Skip to content

Part of Eve’s Discussion

April 1, 2020

On a Tuesday morning, as soon as I got up, I went to the other store in town (we have two; a grocery and a big box) to see if they would have some lactaid milk, the kind I cook with and put in tea. The store was not crowded; I did notice that women are better than men at keeping their distance in public. I found a single carton of whole fat lactaid milk and brought it home, along with a carton of regular two percent for Ron to put in his tea. I’m hoping that’s the last time I will have to go inside a store for a little while.

The cats are happy we’re home.

The street outside our house has been quiet, like it is the morning after a snow or ice storm, but it’s like that all day now. I walk up and down it in the afternoon and look at the neighbors’ jonquils and forsythia beginning to open. It’s nice that almost all of the people who pass me, on foot or in a car, wave.

Everyone is poised and waiting. People who planned ahead for seed are thinking about starting plants indoors. I hold my breath for a moment when someone walks past me, as if that will do any more good than kids holding theirs when driving past a cemetery.

It’s like Marie Howe’s poem, “Part of Eve’s Discussion”:

It was like the moment when a bird decides not to eat from your hand,
and flies, just before it flies, the moment the rivers seem to still
and stop because a storm is coming, but there is no storm, as when
a hundred starlings lift and bank together before they wheel and drop,
very much like the moment, driving on bad ice, when it occurs to you
your car could spin, just before it slowly begins to spin, like
the moment just before you forgot what it was you were about to say,
it was like that, and after that, it was still like that, only
all the time.

The Glass Hotel

March 30, 2020

IMG_3822 (1)I’ve read the new novel by the author of the heartbreakingly brilliant Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel, and found it less brilliant but even more disturbing. Entitled The Glass Hotel, it’s loosely organized around the story of what happens to a group of people who meet once in a hotel in British Columbia. The title must refer to the idea of glass houses, but the impulse of the novel is less kind than her previous one, despite that title reference. The people in this novel look at glass and see mirrors.

St. John Mandel is a wonderful writer, and she brings her characters together in a way that includes everybody in the world around them, even the readers. The characters at the center of the novel are Paul and his younger step-sister Vincent, and as in her previous novel, the stories of the separate characters begin at what seem to be opposite ends of a pattern and are gradually woven closer together until a recognizable picture is revealed.

There are a few overlaps between characters and events from this novel with ones from Station Eleven, as when Vincent imagines
“an alternate reality where there was no Iraq War, for example, or where the terrifying new swine flu in the Republic of Georgia hadn’t been swiftly contained; an alternate world where the Georgia flu blossomed into an unstoppable pandemic and civilization collapsed.”

Ironically, for the novel that is not about a worldwide pandemic but published during one, one of the characters who overlaps with Station Eleven, Leon Prevant’s administrative assistant Miranda, says to him “there’s something almost tedious about disaster….Don’t you find? I mean, at first it’s all dramatic, ‘Oh my god, the economy’s collapsing, there was a run on my bank so my bank ceased to exist over the weekend and got swallowed up by JPMorgan Chase,’ but then that keeps happening, it just keeps collapsing, week after week, and at a certain point…”

Even relatively minor characters are explored in some depth in this novel; a painter named Olivia whose only part in the plot is investing her money in what turns out to be a Ponzi scheme wears a “new trench coat, which she was convinced made her look like the star of her favorite French movie because it’s possible to convince oneself of such things at twenty-four.”

Because my kids are isolated in apartments far away and I’m trying not to envy those whose children are crowded into the house with them, I identified to a ludicrous extent with the mother whose son was late coming in from NYC for a family picnic. “’We were almost starting to worry!’ their mother said with that nervous little laugh that Jonathan had only recently begun to notice. She’d spent the last hour crying in the car while their father paced and smoked cigarettes.” At the end of the picnic when they start to talk about driving him back to the train station she can’t hold back from saying “unless you’d like to stay here tonight, honey, you know there’s always room…”

The theme of the novel is how habitually we don’t look at other people and appreciate how our actions affect their lives. The man in charge of the Ponzi scheme, who lives with Vincent for a while, doesn’t examine what he is doing any more than the people who are in on the scam with him do; they all have ways to rationalize, even after the point where he brings it out in the open and says “look…we all know what we do here” and a few of them realize that his statement “represented the final crossing, or perhaps more accurately, the moment when it was no longer possible to ignore the topography and pretend that the border hadn’t already been crossed.”

