Archive for the ‘books’ Category

reminders on how to breathe during an airborne toxic event

April 6, 2020

Salomon saith, There is no new thing upon the earth. So that as Plato had an imagination, that all knowledge was but remembrance; so Salomon giveth his sentence, that all novelty is but oblivion.

Francis Bacon: Essays, LVIII quoted in Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Immortal”

 


 

“How was class?” Denise said.

“It’s going so well they want me to teach another course.”

“In what?”

“Jack won’t believe this.”

“In what?” I said.

“Eating and drinking.  It’s called Eating and Drinking: Basic Parameters.  Which, I admit, is a little more stupid than it absolutely has to be.”

“What could you teach?” Denise said.

“That’s just it.  It’s practically inexhaustible.  Eat light foods in warm weather.  Drink plenty of fluids.”

“But everybody knows that.”

“Knowledge changes every day.  People like to have their beliefs reinforced.  Don’t lie down after eating a heavy meal.  Don’t drink liquor on an empty stomach.  If you must swim, wait at least an hour after eating.  The world is more complicated for adults than it is for children.  We didn’t grow up with all these shifting facts and attitudes.  One day they just started appearing.  So people need to be reassured by someone in a position of authority that a certain way to do something is the right way or the wrong way, at least for the time being.  I’m the closest they could find, that’s all.”

Don Delillo, White Noise

 

Babette, Jack’s wife and Denise’s mother, teaches a community class to the elderly in posture.  It seems just another layer of ridiculousness, but I’ve begun noticing how so many of us during this moment are doing … exactly the same thing.  It rather reminds me, sweetly, of the way our primate relatives pat each other in touching simplicity, sending the message that we are all in this together, that who you are matters to me, that your cares are mine and while I may not be able to make them disappear, I can utter familiar things that allay your anxieties for now.

Or as we murmur to each other and ourselves the ubiquitous expression, “You’ve got this.”

The Airborne Toxic Event

March 25, 2020

If you handful of people who ever read this recognize what the title of this blog entry refers to, then you’re miles ahead of everyone else.  Delillo’s White Noise offers satisfaction during this time on many levels (another of the novel’s countless running jokes.)  Although my copy had been packed away in … 2013, and I’d had no intention of unpacking prior to my still-fervently-hoped-for upcoming move, bizarre times required bold moves.  If the marginal comments and marks are any indication, the 20 something grad student who wrote her final paper on death in White Noise for a cultural studies seminar in 1991 wasn’t far wrong in identifying some worthy gems.  Arguably there isn’t one element of the entire book that doesn’t offer relevant insights to today’s moment.

One thing that strikes me now is how Delillo imagines his refugees all holing up together, whether in a deserted Boy Scouts camp as the toxic cloud backlit by tracers and towed by helicopters hovers or in crowded grocery stores where waves and particles flow or on highway overpasses where townspeople crowd to watch the sunsets whose breathtaking beauty is equally heightened and undermined by the real possibility that the lingering traces of the airborne toxic event or the microorganism dropped to devour it are to blame.  It makes the solitude we’re being requested to endure that much more poignant;  amidst this profound uncertainty we are being asked, effectively, to experience it alone.

Frankly, that’s another refreshing element of the novel:  no internet.  Thirty-five years after the novel’s publication, our lives are so permeated by various technological devices that even our dreams incorporate text messages, twitter and instagram posts and video memes.  To have the confusions of human life be ratcheted down just a few levels to television commercials, car crashes, Hitler studies, modern pharmaceuticals and the fear of death makes the trashy culture of the 80s look like children’s games.

There’s so much of significance to take in and the space to do it in this novel; the generosity and the abiding love for humanity is apparent even at moments of deep cynicism.  When the hero has to stop his German lessons because a metaphor his colleague Murray has used to characterize the German instructor overwhelms his senses (“What had been elusive about Howard Dunlop was now pinned down.  What had been strange and half creepy was now diseased”), he still feels bad about it.  There’s no certainty that Murray’s claim is true; it’s only a metaphor after all.  # Cancel culture is still a couple of decades in the future, although Gladney does note as he tries to gauge the ethnic background of his teenage son’s friend Orest Mercator, “It was getting hard to know what you couldn’t say to people.”

