It wasn’t human nature

Matins
Louise Glück

Unreachable father, when we were first
exiled from heaven, you made
a replica, a place in one sense
different from heaven, being
designed to teach a lesson: otherwise
the same–beauty on either side, beauty
without alternative– Except
we didn’t know what was the lesson. Left alone,
we exhausted each other. Years
of darkness followed; we took turns
working the garden, the first tears
filling our eyes as earth
misted with petals, some
dark red, some flesh colored–
We never thought of you
whom we were learning to worship.
We merely knew it wasn’t human nature to love
only what returns love.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Get it, Louise Glück. Happy weekend, y’all. I’ll be spending mine clinging to Guion, begging him not to leave me for 10 whole days, since he’s taking off with Nettles and The Hill and Wood and Camp Christopher (hint: all the same people) to play SXSW! I’m SUPER excited for them, but I’d like to raise this point: Wouldn’t this absence be easier to bear if I had a dog to keep me company? Wouldn’t it?? Le sigh. These days, I feel like June is a year away and I am going to die dog-less.

Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: Housekeeping (#1)

Housekeeping.

#1: HOUSEKEEPING, Marilynne Robinson.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels, and this one, which was my favorite from the year. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

Oh, THIS book. This, the most beautiful thing I read all year.

Housekeeping, published in 1980 and distinguished as a Pulitzer finalist, was assigned to me by our church book club. I didn’t know what to expect, but having read Gilead a few months before, I figured I would like it. I had no idea how much I was going to love it, though. I read the book feverishly, swiftly, tearing through 100 pages in a little less than an hour, and yet, somehow, I took everything in; every word was absorbed. You have to understand how unusual this is for me. I have an unfortunate tendency to read too quickly, to skim over sentences like a fly over water. But Marilynne Robinson has this unparalleled ability to make me slow down. Not even my favorite poets can make me slow down as much as she can. This gradual consumption of the book, slower than I have read anything all year, contributed greatly to my deep appreciation of it.

When I arrived at the book club discussion, my brain swimming with delight over this novel, my eyes almost fell out of my head when I heard that the majority of the group hated the book. “I didn’t GET it; I don’t like any of these people; they’re so creepy and lonely; they need to get some mental help; I hated it so much, etc., etc.” I think I just gaped at them. Celeste, whose person and taste I admire, despised it and when she said she did, it actually hurt my feelings; I felt physically injured. She was totally rational in her expression of dislike, but my attachment to this book was so strong that to me, it sounded like she’d just insulted my grandmother, the salt of the earth. I flushed and said something rash and stupid in defense of the book, in defense of Robinson, and in defense of Ruth.

Ruth is our lonely and mysterious narrator. We learn that she comes from a long line of solitary, ruminating women, women who don’t say much, women who don’t spend time with men. (In fact, there is scarcely a man in the entire novel; they are either dead or peripheral.) Ruth has moved to Fingerbone, Wisconsin, with her sister, Lucille, to live with their maternal grandmother in the aftermath of their mother’s suicide. They are shuffled between their grandmother and two unhelpful, worrisome great aunts until their mother’s sister Sylvie shows up.

Sylvie is a drifter. She is unaccustomed to household living, to cooking, to wearing appropriate clothes. When we meet her, we understand the irony of the title, for none of these women are any good at housekeeping. Sylvie cares for the girls in a detached, dreamy way, which maddens Lucille but enchants Ruth. In time, we start to see Sylvie and Ruth as mirrors of each other.

Marilynne Robinson.

Robinson writes like a poet, like a person who has spent much time in thought. Her sentences are careful and beautiful. Housekeeping, she has said, was based on a series of metaphors she wrote while studying for her English Ph.D., as she was largely inspired by American transcendentalists. Her thoughtfulness is evident in every line. In that interview with the Paris Review, she speaks to the mysteriousness that is so infused in her characters:

In the development of every character there’s a kind of emotional entanglement that occurs. The characters that interest me are the ones that seem to pose questions in my own thinking. The minute that you start thinking about someone in the whole circumstance of his life to the extent that you can, he becomes mysterious, immediately.

