no digital life.
Your stupid German shepherds who dig trenches in your backyard because they’re bored. Your shelf full of dog-eared paperbacks. Your weak-limbed daffodils crushed by March snow. Your friend’s baby, who has no idea who the president is and doesn’t care about the moronic thing he said today. Your church’s community dinner that follows the service. Your grandfather. These are some of the things that can bring us back to ourselves.
Here’s the concluding hope:
People are getting smarter about tech usage. We’re all a little less naïve about the consequences of our digital dependence. In the wake of the latest Facebook scandal and just overall, more and more people are getting off social media. Surely some new, terrible platform will replace Facebook and Twitter, but I believe we could be witnessing the twilight of their popularity. Maybe we can collectively turn the tide before it’s too late for our hearts and minds.
Amid the Russian bots and fake news and conspiracy theories and data breaches, I feel buoyed by a little hope. Every sign-off, every step away from the machine is optimism. Humans are taking back small measures of their humanity.