One of the people who lost all his savings in the Ponzi scheme (Leon) finds himself living in a place he hadn’t liked to look at before, maybe kind of like the Americans who are just now waking up to the notion that perhaps we should be making sure that workers we consider “essential” should be paid a living wage and covered by health insurance:
“He’d been aware of the shadowland forever, of course. He’d seen its more obvious outposts: shelters fashioned from cardboard under overpasses, tents glimpsed in the bushes alongside expressways, houses with boarded-up doors but a light shiningin an upstairs window. He’d always been vaguely aware of its citizens, people who’d slipped beneath the surface of society, into a territory without comfort or room for error; they hitchhiked on roads with their worldly belongings in backpacks, they collected cans on the streets of cities, they stood on the Strip in Las Vegas wearing T-shirts that said GIRLS TO YOUR ROOM IN 20 MINUTES, they were the girls in the room. He’d seen the shadow country, its outskirts and signs, he’d just never thought he’d have anything to do with it.”

More than just economic equality, though, Leon thinks about what it would be like to wake up in “the country of the sick” and how impossible it is for him to be sure that he is “essentially incorruptible” when all it takes is keeping quiet and pretending not to see certain things in order to keep his options open for a better life.

Wouldn’t it be something if a month of not seeing anyone in person and having time to read novels like The Glass Hotel resulted in more people being able to develop an appreciation for the existence of others they’ve previously overlooked or ignored? I’m not optimistic, however, based on the way the people who still have jobs and are working from home are continuing so many of their recreational activities with colleagues, rather than seizing this opportunity to socialize more with friends they talk to less often and may not see again.

 

Rabbit

March 26, 2020

photo-51Last night I played a game online with two people I knew and three I’d never met before, and it was more fun than I expected. This morning I got my poem-a-day and it seemed to comment on the experience. Like rabbits, many of us have been feeling that “there is no ease” and that we must “linger the dark.” If you’ve ever had a pet rabbit, as I have, you’ll see how apt the comparison is:

The rabbit has a funny set of tools. He jumps.
or kicks. muffled and punching up. In pose
the rabbit knows, each side of his face to whom.
he should belong. He hobbles and eyes. This
is the dumb bun allegiance. This bunny, even dry and fluff
is aware, be vicious. will bite down your finger stalk.
will nick you good in the cheery web of your palm.
Those claws are good for traction. and defense.
This bunny, forgive him. There is no ease. His lack
of neck is all the senses about a stillness.
stuck in a calm. until household numbers upend
his floor. until the family upsets the nest
and traipses off. Then stuck in a bunny panic.

We each stab at gratitude. In our nubbing, none
of us do well. We jump. We kangaroo. We soft seeming,
scatter and gnaw. Maybe the only way forward
is to sleep all day. one eye open. under the sink.
Like the rabbit, we could sit in our shit.
Chew at the leaf of others’ dinner. Make
of each tile on the floor a good spot to piss. No,
it doesn’t get much better. And like the rabbit
we do not jump well from heights. We linger the dark
until it is safe to come out. To offer a nose.
a cheek for touch. the top of a crown. Nothing
makes us happier than another rabbit.

by Francine J. Harris

If “we each stab at gratitude” every day, maybe we can get in the habit of looking for small mercies and appreciate them when they come along.

Even though “nothing/makes us happier than another rabbit” I hope that if you don’t have anyone with you in your burrow you have a pet or a friend to check in with every day.

Invitation

March 25, 2020

Invitation

Oh do you have time
to linger
for just a little while
out of your busy

and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles

for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,

or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?
Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air

as they strive
melodiously
not for your sake
and not for mine

and not for the sake of winning

but for sheer delight and gratitude—
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing

just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
I beg of you,

do not walk by
without pausing
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.
It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.

–Mary Oliver

 

We’re all reading this poem in a new way, now that our lives have been changed by the necessity of staying home.

IMG_3811I’ve been taking daily walks and I walk very slowly, so I have a lot of time to look around. There are buds on most of the trees and bushes, even though it’s still so cold in Ohio that I have to wear a coat. Yesterday I saw a murder of crows in a tree beside the road and and six turkey vultures sitting in the tall trees behind my neighbor’s house. A few cars went by, and the drivers all waved at me, as did a solitary jogger. And I saw these jonquils.

