I intend to know you better

Over the past few weeks, little jewels began to appear on our fence line. Pale green gems, about an inch long, were attaching themselves to the underside of the top rails. After consultation with our neighbor, we learned that the gilt-edged capsules were monarch butterfly chrysalides* (*plural of chrysalis; also new favorite word). These unbelievably beautiful baubles look as if a masterful painter of Fabergé eggs had taken the tiniest brush, dipped it in gold, and embellished them solely for delight. We check on them every morning and wonder why they are so pretty and try to guess when each will emerge by noting which chrysalides have darkened, revealing the body of the butterfly underneath.

Chrysalis on our fence (photo by Guion).

Learning what to call these inchoate backyard inhabitants deepened our affection for them. Knowing that they were monarchs, not just any old bug, enhanced our care and consideration. We now feel protective and compassionate toward them; we worry about their welfare; we wonder about their future as the weather turns. None of this would have happened if we had never learned what they were called. Because we’ve rarely left our home this year, we’ve observed so much more of the natural world and been driven to find out the proper names of our neighboring flora and fauna. I now know that a Carolina wren is the possessive little bird that chirps at us on the deck every evening. I learned that red-tailed hawks were the ones performing a dramatic mating dance in the neighbor’s garden. The weed that gives me so much grief is ground ivy, and the big spider that tries to trap me every morning by spinning a web over our front walk is an orange marbled orb weaver.

We have also tried to extend this practice to the human beings in our neighborhood. I am far from a natural socialite, but in pandemic life, I have suddenly become the chatty neighbor out on a walk. (I use the funny blonde baby on my hip as an ice-breaker.) Now that I know so many neighbors’ names, I see them and their houses differently. I see the whole street with a refreshed gaze, refocused by attachment.

I’m a broken record, but naming strikes me as a critical skill of storytellers. Without a curiosity for names and an attending capacity to remember them, our stories grow pale, unmemorable, weak. Our relationships with others depend on our knowledge of names. A storyteller necessarily has a great facility for forming and preserving relationships between creatures. In contrast, a storyteller who was uninterested in names would be a poor storyteller indeed. To ignore the names of people, places, and things indicates a serious deficit of curiosity, which often results in a deficit of respect. 

The desire to learn a name and remember it speaks to a deep well of intention. Inquiring about a name says, I intend to know you better, whether you are a fabulous insect or a new acquaintance. The best way to do that is to begin by knowing your name.

(Letter from this week’s Story Matters, the email I get to write for work.)

. . .

Eating an apple he picked from the backyard.

Meanwhile, this little dude continues to be extremely entertaining and cute. He’s 16 months old and has lots of opinions about how the household should be run. Specifically, if he got to enact his policy mandates, he would subsist exclusively on a diet of (expensive) berries, pull all things out of all cabinets at all hours of the day, never be put in his “independent play” room, walk to the park every day, and dance slowly to Sufjan in the morning, without interruption.

We had to shave him some weeks ago, because he decided that his new sleep routine involved pulling his hair out by the fistful. I miss his flowing flaxen hair! Maybe it will grow back.

. . .

Behind the ecstasy is something else

Source: House Beautiful.

“I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness–in a landscape selected at random–is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern–to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal.”

— Vladimir Nabokov, in Speak, Memory

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

Thanks for all of the kind comments and feedback! I was honored to have been Freshly Pressed yesterday!

And now, we’re off for another weekend jaunt home, to celebrate at a wedding with Guion’s old friends. Have a peaceful weekend, everyone.

Boy fights and lifelong obsessions

Levi and Bo. Can you tell who is who? Neither can we.

Watching dogs play is one of my favorite things to do. On Saturday, Celeste and I let golden twins Bo and Levi loose in Liz’s backyard and hilarious romping ensued. I kept saying “boy fights!” as their behavior just made me think of this. Observing Bo and Levi was very much like watching four-year-old boy children wrestle and play, get irritated with each other, cease all motion, and then start up again five seconds later. For those who share my love of boy fights/dogs playing, a more complete slideshow is on the ol’ dog blog.

In a related note, seeing Uggie on stage was the most exciting part of the Oscars for me.

I am finally reading Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak, Memory, and I’ve started the chapter where he describes the genesis of his deep obsession with butterflies. His fascination with and desire for lepidoptera began when he was very young. As a little boy, he was chided for “spoiling walks” by disappearing into the brush with his net, chasing after a fleeting colorful wing. When he was six or seven, he wept pitifully when his hefty governess sat down on a tray of his recent captures, crushing them to indistinguishable, ashy bits. Nabokov did not grow out of this mania for pretty winged insects. His research and scientific contributions to the field are still being discussed today.

