We had a lovely Christmas holiday with both of our families in North Carolina. Part I!
Final exercises, University of Virginia
Guion received his MFA from the University of Virginia this weekend!
I am so very proud of him (and so thankful that his degree brought us here, to this little town that we love).
We had a great (albeit soggy) weekend with Mike, Windy, and Georgia.
Looking forward to seeing them all again soon!
And now the poet doth seek a nap.
Choosing the given
“I would like to learn, or remember, how to live. I come to Hollins Pond not so much to learn how to live as, frankly, to forget about it. That is, I don’t think I can learn from a wild animal how to live in particular–shall I suck warm blood, hold my tail high, walk with my footprints precisely over the prints of my hands?–but I might learn something of mindlessness, something of the purity of living in the physical senses and the dignity of living without bias or motive. The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons. I would like to live as I should, as the weasel lives as he should. And I suspect that for me the way is like the weasel’s: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with a fierce and pointed will.”
— Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A little more on my animal theme this week. I also have sad news: We learned that dear Aoive, Guion’s parent’s springer spaniel, had to be put down last night, after an excruciating cycle of non-stop seizures. She was such a sweet, affectionate girl. Rest in peace, Aoive; I hope you are stalking birds to your heart’s content in heaven. Happy weekend, everyone.
The gift of a good letter
I have been writing letters since I was little. As I was heavily steeped in historical fiction since childhood, I had a high, romantic ideal of handwritten letters; most of my peers, thankfully, did too, and so we started writing each other, even though some of us lived only 10 minutes apart. (This was still in a pre-e-mail era, mind you. Or, at least, pre-computer literacy for children.)
If you’ve ever written me a letter, chances are that I still have it. From my last estimate, I have 18 shoeboxes filled with letters that I have received throughout my young life. Some make me laugh in embarrassment over the things we once felt were of vital importance. Some make me tear up, like my treasured letters from my Great Aunt Lib. All of them bring me a lot of joy.
I am grateful that I still have a legion of friends who write me letters on a regular basis. My grandmother is my most faithful correspondent, and I have gotten to the point where I can decipher her compact, slanted cursive like a pro. Windy often writes us sweet notes about life in Southern Pines. I have two correspondents in the U.K., Diane and Natalie, both of whom send me gorgeous letters, often written with fountain pens and sealed with red wax. Angela writes me beautiful, thick, sincere letters, filled with well-crafted stories and confessions.
I love writing and receiving letters and I will stand behind them until the USPS goes out of business (which may be sooner rather than later). It’s not like it’s a new thing to talk about how letters are more elevated and sincere than e-mails; everyone knows that. And I like e-mail; I use it every day and it’s a wonderfully efficient mode of communication.
But I think that’s what I like about writing letters in 2011. They are not efficient. They cost you time and money; e-mail is free and costs you comparatively little time. You can write and send an e-mail in less than a second. But a letter is a serious endeavor. I like them because they require so much more effort. What kind of stationery does this letter require? Am I going to write on letterhead or in a note? Will my handwriting be long and florid, or rushed and intent? What stories will I tell? What moments will I confess? All of these things have to be taken into account. Gmail never forces me to much thought beyond the expectation of a direct and quick answer.
And so you sit down and write a letter and maybe agonize a little over it. You put it in the mail and then you wait. And wait. And maybe you get a reply; maybe you don’t. Either way, the practice of self-imposed delayed gratification builds character. I venture that it is the laboring and the waiting that matter.
20 essential authors
A few weeks ago, when Windy and Mike were visiting, and Tracy was staying at our house, the women were lingering in our apartment, talking about books. Windy and Tracy asked me for my recommendations of the essential authors who need to be read in the Western canon. Quite a question. I didn’t have a good answer–I mumbled something about Joyce and Woolf and Shakespeare–but I’m going to try to prepare one now.
For Windy and Tracy:
My List of 20 Essential Authors in the Western Canon
20. Toni Morrison
Morrison’s novels have always completely enchanted me. I feel she is channeling something similar to Virginia Woolf, an intimation confirmed when I found out she wrote her master’s thesis on Woolf and Faulkner. Nothing escapes her notice. Her characters are raw. Her characters’ experiences are so far removed from my own, and yet Morrison’s undeniable talent lies in the fact that she makes all of her people extremely close. You care for them like family. My favorites: Beloved and Sula. To read: A Mercy, Tar Baby, The Bluest Eye.
