Monday, March 16, 2009

Dark Places

This weekend I allowed my growing booklust almost entirely free reign, making several injudicious purchases, one judicious purchase (all three Bourne books for $8!), and a binge visit to the library. Mostly to get a second glance at the last line, I re-read The Great Gatsby in an afternoon, causing poor Dave to choke with unrestrained anger at what he calls my ungodly "speed reading." If this is my super power, so be it - I always wanted flight, or the ability to shoot shock waves out of my hands, but I guess beggars can't be choosers.

Since another weekend day yawned out before me, I then picked up another library find: The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion's meditation of grief, loss, and mourning. I'm not sure what made me think that now was the time to read this book; I was choosing literature for vacation, and I had avoided Magical Thinking up to this point because I knew it would do to me precisely what it is now doing, viz. causing a thrill of fear to ripple through me in unsteady increments.

The book follows Didion's mourning period after the death of her husband, while her daughter Quintana was in the hospital battling (first) pneumonia and septic shock and (then, later) invasive neural bleeding. Didion makes early mention of the fact that there aren't a great many (non-self-help) books that deal directly with grief, especially outside of poetry. Right now, three-quarters of the way through Magical Thinking, I can readily understand why.

Not because the field of inquiry is in any way unrich; no. It's because reading about the unexpected grief of others - the surprise loss, the deadly ordinariness of death's door, the meticulous re-creation of events and medical history created and combed through to make some semblance of sense of things - is terrifying and even immobilizing. When Didion researches her daughter's condition, the blockages in the brain, the blood clots wending their way towards her heart, I am suddenly hyper-aware of my own anatomy. I feel my head swell, my heart clench, my blood flow - not in a celebration of ongoing life, but in a terror that each tremor could hold some unknown meaning. I don't want to feel my body - I want my body to feel.

In the face of Didion's unflinching self-reflection, I wonder if I'm missing something in my squeamishness. She makes a point of chastising herself for failing to anticipate all this tragedy, for ignoring her husband's fearful premonitions. There aren't enough books about grief, she says (despite quoting at length from one of her husband's own) - and here I am racing through the pages of her own, trying to expunge from myself this dark totem.

But I just don't know. Can human beings face death and loss before the time comes? Should they try? It remains a mystery to me, as I head into the final pages.

One last thought: To avoid scaring away those interested, I will say that Magical Thinking is well worth reading. Last night I said to Dave, "It's extremely depressing, but still really beautiful."

"It is?" he asked, skeptical. He doesn't like Joan Didion, and I'll often call something beautiful just to indicate that it has qualities of good.

I don't remember if I replied at all, but in retrospect the answer is yes. Didion retains her straightforward, journalistic style, so the prose is not overflowing with symbols or similes. But the very structure deserves to be called beautiful - the way she lets us into her obsessions, the way she works these dark thoughts over until they are smooth, letting us run our fingers over the surface.

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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Our skin and bones make noise

First of all, I'd like to say that the photo above does not necessarily have anything to do with the content of this post. It's just a picture of a contender at the Westminster Dog Show that I got off of Jezebel, in which it looks a lot as though the dog is floating in mid-air. Upon a second glance, it looks more like the dog is being lightly abused. No matter.

The picture is, in its own way, relevant to this post precisely because of where I first ran across it, on the excellent and addictive pop-culture live-action amalgamation that is Jezebel. Like many people, I work at a desk, with a computer, a mouse, and a lot of time on my hands to deal with. Inevitably, I turn to the internet to while away the hours, furtively flipping between Firefox tabs the way, perhaps, a secretary might have hidden a novel on her lap some fifty or sixty years ago (or now, if one's office blocks all the good websites).

My problem is this: as much as I love it, I hate the internet. I've had a hard time articulating why to myself: not all the content is bad - some is great - and it's obviously an invaluable reference tool (I choose not to link to Wikipedia here, because honestly, you can do that for yourself, and there's other stuff out there too, guys).

Nonetheless, I can't help but feel that the internet, as a venue, tends to lower the level of any discourse that encounters it - comment strings are anonymous and vehement, there is often no editing, and daily transcipts of celebutante exploits can travel faster than brushfire via news sites, Jezebel-esque blogs, and sundry social media. You can go to the New York Times looking for information about NAFTA and leave having inadvertently learned that someone in Hollywood doesn't think any woman is as pretty as Julia Roberts.

I'm not pointing fingers at anyone who creates internet content; obviously I blog, and people can't be blamed for doing something they enjoy, can market, and are able to get paid for (not that I am, but someone out there is, I'm sure). Rather, I'm interested in the way that people - again, myself included - ravenously consume the worst and most mindless of information when it's available, how willingly we reduce our (inter?)national conversation to gossip.

Perhaps it's just that the internet is a great equalizer: in Edith Wharton's time, it was only the affluent who were afforded the opportunity to ruin lives with razor wits or cleverly phrased groupthink. But in the age of the internet we are all involved in the lives of socialites - indeed, we all have the opportunity to be socialites; our fifteen minutes of fame have never been more accessible - and anyone can be our Lily Bart. We all scramble to have our say, but what the hell are we talking about?

I'm willing to admit that perhaps this is just my problem; it's my choice to read what I read, write what I write, engage in whatever. For this reason, I'm trying to make a conscious effort to expose myself to different forms of thought and expression - not just writing, but music, art, film. How is it different to talk about fear, anger, or qualities of light in a story or in a song rather than in plain narrative? And how does it affect your thought patterns to encounter such varying conversations?

To that end:


Just a small start.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008


I could scarcely be more pleased - nay, ecstatic - about Barack Obama's decisive victory in the presidential election last night. The upswell of emotion not only around the country but, in fact, around the world inspired tears, champagne toasts, and a spate of text messaging with my family to end all spates of text messaging, ever.

How's THAT for historical.

However, I'm deeply saddened by what looks like a victory for Prop 8 in California, which endangers the thousands of recent marriages between gay couples in that state. Marriages which were beautiful, joyous, and long-awaited.

And so I would like to say, for the record, that I think that a ban on gay marriage weakens the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, or perhaps I should say: of marriage generally.

What a damn shame.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Public Service Announcement

So, it was inevitable: Dave has started a blog. A cheese blog no less. I have long been a proponent of his writing, and now that he is combining that skill with my favorite consumable substance, I am filled with incandescent joy.

Sometimes it drives me nuts that he is so much funnier than I am, but then I remind myself that I am a better scuba diver*. Regardless, I recommend visiting his new site: After Cheese Comes Nothing.

*Despite my tiny ear canals.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

My Current Copy is a Dog-Eared Paperback

Today I am thinking about missing people. The thought pattern can be tracked back pretty easily, both the the many (many...many...) visitors who've been through Chicago lately and to the fact that I'm re-reading Marilynne Robinson's Gilead. The first time I picked that book up was, I believe, in 2005, not long after it came out. It was summertime, and people were leaving. The class directly ahead of me at Grinnell was wrapping up their graduation pomp, I was mildly ill, and overwhelmed by all the comings and going. And there was Gilead, on sale at the tiny Grinnell bookstore.

What else was happening? I ask to jog my own memory. I remember Dave's house (erstwhile nicknamed LeSchwArk for all its illustrious residents) during a picnic, almost cracking my tooth on a crawdaddy, crawling upstairs and hiding in Dave's room because I was sick and I just wanted to read. I remember Vanessa in a dress, maybe the first time I had seen such an outlandish thing. I remember the long, lush fields of green.

I was leaving too, although not permanently. The next semester would see me in St. Petersburg, in a tiny apartment on Goroxovaya Ulitsa which smelt of my grandmother's coat closet (there are old parasols in there. I was quite taken with them when I was younger, because they made me feel I was a lady. Little did my proto-feminist brain know). It would be months before I returned to a cold and frozen Iowa tundra, and by that time I would be different, and a significant number of my close friends would be gone. So we were reveling/reckoning that summer.*

My first copy of Gilead was hardbound and expensive, and I think that one Ms. Rachel Pierce is still holding it hostage somewhere. At the time I wasn't as taken with the story as I had hoped to be, after hearing so much positive outpouring from friends who'd read it. My experience with epistolary novels was limited, and so perhaps I got stuck on the form, or on the protagonist.