I feel as if I’ve been in training for this moment in history for a long while with my nomadic lifestyle, my own free form version of social distancing, my insane frugality, my value system as portable and infrangible as a pinned on medal.  Or maybe it’s just deja vu.  Regardless, the hapless and helpless J.A.K. Gladney is as perfect a symbol for what any of us — prepared or not — may or may not be able to offer at moments of great significance.  While I can’t watch children sleeping at night to return a sense of peace to my fractured mind or snuggle close to a life partner, there’s a reverence modeled in this prescient novel one can’t fail to find sustaining.  Read, laugh, marvel, and love!

 

A breakfast feast

April 13, 2018

queenofhearts

There is no use trying, said Alice; one can’t believe impossible things. I dare say you haven’t had much practice, said the Queen. . Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.                                               Lewis Carroll

As dawn rose this morning, I greeted a river otter, an osprey, an eagle, and a blue heron and thought of Lewis Carroll’s Queen.  Two hours later, this quotation floated my way.  How many miraculous, impossible things cross our paths as we rush through our lives?

 

Time is on our side

March 11, 2018

I met Jean my last year in undergrad.  A core group were taking both the Virginia Woolf and the honors literary criticism seminars, so in the natural way young people do (and older people don’t), we fell in together.

Jean’s mind moves like a computer except she’s working with one or two more dimensions, making her mental loops fluid and fascinating.  Add to this her urban upbringing and her spot-on taste, and even a myopic magoo like me was intimidated.  After we graduated, that she’d been biding her time awaiting her reunion with better company was obvious.  We stayed in touch mostly due to my persistent letter-writing, until I found what I thought were my own people, ex-husband-to-be included.

Fast-forward some twenty odd years, and I’m wondering if I can find her on the internet, a do-hickey that was still in its university swaddling clothes when we’d last signed off.  And there she was.  Reconnecting with her was one of the shining lights of a 2017 where fog enshrouded and eroded much of what I’d thought was happening (aka, my reality).

Besides the advantage of the internet, we now also had cheaper long distance, so we were able to catch up in some small measure.  My lack of discernible progress in the material world ceased to embarrass me when she shared her own dissatisfactions.  We began to share strategies and insights, dream interpretations, youtube links, and photos.  As other friends had dropped away, retrieving Jean from the past was a timely gift.

The distance and difference between us, however, remained.  She had jumped from San Francisco to NYC to LA to Paris to Austin and back to the Bay Area, while my wanderings had taken me to places like Southern Utah, Yellowstone, New Mexico, and the Northern Neck of Virginia.  I don’t think she could conceive of why I would chose to live in these spots.  Helping me sort out my vision for the future, she offered a provocative comment:  “I think you’re avoiding something  because you think you’ll get contaminated by it.”  The assessment sounded right to me, but she thought I’d done the calculations wrong.

I was taking time to ponder the merits of this critique when she sent me a link.  “Great job for you,” she e-mailed.  The title did sound intriguing:  “Narrative strategist.”

Since I’d welcomed Jean’s earlier commands, like the latest version of What Color Is Your Parachute, as good structuring exercises, I read through the description with as much open-mindedness as I could muster, no easy task after the fifth sentence which touted serving clients like Facebook and Google and other “global change-makers.”

Eventually, despite my sympathetic willingness to imagine myself as more affluent and much much hipper and busier, even a cursory look at the job showed how I wouldn’t fit.  I was not only a “luddite” but proud to be so, and I was about as far down the line as anyone could be from their imagined candidate who was “passionate about disruptive technology.”

Passionate about disruptive technology?!  A storyteller?!  Would Homer be passionate about disruptive technology?  George Eliot?  Tolstoy?  I might be an “inherent optimist, with faith in the future despite the immense challenges of our time” and possess the “ability to process complex stacks of information without getting lost down a rabbit hole” as they phrase it, but I’d rather put my intellectual juice into conversations on how disruptive technology affects our ability to summon resonant metaphors and strategies for how to counteract it than into pretending it’s enhancing our lives.

Basically, the small start up wants to “on-board” someone to use stories to sell shit or to justify shit.  To convince people that shit doesn’t smell like shit because there isa beautiful story that connects us all to shit or whatever the fuck they need to do to make money so they can keep up their aesthetically and spiritually multi-hued new agey lifestyle in Sonoma county.  One of the bulleted “capabilities” for the position was “Maturity – you must have an active contemplative practice.”