19. Emily Brontë/Charlotte Brontë
Maybe it’s not fair to include both of them under one point, but they both wrote one important novel each, and they’re sisters, so, sorry, Ellis and Currer Bell. The Brontës are still so shocking to me. They prove the power of the imagination and the ascension of the artist’s soul above demeaning material and cultural circumstances. How did two sheltered women in the mid-19th century write such dark, powerful novels? Wuthering Heights is one of the most upsetting novels I’ve ever read and yet I cannot deny that it is a masterpiece. Jane Eyre is beautiful and moving. Both need to be read.
18. John Steinbeck
This man can write a NOVEL. If you’ve ever been through an American high school, I’m sure you know that by now. If you didn’t like Steinbeck when you were 15, try him again. He doesn’t write for children. My favorites: East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath.
17. Ernest Hemingway
I like to say that Hemingway is the only “macho” writer I’ve ever liked. He writes about drunken brawls, war, hunting, and bullfighting. His writing style is be the polar opposite of Virginia Woolf’s. And yet. I like him. I even love some of his novels. This is because Hemingway doesn’t succumb to the common path of many male writers strung up with their machismo. He doesn’t write women who are tired, sexy stereotypes and he lets his tough guys cry. Hemingway writes like a real man–not one who is trying to prove that he is. My favorites: A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, his short stories.
16. Eudora Welty
In basic description, she may be difficult to distinguish from Flannery O’Connor: Both native Southern women who wrote collections of compelling short stories. I was first introduced to Welty when I was quite young. Our family friend, Dave, who is a writer, gave me a collection of her complete short stories. I started reading them when I was about 12 or 13 and have been enchanted by her and her world ever since. Another writer I’ll always return to.
15. William Faulkner
By all accounts, I should be in love with William Faulkner. He’s a modernist and he’s Southern. I love both of those genres. But I confess that I’ve never loved one of his novels. This could be because I’ve only read two (The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!). But he’s consistently called one of the greatest writers ever to have lived (or THE greatest writer ever to have lived, if you’re this lit blog). This to say, I think Faulkner is important because everyone says he is important. Lame, I know. But I’m not giving up on him yet. Next up: Light in August, which should be arriving by post any day now.
14. Emily Dickinson
Who has ever written such short and such profoundly beautiful lines? No one can match Dickinson in this regard. One of my most prized books on my shelf is my giant anthology of her complete works. You can read just about any page and leave with your mind inspired and your heart illuminated.
Obligatory inclusion for the Father of Western Literature. Blah blah blah. I can never really make it through “The Odyssey,” but he has to be on this list somewhere.
12. Annie Dillard
Annie Dillard has a ravenously curious mind. I also think she’s read almost every book that was ever written. The amount of information that this woman KNOWS is simply astounding–and yet she writes with simple, direct humility. I have never read one of her novels, but her most famous books have made a sizable impression on my heart. One of the worthiest living American writers today. My favorites: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, For the Time Being. To read: Teaching a Stone to Talk, The Writing Life, her novels.
11. Jane Austen
I don’t tell people that I like Jane Austen now, because her reputation has been ruined by Hollywood. Thanks to silly films, most people write Austen off as a writer of fluffy, feel-good “chick lit.” Yes, there’s always a marriage at the end, but this is a classic trope of comedy she borrowed from Shakespeare; give the woman a break. She’s supremely intelligent, witty, and funny. Her characters evade stereotype. Her novels endure. I wish Austen could be seen for what she really was: A gifted artist who permanently affected the trajectory of the English novel–and got her reputation ruined by Hollywood. My favorites: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility.
10. George Eliot
I like to think of her as the female, British version of Tolstoy, if that makes any sense. Like Tolstoy, she created full-fledged universes in her novels and never wrote on a small scale. Virginia Woolf once said of Middlemarch, “It is one of the few novels written for grown-up people.” I think it is a wonderful description and one that fittingly applies. It’s still one of my all-time favorites.
9. T.S. Eliot
Clearly, I have a thing for the modernists. “The Waste Land” will probably have a similar effect as Ulysses; so dense it’s barely comprehensible without a guide. While that will stand as his great contribution, I think his truly wonderful work lies in The Four Quartets. And “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” will always have my heart.
8. James Joyce
I say that I read Ulysses last year, but I don’t know if I can say that. I looked at all of the words in Ulysses–and there are a LOT of them–but I’m not sure how much of it I really understood. I was using Allusions in Ulysses (UNC Press) as a guide the whole time, and that was a huge help, but it was still an arduous task. If you’re not a native Dubliner, Roman Catholic, and fluent in Latin and classic mythology–basically if you’re not Joyce–a lot of Ulysses will be incomprehensible without the help of a guide. Still. Most people say it’s the greatest novel ever written. It certainly changed the face of modern literature in a way that no other book did. My favorite: Dubliners (collection of short stories), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. To read: Ulysses, again.
7. Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy is probably the best at creating an entire world within the pages of his (usually long) books. He won’t let you escape the figurative boundaries he has created for you. But, as it is in my case, one is usually more than content to stay, to learn about these rich, realistic characters and their challenges. Essentially, he’s famous for a reason. He should be read. My favorites: Anna Karenina, Resurrection, and The Kreutzer Sonata. To read: His letters and essays.
6. Flannery O’Connor
O’Connor is second in my book for master of the short story form, close on the heels of Anton Chekhov. She writes with conviction and wry humor. She always tells it like she sees it. My favorites: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” stands out, as does her other most famous one, “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” But all of them are good. To read: Brad Gooch’s recent biography of her, Flannery
5. Vladimir Nabokov
“Genius” is a word too liberally rendered to authors, but it has never been misapplied in Vladimir Nabokov’s case. He wrote one of (if not THE) greatest novels, Lolita–and he wrote it in English, his fourth language. His mind is enchanted by language. He makes up words. He creates characters so externally appalling and so internally sympathetic that one’s moral compass is thrown entirely off kilter. He’ll make your skin crawl, but you’ll keep returning to him. Because he’s the best. My favorites: Lolita and Pale Fire. To read: Most of his other novels; Speak, Memory, and Lectures on Russian Literature.
4. Anton Chekhov
I believe Chekhov is the greatest short story writer who ever lived, and I’d pick a fight with anyone who disagreed. Just read four or five of his stories and you’ll fall under his spell. His plays are equally incredible, and probably more famous. Chekhov was a noble-hearted country doctor who started writing later in his career. His glimpses into the souls of people are inspiring and chilling. My favorites: The Cherry Orchard (play), The Duel (novella), Grief (short story). To read: His memoir and his letters.
3. Marcel Proust
I’m currently reading Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, although his thesis is not something that I need to be convinced of; I already believe it’s true. For the past four summers now, I have read a volume of his epic novel, In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past). It’s an arduous task. I only read a volume a year, because I think it takes me a full year to recover from it. Nothing escapes Proust’s notice. The whole world is infinitely fascinating to him; all people worth describing; all memories worth mining. Proust captures the beauty and complexity of humanity in a dazzling, astonishing way. How can it be? He writes about rich people orbiting around each other at parties. And yet he writes about all of humankind. My favorite volumes, so far: Swann’s Way and Sodom and Gomorrah. To read: The final three volumes!
2. Virginia Woolf
It’s no secret that this woman is my hero. I spent a year and a half re-reading all of her novels and essays and then I wrote a sprawling, 130-page love letter to her, in the form of a mismanaged and somewhat poorly executed undergraduate thesis. I could talk about her all day long; consider that your warning. Woolf does something to me that no other writer does. I think all readers have a writer who affects them in this way. When I read her novels, I feel perfectly understood, completely reached–and yet constantly drawn in and mystified. She refashioned the novel in a way that no one else did or has done since. I will return to her for the rest of my life and I’d encourage all readers to do the same. My favorites: To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The Waves, A Room of One’s Own. To read: Her extensive letters and the rest of her diaries.
1. William Shakespeare
The man invented most of our commonly used phrases and puns. That alone should get him some quality read-time. Aside from that, he just has to be read, thoroughly, for his influence on English literature extends beyond what anyone else accomplished. Yes, the language can be dense sometimes, but with a good annotated copy and a Shakespeare dictionary–and the willingness to read aloud to yourself–he’s a guaranteed great time. He’s merry and bawdy and the greatest wit you’ll ever meet. My favorites: King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and Richard III. Still to be read: Julius Caesar and about five or six other plays.
Who would be on your list? Who do you think I’m missing?
No Snax, got hacked, feel tired
Why? It’s Labor Day, I’m still feeling a little clammy and sick, my Twitter account got hacked and now I think my computer is infected, so I’m not in the mood to be anywhere on the Interwebs right now. But we did have a very nice weekend with Mike, Windy, Win, and Tracy, so that made up for it. Talk to you later!
Family love: Mike
I am writing a series of posts about why I love my immediate family. This is the fourth installment. All wedding photos courtesy of the brilliant Meredith Perdue.
