“We are American writers, absorbing the American experience. We must absorb its heat, the recklessness and ruthlessness, the grotesqueries and cruelties. We must reflect the sprawl and smallness of America, its greedy optimism and dangerous sentimentality. And we must write with a pen—in Mark Twain’s phrase—warmed up in hell. We might have something then, worthy, necessary; a real literature instead of the Botox escapist lit told in the shiny prolix comedic style that has come to define us.”
I don’t know what to do about cops who keep murdering black people.
But I do know that I live in a bubble of white ignorance. I am ensconced in privilege because of centuries of racism, building up like a geological shelf in this country. We add a thin layer of progress and then cover it up with more hatred, more fear, more terror.
I have the freedom, in America, to live in this awful blindness. I am not afraid to pass a police officer when I walk down the street. I am not afraid to drive, anywhere; I do not have to wonder, when I drive to the grocery store or to my office, if today is my last day. I am not afraid that my brother will be mistaken for a criminal and murdered in the street on a sunny afternoon. I am not afraid that my sisters will be arrested for an imaginary traffic violation and then be found dead in a jail cell. My life is not under constant threat from my fellow citizens. I have the undeserved freedom to not fear these things.
I do know that I am afraid to talk about race. I am afraid of saying the wrong thing. I am afraid of being misinterpreted. This fear seems to characterize most white people. And so we stay silent.
Our silence is what helps keep racism alive and well in the United States.
White people, we have to talk to each other about race. We have to stop pretending that we’re not racist, that we don’t know anyone who is racist, that we have X number of black friends. Stop.
We have to eliminate racism in our communities by starting these conversations with each other. We have to rebuild bridges that we have been aloof and indifferent enough to watch burn. We have to help each other overcome our collective lifetimes of bigotry, brought on by comfortable ignorance and comparative freedom.
The quieter we are, the more complicit we become in this evil.
I will share a few photos from our weekend in London with Grace and Jack, but I feel like I can’t post anything without saying a few words about Sunday’s massacre in Orlando.
I am so heartbroken and grieved for our country. We are such a disaster right now. I grieve for the LGBTQ community in Orlando and in the United States at large. I have ignorantly and naively believed that homophobia is passé, that we have progressed beyond such hatred and bigotry, and that gay people can finally exist, on the whole, in freedom and safety. Sunday was a horrific reminder that they cannot and do not.
And our country cannot and does not dwell in safety — but rather wallows in paranoia — because we are ignorant. Because the NRA lines the pockets of our legislators. Because we have chosen to believe that more assault rifles, legally, in the hands of civilians is a virtue. Because our elected officials would rather give people on terrorist watch lists access to guns than curtail the expression of the sacred (and I declare, fraudulently interpreted) Second Amendment. Because we would rather prop up a military state controlled by a reality TV star-cum-tyrant than live in freedom. We seem prefer this world of terror to the humanist and democratic ideals that the United States of America was supposedly inspired by.
Racism, fear, and ignorance will never make America great again. Trump and the Republican party seem to believe that they will.
But I can only hope — with no small degree of desperation these days — that the majority of Americans will look to Orlando, will look to the monthly mass shootings, will look to the faces of refugees and imprisoned black men and transgender people in North Carolina, and say: We reject fear. We choose freedom.
Americans never adopt fads lightly. When we take up a cause, we commit and we go to the extreme. Moderation is a virtue that we never seem to have much needed in the United States of America. Be it the size of our homes and cars, the depth and breadth of our reality TV, our fervent denial of climate change, or our mass accumulation of guns, we do nothing on a small scale. We take on nothing lightly. Nowhere does this tendency seem more clear to me than our current obsession with food.
We could talk about how enormously fat Americans are, which is true, but I am interested in the other side of the spectrum, where people are fixated on healthy food, where we consider ourselves holy because we have not (yet) slipped into obesity. It’s one pole or the other for me and my fellow patriots: Either we wantonly stuff ourselves full to bursting with tasty processed substances or we piously nibble on quinoa patties and congratulate ourselves on our freezer full of free-range, locally butchered delicacies.
Eating the right things has become a class-conscious mania that notably afflicts the middle- and upper-class, who can afford to eat well (which is in itself a terrible injustice). In lieu of humble-bragging about our legitimate virtues, we preen over our organic, local, free-range, grain-free choices at Whole Foods, and we impute it to ourselves as righteousness.* (*Side note: Concept lifted from this great/ruckus-raising sermon by Dave Zahl.)
I am as guilty of this natural-food worship as the next person. I too got fired up years ago when Food, Inc. came out. I too read all of Michael Pollan’s books and attended my farmers’ markets faithfully. I too became a vegetarian for a solid week after reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals. I too believe that it is certainly better to support small-scale farming and to ingest organic food.
But for me, lately, the sheen of this fad has been dimming.
You can’t ask anyone over to dinner anymore without first inquiring about all of their dietary restrictions. Remembering your friends’ food aversions has become as culturally important as remembering their birthdays. Mothers self-flagellate if they don’t feed their children 100% organic, locally grown meals. Whole Foods denizens seem to have abandoned the joy of cooking and eating in exchange for the joy of self-congratulatory nutritional piety.
We eat not to enjoy food but to brag about its origin to our friends or anyone within earshot.
It’s getting out of hand.
I’ve been inspired to think about this loss of “real eating,” while reading the late, great Robert Farrar Capon’s delightfully bizarre book about food and faith, The Supper of the Lamb. As Capon says, considering a man who is obsessed by nutritional fads and rejecting food for the sake of his diet:
To begin with, real eating will restore his sense of the festivity of being. Food does not exist merely for the sake of its nutritional value. To see it so is only to knuckle under still further to the desubstantialization of man, to regard not what things are, but what they mean to us—to become, in short, solemn idolaters spiritualizing what should be loved as matter. A man’s daily meal ought to be an exultation over the smack of desirability which lies at the roots of creation. To break real bread is to break the loveless hold of hell upon the world, and, by just that much, to set the secular free.
—Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb
A touch dramatic, yes, but I take his point heartily.
(As an aside, I am looking forward to taking a page from the Europeans this summer, especially the French, who seem to have perfected the artful seesaw between moderation and indulgence in eating. Both seem to be necessary for a full, happy life.)
If I may bastardize the Gospel of Matthew:
And when you eat organic kale, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to eat organic kale standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you eat organic kale, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Eat real food and enjoy it. Divorce guilt from eating. Share food, not food judgments, with others, and be thankful.
In which Marilynne Robinson says everything I wanted to say in my previous post. This is long, but it’s great, and it gets at the heart of my intention. The entire essay (and this book) is luminous and wise, and I recommend it highly. Robinson is American Christianity’s greatest treasure. Without further ado:
There is an implied religious rationale or impetus and obligation behind very deplorable trends in contemporary society. The arming of the fearful and resentful and unstable with military weapons, supported by the constant reiteration of tales that make mortal enemies of their fellow citizens and elected government, is pursued with a special passion in regions that claim to be profoundly and uniquely Christian, and well mannered, to boot. Biblicist that I am, I watch constantly for any least fragment of a Gospel that could, however obliquely, however remotely, cast all this in any but a satanically negative light. I am moving, reluctantly, toward the conclusion that these Christians, if they read their Bibles, are not much impressed by what they find there.
In any case, how is it possible, given this economics of dark grievance that has so benefited arms manufacturers, cable celebrities, gold mongers, and manufacturers of postapocalyptic grocery items, that they can not only claim Christianity but can also substantially empty the word of other meanings and associations? I’m a Christian, insofar as I can be. As a matter of demographics, of heritage, of acculturation, of affinity, identification, loyalty. I aspire, with uneven results, to satisfying its moral and spiritual standards, as I understand them. I have other loyalties that are important to me, to secularism, for example. To political democracy. These loyalties are either implied by my Christianity or are highly compatible with it. I am a Christian. There are any number of things a statement of this kind might mean and not mean, the tradition and its history being so complex. To my utter chagrin, at this moment in America it can be taken to mean that I look favorably on the death penalty, that I object to food stamps or Medicaid, that I expect marriage equality to unknit the social fabric and bring down wrath, even that I believe Christianity itself to be imperiled by a sinister media cabal. It pains me to have to say in many settings that these are all things I object to strenuously on religious grounds, having read those Gospels. Persons of my ilk, the old mainline, typically do object just as strenuously, and on these same grounds. But they are unaccountably quiet about it. And here we have a great part of the reason that these gun-touting resenters of the poor and of the stranger can claim and occupy a major citadel of the culture almost unchallenged.
From “Memory,” in The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson.
We watched Ingmar Bergman’s riveting/terrifying film Persona last night. Aside from inspiring feelings of disunity and morbid fear, the film renewed my unending love of Scandinavian interior design. And the perfection of minimalist (primarily black and white) clothing. And how adorable Nordic languages sound when spoken by women. And how marvelous and unusual it is to watch a film in which 95% of the screen time is focused on women. Men have the minor background roles for once. (This never seems to happen anymore. Not even in independent films. We watch film after film that is about, told from the perspective of, and entirely focused on men.)
Donald Trump keeps proving, again and again, that the GOP electorate has unending tolerance for racism, bigotry, and ignorance. I am ashamed of my nation.
I am currently reading Lawrence Wright’s superbly researched book about the rise of al-Qaeda, The Looming Tower. (It won the Pulitzer when it came out in 2006.) Though now rather old, it gives much-needed context to the current, terrifying rise of ISIS (Da’esh), and the history told here clarifies that, really, this is nothing new; this is just an extension of what has come before. We reap what we sow, and little seems to change.
But I am also reading, in a lighter way, The Sweet Cheat Gone, aka The Fugitive book from À la recherche du temps perdu. I found a beautiful red cloth-bound old copy at the library book sale, and I am so happy to be once again bowled over by Proust.
The idea of having it all never meant doing it all. Men are parents, too, and actually women will never be equal outside the home until women are equal inside the home.
— Gloria Steinem
Happy Independence Day to the country that is not quite free.
- Orchid no. 2 re-blooming.
- This dog, who makes me laugh.
- Date nights with Guion.
- The fact that English is not a gendered (e.g., romance) language. This makes it a lot easier to be simultaneously politically and grammatically correct.
- Time to revisit Virginia Woolf (currently re-reading A Haunted House, a tiny collection of short stories).
- Family group texts.
- All the money my parents put into my teeth, so that I wouldn’t have to have the smile I was born with, which would have resembled that of a medieval kitchen wench from the British Isles.
- Weekends with weather that resembles late spring.
- A kitchen that is a joy (instead of a biohazard) to keep clean.
- Electric kettles.
- My calligraphy studio. Such peace in my Room of My Own.
- Wearing a skirt without heavy tights.
- Friends who still ask me to do things with them, even though I’ve been neglectful of them for months.
- How sassy Jesus is in the Gospels.
- A pen pal who got surprise-married in the snow.
- Men who identify as feminists.
- This weird organic face serum (mostly water, aloe vera, and coconut oil) that has made my skin look clearer and better than it has in years.
- America. No, really, I am.
- Seeing that your dog (in this case, Pyrrha) loves you for more than just being the Giver of Food.
- A great university education.
- Our church.
What are you thankful for today?
Evidence of Things Unseen
Simon & Schuster, 2003; 400 pages.
This novel was a SHOCK to me. A shock because I had never heard a word about it and frankly didn’t expect it to be very good. I have a bad habit that way, maintaining low expectations for novels that I haven’t heard about. Evidence of Things Unseen is an excellent reminder to myself to not be so pre-judgmental about unknown books. Because this book was amazing.
I wouldn’t have changed a single character, a single line in this entire novel. The writing is exquisitely beautiful and simple and the story is unlike anything that I have read this past year. Marianne Wiggins tells us the story of Fos, recently returned to Tennessee from the trenches of France. Fos is fascinated with X-rays, electricity, and bioluminescence. On a trip to the North Carolina coast to study a meteor shower, he meets and falls in love with Opal. Their romance and the trajectory of their life together form the structure of this gorgeous, poetic novel.
I could tell you all of the details of the story, the small flights of the plot, but such a recounting would cheapen the beauty of this book. At its heart, Evidence of Things Unseen is a love story: love between a man and a woman, between people and scientific “progress,” between parents and their child. I just don’t even know what to say about it, except that it is beautifully and perfectly written and I am grateful for it.
Knopf, 2008; 167 pages.
I have read a lot of Toni Morrison, I suppose, and I rank Beloved high among my all-time favorite novels. When I heard about A Mercy, though, I wasn’t planning on reading it. A novel set in the 1680s about slavery? Doesn’t really sound like a good time.
But I was really just experiencing a form of literary amnesia, because, come on. This is Toni Morrison. She knows what is UP.
Against my expectations, I was riveted from the first page and I think I read the whole novel in a night (at a mere 167 pages, this is an easy thing to do. The font size is also huge, at least in the paperback edition I read).
I think this book is fundamental Morrison, if I can say that–Morrison at her most Faulknerian, most bare, most essential. I wonder if I feel this way about the novel because of its historical setting. Here we are at the very beginning of America, in which it is still a nameless, lawless wilderness, where human nature exists at its most raw and unfiltered. In this way, Morrison’s language mimics the newness and rawness of the newborn American landscape and its hardy inhabitants. It is beautiful, spare prose and every line reads like a dream.
Accordingly, these characters are also beautiful and complex, layered in that kind of unfathomable way that Morrison is known for. She renders these early settlers, slave owners and slaves, husbands and wives, orphans and children, with a startling grace and honesty.
The slim novel is told in various short chapters, each one narrated by a different character. All of these people–Jacob, Florens, Lina, Sorrow, Rebekka–have distinctive voices. What I particularly loved is that there is no clear protagonist and no clear villain. Each character has his or her virtues and vices, just like us flesh-and-blood humans; no one stands out as purely good or purely evil. Everyone exists in darkness and light.
In short: A Mercy is brief and perfect, everything Morrison has ever promised us with her prose.
11. The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields
12. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
13. Home, Marilynne Robinson
14. Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner
15. The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
16. The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach
17. Faces in the Water, Janet Frame
18. American Primitive, Mary Oliver
19. Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney
20. Sophie’s Choice, William Styron
21. The Black Sheep, Honoré de Balzac
22. Jazz, Toni Morrison