The Absolute Book

March 24, 2020

WdwfXThe Absolute Book, by Elizabeth Knox, is an epic fantasy, an excellent book to take you away from wherever you are to such places as London, Auckland, the land of the sidhe, the hospitals of purgatory, and a place of final reckoning.

The book has a seemingly realistic beginning. We get the story of how the sister of the main character, Taryn Cormick, was murdered and how her killer got only five years in prison. Then we get the story of how Taryn was tempted to revenge and fell, although it seems like just a story about how she told a hunting guide how much she misses her sister, Beatrice. She refers to the guide as the “Muleskinner” and we are told that
“when Taryn mentioned that Bea had a book in her bag, the Muleskinner even asked what book it was. Taryn knew a lot of people whom she thought of as intellectual snobs. What they were, in face, were people incapable of relinquishing their sovereign sense that their identity was tied up with what they understood and enjoyed. And they liked to stay sure of themselves, so they never read or watched anything outside what they already approved as good or enjoyable for them. These were the people who, when Taryn told them what book Bea was carrying, sometimes said, ‘Oh, I couldn’t finish that.’ To which she’d reply ‘Neither could Beatrice.’”
I was intrigued that, even this early in the book, the story deals with absolutes—who is not willing to finish a book versus not able.

The realistic beginning ends abruptly when Taryn is suddenly propelled into the land of the sidhe by a young man called Shift, who saves her by taking her there right as a gun is being fired. This happens on page 106 of the 653-page book. We subsequently learn that Taryn has been possessed by a demon in her world ever since she gave into temptation and spoke the words that sent the Muleskinner to kill the man who killed Beatrice, but that the demon can’t go through the portal that Shift opened for her. After Shift explains this to Taryn another character who is there to overhear expresses what the reader might be thinking at this point:
“’You. Are. Both. Fucking. Baked,’ Berger said from his bed of grass and pain.”

It keeps getting weirder and more interesting as Taryn finds out how she is involved in Shift’s quest to find The Absolute Book, which is “the thing they were all looking for. They—the author, the cop, the sidhe, the wizard, the god, demigods, demons.” Taryn describes the book as “a cipher key to a language capable of commanding nature.”

When Taryn meets other humans who have been saved by being taken to the land of the sidhe she finds that some are from slave ships or battles, saved by the sidhe from their human fates by being taken to live in a pleasant place for two hundred years before being given as part of the tithe to hell. One of these, Jane, mentions “favored Taken poets” to Taryn, naming “Baudelaire, Keats, Emily Bronte.”

Jane explains the situation to Taryn, telling her not to use the gate that Shift brought her through to go back to the world because “Shift left your demon trapped inside it. If you go out that way the demon can fasten onto you again.” When Taryn asks whether she is “Taken, but I needn’t stay” Jane replies:
“You can go about your life. But my understanding is that you’ve somehow put your soul in peril. The demon might be foiled, but damnation can’t be. If Hell is your future, fairyland makes that future much further off….But the Sidh itself can make you love it, so even if you go back to your life, sooner or later you’ll start dreaming about it, and waking up in tears.”
More than just a variation on a fairy story, this book offers a world with interesting and complicated rules.

After Taryn learns more about the Taken and the Tithe “she understood that the sidhe knew they were doing wrong, but their habit of living meant they just kept on living with it.” And when Jane tells her that the sidhe are “our betters,” Taryn replies “no one is anyone’s better….But who was she to talk? She had used the Muleskinner as if she were the person in their relationship while he was only her instrument.”

At one point, Jane explains why the sidhe, like the Tolkien elves in the Peter Jackson movies, never look messy, even after a battle:
“Mendings clean their skin and clothes and hair. They keep dust and dirt and bits of vegetation from sticking. That’s why the people always look spotless. You will never see Neve with a hair out of place or a stray eyelash on her cheek or smear of food beside her mouth.”

Other secrets of the sidhe are revealed to Taryn and the other characters bit by bit:
“Jacob thought he’d been seeing Shift as an obscure, fey being. Whimsical, because of the things he’d say. But it was bluntness. Each bit of poetry was a statement of fact. He was sharing, and showing himself. A tree was holding his glove for him, and he could eat as an owl, and digest as a man.”