One of my favorite qualities about my father-in-law is how easy it is to fall into a serious conversation with him. It’s not that he’s overly solemn; rather, it’s because he’s always ready to engage with you on a level that transcends small talk. He also knows a lot about a lot of things.
Mike has taught me a lot about how to love people. And even more than taught: Mike has shown me how to love people. Since we met, he’s always shown me deep wells of compassion, even when I had done nothing to merit such merciful treatment.
Mike’s theology matches the way he lives. He knows more about Anglicanism than anyone else I’ve met, but he also lives a daily practice of grace and love toward everyone. Mike and Windy were YoungLife leaders back in the day, but Guion likes to say that they never stopped being YoungLife leaders. I think that’s probably true. Their welcoming home in Southern Pines has never stopped being “the hang-out place” for kids during the holidays. Mike is able to keep up with people with astonishing energy and accuracy. I like to think that he and Windy were gifted with an endless supply of social energy. It’s very admirable and it frequently amazes me.
He can switch from joking to serious life discussion in a minute’s time, whatever the group or mood or tone requires. His careful mix of humor and politeness has always astonished me, because, well, I grew up with Juju, whose humor is never tactful.
Aside from Angela, I think Mike has been mine and Guion’s biggest fan. His unconditional support to us while we were dating, engaged, and now married has been invaluable to us both. He often reminds me that he and Windy have been praying for me since I was born. I smile, thank him, and feel overwhelmingly grateful.
Family love: Windy
I’m writing a series of posts about why I love my (immediate) family. This is the second installment. All quality photographs (the professional ones) courtesy of the incredible Meredith Perdue.
Windy, Windz, Winder, aka Best Mother-in-Law Ever
As any new girlfriend would be, I was very nervous before I met Guion’s mother for the first time. Guion was, after all, the firstborn, beloved son. As life and literature had taught me, mothers have a thing with their firstborn sons and often don’t take to other interested women kindly. It took me a few days to decide on the right dress to wear. I pestered my roommate about how I should wear my hair. I was anxious.
Mike and Windy were taking the two of us out to dinner at 411 West. The men had a hard time finding parking, and so Guion joined Mike in the car–which left Windy and me together for almost 15 minutes in the restaurant. I was so worried. What would she think of me? Would she decide in these next minutes that I was an unsuitable match for her matchless son?
Windy, however, instantly put me at ease. She talked to me warmly and confidentially, as if I were an old friend.
Windy is one of the most gentle and laidback people I know. Nothing seems to ruffle her. She has always welcomed me warmly into the family, even when Guion and I were only dating. She has never emitted even the slightest trace of rivalry or jealousy toward me, those vices that mothers-in-law are traditionally supposed to possess; Windy has only ever shown me love without condition.
Windy and I forge an alliance when we’re with the family. Aside from Aoive, Windy lived in and raised a household of men. Unlike my mother, she had no band of fellow women to support her and her causes. We were magnetized to each other by the mere fact of our common sex. Windy made me feel valued and welcomed by trusting me as her feminine confidante. I know I can always count on her to be in my corner during playful family disputes.
We keep secrets and clean the kitchen together. We set the table and tell the men what’s up. When I am with her in Southern Pines, I feel like I am a part of this generations-old tradition of reciprocal trust and reliance between women. This sounds weird, but I see it this way: Windy showed me how naturally one can fall into familial unity with another woman, to be welcomed into the family fold of womenfolk, to instantly assume domestic roles of cooking and keeping the peace. It sounds very old-fashioned, but I like it. When I’m with Windy, I feel like I’ve finally been given a membership to this club of good Southern womanhood.
She is loving, generous, and patient and I wish that all married women were as lucky as I am to have such a mother-in-law.
Moms are the best
This Mother’s Day, I’m very, very thankful that Guion and I were blessed to have such tremendous mothers. Moms have the hardest job in the world and they don’t get thanked nearly enough for all that they do. When I reflect on all of the sacrifices they made for us, I am simultaneously in awe and paralyzed with fear. How is it possible that, one day, I could EVER live up to this example set for me? Moms, you’re unparalleled. My strong mixture of admiration and fear toward mothers drove me to my undergraduate thesis, which was on the role of mothers as artists in Virginia Woolf’s novels. I think about moms a lot. Even though I feel light years away from motherhood myself, I think about my mom and Guion’s mom and the young moms I am surrounded with here in Charlottesville all the time. Their day in, day out displays of surrender, grace, and mercy are astounding to me.