I’m not sure why all of this surprised me, that Nabokov’s love of butterflies began when he was a boy and marked the duration of his life. It makes sense that our most passionate obsessions are formed and solidified when we are children. I think of Grace, who was fervently attuned to fashion even when she was a tiny thing. (She once wore a 101 Dalmatians bathing suit, a tutu, and crocodile-skin cowboy boots to church. My mother was tired of doing battle with her over what she wore and so the miniature fashionista had her day.) Today, Grace is still very much involved with the art of wearing clothes. Or there’s Kelsey, whose favorite game as a child was playing office or playing with her “work ‘tuff.” Kelsey still loves organizing, planning, and achieving in that wonderfully efficient and self-created work environment. (Good for her.) Sam, to my father’s great relief and joy, was fixated with sports, particularly any sports involving a ball, since he was a baby.

Me? Well, of course it has always been animals, mainly dogs, and reading. (I didn’t have invisible friends, like some children; I had invisible animals, which I somewhat creepily called “spirit pets.” I named them all and tore their photos out of National Geographics and encyclopedias and plastered them on the wall next to my bed.) There are some things we don’t ever grow out of and lately, I like remembering that.

Monday Snax

Family ladies
It's unreasonable that our grandmothers look better than we do.

Lucy and Loretta
Coolest grandmothers ever.

Coming back from Davidson is always so hard; I just want to stay forever. Mom said she’d write me a note to send to my employer: “Abby has a headache. She can’t come back to work for another week.” I wish! We had a beautiful, sunny, and happy weekend with the family, celebrating with the grandmothers and celebrating the end of Lent with an absurd amount of chocolate-raspberry cake and Peeps. Just as expected. More photos on Flickr.

That said, here are your snax with day-old Peeps:

Goin’ to the Chapel! DANIELLE AND LOGAN ARE FINALLY ENGAGED!! (Gallimaufry of a Girl)

Still Lagging: Women’s Earnings in America. Even though they’re not exactly new, these statistics always depress me. Particularly now that we have more female college graduates in the work force than male! What is going on, Patriarchy? Where is thy death? (Mint)

Night Pruning. Cate has such a beautiful home and baby and just look at her perfect appropriation of nature! I got to hang out in her verdant cottage with her baby on Wednesday night and it was lovely; hoping to do it again soon! (The Charlotte)

Hello, My Pretty. Grace used to make this face when she was doing something naughty, like zipping up the family rabbit in a purse or trying to snatch Sam out of his crib. (Awkward Family Photos)

Word Portraits by John Sokol. Now this is a cool idea: Portraits of authors using their own words. (Le Projet d’Amour)

What If Corporate Logos Were Honest? Imagining big companies displaying their true slogans. (Flavorwire)

J.P. Toad’s. That’s so disgusting. Who thinks of these things? Actually. I know some people in Carrboro who would probably try to sell this at the farmers’ market. (Regretsy)

A Lesson in Posing, Religious Observance Begs Sabbatical. The Man Repeller makes fun of the numerous poses that Cool Lady Bloggers adopt when modeling stuff from their own wardrobes. (The Man Repeller)

Bingley Takes a Bath. You know I’m not a cat person, but I love this. (Fat Cat Orange Studios)

A Birthday. This looks like the absolute perfect day. So peaceful! So elegant! (Sweet Fine Day)

Vladimir Nabokov’s Drawings of Butterflies. Yep, still fascinated with anything I can find about Nabokov and his butterflies. These are quite lovely. (Flavorwire)

Mikhail Gherman and Karen Walker at Home. Hipsters to the max, but they look like they’re having SO much fun at their house! And Karen Walker is amazing looking. (The Selby)

Top 10 Books of 2010: #4

Pale Fire

#4: PALE FIRE, by Vladimir Nabokov

For the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking back through the books I read in 2010 and ranking my favorites in a top 10 list. Today, I’ll be talking about #4, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

It should be rather evident by now that I am a Nabokov fan. (His Ada was, after all, my 10th favorite book I read all year). I picked up Pale Fire a few months after I had read Lolita and was dazzled… and confused. This is one of the most ambitious and strange novels I’ve read and yet I do not think Nabokov would want me to call it a novel.

