A meditation for winter

31787207417_5c5af428a0_k
Pyrrha in the snow.

I despise the cold, but I’m finding some joy in the winter this year. This attitude has been helped along by daily walks, with the aid of competent warm-weather gear and my good German shepherd, the perfect walking companion; more time to read, and read by the fire; and the quietness of the landscape. This winter, more than others, feels like this restful season of anticipation. Spring brings new life (literally for our household this year), and I am enjoying thinking of winter as a time for appropriate dormancy.

A poem along those lines:

“The Cold”
Wendell Berry

How exactly good it is
to know myself
in the solitude of winter,

my body containing its own
warmth, divided from all
by the cold; and to go

separate and sure
among the trees cleanly
divided, thinking of you

perfect too in your solitude,
your life withdrawn into
your own keeping

to be clear, poised
in perfect self-suspension
toward you, as though frozen.

And having known fully the
goodness of that, it will be
good also to melt.

. . .

Just the weight of God

Clifton Inn
Date night at the Clifton Inn, recently.

After weeks and weeks of rain, a few consecutive days of sunshine feels like being born again.

I am not a particularly emotional person, but I am reminded of the tremendously profound effect of weather on my disposition. I don’t know how people in the British Isles take it year round. (There may be something wrong with British people, it could be said. We lived in London in the summer, which is arguably the best time to live in London, and the Brits we knew complained when it was hot and bright and sunny. They, like swamp aliens, longed for the cold mist and rain and fog!)

All this aside, October has been very good to us. Most notably, we gained our second godson, and we love him so much already. His tiny self and his wonderful parents fill us with great joy.

. . .

I am hopeful about a growing, generalized malaise around the internet and life lived on screens. The world wide web has failed to make us more intelligent, more moral, more peaceful, more charitable. Many seem to be waking up to this reality.

I recently finished Maryanne Wolf’s new book, Reader, Come Home, about reading in a digital world. Her warnings and findings are not new or surprising (the internet has ruined our capacity for deep thinking and deep reading), but her focus on children felt particularly chilling. I recommend it, to anyone who loves reading and has found their capacity for it diminishing, and especially to the parents of small children.

A short selection from her book, as a taste of what she covers:

“When you read carefully, you are more able to discern what is true and to add it to what you know. Ralph Waldo Emerson described this aspect of reading in his extraordinary speech ‘The American Scholar’: ‘When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant.’ In reading research, the cognitive psychologist Keith Stanovich suggested something similar some time ago about the development of word knowledge. In childhood, he declared, the word-rich get richer and the word-poor get poorer, a phenomenon he called the ‘Matthew Effect’ after a passage in the New Testament. There is also a Matthew-Emerson Effect for background knowledge: those who have read widely and well will have many resources to apply to what they read; those who do not will have less to bring, which, in turn, gives them less basis for inference, deduction, and analogical thought and makes them ripe for falling prey to unadjudicated information, whether fake news or complete fabrications. Our young will not know what they do not know.

— Maryanne Wolf, Reader, Come Home

A positive development: After several months of studiously detaching from my phone, I find it less and less interesting. It contains nothing that I really want (and certainly nothing that I need). I still check Instagram once or twice a day and perhaps look at a few emails, but I don’t even really want to be doing that. I’ve deleted the apps that were distracting (Twitter) and kept the main screen limited to simple functions (clock, camera, weather, maps, etc.), which aren’t very interesting anyway. I still have much to regain, by way of attention and mindfulness, but I am feeling freer on the whole.

. . .

Things I cannot resist

  • Sliced cucumber on a plate
  • Watching a dog intently as it trots past me
  • Moonlight on the counter
  • Buying Anne Carson books wherever I spot them
  • Telling Pyrrha how much she sheds
  • Stationery of European origin
  • Linen napkins

. . .

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

— Emily Dickinson (who else?)

Alteration is what we keep

Ischia
Castello d’Aragonese, Ischia, this May.

Summer slipped through our fingers.

Here we are at the end of August, a bit dazed by how quickly the season left us. We are going to New York soon, to see old friends and eat a good deal of food and ogle modern art, and it feels like a fitting conclusion to what was otherwise a quiet and domestic summer. This summer has been marked by much thinking about our house and a possible addition; exquisite meals made by Guion; the basilica cocktail; daily walks with Pyrrha; near-daily thunderstorms; roaring symphonies of cicadas; a return to evening reading; and breathtakingly oppressive humidity.

. . .

A sweet thing: A husband who reads a poem by Danez Smith to me in the morning, while he is finishing his breakfast, and when he finishes the poem, he looks up and me and his eyes are rimmed with tears and he laughs and says, “It’s too beautiful,” and looks up at the ceiling.

. . .

Gratitude works quickly on the mind. I am always pleased to discover and then rediscover this.

Lately, I have been astonished by the power of the mere reminder to be grateful. Guion also deserves credit for this. As I have been absorbed in planning our home addition and finalizing plans with our architect, I have taken to griping about things in the house that have bothered me. I hate the rattling storm windows, which are impossible to clean. I loathe the sloppy molding and the cheap hollow-core doors. I detest that multicolored berber carpet upstairs. And sometimes (more often, lately) I say so.

Guion has taken to reminding me that nothing is wrong with our house (echoing the sentiments of a new favorite writer, Kate Wagner). It is good. Each room has something to be grateful for, to give thanks for.

And it’s working on me. I am pleased with the small things: the way my bare feet feel on our hardwood floors in the summer. The actual tininess of our bedroom, because we do not need it to be bigger. The fact that we have two bathrooms, even if they are not in the right place. The good choices that the previous owners made when they renovated the kitchen. The long flat yard, which has allowed our gardening imaginations and experiments plenty of room to flourish. I even like the pale green color of our ugly asbestos siding. Sure, there are things I still want to change, and I still hope we get to do this addition, but even if we don’t, I am thankful.

. . .

“Alteration”

By Hayden Carruth

You thought growing older
would be more of the same,
going a little slower,
walking a little lame.

But you knew, or you were a fool,
that alteration is what we keep;
tonight will not be the equal
of last night, even in sleep.

What kind of times are these

Protest at UVA
A protest of Trump’s immigration and refugee ban at UVA.

I am not sure of many things anymore. I want to write something revolutionary and moving, but I am tired. I am so tired. I am tired of the news, of Trump’s face leering behind the desk in the Oval Office, of self-appointed pundits on the left and the right.

I am not sure how to balance this emotional/intellectual/mental exhaustion with the need to fight back. The threats seem very real and yet the actions seem to be merely theoretical in effect.

I have nothing profound to say in response to this new American order that has not already been said. I take refuge in the flesh-and-blood people in my life and in books.

 

Protest at UVA
Fellow protestors at UVA.

In dark times, at least we still have poetry.

I have been enjoying more poetry lately; it feels especially fitting in a gloomy winter, in a political season that seems to only get more evil with time. At least we still can read Adrienne Rich. At least Trump hasn’t taken our books from us yet. And so I leave you with her.

What Kind of Times Are These

ADRIENNE RICH

There’s a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I’ve walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but don’t be fooled
this isn’t a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won’t tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won’t tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it’s necessary
to talk about trees.

October with Wei
Trees at a nearby vineyard.

Dark though it is

W.S. Merwin published this poem back in 2005, but it is so beautifully fitting for the beginning of 2017, a year for which I feel a strong sense of dread for America. Savor his words and feel some solace and strength.

First night in the Lake District

Thanks

W.S. Merwin

Listen
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
standing by the windows looking out
in our directions

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

with the animals dying around us
taking our feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
thank you we are saying and waving
dark though it is

I am alive—I guess—

I am alive—I guess—
The Branches on my Hand
Are full of Morning Glory—
And at my finger’s end—

The Carmine—tingles warm—
And if I hold a Glass
Across my Mouth—it blurs it—
Physician’s—proof of Breath—

I am alive—because
I am not in a Room—
The Parlor—Commonly—it is—
So Visitors may come—

And lean—and view it sidewise—
And add “How cold—it grew”—
And “Was it conscious—when it stepped
In Immortality?”

I am alive—because
I do not own a House—
Entitled to myself—precise—
And fitting no one else—

And marked my Girlhood’s name—
So Visitors may know
Which Door is mine—and not mistake—
And try another key—

How good—to be alive!
How infinite—to be
Alive—two-fold—the birth I had—
And this—besides, in Thee!

Emily Dickinson

Autumn day

Pyrrha and home in September

I am really taken with this poem, by Rilke, translated by David Ferry:

Herbsttag

Now is the right time, Lord. Summer is over.
Let the autumn shadows drift upon the sundials,
And let the wind stray loose over the fields.

Summer was abundant. May the last fruits be full
Of its promise. Give them a last few summer days.
Bring everything into its completion, Lord,
The last sweetness final in the heavy wine.

Who has no house will never have one now;
Who is alone will spend his days alone;
Will wake to read some pages of a book;
Will write long letters; wander unpeacefully
In the late streets, while the leaves stray down.

— Rilke, translation by David Ferry

I am sad to see summer go, because it was full and lovely, but I was a little bit excited to come home yesterday and feel cold and feel the urgent need for a sweater. Just a little bit excited.

Days of Our Youth
Mom and Dad on a camping trip, circa early 2000s?

Today is my parents’ 31st wedding anniversary. They are funny and weird and delightful and totally crazy about each other. Until I was married myself, I do not think I realized what a profound blessing and relational boon it is to have had (and to still have) happily married parents. We are given domestic gifts we neither deserve nor anticipate.

It turns out that I am simultaneously (a) full of ambition and (b) fabulously lazy.

We have a very busy season ahead of us (e.g., every weekend in October is currently booked with either small travel plans or house guests), and that makes the large portion of my personality that is introverted feel extremely anxious, but I have to keep telling myself that it’s always fine, or more than fine, in the end, because it turns out that I actually like people, despite what I am inclined to believe.

Bright with praise

Japan: Day 1
First meal in Tokyo, 2008. (c) me.

PRAYER AFTER EATING

Wendell Berry

I have taken in the light
that quickened eye and leaf.
May my brain be bright with praise
of what I eat, in the brief blaze
of motion and of thought.
May I be worthy of my meat.

No faith in your own language

Irrationally proud of myself for coaxing this #orchid to re-bloom.
Orchid No. 2 is about to bloom again!

Sunset
Louise Glück

My great happiness
is the sound your voice makes
calling to me even in despair; my sorrow
that I cannot answer you
in speech you accept as mine.

You have no faith in your own language,
So you invest
authority in signs
you cannot read with any accuracy.

And yet your voice reaches me always.
And I answer constantly,
my anger passing
as winter passes. My tenderness
should be apparent to you
in the breeze of the summer evening
and in the words that become
your own response.

I think this poem is about God, but sometimes I think it is about marriage too.

We’ve been married for three-and-a-half years now. Sometimes we don’t listen to each other. Sometimes we forget to pray. Sometimes we don’t take the time to stop and assess how the other one is genuinely doing. Three-and-a-half years is comparative blip of time, a twitch of an eyelid. Sometimes it feels like ages; sometimes it feels like we’ve only been married for a few days.

We like to ask each other questions at dinner. What kind of restaurant would you be the proprietor of? If you had to spend an entire week with a relative (excepting immediate family), who would it be? What high school friend do you wish you were still in touch with? If you could have any artist write a review of your masterpiece, who would it be and what would they say?

And we listen to each other’s answers, our eyes open, surprised by this person sitting in front of us.

The fermentation master is back in the game. #coldmuch #kombuchaforeveryone
Starting kombucha again.

Lately, I’ve been waking up in the middle of dreams. It is a disorienting experience, and one of the consequences is that the half-finished dream sticks with me throughout the day. Today, for instance, I can’t stop thinking about how Kelsey is going to get all of that molten silver out of her hair, and why it is that Rebecca, my BFF from elementary and middle school, decided to marry a morbidly obese man simply because he wrote her a letter on a piece of yellow notebook paper. When conscious, I had to remind myself, “Kelsey’s hair is OK. Rebecca is already married.” But part of me still thinks that reality is awry.

My fleeting obsessions* in 2013:

  • Ballet
  • Houseplants
  • Fashion
  • Interior design
  • Real estate

(*I define “obsessions” as topics that are suddenly deeply fascinating to me. I then go and read armfuls of books on the subject at the public library and start consuming blogs and websites on said topic, until it eventually ceases to hold my interest. The only two obsessions that have never failed to captivate me are reading and animals, specifically dogs. For the rest of my life, I will be obsessed with books and dogs.)

I wish my obsessions would trend toward more useful things, like personal finance, basic math, the tax code, or local politics. But, alas. I am only interested in the inconsequential.

I’d like to see myself get back into foreign languages, personally. I only practice a little Japanese during my weekly meeting at work, in which I take notes in a mix of hiragana and bad kanji. (I’ve forgotten so much. Gomenasai, sensei.) I’d like to refresh Japanese and take Level I French. I think I’m ruined for other languages, though. I once tried to speak a line of French in front of a French person, and she said, “Hm. Weirdly, your French has an… Asian accent.”

As an extension of one of my 2013 obsessions, I think I’d also like to get obsessed with bonsai.

What do you think I should be obsessed with in 2014?

For Courtney, because she asked.

November for Beginners — a poem by Rita Dove

Dusk in the neighborhood
November, last year.

Just the right poem for this time of year, by one of Guion’s professors, the magnificent Rita Dove.

November for Beginners

By Rita Dove

Snow would be the easy
way out—that softening
sky like a sigh of relief
at finally being allowed
to yield. No dice.
We stack twigs for burning
in glistening patches
but the rain won’t give.

So we wait, breeding
mood, making music
of decline. We sit down
in the smell of the past
and rise in a light
that is already leaving.
We ache in secret,
memorizing

a gloomy line
or two of German.
When spring comes
we promise to act
the fool. Pour,
rain! Sail, wind,
with your cargo of zithers!

November 1981

. . . . . . . . .

Happy Thanksgiving in advance! We are looking forward to being back in the Old North State and celebrating with my family. Lots to be thankful for this year, as with all years.