I think that the heart of the story lies in an exchange between Taryn and the chair of a session at a conference in our world when she is giving a speech about why it’s important to preserve books:
“’It’s always better to keep books. In the same way that it’s better not to pollute waterways and cover arable land with asphalt.’
‘So it’s the principle of preservation,’ her chair said. ‘Of conservation.’
‘Yes. And it’s the practice of not being high-handed towards the past. Or the future.’
‘Can’t it also be said that, in a way, books have souls? Here, many of us believe our waterways do. Rivers have mauri: life force. Wairua: spirit.’
‘I think we should act as if we have souls,’ Taryn said. ‘Immortal souls we might imperil by cruelty or bad faith or a serious lack of charity. And if imagining that books have souls helps us believe we do, then books absolutely have souls.’”

This is a great work of epic fantasy, a book that can make you forget your troubles for a while. Elizabeth Knox is a New Zealand author and I ordered her book from a shop in New Zealand, but there is a plan for U.S. distribution. Until libraries and book stores open again in the U.S. we may have to find ways to exchange books like this with our neighbors from doorstep to doorstep, sharing what keeps us going while we try to keep from sharing contagion.

Anti-Diet

March 16, 2020

IMG_3768As a person who has worked at home for decades, I have advice for those who find themselves suddenly thrown into it. Make yourself a work space, a desk or table, and set a schedule of 2-3 hours of continuous work at two periods during the day when you feel most alert and productive. If you want to put in a load of laundry before you sit down to work and change it after your 2-3 hour period, fine, but don’t let yourself get caught up in household tasks.

If you’re doing child care and working, plan what the kids will do for an hour, catch up with their needs, and then plan another hour for both them and you. When I was home with toddlers and had to grade papers, I would tell them that they had to entertain themselves for a while so I could do the work to keep them in “toys and oatmeal.”

The other adjustment you may be having to make, as we are here in Ohio with all restaurants closed, is what and how you eat. I recommend Christy Harrison’s book Anti-Diet. If you’re a regular reader here, you know that I’ve read most of the diet books ever published, and this one still had important things to tell me.

Diet culture, Harrison reminds us, “keeps us too hungry, too fixated on our bodies, and too caught up in the minutiae of our eating regimens to focus our energies on changing the world.” We’ve seen where that brings us.

In her first chapter Harrison traces “the roots of diet culture” and the “obesity epidemic” and traces the money involved in the 1998 NIH official BMI categories and their ties to the diet industry. She also summarizes studies showing that “intentional weight-loss efforts have been shown to cause long-term weight gain for up to two-thirds of the people who embark on them. So if the national average weight was creeping up over the years, it’s a good bet that dieting was at least partly responsible for the increase.”

Harrison shows how the modern emphasis on “healthy” or “clean” eating and “wellness” can lead to orthorexia nervosa, obsession with “correct” eating:
“Clean eating, Whole30, Paleo, intermittent fasting, detoxing…since the turn of the millennium, diet culture has become such a shape-shifter that it’s hard to keep up with all its new manifestations….modern-day diets have one thing in common: they claim not to be diets. They say they’re about health and wellness, not dieting….I refer to diets like these collectively as the Wellness Diet, to highlight the fact that they are diets cloaking themselves as wellness.”

The part of this book that should resonate in a new way with people confined to their houses to level the curve of Covid-19 infection is her criticism of healthism, which she defines as “the belief that health is a moral obligation, and that people who are ‘healthy’ deserve more respect and resources than people who are ‘unhealthy’ (whatever that means, and of course the definition changes to suit the person making the claim). Healthism is both a way of seeing the world that places health at the apex and a form of discriminating on the basis of health. It is both an ‘ism’ in the sense of philosophy or ideology and an ‘ism’ like racism or sexism. Healthism further makes health out to be exclusively a matter of individual responsibility, rather than a matter to be addressed at societal and policy levels.”

