The joys of spring are so apparent that they’re almost not worth naming. I part the curtains with anticipation every morning, noting the growth of my long-nurtured perennials and the return of familiar weeds. We continue to walk every day, observing how quickly the trees shed their blossoms and mature, how insane the songbirds have become in courtship and competition. I walk slowly now, but I am still walking. This seems to be what counts.
I have always tended toward loving home and domesticity, but this instinct seems to have kicked into high gear, now that I’m nearly nine months pregnant. I don’t want to go anywhere or do anything. My first instinct at any invitation is to say no, definitely not (much to my extroverted lover’s chagrin). I am staying put. I am waiting here, where I have been planted for the time being.
. . .
Perhaps one of the strangest sensations I’ve encountered, poised on the brink of motherhood, is the fact that even though I am reading copiously about babies and parenthood, I don’t know anything more than I did before. All of this knowledge hasn’t transformed into preparation or prediction. I still have no idea what it will be like. In almost every other realm, I can read dozens of books and walk away with at least some increased knowledge. This does not seem to be the case concerning child-rearing. It’s all still a grand mystery. Maybe it always will be.
These days, most people ask us, “Are you ready?” And I always say no, of course not. Who is ever really ready for this?
I skimmed an interview with a designer, a mother of two, who used this metaphor for the voyage from childlessness to parenthood: You lived on Earth, very happily, for many years. Then you’re packed onto a spaceship and sent to another planet. You can always see Earth from your new planet, and you know you can never return. Sometimes this stabs you in the heart. This other planet is very different and strange at first, but you come to love it. It has its own joys and pains and secrets and pleasures. You accept it as your new home, remembering Earth as a distant, fond memory.
. . .
To tell a story is to say: this is the important story. It is to reduce the spread and simultaneity of everything to something linear, a path.
To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention.
When we make moral judgments, we are not just saying that this is better than that. Even more fundamentally, we are saying that this is more important than that. It is to order the overwhelming spread and simultaneity of everything, at the price of ignoring or turning our backs on most of what is happening in the world.
The nature of moral judgments depends on our capacity for paying attention — a capacity that, inevitably, has its limits but whose limits can be stretched.
But perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.
— Susan Sontag, lecturing on Nadine Gordimer, quoted in Brain Pickings
Spring is coming slowly to Virginia. I feel fairly desperate for it, on the eve of snowfall.
I have been thinking about the season and its association with new beginnings. Recently, I was in Austin for SXSW with my team, and a subtle theme emerged from many of the presentations: Maybe technology isn’t all that good for our well-being. Maybe so much “innovation” is just making us sad and insane and lonely.
We were pondering the ways that people in 2018 are trying to become more human again. Increasingly, we’re feeling this urge to sever our ties to social media and detach from our soul-crushing dependence on digital devices.
In the midst of these conversations in Austin, I was plowing through Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart. This passage kept coming to mind as a tangential example of life, the freedom of the mind and body, the particular independence that we have as liberated creatures.
“To the person out walking that first evening of spring, nothing appears inanimate, nothing not sentient: darkening chimneys, viaducts, villas, glass-and-steel factories, chain stores seem to strike as deep as natural rocks, seem not only to exist but to dream. Atoms of light quiver between the branches of stretching-up black trees. It is in this unearthly first hour of spring twilight that earth’s almost agonised livingness is most felt. This hour is so dreadful to some people that they hurry indoors and turn on the lights—they are pursued by the scent of violets sold on the kerb.” — Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart
What a pleasure to be alive in such a season! And all of these details, so finely observed, could only come from someone who has never gotten a crick in her neck from staring at her Instagram feed for an hour.
You can tell from my recentposts, but 2018 is my year of fighting against being hijacked by technology. I want to be alive and in the world the way that Bowen was. Following are some of the small ways I’m reclaiming my life.
Focus on print.
I’m reading all the time, all day long, but I want to read for depth and comprehension. If this is my aim, the best way to read is in print. It’s far better for our brains and eyes and memories.
I am still a print-only reader of books, but in further pursuit of this effort, I’ve greatly reduced my online news diet. I try to read a bit in the New Yorker when it comes and receive a few newsy email digests, but that’s it now. I don’t keep up with the news in this feverish way that I once did. And it’s wonderful. I’m so happy about it. (For more inspiration in this area, see Farhad Manjoo’s piece in the New York Times about how he only read print newspapers for two months.)
Treat my phone like a landline.
Guion and I have been trying this one out: When we’re home, our phones live in one place. We don’t take them around the house with us, from room to room. We deposit them on a particular counter when we come home, and that’s where they live.
This small domestic habit has surprisingly profound effects on our ability to resist distraction and read and write and talk to each other. It is both depressing and heartening, to discover that such a small behavioral shift can have such a significant impact on our evenings.
Check Twitter only once or twice a week.
Twitter is so unfortunate! These days, I avoid it as much as I can and post primarily to complain about my dogs or share a quote. I sense my anxiety, my babbling technostress, and my cynicism increasing the longer I scroll through my feed. Now, I log on mostly to see what beautiful paintings Rabih Alameddine has posted or if Lulu has any new quips. That’s it.
Wait without looking at my phone.
I’ve been working on resisting the allure of my phone whenever I’m waiting. It’s a small choice, and one that seems to reek of sanctimony, but I’ve sincerely enjoyed this new habit.
Whenever we’re alone, our necks are tilted down at our phones. I do it too. And it’s incredible how blank the mind goes when we’re looking at a screen. We just turn off to the world. We barely exist in a given environment when we’re deep in our phones.
The smartphone is a pacifier. The device is burning with heat in our pockets, and we can’t resist it: We don’t want to feel or look lonely. It’s frightening to be too intimate with our thoughts and fears and desires. The phone distracts us from our inner life, makes us feel busy, envious, mildly piqued—anything but alone.
This insignificant choice, waiting without relying on my phone to comfort me, has had such a powerful effect on my mental state. I did not expect it. It’s as if I was remembering how to see again, how to observe the world around me. I’m particularly floored by this one. It made me realize how reliant I have been on my phone to placate me when I’m alone.
Consider the body.
It’s well documented that our devices are bad for our minds (pick a modern plague, any plague: anxiety, addiction, stress, self-esteem, fake news, porn, etc.). But our phones and laptops are also bad for our flesh-and-blood bodies.
This practice of waiting without looking at my phone has also made me incredibly conscious of my body: how it works for me, how it feels, how I carry myself. My posture has been wrecked by years of peering at screens. I still need to work on this one. If anyone has any good posture tips for maintenance throughout the day, please share; I’m all ears.
Hold things in the mind.
I rely on my phone to remember everything for me. I used to have a strong memory; I used to memorize full speeches and poems, and once, in my fervent youth, entire (albeit short) books of the Bible. But now? I have to make a list even if it just contains three items. Our memories have grown despairingly weak. Because we don’t need to remember anything anymore: This is what our devices are for. Convenient props for the mind.
I’ve been thinking about memory for years, since being so fascinated by Joshua Foer’s Moonwalking with Einstein, and I have realized how much my brain power improves when my device isn’t a mental crutch. For me, an act as small as taking notes by hand, with a pen on paper, is a tiny step in the right direction.
Cherish everything that has no digital life.
Your stupid German shepherds who dig trenches in your backyard because they’re bored. Your shelf full of dog-eared paperbacks. Your weak-limbed daffodils crushed by March snow. Your friend’s baby, who has no idea who the president is and doesn’t care about the moronic thing he said today. Your church’s community dinner that follows the service. Your grandfather. These are some of the things that can bring us back to ourselves.
Here’s the concluding hope:
People are getting smarter about tech usage. We’re all a little less naïve about the consequences of our digital dependence. In the wake of the latest Facebook scandal and just overall, more and more people are getting off social media. Surely some new, terrible platform will replace Facebook and Twitter, but I believe we could be witnessing the twilight of their popularity. Maybe we can collectively turn the tide before it’s too late for our hearts and minds.
Amid the Russian bots and fake news and conspiracy theories and data breaches, I feel buoyed by a little hope. Every sign-off, every step away from the machine is optimism. Humans are taking back small measures of their humanity.
I read less in the spring than in other seasons, mainly because I start obsessively monitoring my garden, but I still got through an enjoyable assortment this year. Here are my favorites from the past few months.
01. Opened Ground, Seamus Heaney
Can anyone, really, compare with Seamus Heaney? I think not. You can drink of him all day and never have your fill.
02. The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner
“A man is not a static organism to be taken apart and analyzed and classified. A man is movement, motion, a continuum. There is no beginning to him. He runs through his ancestors, and the only beginning is the primal beginning of the single cell in the slime. The proper study of mankind is man, but man is an endless curve on the eternal graph paper, and who can see the whole curve?”