How could they not be mysterious? They live in passages like this:

We looked at the window as we ate, and we listened to the crickets and the nighthawks, which were always unnaturally loud then, perhaps because they were within the bounds that light would fix around us, or perhaps because one sense is a shield for the others, and we had lost our sight.

And this:

Long after we knew we were too old for dolls, we played out intricate, urgent dramas of entrapment and miraculous escape. When the evenings came they were chill because the mountains cast such long shadows over the land and over the lake. There the wind would be, quenching the warmth out of the air before the light was gone, raising the hairs on our arms and necks with its smell of frost and water and deep shade.

Essentially, it is a novel for readers. It is for people who love language and love the mystery of a good character. I loved every minute spent with this book. I finished reading it in the living room and declared to Sam and Guion, “When I grow up, I just want to BE Marilynne Robinson.” Housekeeping is all I’ve ever wanted in a novel. I wanted to live there, as frightening and dark as it could sometimes be.

A novel that relies on memory and lyricism as its foundation is one that will not, naturally, appeal to everyone. But for me? It’s the perfect book. During Ruth’s strange and supernatural visit to the lake, Robinson includes a meditation on the person of Jesus Christ, on his life and presence, and on the ways that people remembered him, people then and now.

There is so little to remember of anyone–an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.

What do we have that allows us remember of anyone? Just words. And the hope of resurrection.

Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: What the Living Do (#3)

What the Living Do.

#3: WHAT THE LIVING DO, Marie Howe.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great books. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

I also don’t have any links for you today, so here’s this instead. This book of poems is way better than any links I could dredge up anyway…

This is the first time in my reading history that one of my favorite books from the past year was a book of poetry. Blame it on my brilliant husband, who introduced me to the incandescent and life-altering poet Marie Howe.

I hesitate to even write a review of this collection of poems, because my words will undoubtedly fail me. I don’t have the right things to say about how deeply these poems affected me, but I will try.

Howe published What the Living Do in 1998. In many ways, it figures as an elegy for her beloved brother John, who died of AIDS complications in 1989. In several poems, John is her comforter and hero, amid a ghastly childhood in a large Catholic family. In subtle, terrifying lines, Howe reveals that she was repeatedly raped by her father as a child. Between her powerless mother, who does nothing to stop her husband’s attacks against their daughter, and her abusive and frankly evil father, Howe only has John to turn to. “The Attic” is the utterly gut-wrenching poem of sorrow and devotion that recounts her brother’s offer of simultaneously brave and inactive protection.

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything so heartbreaking.

But Howe never paints herself as a victim. She does not take pity on herself and she does not ask you to, either. These are strong, honest poems about the difficulties of everyday life and the horrors of our own memories. These poems are freely and breathlessly genuine in their accounts of daily living. The title poem is one that I’ve included here before, and it’s worth the weight of its lines in gold. These lines from “Watching Television” were so humbling to me, to think about the silly and yet heavy things we do to each other in relationships:

I have argued bitterly with the man I love, and for two days
we haven’t spoken.

We argued about one thing, but really it was another.
I keep finding myself standing by the front windows looking out at the street

and the walk that leads to the front door of this building,
white, unbroken by footprints.

Anything I’ve ever tried to keep by force I’ve lost.

Howe writes without flowery words or obscure allusions. She is not trying to hide anything from you, to keep you guessing, as so many other poets do. She writes about miscommunication and dogs, about dropping a bag of groceries, about finding your face in the mirror. It’s our daily bread. It is life, gently and thoroughly rendered. And you will see it differently after having read this book.

Monday Snax

Quiet Sunday
Sunday at home, with all the new books on the shelves.