Here is the part that will be important to people who aren’t used to being at home in their houses all day: “it’s perfectly OK to eat for emotional reasons rather than strictly biological ones. Plus how can you really distinguish between the two? Dieting and restricting foods creates such a chronic sense of deprivation that there’s almost always some hunger going on, some physical need not being met. Sometimes that deprivation is what’s driving the emotions: chronic food deprivation will make anyone cranky, sad, and anxious. So instead of trying to substitute other coping mechanisms for eating every time you find yourself soothing a feeling with food, try instead to stop demonizing emotional eating—and stop following diet culture’s rules. You may still comfort yourself with food sometimes, and that’s a completely normal part of a peaceful relationship with food.”

Try to be good to yourselves, readers. Read something fun and eat a few of the things you like best.

 

Summer Knight, Nothing to See Here

March 11, 2020

IMG_3717It’s spring break at Kenyon, and we just got back from a long-planned trip to LA to see where Walker is living and enjoy some of the warm and sunny weather. It turned out a little chillier and cloudier than usual for LA, but we enjoyed seeing some of Woodland Hills, where Walker and his girlfriend are living (he can see the pool from his apartment balcony), and walking around a little at USC (yes, we thought about looking to see if the bookstore had any “USC parent” tees but didn’t do it).

We went to Santa Monica and I got to put my feet in the Pacific. We walked through some of the Getty museum, which was fabulous and wonderful; I now have a new favorite painting, Sous-Bois by Cezanne, which was on loan from the LA county museum of art. It was hanging right next to Van Gogh’s Irises, and like that painting, it was captivating in person; when you got close to either of them you could see details and color that the prints can’t adequately capture.

We went to see a musical production of the Parable of the Sower at UCLA, which was great, especially the sing-along part in the middle where we all got to sing “don’t let your baby go to Olivar” (Olivar is Butler’s depiction of debt slavery in 2024).

IMG_3736On Sunday morning we got a dozen doughnuts at a local bakery, Blinkies, and took a road trip to Sequoia National Park, where we took a short walk on a wheelchair-accessible trail to see the sequoias and the General Sherman tree, the biggest tree in the world. One of the informational plaques about it said “so big and so old,” which cracked me up when Walker said I should use that phrase as the caption for the photo of me and Ron standing in front of it.

I took several Jim Butcher books and enjoyed them all, particularly Summer Knight, which has a good story and lots of funny parts, including the hero Harry stealing something that an evil faerie is trying to use to end the world and running away with it yelling “Meep, meep!” It also had a bit about airplanes, which I read at 30,000 feet over Arizona:
“Sometimes the most remarkable things seem commonplace. I mean, when you think about it, jet travel is pretty freaking remarkable. You get in a plane, it defies the gravity of an entire planet by exploiting a loophole with air pressure, and it flies across distances that would take months or years to cross by any means of travel that has been significant for more than a century or three. You hurtle above the earth at enough speed to kill you instantly should you bump into something, and you can only breathe because someone built you a really good tin can that has seams tight enough to hold in a decent amount of air. Hundreds of millions of man-hours of work and struggle and research, blood, sweat, tears, and lives have gone into the history of air travel, and it has totally revolutionized the face of our planet and societies.
But get on any flight in the country, and I absolutely promise you that you will find someone who, in the face of all that incredible achievement, will be willing to complain about the drinks.”

Before we left for the airport, I had been reading a hardback library book that I couldn’t take with me, Kevin Wilson’s Nothing To See Here, and I wished that I could finish it, which I did the night we got home. It’s a good story with a very likable heroine, Lillian, who admits things like “a lot of times when I think I’m being self-sufficient, I’m really just learning to live without the things that I need.” The gimmick of the story, that the children she’s taking care of sometimes catch on fire, seems metaphorical, as they have a lot to be upset about, but it’s also literal, which is both scary and funny. Lillian has no experience with children, but she has a good heart and instincts to go with it. At one point she realizes that “maybe raising children was just giving them the things you loved most in the world and hoping that they loved them, too.”

The day after we got back from our trip, we found out that it may be spring break for the rest of the semester. Kenyon is extending its break for a week and then trying a week of online classes; students won’t return until the beginning of April, if then. So even though I spent most of January and February at home writing because I have trips and deadlines scheduled in March and April, nothing may come of any of it anytime soon.

IMG_3762The only ones who will be happy if I have to stay at home for another two months are the cats. But at least I got a few glimpses of sunshine.

How about you? Do you think there will be more book blog visiting if we all have to stay at home for a while?

 

%d bloggers like this: