Shakshuka by the fire

Fatniss Turkeydeen 2016Family is always a solace!

In times of general nationwide gloom, there will always be Fatniss Turkeydeen. (We were delighted to host Kelsey and Alex this past weekend for our Third Annual Fatniss, to celebrate Kelsey’s birthday, cram our gullets with good food, and watch an apocalyptic film.)

It is good to spend time together, as much as we can spare, even if it is loose and unstructured and mostly just punctuated by food and drink. Talking about people we once knew well. Sitting by the fire and having overly spicy shakshuka for breakfast. Walking the dogs on narrow sidewalks and musing about domestic architecture. (I’m thinking about this great little essay from the New York Times about the myth of quality time: There is no “quality” time. You just need time. Don’t put that kind of emotional pressure on time; we resist it.)

And now, for more feasting and more family time, we head into the Thanksgiving weekend.

Having met my reading goal for the year, I am going to take December slowly and start my second read of War and Peace (translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky). I am going to force myself to savor it. And allow myself the time to take as long as it takes. Read the dialogue in French before looking at the translation in the footnote. Re-read a whole page if I didn’t catch the gist the first time. Don’t worry about the fact that I still have 1,100 pages to go.

I want to read fewer books next year. I am so competitive with myself that I find it hard to slow down and dive into the long, complex things. I just want to tear through as many books of essays and short novels as I can. But this is a bad orientation to literature. I am trying to fix it.

Here is a photo of Pyrrha, taking herself seriously:

November home life

Easter and family

A good portion of my family came to see us on Easter weekend — to celebrate birthdays, to labor in our yard, and to provide general merriment. I can’t get over how much fun these people are sometimes. I felt like my Gran when they returned to their respective homes. She, normally of the stoic and sarcastic temperament, would always turn her face and cry a little when family left. This is what I did for a moment on Sunday afternoon, but I know we’ll see each other again soon. (And, ideally, in Europe.)

Spring is finally here, and I am grateful.

Easter 2016The big project: Adding pea gravel to our little fenced garden area. We will eventually add two more raised beds, but we wanted to go ahead and finish the gravel before we depart for the summer.

Before:

Easter 2016

And after:

Easter 2016Easter 2016Didn’t the boys do a marvelous job? I’m so happy with how it turned out. To finish it up, I want to find some low-growing, flowering perennials to put around the edges.

Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016Easter 2016

We are all falling

Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park, Iceland, this June. Just because.

We are all falling. This hand’s falling too—
all have this falling sickness none withstands.
And yet there’s always One whose gentle hands
this universal falling can’t fall through.

— Rilke

Unexpectedly, owing to my grandmother’s rapidly deteriorating state and a general lack of a contingency plan, my grandparents have moved in with my parents.

Mom called me yesterday to fill me in on everything. I feel weighed down and lost and helpless about it. Mom and Dad are so boundlessly generous and took them in with no hesitation or questions asked. Mom and Dad sleep upstairs in the guest room on the double bed now. We talked and teared up for a while, and I put down the phone and felt hollow and useless.

Predictably and gratefully, Kelsey called me some minutes later (presumably after Mom had filled her in), and then we talked about our joint feeling of uselessness and schemed about how we could be helpful at Thanksgiving. Kelsey is a source of compassionate comfort and strength in hard times. I am the eldest child, but even when I was young, I relied on Kelsey perhaps more than she ever relied on me. I still feel this way and look up to her in this essential, dependent manner. I am so thankful that she and Alex are so close by (it is worth noting what a marvel it is that she married someone as compassionate and kind as herself). When I think of them, I am filled with the conviction that I could turn to them in any form of need.

Inspired by an interview I read with an author, I am keeping a five-year diary (designed by Tamara Shopshin). It is very interesting to me to note the limited phrases and sentences that come to mind, at the end of the day, that I consider necessary to record.

If you love home

DC in September
11 September: WWII Memorial with the Lincoln Memorial in the background.

If you love home—and even if you don’t—there is nothing quite as cozy, as comfortable, as delightful, as that first week back. That week, even the things that would irritate you—the alarm waahing from some car at three in the morning; the pigeons who come to clutter and cluck on the windowsill behind your bed when you’re trying to sleep in—seem instead reminders of your own permanence, of how life, your life, will always graciously allow you to step back inside of it, no matter how far you have gone away from it or how long you have left it. — A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

We spent a delightful weekend in DC with Kelsey and Alex, who are splendid hosts. We saw lots of old friends and spent time with new ones, and we didn’t want to leave their pristine urban paradise. But we have a Kelsey-and-Alex-filled fall, so that assuages us.