SUCH a peaceful and pleasant weekend! On Saturday, I went to the annual library book sale at Gordon Avenue and was soon joined by Celeste, Sarah, and Laura. I’ve been to a lot of book sales in my day, but let me tell you: This one takes the cake. High-quality, just about brand new books in every imaginable genre for a few dollars? This is my version of heaven. I walked away with 32 beautiful new books and paid a mere $30 for all of them. Sunday morning at the SPCA and then an afternoon lazing around the house due to a pulled hamstring from overly rambunctious pups. We watched The Fellowship of the Ring and we are not going to apologize for it. (I forgot how LONG that movie is…)

Snax:

My Parents Were Home Schooling Anarchists. A piece in the New York Times by Margaret Heidenry about what it was like to grow up as a homeschooler before it was legal. It’s like The Glass Castle from a homeschooling-centric perspective. Extremely fascinating! It’s so interesting how much the homeschooling movement has changed. When my parents decided to homeschool in 1988, it still wasn’t legal in many states, but in 1993, it was legal in all 50. Since then, it’s a rising trend, although the dominion has shifted from free-thinking bohemians to very conservative evangelicals. (New York Times)

The Piano Lesson. A memory from Jared Nigro about his piano teacher and an unexpected gift of mercy. (The Hairpin)

Women in War, Women in Peace. A plea to stop thinking about war as a male-only circumstance. Men start wars and men fight them, but we never think about the women left at home to pick up the pieces. (The Atlantic)

Democrats, Republicans Have Mirror-Image Views. Just more proof that politics are pointless. (The Atlantic)

Black Cat Auditions in Hollywood, 1961. There were a lot of eager women trying to make their black cats into movie stars in 1961, apparently. Very entertaining series of photos. I feel like training a cat to act would be akin to training a fish to sing. (Retronaut)

How To Name Your First Novel. A helpful series of formulas for naming that novel you’ve been working on. (NPR)

Collection of Rejected Titles for Classic Books. Would you have read The Great Gatsby if it had been titled Trimalchio in West Egg? Yeah. I didn’t think so. Good saves from editors and publishers alike, who usually picked the better title for the soon-to-be classic. (Flavorwire)

The Pleasures and Perils of Re-Reading. These days, I don’t make time for re-reading anything, which is something of a shame. I’ll probably start re-reading in my middle age. Right now, there’s too much still to be read. I do miss the distinct pleasure of returning to a beloved book, however. I bought the lovely and widely acclaimed Pevear/Volonkhosky translation of Anna Karenina at the aforementioned book sale, however, and I may have to return to that soon… (The Millions)

Great Painter: Elizabeth Peyton. Cate reviews Peyton’s work, which I really love. Had never heard of her before, but I’m glad I have now! (The Charlotte)

An Afternoon with Theresa di Scianni. This looks like such a peaceful, pleasant place to live. (Petits Papiers)

Says the Hummer in the Land of the Hybrid. A mother’s reflection on having four kids when having four kids is not especially chic or socially acceptable. I thought of this in relation to my own mother, toting the four of us around in “inconvenient” places. (Girl’s Gone Child)

Misty Manley: Fake Anything Designs. Hot ham water! Night cheese! (Design Work Life)

Beat the Winter Hair Blues. My hair gets kind of gross and limp in the winter. Good tips, especially if you’re prone to splurging on hair care products (which I’m not). (She Lets Her Hair Down)

What Do French Women Have That We Don’t? A lot, apparently. When it comes to fashion, style, and beauty, don’t we all just want to be French deep down? (HiP Paris)

Monday Snax

Well, I don’t have any pictures from this weekend because I’m stupid.

Here’s the story. We went down to Winston-Salem for Allan and Abby’s beautiful wedding this weekend. On the way down, we stopped at Subway just outside of Lynchburg for lunch. I proceeded to leave my purse (containing my wallet, keys, cell phone, camera, and a library book) at said Subway — and did not realize I had done so until we were 2.5 hours away. Commence many tears, panicky declarations, frantic calls, et hoc genus omne.