So what is it exactly? Pale Fire is many things. It is the title of a 1,000 line poem by the fictional poet John Shade. It is a murder mystery. It is the long-form annotated guide to the aforementioned poem. And it is quite elaborate and beautiful and confusing.

After a foreword, the book begins with “Pale Fire,” the long poem by John Shade (which, of course, Nabokov wrote himself). I don’t know very much about poetry, despite being married to one who makes it, but I think it’s a pretty decent and interesting poem. Particularly considering that English was the third language of its author. The New York Times book review from 1962–when Pale Fire was published–puts the issue of Shade’s poem quite well:

[“Pale Fire,” the poem] is about on a level with the work of Alfred Austin, Tennyson’s successor as Poet Laureate, who also had a bent for conversational verse: not bad, but also not good, not, in the strict sense, a poem at all. The reader, having plowed through it with mild interest, is likely to be afflicted by the disproportion between its merit and the apparatus that surrounds it. For the author has to keep up a pretense that Shade was a great man, and the poem a great poem. Yet it is also part of the joke that he does not believe this for a moment. He is carefully building a farce, assuming the mask of pedantry in order to point a grimace at his readers.

Behind this farce we meet the person of Charles Kinbote, an obsessive literature professor from the imaginary country of Zembla (Nabokov has a thing for fictional nations). Kinbote is the author of the annotated guide to the poem, which we are now reading and which consumes the rest of the novel. It is fair to say that Kinbote worships Shade. He regards “Pale Fire” as the greatest poem ever written and managed to get the rights to the poem and to publishing this annotated guide after Shade’s mysterious death.

In the hands of the witty and sly Nabokov, Kinbote’s fanaticism is a wonderful and frightening thing to behold. His love of Shade borders on pathological, once he moves in next door to Shade so he can watch him all day long. He is deeply envious of the poet’s purported talent, for as Kinbote says of himself:

I do not consider myself a true artist, save in one matter: I can do what only a true artist can do—pounce upon the forgotten butterfly of revelation*, wean myself abruptly from the habit of things, see the web of the world, and the warp and the weft of that web.

Kinbote’s warping of the web–the fabulous series of artifices that Nabokov has created–captivates utterly. Pale Fire was certainly the most interesting and thought-provoking book I read in 2010. I do not know if it was the best, but it was deliciously strange. As Kinbote–or is it just Nabokov himself?–says in the end:

I trust the reader appreciates the strangeness of this, because if he does not, there is no sense in writing poems, or notes to poems, or anything at all.

(*Side note: Just in time for this review: The New York Times reveals that Nabokov’s theory on butterfly evolution has been proven. Lovely!)

Nabokov and butterflies

Vladimir Nabokov catching butterflies, LIFE magazine, 1958

I was really delighted today, during my lunch break, to discover two things:

1. This sprawling, fascinating (if a bit outdated; who uses frames anymore?) website: Ada Online. It’s the linked and annotated version of Nabokov’s incredibly difficult novel, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. I don’t know who did it–it appears to belong to a university in New Zealand–but it’s marvelous. What a perfect use of the Internets. It only reaches up through Part I with the annotations, but can you blame them? There’s at least three allusions in practically every sentence (with considerable fractions of Russian, French, and Russo-English!).

2. Nabokov was himself a distinguished lepidopterist, which I learned today means that he studies butterflies. LIFE magazine followed him around in the forest one day, some decades ago, as he sprung about with his net. Knowing this detail about arguably one of the most intelligent writers we can (partially) call our own makes him so much sweeter and gentler in my mind. And so much more interesting. A man who loved butterflies! All of the entomological references in Ada also make a little more sense now.

I have decided that I am going to read The Temple of the Golden Pavilion by Yukio Mishima next. And then I will tackle Guermantes Way. Proust is almost too similar to Nabokov and I need something purely opposite–i.e., the razor-sharpness of Japanese prose–to break my mind up a bit.

I’m not very good at introducing myself these days. I generally end up saying all three of my names now, and so end up looking either really pretentious or stupid.

Angela, thanks for the plug on your Tumblr for my calligraphy! You are darling. Your Tumblr updates bring me lots of joy every day. I too want one of the Chinese dogs spray-painted to look like baby pandas.

She had kept only a few–mainly botanical and entomological–pages of her diary, because on rereading it she had found its tone false and finical; he had destroyed his entirely because of its clumsy schoolboyish style combined with heedless, and false, cynicism. Thus they had to rely on oral tradition, on the mutual correction of common memories.

V. Nabokov, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle