Alteration is what we keep

Ischia
Castello d’Aragonese, Ischia, this May.

Summer slipped through our fingers.

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.

. . .

“Alteration”

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.

The young garden

Easter 2016
Just look at this blowsy camellia of mine.

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 am acclimatizing myself to being referred to as a “nice lady”; it is horrible beyond words to be called this.
  • 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.

Spring, life, being old

Monticello
Visiting Monticello a few weeks ago.

Spring has been good, life has been good; I have had little time to write here or to generate even mildly interesting topics.

Lately: Our families visited us on back-to-back weekends, and we had a marvelous time with everyone. Calligraphy work has been slow but steady. I read, of course, and talk to the dogs, of course. I apply sheet masks. I neglect to do any creative writing, even though I am in a wise and continually motivating writing group. I derive a deep sense of obsessive pleasure in watching my plants come back to life in the front yard. (My Japanese maple is out of control, but so is everything else, after all this rain.) I continue to love my new(ish) job. I think about London and our time there last year and sometimes feel a pang of sincere wistfulness (wist?).

In a brief, mortifying encounter at Trader Joe’s a few weeks ago, my age was finally impressed upon me.

Per usual, I had some bottles of wine in my cart, and the cashiers are generally persistent about asking for my ID. This afternoon, I had my ID out and ready to hand over. The cashier, a middle-aged man with a sparse beard, started ringing up items and putting them in my bag. He did not ask me for my ID, but I handed it to him in an automatic reflex, interrupting his movement of the avocadoes to the bag.

“Oh,” he said, “sure, I guess.” And he looked at my DOB with a quick, obligatory glance and then went back to ringing me up.

Well, then. I thought, blushing. That’s a tidy way to embarrass oneself. Because, I mean, clearly. I do not look under the age of 21. But it was nice to think that I did, for a time. To pretend like I was trying to sneak three bottles of beaujolais out of a Trader Joe’s, back to my sorority or whatever.

But alas. Age has marked my face. And I am OK with it. Really. After that flash of tiny humiliation, I am leaning into my last year of my twenties and learning to accept those wrinkles.

And wearing a lot more red lipstick.

April times

Why I’m looking forward to being 50

Woman Seated in a Garden, by Henri de Tolouse-Lautrec

As I have grown, I have become very interested in the renaissance of life that occurs for women when they hit 50.

I see it often happening in this way. A mother spends the bulk of her young life caring for her children. Even if she has a job, for the most part, she is more intimately concerned with raising children because of the joint demands of biology and cultural tradition. This is not true in all cases, but the majority of women have to make life sacrifices in parenthood that men are never asked to make. Although I have seen exceptions to this, it seems to me that men may keep their hobbies and be fathers; mothers are not so lucky. A mother’s entire life is wrapped up in her children and she does not have any time to think of herself.

This was certainly true for my mother. I realized she didn’t have any time for herself when I was about 9. That year I was charged with writing the family Christmas letter. I went around the house and polled everyone on their favorite hobbies so I could write about what they did for fun. Kelsey told me about gymnastics; Grace told me about fashion and painting; Sam babbled about basketball, football, soccer; Dad played tennis.

I asked Mom what her hobbies were. “Umm… well,” she said, thinking. “Raising you kids?” I frowned. “That’s not a hobby, Mommy.” She smiled. “Well, I don’t really have time for hobbies.” And she didn’t. She didn’t do anything that wasn’t directly related to raising us, homeschooling us, and running her retail business. I think I finally made something up and wrote in the letter that Mom’s hobby was making scrapbooks. I was sad about this, even at the age of 9.

Mom, age 52. Source: Grace Farson photography

This why I find so much joy in seeing women become empty nesters. After 20 to 30 years of child rearing, these women finally have some time to themselves. If anyone deserves a peaceful retirement, it’s mothers. I imagine that it could often be a frightening stage of life, though–to have poured your whole self into parenting and then, suddenly, you are left home alone and wondering what your life calling is now.

My mom still has Sam at home, but he’s the strong, silent boy, and so she’s eased herself into early mothering retirement. Today, she has a plethora of life-giving hobbies. She is a prodigious gardener and her plots are the envy of the neighborhood. She took a beekeeping class and is planning on acquiring her first hive soon. She is becoming an amateur birdwatcher. She goes to daily yoga classes with her new set of friends, a group of similarly emancipated mothers. And it makes me extremely happy to see her doing all of these things; no one deserves time to themselves as much as my mother does.

I also think of my friend Catherine’s mother, Janet. Janet is a wonderful example of this life-after-50 renaissance. Janet went to law school after all of her kids had left home. She wrote a book about the dire need for conservation of Falls Lake. She turned Catherine’s old bedroom into a Room of Her Own and put a sign on the door that reads, “The Falls Lake Center for Social Justice.” She is fun, sassy, beautiful, and opinionated — and it is delightful to see her enter into this new stage of living.

All of this to say, I am looking forward to being 50. Not that I want to skip over the whole process of being young and raising kids, but I am excited about the freedom that American women are allowed to experience once they are middle-aged. One day, it will be good to be old, to acknowledge that my life is half over and not to balk at it, but to be gracious, to take heart in it.

Monday Snax

Long weekends are such a gift! Yesterday, we had the pleasure of joining Andrew and Tara at her family’s farm in Rapidan, Virginia. We played with the beautiful Leah, swam in the pool, and planned our future farm commune. A lovely afternoon, and some more photos on Flickr.

Sweet baby Leah and her mama.
Andrew in the perfect pool.
One of the dozens of breathtaking farms in Keswick. We live in the prettiest countryside.

Oh, and happy Independence Day and a BIG welcome home to Grace, who has finally returned from her world travels! Hallelujah! We get to go see her this weekend and I CANNOT WAIT.

A lot of Snax with a lot of juicy watermelon wedges:

Miss USA: Should Evolution Be Taught in Schools? THIS is the greatest thing I have seen on the Interwebs in months. Tears fell from my eyes. You can’t write this stuff. After you watch that, please also enjoy Mackenzie Fegan & Co.’s hilarious response. (The Daily What and Got a Girl Crush)

When You’re the Breadwinner in the Family. The dynamics of the American family are shifting. Many newly married women I know are out-earning their husbands and yet it’s still a touchy subject. One of my all-time favorite bloggers has a beautiful and honest post about her own experience as her family’s primary source of income. (Sweet Fine Day)

The High Line. A mile-long urban park in New York. What a cool idea; looks like a great place to bike, run, or walk a few dogs. Jenna, from the Sweet Fine Day post above, has some pictures of her visit there with her family at the end of post. (Wolf Eyebrows)

From When Grandma and Grandpa Davis Came to Visit. If you’ve talked to me lately, you know that I’m not into childbearing ANY time soon. And yet I can’t help but melt when I see pictures of grandparents and their fresh grandbabies. Something about that interaction always gets me. (Rockstar Diaries)

America’s Progressive Catholics: Another Side of the Church. It’s not all anti-abortion rallies here. An interesting perspective on the small but growing group of Catholic Democrats. (The Atlantic: Politics)

Top Metros for Same-Sex Couples with Children. Do the results surprise you? They surprise me. Way to go, RTP! (The Atlantic: National)

Palin vs. Bachmann: A Poem-off. The stirring words of the Tea Party’s leading ladies, converted to poesy. (The Book Bench)

What America Looks Like: Variations on the Swimming Pool. A collection of photographs of the various forms of the pool around the country. Some are weird and jovial, others decrepit and haunting. (The Atlantic: National)

The Five Food Groups. Amen. (Little Brown Pen)

Lobsters Don’t Age. Um, hey, God? That’s weird. Why? (Broken Secrets)

Kari Herer. Dark, lush photos of beautiful bouquets. Can never get enough. (Design Sponge)

Better Book Title for Wuthering Heights. Truth! I’ve always thought that about this book, too. (Better Book Titles)

The 20 Most-Watched TED Talks. Will be adding these to my list of things to watch when I feel like killing time productively on the Interwebs. (TED blog)

Thoughts on Gilead

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

At its simplest, Gilead is an old man’s love letter to his young son. At its deepest, the novel is a moving and melodic elegy for the quiet night of the soul. It is sad. It is soft. I liked it a lot. I have a tendency to gravitate toward books heavy on the internal reflection (Woolf, Proust anyone?) and Marilynne Robinson certainly delivers in this respect.

The jacket for my copy describes the Reverend John Ames’s life as a “God-haunted existence.” I think this an apt phrase for the protagonist and narrator, who comes from a long line of fervent and religious men. He writes as a 77-year-old man to his very young son.

The letter hinges quite a bit on the fact that when one is old, one will still wrestle with one’s central beliefs–perhaps especially if one is a preacher. It was somehow relieving to me to read about this wise, old minister who still talked to God and still had lots of questions for him. For example, how does one really forgive someone? And must we? Always? Why is it that our defenses of our deepest held beliefs sound trite and foolish when explained to someone else who does not share them?

Robinson inhabits the voice of John Ames very convincingly, which is itself a great accomplishment, as she is neither male nor about to die nor a Congregationalist minister living in Iowa in the late 1950s. Some popular novelists bank on the trope of creating narrators who are thinly disguised versions of themselves (Gary Shteyngart, Junot Diaz, and Jonathan Safran Foer come to mind); Robinson shirks that easy way out and instead picks a character who is as unlike her as possible. And, boy, does she pull it off.

I think it helps that Robinson herself is a converted Congregationalist and has preached at her local church several times. Her knowledge of scripture and time-honored Protestant theological debacles is impressive. She knows enough about Protestant Christianity to sound like a very believable 77-year-old preacher. John Ames’s internal battles are still being waged and yet we trust and rely on him as our credible and wise narrator.

A large part of the novel, to me, is about the sadness of growing old. It’s sad for everyone, but especially for John Ames, who has a much younger wife and child. The intensity with which he watches them, strives to remember them is touching. Reading his long letter to his son made me want to take better care of my memory and my limited attempts to record the people who are dear to me. Thus motivated by John Ames, I started writing small vignettes and stories about my relatives. Some day, these little stories will be infinitely more valuable to me than they are now–and this is the truth at the heart of Gilead.