During this moment, as I sat slackjawed, probing my disinterest in stepping up into the metropolitan fast-paced future Jean was envisioning for me, a few other “tells” passed in front of my eyes.  First, a Guinness beer ad that suspiciously sounded as if it were narrated by Alan Cumming, that deliciously gay man with a gorgeous Scottish accent.  Over images of all manner of folk connecting over a pint of frothing ale, the ad tells us that, in our desire to cozy up to friends and alcohol, we’re all alike deep down.  Okay, fine, I like beer too, and Cumming is hot regardless of his sexual preference.   All good.  But what if the challenge were to de-weaponize Amazon with a compelling story?

Then I stumbled across an article detailing what certain behaviors convey about a person revealed that long e-mail messages show neediness.  Well, yeah, that’s me, I conceded.  Needy.  Look at how long this blog post is.  And guess what?  NO ONE READS THEM.  After the shame the stupid content managers had slimed me with dribbled away, there remained a flicker of anger.  Yeah, I’m fucking needy, I wanted to shout.  I need people to pay attention; I need people to think for themselves.  I need people to understand how their day job is connected to the rest of the world.  My bad!

Then another article, which makes 3 and certifies this as a fairy-tale,  began with this quotation

We cannot be careful enough in refusing to act as splitters (i.e., like the Nazi doctors) or in refusing to live a split life in that sense.  And yet, in many circumstances, we cannot avoid acting as economic men and women of our time, performing certain professions and thus maiming our hearts.

— Ivan Illich In Conversation (David Cayley, editor)

I had a wild hair of a thought using a picture of the stories I was currently consuming as part of a job application.  An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States; Cheyenne Autumn; Killers of The Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and The Birth of the FBI; Pillar of Fire: American in the King Years 1963-1965; The Magic Mountain.  Which of these stories, I imagined asking coyly, might they ask me to draw upon to craft a narrative strategy for Facebook or, say, Energy Transfer Partners?

I suspect that the e-mail I received from Jean in response to my “thanks but no thanks” signals our friendship has shifted on to a back burner if not into cold storage.  This time, however, despite not yet finding my tribe, I’m less hurt.  She’s given me much to think about, even if it’s an awareness of where I don’t want my life to go and why.  And I hope when we connect again I’ll be able to report my progress and she’ll be able to share hers.  The stories we share will be complicated ones, cobbled together after we’ve done the hard work to chisel out and stay close to what’s most important to us.  I’ll drink to that!

 

Gardens

November 3, 2016

On my morning walk, a wild aster caught my eye. Its insouciant yellow eye, its unapologetic purple reminded me of the year I first fell deeply in love with gardening. I was supposed to be writing my dissertation but instead grabbed a shovel and broke earth.

It was a dangerous time: I was physically restless, gardening catalogues were crowding my mailbox, and flowers were much more beautiful, and quicker to bloom, than a dissertation on Henry James. I had just enough money to keep persistently purchasing plants, and after each nursery trip, when I realized I had too many for my initial plot, I simply worked on expanding it.

That’s what stuck in mind this morning: the memory of the years when I’d gone over the top with my plant purchases, how I’d scramble to find or create new spots for the newest additions. Because I was renting, I knew one day my personal Eden would end, but until then, I told myself, I needed the therapy of digging in the earth and communing with the plants, the “other kingdom.” Ever since, the memory of that frenzied time, and of our sad parting, has kept my gardening lust within healthy bounds.  I’m more likely now to replant a flower that has sowed itself somewhere without the proper design sense than to purchase a new one, more willing to appreciate flowering weeds than to act on the impulse to tend my own plot. The world holds enough blooms without my assistance.

When I lived in Ivy, Virginia, I enjoyed 18 acres that had been lovingly landscaped by a gentleman who’d died long before I arrived. The grounds were so extensive, the plants’ needs so demanding, that much of it was no longer tended. However, its continuing beauty spoke to me of the man who’d loved it.  I could sense how he too had combed through gardening magazines in late summer and how he had haunted nurseries. I could feel the burst of his enthusiasm for spring-blooming crab apples, ornamental cherries, magnolias, and dogwoods, and experience his thrill at discovering the wide variety of fall- blooming camellias and osmanthus.

