The best piety is to enjoy

Garden in June
Bee enjoying a daylily in my front yard.

For the past seven years, I have been in a serious book club with some delightful people at my church. I am the youngest member by a few decades. Once a month, we sit politely around a large table in the church library and discuss classic literature (mostly fiction). We conclude our comments in precisely one hour. We do not eat or drink anything (water in paper cups is sometimes proffered), and we do not talk much about our personal lives. The book is what matters. It is the most pleasant, no-nonsense book club I can imagine.

We grouse at each other about our literary likes and dislikes. We’re not afraid to speak strongly about our feelings. By this point, we know each others’ preferences quite well. They make fun of me for my absurd love of Woolf and Nabokov, neither of whom they enjoy much, and my strong distaste for Dickens; they’re always trying to put him on the ballot. I make fun of them for casting moral judgments on characters or writing off a novel because some heroine had a bad attitude.

I inherited administrative control of the book club after it was started by a young teacher (or perhaps a lawyer) who eventually moved away. Following his original intent, we aim to only read “classics” (although the meaning of that term vacillates), and we vote on books we want to read and plan our reading calendar about two years in advance. When we take recommendations for the next slate of books, I create a ballot that has an equal number of male and female authors. I learned somewhat early that if I didn’t do this, we would read books by men 90% of the time.

The idea of a classics book club is very appealing to people. Church folk come up to me all the time and say they want to join, that they’ve seen the list and want to read all those books they “should” have read but never got around to. I maintain the email list, and people frequently email me and ask to be added to the list. The list now has almost 100 names on it. But, month after month, there are only six of us who show up on a regular basis. The Core Group. It used to make me feel a little disenchanted, this contrast between aspirational and actual readers, but I have come to depend on The Core Group. I am deeply content. I am, of course, always happy to have new members, but I am also happy with the solid six.

For a recent book club discussion, I bought a copy of The Tempest at a used bookstore downtown. The kindly shop owner asked me if I was in school. I told him that I wasn’t and that I was buying a paperback copy of the play for a book club I was in.

“Oh, my,” he said. “A serious book club. You don’t hear about many of those these days. So many people read such drivel.”

I nodded. I find it so pleasant, to take such a small thing as reading so seriously, and to have six other people in my life who feel similarly.

“’The best piety is to enjoy—when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates.’”

— Will Ladislaw in Middlemarch, George Eliot

I can’t read too many articles about climate change because I get too paranoid and sad. (I start feeling like John B. McLemore, I really do.) I am inspired to keep planting native plants and do my small part where I can, walking to work and being less trash-y, but I do feel a profound sense of sadness when I think about Earth. We have such a beautiful planet. We are so fortunate in so many ways. Guion and I were sitting on the back deck in the evening, being slowly devoured by mosquitoes and watching the blush-pink clouds sweep past, and I said, “I don’t want to watch the Earth die.” And he replied, “We probably won’t have to. That’s the lot of the next generation.”

That’s the rub, isn’t? It’s like having to deal with two facts of mortality: your own and the planet’s. Facing one death is enough of an existential challenge. I think this is why it is so easy for us, the people living now, to be complacent about our dying planet (dying, at least, in the way that we know it). It’s too much to process, on top of our own death.

And so for now, the best piety is to enjoy. And be considerate of what we have and what the future may not have. We’re all going to be dead soon anyway.

Happy Tuesday!

When to back down

Spring miscellany
Lunch prepared by Kelsey and Alex, a few weekends ago.

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.

Your uncertainty is God’s will

Click for source.

Your cold mornings are filled with the heartache about the fact that although we are not at ease in this world, it is all we have, that it is ours but that it is full of strife, so that all we can call our own is strife; but even that is better than nothing at all, isn’t it? And as you split frost-laced wood with numb hands, rejoice that your uncertainty is God’s will and His grace toward you and that that is beautiful, and part of a greater certainty, as your own father always said in his sermons and to you at home. And as the ax bites into the wood, be comforted in the fact that the ache in your heart and the confusion in your soul means that you are still alive, still human, and still open to the beauty of the world, even though you have done nothing to deserve it. And when you resent the ache in your heart, remember: You will be dead and buried soon enough.

Tinkers, Paul Harding

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

A long quote, but a very good one: How uncertainty can be God’s grace to us. (I saw so much of Marilynne Robinson, Harding’s former professor, in that book.)

I haven’t been around here much lately, and my postings will probably be more than usually sporadic, since the month of May is pure madness for us. But everything in May will be good and new and exciting, even if just looking at my calendar makes me break out in a cold sweat.

I am trying to read many things, even though I feel like all of it is skimming over my head. I am spending a lot of time with Eudora Welty, one of my all-time favorites, in preparation for next month’s book club. I have missed you, Eudora. When I was about 14 and said I wanted to be a writer, Dave gave me a copy of her collected short stories and told me to read them closely. It was very, very good advice. I am so happy to return to her.

I also just started Susan Sontag’s On Photography, which is powerful and mind-opening. I think Guion would like it a lot. And Grace. Most people, for that matter. Anyone who’s ever looked at photographs before.

Talk to you soon.