I’ll turn 29 this week, and so naturally, I am thinking about death.
And about how we’re supposed to improve, at least morally, with age and about how that doesn’t ever really happen. Because here’s the thing: Kids are jerks, sure, but adults are just jerks in a different way.
For example, I picked a fight at brunch a few weekends ago. (In my defense, I was hungover for the first time ever, which felt timely, as I am lurching toward the grave.) It was a fight over identities and definitions. I knew no one would agree with me, but I felt like ruffling feathers. It didn’t go well. Everyone thought I was a bigot by the end of the morning, and I still felt like emptying my stomach in my sister’s tidy bathroom. But I let the lectures roll in. I let the topic die. We played cards and everything was fine.
The special thing about this relatively unpleasant scene that I caused was how calm I felt afterward. In my youth, being wrong or being told I was wrong affected me profoundly. It’d ruin my entire month. I’d agonize over it.
But now, almost 29, I feel I am gentler and less self-assured. I still have strong opinions, of course (you can’t praise a pug or a French bulldog in earshot of me without getting the sternest of lectures). I still hate being wrong. But I’m learning to let the thing die. (Learning, Guion! I said learning.)
I’m still a jerk — but in a different way. Not sure if that’s something to celebrate but I am pondering these minute emotional shifts. Life is short. Soon we’ll all be gone. It’s good to let things go, when you can.
The truth of the matter: My (formerly beloved) liberal media outlets are making me feel like a conservative these days (don’t worry, never will be, would rather pluck my eyebrows off than vote Republican). The outrage is daily and continuous and we’ve all lost big time, but I don’t think I can sustain this level of indignation for four years.
I feel like I can’t even have lunch with someone without having to append some policy-oriented aside to every comment. “It is a good sandwich, but my enjoyment of it is diminished because, as you know, the lettuce subsidies are getting out of hand, and Trump of course is in Monsanto’s pocket…”
We all need to put our sandwiches down and go outside and pet a dog and spend time with people we love. And not mention DJT even once.
In light of this need to escape the outrage machine, here are some nonpolitical things to enjoy and think about.
Joy Williams’s short stories, because they make me feel insane with delight
It is good to be home. We are settling back in to old routines and creating new ones.
I am so happy to have the dogs again, but I think they regret being back with us (there is no Jak to play with them every day, take them for rollerblade runs or swims in the river, etc.). I’ve been trying to walk them more than usual and play Frisbee with Edie at least once a day to make them love me again. Hard to tell if it’s working.
Things I had forgotten to miss while abroad but am so pleased to have again
Our public library. I put 10 books on hold the first week we were back, and now I’m swamped, but I am so happy to be back in the swing of reading and to have every conceivable book at my fingertips again. (Our London library, while quaint, left a lot to be desired.)
Vast American grocery stores
My calligraphy studio
Our house, dingy as it now appears in certain lights
The local art scene and the people who curate it
The subsidized cafeteria in my office
The little Wednesday farmers’ market around the corner from our house
The loony neighborhood email group
My sprawling, mismanaged house plants
Latest reading obsessions:
History of domestic American architecture. Once you see (and learn how to see) a properly and stylistically restored home, you can’t unsee it. I see spindly porch columns and bad banisters everywhere in and outside our house, and now my eyes burn. I suddenly loathe the asbestos siding, the structural incongruities. Would that I had a cool $100K to re-do the entire exterior of our circa-1959 house. I am chock-full of renovation ideas that I utterly cannot fund.
Maggie Nelson. Maggie Nelson! Reading The Argonauts very slowly and drinking it all in. The past year has been filled with these utterly breathtaking women writers who are simultaneously under-read and deeply revered by those who have found them (see: Anne Carson, Lydia Davis). Up next in this vein: Clarice Lispector. Just bought myself a copy of The Passion According to G.H.
Things to be happy about: Donald Trump seems to be trying to tank his own candidacy. We might get to save America from itself after all! Also: So many new babies in town. And dear friends getting puppies and kitties. And today was only 90 degrees, so it felt almost cool.
So on a summer’s day waves collect, overbalance, and fall; collect and fall; and the whole world seems to be saying ‘that is all’ more and more ponderously, until even the heart in the body which lies in the sun on the beach says too, That is all. Fear no more, says the heart. Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking.
Looking out every morning at my Japanese maple seedling, a gift from Kyle.
Wearing pants, because the weather has been mild enough that they are comfortable again.
Our weeknight regimen of “salon,” in which we cannot watch TV but must instead walk the dogs, sit and read, play guitar, and/or discuss ideas. (TV is permissible on the weekends now. On the current docket: “The Wire” (just finished season 3), “The Leftovers,” and “Peep Show.”)
Monday nights with Maddy and Tara.
Plotting what I’m going to plant in the front yard this fall. Front yard goal: Entirely landscaped; no grass to speak of.
Eden’s new habit of leaning up against my chair while I read. She’s not begging for anything, just sitting with adorable closeness and cuddliness; it’s so unusual for her, and I love it.
Also: I’m really looking forward to seeing the family women this weekend. Grace is finally back in America!