Until I moved to this property in October 2013, I’d never smelled a fragrance so heavenly as that released by an osmanthus.  In central Virginia, too often the flowers’ bloom is destroyed by autumn rain. This is what happened the second year I was there, and I  walked around the rain-dampened tree sadly, wondering if I’d have another year to enjoy its scent.

A few weeks later, I smelled another, similarly-entrancing fragrance, so distinctive when leaves are falling and days are shortening.  For a few days the scent kept teasing me and doggedly I searched, hacking through the areas where the original plantings were now tangled with obstinate bittersweet, wild grape, honeysuckle, and wisteria. When I found the scent’s source, I laughed out loud. “Oh Alexander,” I said to this long-deceased gardener. “What gifts you’ve left!”  This osmanthus was a different species than the one I’d adored, but apparently hardier, having reseeded itself.  Now growing in patches closer to the road, the bushes liberally shared their sweetness with anyone who took the time to stop and sniff the fall air.

Upon my recommendation, a friend is reading Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire.  This morning as I walked away from that self-planted aster, I recalled what was to me Pollan’s most persuasive argument:  that plants use people as much as we use plants.  Through their usefulness or their beauty, they have succeeded in convincing us to domesticate them, into transporting them from continent to continent.  I thought of what we sow  whenever we decide to plant, whether we nurture the soil, lend a book, behave with kindness, or share a smile.  If we do it right, what blooms outlasts our first efforts and blesses those we will never meet.

aster

thoughts on art, truth, and unconditional love

October 23, 2016

I’ve found a temporary nest in my father’s second home outside of Albuquerque.  I’m not ungrateful for the space; it’s giving me room to think about what to do next.  Still, my relationship with my dad being what it has been, multiplied by my strongly developed hermit-like tendencies, made being here during the 2 weeks my dad & his wife were still in residency a tight-rope walk.

Once they left for Florida, I gave myself permission to tear into Elena Ferrante’s 4 novels (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neapolitan_Novels).  Although my friend had recommended them 3 weeks ago and I had purchased them 2 weeks ago at a Santa Fe independent bookstore, I’d held off, perhaps sensing that once I started I wouldn’t be able to interact with members of the human race in any adequate way.  Within 4 days, I had finished them.  At first I thought, “Whoa!  Slow down.  Stop binging.”  Then I realized this is who I am, someone who binges on great fiction.  When I’m deep into another world, I can barely lift my head to consider the real one, forget to move for long periods of time, neglect caring for myself, grab junk food rather than cooking, dress carelessly, fail to leave the house.  I’ve been doing this since I was a child.

Here’s one of my favorite passages from the 4th novel:

“And then he laughed … said obscurely that in his view love ended only when it was possible to return to oneself without fear or disgust, and left the room.”

I thought of the times in my life when love’s fever had cooled to the point that I could return to myself without fear or disgust.  At this point in the quartet, Ferrante has guided her readers through love’s infernos and finally places this remark in the mouth of the protagonist’s former lover, a revolutionary crippled by Fascists.  How had she arrived at this truth, I wondered?  Did it unfold itself gradually as she wrote or was it one of the ideas she began with when she started to write?  That she could place it so casually in the midst of the flood of words and ideas that filled these four novels filled me with admiration.  But truth is like that, no matter where you find it.  It glitters amid the dross; it stops time; it arranges chaos.

Reading these novels reminded me of why I want to write.  Not for fame or recognition but because through fiction there’s an opportunity to give something important to someone.  You can’t control what that gift will be or who will receive it.  You write because there’s a chance that something you express will act as a rope to someone who’s sinking so she can drag herself onto solid ground.

If art is any good, it manages to express someone’s notion of truth.  But it has to be forged with the highest intentions.  And for me that entails being alone, going into the depths and facing myself: the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly parts.  This kind of scrutiny is not for everyone.  Other people choose to fill their lives with obligations & other people.  Resentful at the sacrifices I’ve felt forced into making, I once labeled these other set of choices as distractions from what was most important.  I realize now that they are different paths on the search for truth.

I don’t know if I’ll succeed in writing fiction.  It’s hard, and I’m one of the laziest people I know.  But I am also vain (Ferrante has a great observation about vain people too), so I will keep trying, hoping, dreaming.  I will also keep working at my ability to love unconditionally.  Because that’s what art is too:  giving yourself to the world, trusting that it will nourish someone somewhere just as you have been nourished, cared for, protected, and loved.