I think it’s also worth recognizing all of the single moms who might not hear a “thank you” today. Your job is twice as hard. Thanks for doing what most of us could not. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Mom, you know I don’t have enough words to express all that you mean to me. Most days, when I reflect on our childhood, I don’t know how you did it. You were a teacher, successful business owner, chef, chauffeur, and mom to four children–at one point, four children under the age of seven. That’s CRAZY. I love you and I’m so thankful for all that you did to train us up in the way we should go.
Windy, girls just don’t get this lucky with mothers-in-laws. Since I first met you, you’ve been so welcoming, gracious, and encouraging. I’ll admit, I was nervous; giving your firstborn son away in marriage is no easy matter, I am sure. But you’ve always made me feel like a genuine and cherished part of your family. Without your encouragement, I don’t think I would have pursued calligraphy to the extent that I have. I love our talking about our shared interests, whether it be calligraphy, reading, or merely swapping stories of colorful relatives. Thanks for your role in Guion’s life and mine. I love you!
Huzzah for moms. Can’t get enough of them.
We had a lovely weekend with Guion’s parents and his grandfather, aka Granddad; they came up to celebrate my confirmation at Christ Church and Granddad’s birthday! We had such a great time squiring them around town, eating tons of amazing food, and exchanging stories and memories. Brother Win was greatly missed, of course. Wish they could only have stuck around longer!
Snax with roasted kale and butternut squash, because, believe me, this week’s Snax are super-delicious and good for your heart:
With Love from Chitwan. To my heart’s relief, Grace is alive and finally well in Chitwan, Nepal! Read about her adventures and go see how totally adorable she looks on a bicycle by a rice paddy. (Como Say What?)
In Which There’s a Girl in New York City Who Calls Herself a the Human Trampoline. A thoughtful reflection on and celebration of the 25th anniversary of Paul Simon’s magnum opus, “Graceland.” Who doesn’t love that album? (This Recording)
Proust Questionnaire: Tina Fey. One of my all-time favorite women answers the classic questions from one of my all-time favorite authors. What do I have to do to become BFFs with this woman? (Vanity Fair)
A Guide to Crying in Public. As you know, I cry in public often, so I found this especially helpful. Retreat! (The Hairpin)
Big Laughs, Cheap Grace. Thank you, Rob Hays, for finding the words for my dislike of “Modern Family.” Thanks for finding the words when I could not. It is entertaining, but perhaps that is all one can say. (The Curator)
How Dancers Prepare Their Pointe Shoes. I had no idea this process was so involved! (Behind Ballet)
Iceland Part 1: Roadside Horses and Geysir. Here is a Law of the Universe: If anyone on the Interwebs posts photos of Icelandic ponies, I shall immediately repost photos of said ponies. This law is immutable and shall remain unbroken for the duration of time. (Kris Atomic)
Here’s Another Thing Julianne Moore Will Ruin. FOR REAL. (Best Week Ever)
Dog-Friendly Paris: Doggy Etiquette in the City of Lights. Kelsey and Grace regaled me with stories of the impeccably well-behaved and countless pooches in Paris. I’m not one for big city living, but this account of Paris is tempting! (HIP Paris)
Origami Animals. Origanimals. My dad had a client who once made me an intricate Japanese beetle out of a $5 bill. He would have liked these paper animals. I like them, too; they look like they want to be friends. (Miss Moss)
The Desktop Wallpaper Project. I change my desktop image every Monday on my work computer, and my Mac desktop rotates every 15 minutes, so I guess you could say I’m a bit of a stickler for change. It makes me happy to have a new, pretty image on my computer. If you are like this, check out this site. A collection of beautiful, graphic designer-friendly desktop wallpapers! Artist Michael Cina’s work (around page 7) is my favorite. (The Fox Is Black)
Is Ulysses Overrated? Now I feel a little bit better about giving it only spot no. 7 in my top 10 books of 2010. This guy from Slate thinks it’s a crock and not worth all of the hype. He says there’s only one chapter worth reading. (Slate)
Happiest States According to Twitter. As far as useless and unreliable maps go, this one may rank quite high, but I like its findings. According to a mood map of Twitter, the top three happiest states are: 1) Tennessee, 2) Colorado, and 3) North Carolina. I like it! I can definitely attest to Colorado and NC making that cut. (Daily Intel)
I Am Only 6, But I Think I Can Do This Job. KIDS! Killing me again with cuteness! Application letter from 6-year-old Andrew Scott, who applied for the position of Director of the National Railway Museum. What is it with little boys and trains? It will never fail to make my heart melt. (Letters of Note)