All this to say: I have the good employees of the Rustburg, Virginia, Subway and my brother-in-law to thank. Win, who has a heart of gold, woke up at 7 on Sunday morning and drove 1.5 hours to this hole-in-the-wall spot to retrieve my purse and take it back home for me. He definitely receives the Best Brother-in-Law of the Year Award and I am forever indebted to him. I think I owe him my first child or something like that.

ANYWAY. Aside from me being totally stupid, we had a nice weekend. It was great to see old friends from UNC and get to party with them at this lovely wedding. Whew. I still feel exhausted from the whole weekend right now; we got in last night around midnight. It may take me a while to function like a human again.

A few Snax with a lot of caffeine:

How Much Do Interns Earn? Having worked as an unpaid publications intern before, all I can add is a hearty AMEN to this article. It’s a crime. (Full Stop)

Beauty, Islamic Feminism, and Choice. I really appreciated reading this post, especially after having read Half the Sky, which does not paint a pretty picture of the way women are treated in Islamic countries. The author, a self-described “Muslim feminist,” writes about what it means to have choice and be an empowered, beautiful woman in Islamic culture. (The Beheld)

Lauren Lancaster’s United Arab Emirates. A haunting and fascinating collection of photographs of the UAE from New Yorker photographer Lauren Lancaster. (Photo Booth, the New Yorker)

“Where the Children Sleep:” A Round-the-World Tour of Children’s Bedrooms. I feel like I’ve seen this photo project before, but I don’t really care, because it’s always extremely fascinating. The disparities are numbing. (The Atlantic)

Language Mystery: When Did Americans Stop Sounding This Way? We watched a lot of films on Turner Classic Movies growing up, and I’ve always wanted to know the answer to this question. Why did American actors in the 1930s and 1940s speak in that stilted, quasi-British way? The Atlantic has the answer. (The Atlantic Monthly)

Paintings by Morgan Allender. Dark, lush, floral. I like. (ii ne, kore)

A Heart So White. I’m still six years old at heart: I will always be enchanted by photographs of white horses. (Eye Poetry)

Wales, Circa 1880, in Color. I wonder if Wales still looks this magical today. (How to Be a Retronaut)

Keep It In Your Pants: Smartphone Etiquette at Every Age. A guide on how to not be a total jerk with your iPhone, Crackberry, etc. (Also, is “smartphone” one word now? I hate that.) (Good)

Family love: Mom

I’m writing a series of simple posts about why I love my (immediate) family. That’s all. This is the first installment, because today is my mother’s birthday! Happy birthday, Mom! All quality photographs courtesy of Meredith Perdue.

Mother Teresa

Happy birthday...When people hear about all of the things my mother did when we were growing up, their common response is, “Is she superwoman??” And our common answer is, “Yes. Yes, she is.”

343/366

Throughout our young lives, the four of us never had any doubt in our mind that we mattered to our mother. She stayed home, but she wasn’t merely a “stay-at-home mom.” She was a full-time teacher along with being a managing partner in a successful gift store. She cooked every meal and cleaned every room. She taught us how to read and how to be kind to others. She led our family Bible studies every morning. And she never seemed weary.

165/365I knew she was special when I was a child, but now that I am out of the house, I realize how seriously exceptional she is. There’s no one else like her. I don’t know anyone who could have done everything she did without caving, snapping, or surrendering. She sets an extremely high bar for motherhood, one that I am already anxious I will never be able to meet. But she never credits herself with her shimmering maternal abilities; she always says that God gives her the grace to accomplish everything she does.