DC in September
Going out.

After leaving DC, I grew pensive and even a bit sad as I thought about my professional life. Alex just started a graduate program at Georgetown; Cristina is about to become a lawyer; Russ is starting a graduate program in California; Kelsey is seriously considering an MBA from New York University. And me? What am I doing? Reading lots of books and still schlepping around in the same job I’ve had for five years. I enjoy my work, and I am really grateful for my job, which provides me with a genuinely superb work/life balance. I am extremely happy on a day-to-day basis. But I would love nothing more than to go back to school. My graduate-degree ambitions are hindered by three major factors: (1) lack of sensible degree (I really just want a PhD in English, as deeply, heartbreakingly foolish as that is); (2) lack of money; and (3) lack of desire to move to another city. I feel stuck. I don’t have any answers, but I felt like confessing that to the void. I feel that I am getting old, and I don’t want my career to atrophy.

Smell the zinniasIn brighter news, I am finally reading John Cheever for the first time, and I am IN LOVE. The Chekhov of the American suburbs!

What’s new in your life?

Should have known better

Weddings in May
Sisters beckoning to cows. Small-town NC, May 2015.

We had two weddings in two states this past weekend, and they were both beautiful and fun (one wedding for beloved friends, one wedding for family). People are so generous at weddings; I am floored by the multiple kindnesses. At our friends’ wedding, I was especially so impressed by my dear friend, the compassionate bride, and how concerned she was with everyone else’s well-being throughout the day. She was beautiful and happy but thinking of everyone else’s happiness and comfort.

I thought our wedding was ideal, but I would have done things so differently if I had gotten married today. We will celebrate our five-year anniversary at the end of this month, and I smile when I think about what a different day we might have had if we had married now. We had a very small budget, and we truthfully invited way too many people. I would have cut the guest list in half (maybe even have whittled it down to a third); I would have not done a bouquet toss, which is so absurdly insulting; I would have had a ton of wine; I would have had a lot more lovely wedding paper and designed the invitations myself. But everything else about the actual day was really perfect. We were speechlessly happy.

Saul Bellow had a character say or imply somewhere in Mr. Sammler’s Planet that intelligent women were almost always angry because they were paying attention to the world. This has stuck with me since then (particularly as the sentiment is coming from a notable misogynist), and maybe I’ll mull it over for a longer post sometime. I think it is mostly true. I’d rather not live in a perpetual state of anger and frustration, but when I think of the smartest women I know, I would not use words like “blissful,” “complacent,” or “cheerful” to describe them. (I think the same can be said of smart people in general, regardless of gender.) Frustration, ire, sarcasm, and skepticism seem to me to be the hallmarks of an intelligent woman. The intelligent woman is paying attention to what is going on in society at large and therefore has a reason to feel angry. (Insert semi-related point here about my perpetual state of befuddlement that women can and do vote Republican.)

I’m not sure what the conclusion of this thought is, except how can intelligent women channel their anger in useful, publicly productive ways? Writing, for one. Protesting, for another. Starting organizations. Helping others. Speaking up and speaking out. Serving as an advocate for the less fortunate.

In this way, all of the anger that is generated by women who are paying attention may yield fruit (and perhaps some powerful social change). That is something to hope for.

Whenever I settle in and start deeply and intently cleaning the house, one of the first thoughts that floats to the surface of my mind is, Maybe the dogs will suddenly die. Then I won’t have to deal with this horrible mud and endless quantities of fur and dust and slime and drool… if the dogs were dead, I could have nice things… yes, yes, maybe the dogs will inexplicably die. It sounds so horrible to write it here, but I can guarantee you that I will think this as soon as I start dusting, sweeping, mopping, scrubbing again. I fantasize about not having them around. The thing is, though, that if I didn’t have the dogs, the only thing that I would be able to think about would be how much I needed dogs. This is all just to say I love those little monsters. Just when I’m not cleaning up after them.

Below, my sisters, two of the most intelligent women I know. They are more compassionate human beings than I am, and they have found very socially useful channels for their awareness/anger. Brava, G. and K.; proud to be related to you.