In a sense, it's reasonable that I would relate to him (the protagonist, that is) more as I am than as I was. At that time, I was surrounded by people in motion. I was actively leaving Iowa, seeking out the greater world, which is exactly what John Ames does not do. After his brother leaves to study German philosophy and goes prodigal, Ames reasserts his faith in the small town of Gilead, his vocation to stay and minister to the sheep in that byway of a place.

Here I am, three years later, and it must be said that I am not in Iowa. However, the action and aims of my life aren't what they once were; I'm no longer thrusting forward quite as violently, and I've come to feel the vital importance of winnowing. By that I don't mean that people should live narrow existences, or that every soul on earth would benefit from spending all their time in the space of a few square miles. But I do think that people tend to overlook how much choices free and shape them - if you leave all possible doors open, you never really get to test your strength in any particular area. You never form the bonds that you would if you moved forward in a definitive direction, and you never achieve the level of creativity and perspective that comes from working within a field of boundaries.

This is why I've always like writing poems within a form.

Gilead is the story of a man who is living with his choices, and who has come to see the light, the beauty, the formlessness of forms. That is something that I am thinking about. And how, you might ask, does this relate to missing people? Why in god's name did I bring that up at the beginning of this little post, only to let it fall by the wayside?

Well, in a sense I am thinking of that wordless nostalgia that tugs on me whenever I meditate on the happy past. Even people who have fallen away from me, run away from me, been pushed away, are attached to memories I will never be free from (even if I wanted to be). I think that the more you sift through the dross of things, the more you shave bits and pieces off, the more acutely you feel the need for what matters.

*Yes, ok, that's the title of an Ani DiFranco album. But it's appropriate! I swear.

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Monday, June 16, 2008

It's always sunny

I just got back from San Francisco, which I was visiting for a conference. Before leaving I was slightly apprehensive - not because I thought that anything bad would happen, but simply because I am a nostalgic person by nature, and I worried that being in a place I so loved living in would tap into some deep emotional wellspring, an unquenchable urge for the past.

This is the thing about places: I am attached to them. Back in college, I remember a friend of mine introduced a reading (from the literary magazine which she had edited, and which I myself would go on to edit) by noting that most, if not all the pieces to be presented centered, revolved, or oscillated quietly around the concept of "place" - an easy thing to do for would-be metropolitan youths stuck by choice in the middle of Iowa. I stood up and read a poem which had nothing to do with this idea, and I felt weirdly smug about it, as though I were transcending some undesirable state of mind or bucking a trend when in fact I was doing neither, I was just reading a poem.

But after living abroad, moving to various unknown cities, and watching how both my life and my writing change as a result, I don't disassociate myself from the concept anymore. Once you've felt displaced, a sense of place seems like a marvelous idea.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Just My Opinion.

Well, it turns out that Dmitri Nabokov will indeed be publishing The Original of Laura, and I just think that is stupid.

I've heard some compelling arguments for retaining the cards (which contain the manuscript fragments) as archive pieces (though for the record, I am not swayed), but I think publishing them as an actual novel (or even partial novel) is irresponsible to Nabokov's name as a novelist.

But I've said my piece about it. This is just my whiny, teenage-esque grand finale of disapproval.

In other news, my grandmother is having some desperate craving for "French pastry," but after waving napoleons, eclairs, and croissants under her nose, we (or technically, my mother, since I'm not there to do the waving) are (is) experiencing no luck.

Her request (delivered post-suggestion-of-croissant, for the record) includes "pastry dough & cream in the middle & more cream on top & a squiggle of chocolate." Does anyone have any insight?

Doesn't this picture of a napoleon look exactly like that description?

Mon Dieu.

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