The weather turns just a few degrees and instantly my thoughts turn to cashmere.
I just finished the exciting, bizarre, and beautiful Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, a Heian-era (circa 1000 AD!) courtesan with a sophisticated ear for poetry. She’s kind of like the ancient Japanese version of Lydia Davis, if you ask me. Micro-fiction-like fragments and lots of mundane things that get on her nerves. She is an utter delight and the perfect distraction from this miserable election. A sampling:
16: Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster
Sparrows feeding their young. To pass a place where babies are playing. To sleep in a room where some fine incense has been burnt. To notice that one’s elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy. To see a gentleman stop his carriage before one’s gate and instruct his attendants to announce his arrival. To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.
It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of rain-drops, which the wind blows against the shutters.
And so, in homage:
Things that are unpleasant
Meeting someone in person whom you only “know” online and having to start a conversation with him/her. Stepping in something wet while wearing socks. Donald Trump saying, “No one respects women more than I do.” Watching Christians contort themselves to try to defend Trump. Christians defending Trump at all. A whiff of spoiled milk. The way a dying spider’s legs curl into its body after it has been stepped on.
I cut my hair extremely short (for me), as a celebratory gesture, and I think I like it. It felt risky. It changes my behavior. It makes me feel like I have to comport myself differently now.
This past weekend, we took a long-awaited tiny pilgrimage to Southwest Ireland, traveling mainly to visit Guion’s old friends, farming mentors, and beloved haunts. As you can see, it was an enchanting weekend in one of the most beautiful parts of the known world.
We started in County Clare and stayed at the most charming B&B ever, and then journeyed from there to the spectacular Cliffs of Moher.
The next day and a half were spent on Mizen Head, which is the southernmost point in all of Ireland, and it feels like the gorgeous end of the world out there. We stayed with Guion’s dear friends Tim and Laurence, who generously hosted and fed us for two days. Look at their amazing garden!
They also have this delightful one-eyed cat named Peewee (she was badly injured while sleeping in the engine of a friend’s car). She’s like a dog, and so I loved her. She would sleep in my lap for hours while we ate dinner and talked.
Magic all around:
We strolled along the beach at Barley Cove (where kelp abounds):
And enjoyed the charming seaside village of Crookhaven:
Perhaps my favorite afternoon was taking a short, secluded, foggy hike to see the 13th-century ruins at Three Castle Head. It was especially enchanting because we were almost entirely alone there. If more people knew about it, it’d be swamped with tourists like ourselves, but it’s so far off the beaten path that we had it in almost perfect, eerie solitude.
We also ventured off the grid to visit Guion’s other farm mentors, Dan and Pika, at their truly wild spot on the north side of Mizen Head.
Pika is a sculptor and potter, and her kiln room is Tolkien inspired. They call this shed “Middle Earth,” appropriately:
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.
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.
In brighter news, I am finally reading John Cheever for the first time, and I am IN LOVE. The Chekhov of the American suburbs!
I was struck by a small exchange in an “academic” dog book I recently read, Dog’s Best Friend, by Mark Derr. The author, a writer for The Atlantic Monthly at the time, was visiting a Navajo reservation to study the relationship between Navajo shepherds and their dogs.
Derr told the shepherd that he was from Florida, working in Boston, recently got back from Alaska, and was now in New Mexico to observe him and his dogs. The wizened Navajo shepherd looked at Derr and said, “You travel too much. I have been here all my life,” and extended his hand out over the scraggy, red fields.
That notion–of traveling too much–really struck me as interesting, especially since it’s a phrase I’ve never even considered.
Where I come from, being widely traveled is almost akin to a spiritual virtue. When you’re in college, people especially love to brag about all of the places they’ve been. Discussion of your world travels is the subtlest way to talk about how cool you are without explicitly bragging. I’m guilty of it myself. Someone starts talking about Japan? I am compelled to chime in about the complexities of life in Tokyo, as if I were an expert in Japanese culture and custom after having lived there for a mere three months. This sushi? Ick, it’s nothing like what I had in Asakusa. And so on.
This phenomenon is the worst at college. Guion likes to call it “study abroad syndrome:” Students get back from a summer or a semester of travel and are suddenly incapable of talking about anything else but the food in Paris, the streets of Pamplona, the art in Prague. I totally get it. I’ve done and I still do it, too.
So, here’s the pattern of thought I’ve been working out lately, with regard to the Navajo shepherd’s notion of “traveling too much.”
Point 1: Americans are famously ignorant of other cultures and countries. This is well-documented. American tourists have a bad reputation for a good reason: They’re bumbling and self-important and despise any and everything that’s different from “the American way.” For this reason, we could all do well to travel more. Grace, who has traveled more than anyone I know, is proof of the calm tolerance that comes from the interaction with people very different from yourself. Travel forces you to let go of yourself and your all-encompassing way of life. Travel greatly expands your view of humanity, whether consciously or subconsciously. It changes us.
Point 2: There are still many places around the world that I would love to go to. I want to see all of Asia if I could. I am so eager to go back to Japan, particularly to visit Kyoto and Aomori, as impractical as it is. I have never been to Europe. Ireland, the Netherlands, France, and all of Scandinavia draw my particular interest. And New Zealand is so beautiful I can hardly believe it exists on Earth.
Point 3: That said, I am done with the chic obsession with travel–for myself, at least. This is what I have found about myself while considering the shepherd’s statement. I do not merely want to flit from place to place, visiting for a few days or a few months. I do not want to jump around, getting to know a few people I will never see again, leaving and considering myself having “experienced” that particular culture.
No. I want to LIVE somewhere. I don’t want to just visit places constantly. I’m not into visiting right now; I’d rather be living somewhere. I want to commit to a place. I want to get to know a community so thoroughly that I am daily aware of its habits, secrets, beauties, and blemishes. I want to be content where I am. I am striving to make this a conscious, continual goal: Contentment in current location. I think of that verse in the Psalms that says, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.” To some, this might sound like a suffocating statement–to be boxed in by God? How dreadful! To me, though, it sounds like a beautiful gift: To see where you are as a blessing from God, a pleasant place.
The place and concept of “home” is one that has always been very important to me; it carries some kind of spiritual weight in my life. I was worried about this when I married Guion, to be honest. He’s traveled much more than I have and it has clearly enriched his life to a wonderful degree. He’s spontaneous and he dreams big. He could also live quite happily in an Airstream trailer for years, traveling around the country, playing guitar, making friends on the road (à la David Wilcox). This lifestyle sounds like a cute, claustrophobic version of hell to me, but we are all asked to compromise for those we love, right?
Clearly, my view of the world is not everyone’s. Grace and I were talking about this last weekend and I told her my vision of the perfect life was to live in the same house for a hundred years and wake up every morning with a cup of tea and my husband and my dogs. She visibly shuddered. “Ugh, that sounds like the worst life ever,” she said. “I am going to travel forever; I’m never going to stop.” I believe her; she probably will. But I’ve come to grips with the fact that I’m not that way. I wrote this because I think my perspective is an unusual, unpopular one. To fail to glorify world travel constantly is blasphemy among my generation. But this is what I feel.
I say all of this knowing that we will travel. I want to travel. I get excited just thinking about it. But at the end of the day, I just want to live somewhere. In one place, in one community. For the time being. I think we will stay here indefinitely, striving for contentment, but always open to possibility.
I am writing a series of posts about why I love my (immediate) family. This is the seventh installment. You can read the other posts here. All wedding photographs courtesy of the wonderful Meredith Perdue.
Gracie, Petunia, Chicken
Coming third in the family birth order, we have the natural rebel, the original maverick. To some, it may seem a disadvantage to be born after two other sisters, to get proverbially lost in the shuffle. But little Adrianna Grace wasn’t going to be forgotten very easily. She came into the world screaming and, as my parents say, didn’t stop screaming for the first three years of her life.
My mother likes to say that all of her babies were pretty easy — except Grace. Grace formed her own opinions about reality very early in life and stuck to them with outrageous tenacity for such a tiny human. The famous story about Grace was her self-imposed hunger strike when she was about four years old. We had asparagus that night for dinner and Grace refused to touch it. The family rule was that you had to at least try everything on your plate. Grace insisted she couldn’t even look at it without feeling near death. Mom told her she couldn’t have anything else to eat until she tried the asparagus. Grace refused. Breakfast came. Mom gave her a stalk of asparagus before her cereal and said she had to try it. Grace refused. She did not eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner for two full days, since she was greeted with a tiny stalk of asparagus before each meal. On the second day of the strike, Kelsey, the sweet one, came sobbing to Mom, saying, “Please, Mom! You have to feed her! She’ll STARVE!”
Starve she might have — if only to prove a point. Once Grace’s mind is made, you cannot change it. (As children, we found that reverse psychology worked pretty well on her.) Her natural stubbornness might sound like a fault, but it has served her as a virtue in many ways. Because of her natural independence, this child does not take “no” or “nobody does that” or “that’s weird” as a rejection; rather, as an opportunity to explore, to pioneer new territory. Girls don’t just take off on a six-month trip around the (predominantly) third world? No one gets their yoga teacher’s license at the age of 16? Most humans don’t have that many thrifted clothes in their entire lifetimes? People don’t just visit almost all the continents — and pay for it themselves — before they turn 20? Well, you haven’t met Grace. She lives to push boundaries.
She was an incomparably beautiful baby: White blond hair, round blue eyes, little doll-like features. (Despite a penchant to look like Jeff Daniels in a strange number of family photographs…) She is still extremely beautiful today, as everyone who knows her can agree. Her impish grin flashes at the most unexpected moments.
In our childhood, I was not a model big sister to her. (Truth be told, I was not a model big sister to anyone, but especially to Grace.) Kelsey and I were close in age and we were natural playmates. When Grace came along, I saw her as a disruption to the family order. Kelsey was my BFF… and this mewling porcelain doll-baby, the natural favorite of my father? What were we to do with her? Torture her, of course. And leave her out of play dates. And begrudge her presence when Dad told us we couldn’t go anywhere unless Grace was invited, too.
Thankfully, this prejudice against Grace tagging along wore off as we both grew up. Interestingly enough, I think we became extremely close once I left for university. We started talking about art and ideas and new music and found that our temperaments had far more in common than we had ever thought before.
Today, I depend on her. My life is far less interesting when she is not around. She makes me laugh and she makes me think. My favorite moments in life are lounging on the couch with her in Davidson, watching trash TV, simultaneously talking about all of the great food we’re going to make and the new ideas we’ve latched onto.
She’s incredibly accomplished. Her photography and her paintings are laudable by any standards. She is as strong as a little sun bear, thanks to her years of yoga practice. She dresses with the structure and flair of a true artist. She writes a blog that’s way better and more popular, for good reason, than mine. If I ever want to impress someone, I just have to start talking about what Grace has done in her short time on Earth. She’s accomplished more in her 19 years than most people accomplish in their entire lifetimes.
Grace is sensitive and profound and loving. She is my true hero. Among my family members, I think I understand Grace the best — or, at least, that’s my perception. It may very well be true that I haven’t even begun to get to know her. Because let me tell you: There are miles and miles to this girl’s soul.
Guion and I are taking a long-awaited trip to the homeland, specifically the Triangle, for the weekend. I’m so excited. We have about a hundred people we need to see in two days, so we’ll be running a mile a minute, but we won’t even care, because we’re going to eat at Carrburritos, aka The Best Restaurant in the World, on Friday. I’ll be staying in Durham with Emily for a women’s weekend and Guion will be in Chapel Hill with Granddad, so we’ll be rushing between the points in something of a reunion frenzy. My regular posts will probably be late this weekend, but we will return freshly invigorated and attempting to bring some of the glorious N.C. weather back with us. Have a great weekend, because we certainly will.
Sunday, January 2, was the last time for me to see Grace in person for six months. SIX. That’s half a year, people. On Saturday, she’s flying to New Zealand, where she will spend three months working on farms. From there, she will then fly to Katmandu, Nepal. She will live her remaining three months split between an ashram and an orphanage, where she will be teaching yoga to girls who have been rescued from the sex trade. Yes, she is, without a doubt, the most amazing 18-year-old alive.
I miss her already. I’m trying not to think about it. When we hugged in the kitchen for the last time, I started crying. (Perhaps because I just want her to take me, too…) I worry about her safety. If any of you are the praying sort, you can pray for that. But more than anything else, I’m excited for her. I think she’s going to have an unbelievable half a year. So, kid. I miss you. But have fun–and SKYPE ME EVERY DAY.