10 May 2015
The trials of having beautiful sisters.

Shyly venturing into yoga

Hood Ornament: 1948 (via Shorpy)

While recently enjoying a lovely weekend with my parents and sisters, I was struck again by my exclusion from the family way of fitness. My mom and sisters look like Athleta models. They are tall, toned, strong, and have impeccable posture. I am also tall, but I am weak and stiff. When I have joined them in yoga classes, I am the inflexible duckling, and they are perfect yoga swans. (Grace is particularly intimidating, as she is a licensed yoga instructor, and just about everyone looks like a toad next to her.) On Saturday morning, the three of them went to an intensive yoga class and cajoled me to join them, but I went with Dad and Dublin, the neighbor’s dog, to drop off stuff at the dump instead (because I will always choose dogs and dumps over fitness).

My sister the yoga instructor, practicing in Thailand. (c) Grace Farson.
My sister the yoga instructor, practicing in Thailand. (c) Grace Farson.

But I started thinking about yoga again. And feeling like I should try it, even though I am so intimidated and so weak. (I can’t even touch my toes, something I have always blamed on my extra-long legs, but which I now accept as a cop-out.) I asked my friend James, a yoga instructor in town, for advice, and he wrote such a forthright and gracious response that it nearly brought tears to my eyes.

Yoga appeals to me because it isn’t supposed to be aggressive or competitive — qualities which have always made me despise the American mentality toward exercise, weight loss, and gym culture. I am not trying to “get jacked,” lose 30 pounds, or strain my body to meet a cultural objective. Rather, I’d like to get to know my body better. To be strong. To be confident.

I have shyly started practicing yoga at home, and thanks to James’s advice, I have scouted some studios I’d like to visit for classes and instruction. I fully recognize that I’m at least 20 years late to the yoga bandwagon, but I hope it’s not too late for me on the whole, to gradually become flexible and strong.

Have you ventured into yoga? What have you found?

Impressions

Post-coital mourning doves

At lunch, I watched these mourning doves try to have sex. She rebuffed him after his failed attempt, and then they shuffled apart from each other and went back to preening themselves separately, not making eye contact. I imagine that she went back to her tree afterward, drank some white wine, and called up her girlfriends to say that she just didn’t think this relationship was going to work out.

I am reading a book about walking (Wanderlust, by Rebecca Solnit), and I’m really enjoying it. People laugh when I say this, but walking is one of my chief joys in life. It sounds funny because it sounds so mundane; it’s not like my chief joy is skydiving or horse wrangling. But there is no black mood that I can’t lift with a good, long walk. I crave a daily walk. My love of walking is also likely connected to my love of dogs and my love of solitary thinking; all three elements complement each other.

Things I could learn from Kelsey and Alex:

  • Minimalist living
  • The names of every world leader and his or her general policy stance
  • Why Ukraine is under siege
  • How world economies will adapt if the birth rate keeps falling in the developed world
  • Where to buy exercise clothes

Lemon tree

The lemon tree is getting rather ungainly. Here he is, sunbathing on the back deck. I got one fat, juicy lemon from him last year. I’m gunning for two this year. Dreaming big!

I also have a tendency to presume that all of my plants are male. I am not sure why.

I found an old diary from my senior year of high school. I wrote like I was living in a Jane Austen novel. And I, of course, was Elizabeth Bennet. And every boy was some Austenian archetype (there was a Mr. Bingley, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Wickham, Mr. Collins, etc.). It was very weird to re-read. I was surprised to read these dramatic scenes from my young life. I felt, at times, like I was reading a young adult novel about some other girl, some person entirely different from myself. I’d forgotten so many things that I barely believe they ever happened to me.

Our Easter weekend

We loved having Mom, Dad, Kelsey, and Alex stay with us over the Easter weekend. Lots of good food (mostly made by my live-in gourmet, Guion), lots of laughter, lots of walks and dog time. I love these people ever so much.

Easter weekend

Easter weekend

Easter weekend

Easter weekend

Easter weekend

Easter weekend

Easter weekend

On the emotional effect of clutter

I love online shopping, but I’m really bad at it. I’m constantly buying clothes that fit me poorly, and because I’m often too lazy to deal with the hassle of returns, I stuff these garments in the back of my closet or in a dust-gathering bag that says “TO TAILOR.”

This year, I’m trying to commit to the “one in, one out” principle with my wardrobe. If I buy one new item, I have to donate or toss one old item. I’m getting addicted to this buoyant, weightless feeling of throwing things away, of making room, of seeing space recreated. (And, I also took two pants to the tailor this week. Little victory!)