Mom and I have always been close. I was her firstborn, after all. Sometimes I wonder if our closeness was dictated not only by temperament and birth order but also by our physical similarity. My mother and I share almost identical bodies. I was the only child who got her curly hair. If something weird happens to my body (like your left leg throbbing in pain when your period is coming), I ask her, because there’s a 95 percent chance that she has that similar quirk, too. Though our coloring differs slightly, we’re built like mirror images of each other. If I had a daughter who looked like my twin, I’d probably pay careful attention to her, too.

When I was a super-dramatic and volatile teenager, I complained about this careful attention that I received from her. I was probably the most parented child among the four of us. Kelsey and Sam were born good-natured and sweet; I was not. Grace was (and still is) as stubborn as a mule, but she yielded to instruction and adapted quickly. I was not so malleable. I didn’t take kindly to correction. And so, for most of my young life, I was my mother’s project. I needed (and still need) a lot of guidance, discipline, and stark reminders. I vividly remember those hour-long lectures I’d receive from her in my bedroom. Parenting was not a passing duty to my mother; it was her entire life. She wasn’t content to let us slip by with half-hearted morality. Where most parents might spend an hour disciplining a child for an egregious mistake, my mother would spend six.

97/365

She’s very beautiful. I often wish I looked more like her. Strangers often ask if she’s our sister. We roll our eyes, having heard it so many times, but these people are serious. She looks 10 or 15 years younger than her actual age. I think this is because she has a good heart and because my father keeps her young.

I don’t think I’ll ever be as good as she is. But I can keep trying. At least, that’s what she’d tell me to do.

Happy birthday, Mom! I love you!

Week 3: Red lipstick

In honor of my sister Grace, I am imposing a set of weekly challenges on myself. For 12 weeks, I will attempt a different “challenge” each week–to do one thing every day for seven days, ranging from serious to silly. At the end of each week, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Red lipstick and a new haircut. Eek.

When I was 16, I routinely gave the announcements at my church. We went to a wannabe mega-church then and so giving the announcements made me feel like a big deal. I had to wear a headset mic* and make sure my face was powdered and my tone was smooth. One morning, I decided I was going to wear red lipstick to give the announcements. I was “backstage,” waiting for my cue before I went on under the harsh lights. A man who worked in production came up to me. “Hey Abby,” he said, and then he looked intently at my face. “What are you wearing?” “Um,” I was startled. “A skirt?” He shook his head. “No, are you wearing lipstick? Red lipstick? Don’t you think you’re too young for that?” I was mortified. I didn’t answer him. As soon as he walked away, I grabbed a tissue from a nearby table and wiped it all off. My teenage pride was sorely offended.

I don’t know if there’s really a moral to this story. Maybe I was “too young” to wear red lipstick, but I don’t think I am now. I really like red lipstick, but I’ve been afraid of it ever since this incident. Part of my aim with these weekly challenges is to conquer mental fears and so, here we have the silly week 3: Wearing red lipstick every day for a week.

I don’t actually have a huge collection of red lipstick and I don’t really buy costly make-up products, as you can see, but here’s what I used:

  • Revlon lipstick in Ravish Me Red. I really love this shade–I wanted one with an orange-red tint–and this stuff is not playing around. It lasted for at least four or five hours. It did dry my lips out considerably, however.
  • Lancome lipstick in Fashion Crave Framboise (I don’t think they carry this anymore. Heh. It’s probably old.) This is not technically red, but I mixed it with some of the other shades on some days that I didn’t want to be screaming BRIGHT RED.
  • Burt’s Bees Lip Shimmer: Merlot. I can’t say enough good about Burt’s Bees’ products. I’ve been using their lip shimmers for years and I think they’re perfect. Inexpensive, light, and all-natural, they last fairly long and have great pigments.
  • Burt’s Bees Lip Shimmer: Raisin.

I’m always inspired by how great Kate from For Me, For You looks with red lips and was delighted to find her make-up review post recently. I definitely want to try MAC products, because the reigning women of the Blogosphere seem to stand by them pretty loyally.

WHAT I LEARNED:

  • When wearing red lips, tread very lightly with the rest of your makeup, else you look like a circus performer. This was a good exercise for me, because I tend to be a big blush girl.
  • I think I will always be the staunchest Burt’s Bees devotee. I just like the way their product looks and wears, even more than the expensive stuff (like the $30 Lancome, which was definitely a Christmas gift).
  • I really like playing with makeup. If I were rich, I’d probably spend an ungodly amount on makeup. I don’t really wear a lot of it–my makeup bag is quite small–but I love to experiment with new things. It’s like painting! On your face! Guion was surprised when I told him this and didn’t really understand when I tried to explain my enjoyment of makeup. But that’s because he’s a spoilsport and won’t let me put some mascara on his obscenely long and luxurious eyelashes…
  • I can wear red lipstick! I CAN!

Coming next: A week of reading and studying Japanese!

Monday Snax

Valentine's lilies from G. They make me so, so happy.

Happy random holiday! President’s Day, right? Easily the most pointless “holiday” on our national calendar, but I got today off, so I will take it. Merci, Washington.

The weather in Charlottesville has FINALLY started to carry a hint of spring. It’s been very blustery, but I will take the wind, since it brings with it 60-70 degree days. But this joy, of course, cannot last long. We’re supposed to get SNOW tomorrow. Curses.

Snax and some toast spackled with apple butter:

Best of Breed, the Westminster Dog Show Photos. Um, OF COURSE I looked at all of these and of course I am going re-post this here. I’ve always gotten mercilessly mocked by Dave and my father for loving dog shows (lots of quotes from “Best in Show” thrown at me), but I am unapologetic in my love for them. These are great portraits, too.

The Dogs and Humans of the Westminster Kennel Club Show. And if you haven’t had enough, enjoy NY Mag’s snarky take on the whole affair. (NY Magazine)

Books That Rocked Your World at 16 But Fall Flat Now. I’m posting this as a follow-up to my brief Ayn Rand bits. Please note the first novel that’s mentioned in this list. Um, yes. Just trying to make the case again that no one thinks it’s a worthwhile piece of literature. (Flavorwire)

Twenty-Six Birds and a Fence. Grace took this photograph in New Zealand and I’m amazed; I just love it. The silhouette is just perfect. You should all be following her budding photography portfolio online! (Grace Farson: Photography Portfolio)

Beauty Products. I realized the other day that I really love makeup. I don’t really wear a lot of it, but I could spend an obscene amount of money on it. In this post, Kate provides a helpful guide of her favorite makeup and it made my fingers itch to try some of it. (For Me, For You)

Old Photo Love. Everyone’s been posting about this project, but I’m going to do it again, because it’s so fun. Photographer Irina Werning has people reenact photographs of themselves as children and the results are delightful. (Bleubird Vintage)

On the Street, East 26th St., New York. I don’t normally post stuff from The Sartorialist, because everybody already reads it, but I am LOVING the way this girl looks. She owns it. (The Sartorialist)

Uniform-Clad Nationalists at Yasukuni Shrine. I spent an afternoon here at Yasukuni Jinja while in Tokyo (my photos here). Yasukuni is the highly controversial national war memorial. These photos were very chilling to me–the severity of the men’s faces among the falling snow and so forth. (Tokyo Times)

Competitive Reading. Guion keeps telling me how hilarious “Portlandia” is; this clip alone will resonate with most of us borderline hipsters. (The Book Bench)

Nancy-tines. I love Kate Beaton’s general fixation with Nancy Drew. I never liked her books growing up, and so I feel rather pleased to see her taken on with such gleeful sarcasm. (Hark, a Vagrant!)

Hold Your Water. The things people try to sell on Etsy never fails to amaze me. (Regretsy)

Washed Away. Pottery Barn really does sell some dumb stuff. (Catalog Living)

Better to Be a Ho. Daughter might get a job as a cab driver; her mother is none too pleased. (Postcards from Yo Momma)