If you see or communicate with me at all on a regular basis, you know that we found a house to rent in May. I’m over the moon about it for a number of reasons, the primary one being that we can soon adopt a dog.
The little white house comes with a sizable fenced-in backyard for the dog and extensive garden plots all around the side of the house. Our landlord, the owner, is a prodigious gardener and we have inherited the pleasant charge to care for her garden. (I am presently reading Barbara Kingsolver’s farm memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and I am chastened by her simple observation that the vast majority of us couldn’t grow our own food if our lives depended upon it. It’s now a partial motivator to learn a lot about gardening.) The house is also a short walk to vast forest trails that take you into a 280-acre park, the crown jewel of the town’s park system.
I am excited about the prospect of living here and the house’s self-contained exhortation for us to live outdoors. It will be an especially marvelous place to live in warmer months. We don’t spend a lot of time outside now. Our current apartment is on the second floor of a giant old house, situated on a busy street. We share a front porch with our housemates and our backyard is small and mostly inaccessible. But this place? It’s practically crying out for us to be outdoors at every possible opportunity. Adopting a dog will be just another big motivation to develop a closer relationship with the outdoors.
A close relationship with nature is not common these days. I spend eight hours a day at a computer at work. Then I come home, make dinner, read, and go to bed. I am ashamed to admit that there are some weekends when I don’t even go outside. My relationship with the outdoor world has been diminishing ever since I left the free university life and got a full-time job, a phenomenon that I suspect many of you may relate to.
I know that living too much indoors is bad for my body, but I’m beginning to suspect that it’s also bad for my soul.
A book I recently read reinforced this thought. I just finished reading Nicholas G. Carr’s short treatise, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. In sum, the Internet is not doing great things to our brains; our memory and powers of concentration have shrunk to depressingly miniscule levels. The following passage is an excerpt of a study he cites about concentration:
The people who looked at pictures of nature scenes were able to exert substantially stronger control over their attention, while those who looked at city scenes showed no improvement in their attentiveness. “In sum,” concluded the researchers, “simple and brief interactions with nature can produce marked increases in cognitive control.” Spending time in the natural world seems to be of “vital importance” to “effective cognitive functioning.”
There is no Sleepy Hollow on the Internet, no peaceful spot where contemplativeness can work its restorative magic. There is only the endless, mesmerizing buzz of the urban street. The stimulations of the Net, like those of the city, can be invigorating and inspiring. We wouldn’t want to give them up. But they are, as well, exhausting and distracting. They can easily, as Hawthorne understood, overwhelm all quieter modes of thought. One of the greatest dangers we face as we automate the work of our minds, as we cede control over the flow of our thoughts and memories to a powerful electronic system, is the one that informs the fears of both the scientist Joseph Weizenbaum and the artist Richard Foreman: a slow erosion of our humanness and our humanity.
Carr’s summation of this study resonated with me. I feel better about myself when I’m not on a computer. I feel more centered, whole, and focused when I’m outside. A simple walk suffuses me with feelings of peace and joy and goodwill on earth to men. In short, I feel more human outdoors. I am busy, distracted, and anxious inside. I also love the peace of our home, but it is a distinct feeling from the peace that nature lends me. I can’t find it anywhere else.
These are a lot of disjointed thoughts, but I really just wanted to tell you that I’m looking forward to living outside come May.
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.
Chapter One: A blissfully happy childhood, in which my greatest concerns are how many library books I am allowed to bring home and how many baby rabbits we can smuggle over from the neighbor’s back yard.
Chapter Two: The dark days of middle school, in which I fill up many dramatic journals and feel murky and confused inside.
Chapter Three: High school, in which my weirdly conservative debater identity takes hold; in which I feel that I am very popular, even though I am homeschooled and my entire social circle is about 40 people.
Chapter Four: Freshman year of college, in which I feel elated and totally excited about everything; in which I date a boy for the first time; in which I am still very judgmental.
Chapter Five: My sophomore year in college, in which everything falls apart and I am rebuilt again.
Chapter Six: My summer in Tokyo, in which my entire worldview is broadened; in which my Japanese language abilities make exponential strides; in which I have never worked harder in my entire life.
Chapter Six: Junior year in college, in which I am in love with Guion and find that he changes everything; in which I am happy, genuinely happy again.
Chapter Seven: Summer working for the Denver Post, in which I become an adult; in which I find a new, bold, extroverted self emerge, a self who makes new friends and invites them hiking every week; in which I am more fit and joyful than I have ever been before.
Chapter Eight: Senior year of college, in which Guion decides to marry me; in which I live in an almost constant state of stress; in which I learn that living in a house with six other women is difficult but has its benefits; in which I finish my thesis and feel very accomplished; in which I plan my wedding and graduate.
Chapter Nine: Our first year of marriage, in which we are excited to be together every single day; in which we move to Charlottesville; in which I get my first full-time job and he starts graduate school; in which we fall in love with a town and its people.
Chapter Ten: Our second year of marriage, which has just begun; in which we think we might just stay here forever, for who could feel this content?