210/366
Grace’s closet, circa July 2008. It still looks like this, even though she doesn’t live here anymore.

I’ve always loved throwing stuff away and then organizing the remainders. It’s a quality that Kelsey and I share with Mom. My mother is very organized and sensible about her purchases, and she rejects clutter in all forms. We elder sisters have adopted this lifestyle from her. Kelsey in particular keeps an immaculate, minimalist studio apartment that is just zen.

But we can also take it too far. For example, last year, Kels famously threw away all of her tax documents in one of her cleaning frenzies. (Grace, on the other hand, missed out on this tossing gene, and any space she inhabits looks like an art supplies store/Salvation Army exploded. See the photo of her childhood closet, above. She is the purest definition of an artistic pack-rat, and this drives the rest of us family women insane. Sharing a bathroom with her feels like sharing a bathroom with 100 bag ladies.)

As a girl, I was more nostalgic for my short life, and I saved everything, especially letters. I pined for the Austen-esque days of handwritten correspondence, so my nerdy girl friends and I wrote hundreds of letters to each other — even though many of us only lived a few miles apart. I had boxes upon boxes of letters about the most adorable, inane things. At the sage age of 12, we liked to write in a highfalutin style: “That boy is the most preposterous creature I have ever met in all of my existence!”

Work time. #calligraphyI kept all of these letters for years and years, stuffed under my childhood bed. But when we moved to our new house, I threw them all away (saving only letters from precious relatives, particularly my late Great Aunt Lib).

This seems harsh and heartless to many, I am sure, but I had to have a hard conversation with myself. What was I saving these letters for? I was never going to go back and read them. Did I think my future offspring would find them interesting? Hardly. Instead, these letters — albeit cute and nostalgia-inducing — were taking up valuable real estate in my home, and were weighing me down, a burden of clutter. I did not need to keep them. I still have the memories of how much joy those letters brought me and how delightful it was to write and receive creative, strange letters as a girl.

The simple truth? Clutter affects me emotionally.

Although I am not as pristine and spartan about my cleaning regimen as Kelsey (who is?), a cluttered home — particularly a cluttered kitchen — makes my brain feel disordered. As my eyes scan around our messy kitchen, I begin to feel unhinged, unsettled, uncertain. I have to take immediate action.

Devoted assistants
Man and dogs in kitchen.

Being in a cluttered space makes me feel breathless and anxious; I feel like my heart rate is rising. It’s really something of a personality weakness. Because, clearly, clutter does not bother some people at all, and I do not fault them for it; Grace, for example, thrives on clutter, as an artist. (And maybe “clutter” is a judgmental word for it? What could we call it? Piles? Of important but disordered stuff?)

I am not immune to clutter. There are plenty of pockets of clutter in my house. The console table in the dining room has a basket full of unsorted items. My closet is far from pristine. (I haven’t ironed a single thing in months.) And I don’t even attempt to deal with Guion’s various piles around the house; that is his emotional business, not mine.

And so I clean and organize my house — not because I feel like I have to, not because it makes me feel superior — but because it keeps me sane. I’m all for the preservation of sanity.

Visiting Gran in Ohio

We were all so unprepared for the bitterness of Ohio in mid-February, but our hearts were warmed by the time we got to spend with Gran and with our family in the Midwest.

To be able to see her face, hear her classic laugh, and enjoy her characteristic expressions of disdain — it lifted the spirits.

Photos galore!

Sadie comforts Guion during his morning headache. #ohio #familytrip
Sadie, my aunt and uncle’s “corgeranian,” comforts Guion.
#olympics watching. #familytrip #ohio
Watching the Olympics.
Birthday child. #familytrip
Grace turns 22!
Fuzzy bullet. Sadie! #familytrip #corgeranian
Fuzzy bullet.
Cousins! #familytrip #ohio
Cousin Sheridan and Kels.
Work tuff. #father #familytrip
Jak.
Ohio. #familytrip
Ohio. The unmarred snow.
Gran and the girl cousins! Love her. #familytrip
Girl cousins with Gran!
Young bros. #familytrip #ohio
The young bros.
Untitled
The family dog lovers.

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled

Untitled
Reading birthday cards.
Untitled
Brothers don’t shake hands; brothers hug!
Snowy road trip fun. #ohio #familytrip
Long drive home through a snowstorm.
Guess who loves her Aunt Kelsey now? #thisdog #homesweethome
When we got home, we discovered that Pyrrha is kind of weirdly obsessed with Kelsey.