Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Everybody's Got A Book List

An old friend from college has been recovering from knee replacement surgery this summer. Between long and rigorous bouts of PT, he seems to be sitting in the recliner with his iPad, combing hundreds of online magazines and newspapers for interesting things to send out to his friends. It is an act of friendship, even a communal instinct for him, I guess, to send out articles that he thinks will appeal to his buddies far and wide, perhaps to tickle us with pleasure, to get a reaction or start a conversation.

To me he sends the book lists.

There are the obligatory lists that extol young persons to read these "essential" books lest your education be incomplete. So many of these books, unfortunately, are better digested with more maturity and life experience under one's belt.

Some lists are irritating, like this list from GQ that seems to assume we are all burdened by feelings of obligation to read certain literary classics, and that substituting other, even more excellent though less-read books will somehow relieve us of that. I mean, if you are one of those people who still, in this age of Trump and addictive social media, reads for pleasure, why not read both?

(I refer to another piece he recently sent with this unfortunate news from the Washington Post about the continued decline in American leisure reading.)

There are book writers out there like Thu-Huong Ha at Quartzy who offer well curated lists for those of us who want really good alternatives to the lists dominated by white males. You can sign up for her newsletter filled with book thoughts and reading suggestions you won't find most places online.

My favorite book list by far comes from brilliant actress and writer Sharon Horgan of Amazon Prime's Catastrophe. Her list is a wonderfully individual and eclectic blend of fictional works, poetry and non-fiction. Which is, in my opinion, the sort of list we should all be sharing:  the books that grab us and hold us, that end up shaping the way we think or feel about some aspect of life, or the ones that give us insight into our own existence that may not necessarily derive from the established literary canon. I would never discourage anyone from reading Shakespeare or Joyce, Dante or Cervantes, Austen or the Brontes. But it does seem essential in this age of Trump and addictive social media, to read, to search out the books that truly speak to us and then to savor them.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Our Noble Failures

It has been almost exactly a year since we were last on our English walking trip to the Cotswolds. As the air warms around here and the world greens, I catch myself lost for minutes at a time in remembering particular moments, places of beauty that have stayed strong in my mind. I have many drafts of poems that attempt to describe them, and I am satisfied with only a few. I'm not sure whether it is words that fail, or that it takes longer than one would expect to fully understand the thoughts beneath the thoughts that truly tell the story of why that moment, that particular shade of green, that particular confluence of nature and history was so arresting.

I share a poem today that I am more satisfied with than not, and yet. I am fine until I get to the barley at the end. I have struggled and struggled with the particular sheen and green of new barley, the way it waved in the wind on that particular day, that the wind was light enough to move the barley but not heavy enough to disturb the bees. So, I share a poem that feels mostly right and a little bit failed, and I've arrived to the place where I'm okay with that.

                        St. Mary’s, Swinbrook, Oxfordshire

I could have sat longer
among the lichened headstones
listening to the hum of bees,
watching an old woman
make her inexorable way
to an unblemished grave.
She exchanged fresh flowers
for the wilted remains
of her last visit, a practiced
slow-motion ritual washed
of pity or sorrow, and in the near
field rows of new barley waved
so lithe and green in the wind.


Monday, April 23, 2018

Things We Should Not Write Poems About

 One of the things a writer is often reminded is to put your work in a drawer for a month or two and see how you feel about it after giving it that rest. I wrote the poem below in February, put it in a drawer, and took it out today, after reading about the young man in Nashville who murdered four more people with an AR-15.

Looking at this poem today, I can say that I still stand by its message. It is not, however, prophetic in its prognostication about winter. Wisconsin had appeared to be warming up in February and then somehow got socked with two extra weeks of cold and snow in April. 


Start with the man, the teacher arrested
at your grandson’s school for raping
a seven-year-old boy in the bathroom,
and though your grandson – himself seven
years old – seems to have escaped
these attentions, you hear his mother, your own
baby’s voice crack as she speaks of  betrayal
and self-accusation – this man’s demons
were not on her radar, so another mother’s
baby has suffered. And the very next day
seventeen children murdered at school, another
sick kid with an AR-15 who may
or may not have been on anyone’s
radar. Our senators offer their thoughts
and prayers. So many meaningless thoughts
and prayers. And somehow today, as we decide
it is time to let go of our aged and incontinent
hound, faithful companion these last
seventeen years, bright cardinals
sing out from the cedars
at the back of our yard. Sun shines, snow
melts, as if the back of winter
may finally be broken.


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Why We Need Poetry

My mother has been gone more than 13 years and yet I still think about her a little bit every day. I still long, just a little bit, for her smile, her advice, the chance to tell her about things I know would have interested her. I barely acknowledge these thoughts. Most days they swim just below the surface of my awareness.

And then, some days you might stumble across a poem that expresses everything more perfectly than ever you could. It might make you weep a little and that doesn't feel bad at all. In fact, it feels as if it mends another small segment of the crack in your heart. 

Here is the poem that found me today, written by the Chinese poet Ping Hsin.

Mother, if you see a tiny white paper boat in your sleep,
Do not wonder how it has entered your dream.
It was folded by your loving daughter, with tears in her eyes,
Who begs it to carry home her love and sorrow, over the
    endless mountains and waters.

--Ping Hsin

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Grace, Self-Forgiveness & A Wrinkle in Time

A friend of mine recently posted this quote by Madeleine L'Engle from Walking on Water:

  It may be that we have lost our ability to hold a blazing coal, to move unfettered through time, to walk on water because we have been taught that such things have to be earned; we should deserve them; we must be qualified. We are suspicious of grace. We are afraid of the very lavishness of the gift.

Grace is a notion I've only rarely thought about -- like many of us, I suppose, most of my attention has been on trying to earn it, deserve it, without remembering what it is I'm trying so hard to be worthy of. There is a way this way of thinking only highlights our faults and failings. In my darkest moments, it is the feeling that I am not worthy of forgiveness, of grace, that haunts me. I have again and again had to battle my way back from the morass of that thinking. It has held me down, held me back more than I care to admit.

I have been an avid fan of Madeleine L'Engle since I first read A Wrinkle in Time at the age of 11. Since then I've read almost all of her fiction -- adult and YA -- and her eminently readable essays and
memoirs. So of course we ran out this past weekend to see Ava Duvernay's rendering of this seminal work from my childhood. I was rather fascinated than deterred by what glimpses I'd seen of her lavish, fantastical take on the material -- a story based on tessering across the universe already seemed to offer such opportunity. I was not unaware that at least some critics had found the film wanting.

And I loved what Duvernay and her team did with the material, largely because they held to the book's cherished themes -- that the power to turn away from darkness derives from love and requires the acceptance of grace and forgiveness. As Meg is about to go to battle to save her father, Mrs. Who offers Meg the gift of her faults, which initially seems baffling. Ultimately, it is her very stubbornness, her unwillingness to give up her prickly individuality that saves the day. In the end, Meg is transformed by her own self forgivenss and the grace that arrives from that.

I find myself wanting to say that this message is oversimplified, And then I want to say that perhaps this is not an oversimplification at all. Perhaps it really is a simple thing to forgive ourselves, to embrace the fully messy reality of ourselves and accept grace. Of course, the simplest things are not necessarily the easiest.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

What is a Dog?

Miss Winnie, 7 mo. old, in 2001.
Winnie the Beagle came to a gentle and peaceful end earlier this week. She had scrambled eggs for breakfast and ate a lot of her favorite stinky treats. She was surrounded by a number of her favorite people.

In the two days since we let her go, I've been trying to understand how an 18 lb. dog who in the last year or two often slept 20 hours a day could have taken up so much psychic space in our house. What I mean to say is that there is an almost palpable silence where she used to be, a sense of her goneness that feels as if it is more than just the click of her toenails on the wood floor, her face appearing around the corner when it got close to time for a walk or another meal.

Of course we grieve the loss of the dog who delighted in howling her way across the dog park, who wagged not just her tail but her whole body when she saw us. So many others have written about the way dogs love us unconditionally, without the complications of expectation (beyond the next meal, the next walk, the next ball toss). There is a simplicity to loving a dog that cannot be matched in most of our human relationships. So we grieve.

Much of what Winnie was to us were those thoughts, feelings and wishes we carried about her. They occupied -- still occupy -- space in our brains, our hearts. But that stuff, I think, is not responsible for the particular silence I feel now when I walk through the house. When Winnie looked at us, it was clear that she was her own being, more than just a collection of canine instincts and faculties. She was definably herself. She had a personality that went beyond beagleness --her own preferences and wishes, and a desire to communicate them. I don't mean that in the anthropomorphic sense. But she was always, until her last seconds, completely, fully here.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Where Are We Going?

It feels harder than ever, on almost every level, to peer very far into the future. Perhaps, as the Buddhists teach, the only stability to be found is within one's own self. Which is not to say that impermanence, the inevitability of change, has been an easy pill for me to swallow most of my life. It seems, rather, that after the losses and upheavals of my early childhood, I have erred in favor of trying to hang onto everything, an effort that has often brought its own sorts of misery.

We're about to head home to Madison tomorrow, and I am equally as elated as I was to be heading to Seattle five weeks ago on the heels of a polar vortex that had the Midwest in its grip. In the months ahead I will be working to finish two new writing projects -- one in a genre I've never tried before -- and begin a third. The stalwart husband is heading towards decisions about when and how to retire from the workplace, and what that means for him (and us). Our friends, having known him for years, wonder if he will let himself retire at all. I have to admit, I can't predict where he'll fall.

Our lives right now feel a little the way William Styron once famouly described writing fiction. I paraphrase: It's like driving on an unlit road at night and you can see only as far as the headlights illuminate the path. The work here is to relax into that reality rather than use it as a cause for anxiety. As a writer, I ought to be pretty good at that by now.

The political situation in the United States feels in pretty much the same state, and I and so many of my friends have talked about the anxiety that provokes. My intention for these next months is to make every effort to settle into that as well. Life, circumstances, events will keep happening and with each new bit of illumination, we'll see just as far as the new curve in the road. Today, I feel strangely content in that knowledge. We'll see how it goes from here.