A large, moving, and human novel about a star-crossed American family around the turn of the century who just can’t seem to catch a break. Wallace Stegner understands so much about the American spirit, in both its ambition and lightness—and its violence and darkness. His characters are an absolute joy and as memorable as real people. I enjoy him so much that I wonder if I should feel guilty about it.
03. Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders
Moving and strange and humorous all at once. I was initially surprised at how experimental it was but found myself really enjoying the unusual form as I kept going. It reads extremely fast, too. George Saunders is able to capture this deep sense of pathos throughout, even amid rather ridiculous flights of style/character.
04. In a Different Key: The Story of Autism, John Donvan and Caryn Zucker
Totally riveting. I flew through this massive book, which is a history of how autism was given a name and how that name — and the development of the autism spectrum and what that diagnosis entails — has shifted, and continues to shift, from the 1940s to the present.
That’s the key takeaway: None of this is finished. This is not a definitive history. The authors betray their broadcast journalism roots sometimes (ending almost every chapter’s final paragraph with a predictable “hook”), but it worked on me; I read hungrily from chapter to chapter.
I’ll admit that I harbored a good deal of fear about autism (and receiving that diagnosis for a potential child), but a lot of that misinformation I was carrying was been addressed by the thoroughness of this book. And while there is still a good deal of fear and grief that confronts every parent whose child receives this diagnosis, there is so much more support and hope now than there ever has been — thanks, largely, to tenacious mothers and the scientists they persuaded to get involved.
05. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
I first read this novel when I was a teen, years ago, and I liked it so much more upon a second reading this time around, about a year away from 30. I re-read it in preparation for a book club in which all of my fellow members bailed, citing there was “too much sex” in it. Cue eye roll.
The Handmaid’s Tale shocks me less than it did then, and that’s perhaps the depressing element. But I’d forgotten how enjoyable and incisive Margaret Atwood’s prose is. It is somehow skillfully plain but never boring; she embellishes at all the right moments.
In the tradition of a slave narrative, Offred is a complicated and compassionate narrator, and I enjoyed listening to her.
Could this happen now, in the United States, or even in the future? Doubt it. (Atwood can seem a little high-strung to think that this is where we could be in the 1990s, but it makes sense that this is what she was thinking about, because she wrote the novel while living in Berlin in the early 1980s.)
But some aspects of Gilead don’t seem that far off. Obsession with women’s bodies and controlling reproduction has always been a hallmark of any fundamentalist religion. There are whispers of Gilead-like policy even now.
(No, I haven’t seen the Hulu series yet; yes, I’d like to.)
06. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin
All the darkness and heaviness of a Christianity built on a foundation of guilt and shame. God bless James Baldwin and all he went through to bring us this tidy, transformational masterpiece of American fiction.
Read for the second time, again for book club, but this time the members actually showed up, and we had a lively discussion.
07. Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems, Charles Wright
“There is so much that clings to us, and wants to keep warm.”
Breathtaking, marvelous poems. I have always enjoyed Charles Wright, and this was a far-ranging and enjoyable collection of his later work. It is a pleasure to merely live in the same town as Wright, to know that a poet of this matchless caliber lives in my county.
08. The Sportswriter, Richard Ford
“I have become more cynical than old Iago, since there is no cynicism like lifelong self-love and the tunnel vision in which you yourself are all that’s visible at the tunnel’s end.”
I admit it freely: I’m a total sucker for Cheeveresque novels about mopey white men in the suburbs.
09. Is There No Place on Earth for Me? Susan Sheehan
They just don’t make journalists like they used to.
Marvelously researched. Susan Sheehan presents a gripping and heart-rending portrayal of one woman’s nearly lifelong struggle with schizophrenia.
10. Femininity, Susan Brownmiller
“Women are all female impersonators to some degree.”
For women readers, this book doesn’t contain much new information, but it’s a thought-provoking collection of all the ways that femininity is impressed and enforced upon us.
I appreciated the moments when Susan Brownmiller divulged that she too, despite being a pants-only, makeup-less feminist, is sucked into the femininity vortex (obsessing about her hair, modulating her posture to appear smaller or more deferential, etc.); it makes you feel less alone, and just as confused as every other thinking women about what to perform and what to eschew.
The book left me feeling the same as I always do when I contemplate the masculine-feminine binary, which is, simply: frustrated. Useful to have a collection of all of these cultural rules in one place, though, I suppose, if only to wonder about their origin and how to rebel against them.
Spring has been good, life has been good; I have had little time to write here or to generate even mildly interesting topics.
Lately: Our families visited us on back-to-back weekends, and we had a marvelous time with everyone. Calligraphy work has been slow but steady. I read, of course, and talk to the dogs, of course. I apply sheet masks. I neglect to do any creative writing, even though I am in a wise and continually motivating writing group. I derive a deep sense of obsessive pleasure in watching my plants come back to life in the front yard. (My Japanese maple is out of control, but so is everything else, after all this rain.) I continue to love my new(ish) job. I think about London and our time there last year and sometimes feel a pang of sincere wistfulness (wist?).
In a brief, mortifying encounter at Trader Joe’s a few weeks ago, my age was finally impressed upon me.
Per usual, I had some bottles of wine in my cart, and the cashiers are generally persistent about asking for my ID. This afternoon, I had my ID out and ready to hand over. The cashier, a middle-aged man with a sparse beard, started ringing up items and putting them in my bag. He did not ask me for my ID, but I handed it to him in an automatic reflex, interrupting his movement of the avocadoes to the bag.
“Oh,” he said, “sure, I guess.” And he looked at my DOB with a quick, obligatory glance and then went back to ringing me up.
Well, then. I thought, blushing. That’s a tidy way to embarrass oneself. Because, I mean, clearly. I do not look under the age of 21. But it was nice to think that I did, for a time. To pretend like I was trying to sneak three bottles of beaujolais out of a Trader Joe’s, back to my sorority or whatever.
But alas. Age has marked my face. And I am OK with it. Really. After that flash of tiny humiliation, I am leaning into my last year of my twenties and learning to accept those wrinkles.
Oh, right. I already talked about Vita. But I still want to. If I ever wrote a nonfiction book, I’d want to write one like that — loose, unstructured, pretty little thoughts about a favorite topic, with the liberal dispensation of advice, such as this:
Gardening is largely a question of mixing one sort of plant with another sort of plant, and of seeing how they marry happily together; and if you see that they don’t marry happily, then you must hoick one of them out and be quite ruthless about it. That is the only way to garden; and that is why I advise every gardener to go round his garden now—and make notes of what he thinks he ought to remove and of what he wants to plant later on. The true gardener must be brutal, and imaginative for the future.
Inspired by A Joy of Gardening, when I got home from work last night, I pulled on my Hunters and walked around in the back garden with the chickens for a while, inspecting all of the plants that are slowly resurrecting themselves. I think one of our blueberry bushes didn’t survive the winter; we’ll need to get another little bush soon, so that the other two can have necessary company. The blackberry bushes, however, are thriving, and all three apple trees have started producing tiny buds on their glossy branches. The forsythia is just about to burst into yellow flame. I’ve heard that some high-class gardeners disdain forsythia, but I love it; it’s so fast-growing and hardy, and the fact that it produces that first shock of spring color will always endear me to it. I think I’d like to get a few more, to perhaps balance the yard out.
The hens have become very bold and chatty lately, especially whenever they see me. I won’t claim that chickens are the smartest winged creatures, but they are a lot brighter than people give them credit for. (You can, in fact, clicker train a chicken.) Our ladies have become much more interested in us, especially whenever they see us approaching the gate (because this means FOOD or OUTSIDE TIME TO SCRATCH UP ALL THE BEDS). They’re still quite skittish but noticeably less shy by degrees.
Last night, they were really getting into dust bathing. I’d read that chickens do this, but I’d never seen our hens partake in this particularly adorable and goofy-looking activity. At one point, one of the girls, in a little indentation she’d hollowed out for herself near the apple tree, flipped herself on her back and squirmed around while keeping her neck high, alert for danger. A hilarious, ungraceful posture, but she was having a grand time. The chicken instructional books I’d read said that chickens use dust baths to “clean themselves and socialize,” which delights me to no end. It’s the equivalent of a bunch of ladies taking a spa day together. Treat yo self, chickens. Treat yo self.
(*Title explanation: Whenever someone says something about spring, Guion and I cannot stop ourselves from putting on our best, bass-level Robert Pinsky voices and chanting, Springtime, springtime/the only golden ring time…)
This morning over breakfast, I made a list in a notebook of behavioral improvements for the dogs. Eden’s list is notably longer than Pyrrha’s. But Eden has far less emotional and psychological baggage. So, we’ll see how this goes.
My hair has gotten very long, and I am interested in lobbing it off. A lot of it, anyway. Curly-headed women have somewhat limited options with haircuts, which I patiently acknowledge, but I am itching for a change, along with the weather.
I am reading Gogol’s Dead Souls for the first time and I am so delighted to rediscover how deeply funny he is. His pitch-perfect social sarcasm is thrilling to me.
I dreamed last night that I had a baby in a bassinet by my bedside and I kept having to wake up to tend to it. As I did, I was humming a song with the chorus, Motherhood is especially unfair, motherhood is especially unfair… This is perhaps one of the most presciently and grimly realistic dreams I’ve ever had. (Not to mention how plainly revealing of my current lack of desire to procreate.)
I watch the iris shoots in the front yard with bated breath, desperately hoping for resurrection. They make me feel like I should reread Louise Glück.
It is a blessing to live in a town like this. And also to have found Guion when I did.
And a quote, to kick off the weekend:
Can’t anything be innate? he wanted to know, objecting to my probing into his childhood yet again. Does everything have to be an exfoliation from the minutiae of our miserable childhoods? I happen to love silence, he said. Why do we have to be swamped in narrative? Our lives are consumed in narrative. We daydream and it’s narrative. We fall asleep and dream and more narrative! Every human being we encounter has a story to tell us. So what did I think was so wrong with the pursuit of some occasional surcease of narrative?
I am so eager for spring. I saw a photo of what our garden looked like last June and was nearly weeping with anticipation and desire. The sun dappling the barely fuzzed zucchini leaves! The warm earth! The gnats! The sweat beading your legs as you toil in the dirt! Today, I feel like spring will never come (we’re due for more snow this Thursday). But we spring the clocks forward this Sunday and that makes me feel the faintest stirrings of hope.
Today, to tempt myself in the 45 degrees, which now feels practically tropical, I stood out on the back porch in the sun, in my coat, and read Rita Dove on my lunch break. The dogs wrestled in the half-snow/half-mud slush. A blue jay dive-bombed into boughs of the giant spruce tree. I thought about Dove and her childhood, about her dancing with Fred, about her mystical economy of language.
My year-old orchid rebloomed over the weekend and I feel so VICTORIOUS about it. I want someone to congratulate me.
This past week, I was introduced to Penelope Fitzgerald, via her delightful and tiny novel Offshore, and I am going to call myself a fan. I am eager to read more. I was inspired by a recommendation from our lay preacher/the New Yorker‘s coverage of her recently published biography. Read her before? Any favorites?
I am trying to love and understand Eden more. She is still a baby with a ton of energy, which is why she is often so annoying. She also just has one speed: RUNNING. I’ve never seen her walk anywhere. (Except for when you call her in from the backyard, where she is patiently waiting by the shed for someone to come out and play with her. Then she really drags her feet. She slowly, slowly tiptoes to the door, looking so terribly disappointed in life and in you, especially.) Remembering that all she wants is to play with someone is helpful in moderating my patience levels. Also, she is quite sweet when she wants to be. And she adores us. Last night, two episodes of House of Cards were watched with her little shepherd head in my lap. So that helps.
We were lucky enough to have Angela in town with us this past weekend. She’s our most faithful and fun house guest and we had a peaceful weekend together. We lounged around on the couch, drinking tea; made dinners together; went on a doggy play date; visited our new house; and generally didn’t want her to leave ever. How nice it is to be with old friends!
Click on a thumbnail to enlarge it:
Oh, and it snowed, of course. The first glimpse of actual winter we’ve had all year. It was pretty and thick, but now it is all gone. I’m OK with that. Bring on the spring! More photos from the weekend here.
My Presidents’ Day was spent freaking out about taxes, as I am wont to do. Doing taxes when one of you is a graduate student = Zero fun times. I think I panic about it because a.) I don’t understand half of it, even with TurboTax, and b.) I get the constant feeling that we’re doing something terribly wrong and we’re going to get audited. Angela and I briefly discussed that all universities should require students take a Personal Finances 101 class before graduating. I totally agree–and I work for a finance non-profit! I should know this stuff! But I don’t. A sad and occasionally dangerous gap in higher education…
Next knowledge obsession: Plants and how to grow them. I am still going to be primarily obsessed with dogs, of course, but my next venture is reading everything I can about gardening. I’m reading Barbara Kingsolver’s farming memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and enjoying the practical John Seymour’s The New Self-Sufficient Gardener. As I’ve mentioned, we’re inheriting a pretty serious garden from our future landlord and I want to take really good care of it. And just learn some basics about how to keep plants alive. Any advice is very welcome.