Monday, July 27, 2015

We Went to the Beach

I finally read a Kate Christensen novel.  Tim once suggested reading her and I turned up my nose.  "Isn't she an alcoholic?" was my unfortunate response. 

Of course, I was thinking of her first novel called In the Drink which I mistook for a memoir.  Ha!  Add this to the growing list of literary blips in my brain, like the time I was disappointed to learn that A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was not, in fact, a translated book of nonfiction.  Crestfallen!

In the Drink
is, in fact, about drinking too much.  It's also about being young and clueless in New York City which, on my good days, is something I write about, too. 

I really liked In the Drink, so much that I went upstairs to where my husband hoards - I mean, stores - a metric ton of books.  I pulled down The Great Man, Christensen's fourth novel.  It won a major prize!  The PEN/Faulkner, in 2008. 

In other book news, I finished Jonathan Franzen's book of essays, Farther Away.  Some people think it's fun to hate his guts but I really do like his writing, his nonfiction in particular.  I appreciate when he openly talks about his coming of age as a writer.   In "On Autobiographical Fiction," he walks through his many attempts to not write about his family or his past self while writing The Corrections.  A few things happened in his life that made "going there" safer.  First, his marriage, which was a bit of a hindrance and hotbed of misery, fell apart.  Then, his mom got sick.  Finally, he had a conversation with a friend who called him out on his worry about getting his brother's experience wrong.

To Franzen's shock, his friend says: "Do you think your brother's life revolves around you?  Do you think he's not an adult with a life of his own, full of things more important than you are?  Do you think you're so powerful that something you write in a novel is going to harm him?" 

Franzen also talks about the difficulties of starting new work, and how he has to become a new person to do so:

"I'd like to devote the remainder of my remarks to the idea of becoming the person who can write the book you need to write....I will note in advance that much of the struggle consisted - as I think it always will for writers fully engaged with the problem of the novel - in overcoming shame, guilt, and depression.  I'll also note that I'll be experiencing some fresh shame as I do this."

Ha!  If this were one of the email newsletters flooding my inbox every day, I would highlight "the struggle consisted in overcoming shame, guilt, and depression" and hang a little Tweet This! next to it. 

Except those pre-selected Tweet This! moments drive me up a wall.  Forget trying to write a novel; what could be more arrogant than assuming your thoughts are tweetable to someone else, am I right, Internet?

I'm gonna hop off my essay soapbox now.  My last post on Emily Fox Gordon was its own term paper, and I hope we all survived it!  This week, looking for a blueberry cake recipe for the mound of perfect berries waiting patiently in our freezer, I thought, why don't I just throw up some recipes on this site?  Would you guys think I'd lost my way? 

I haven't lost my way, I promise.  I'm just plugging away at summer, flirting with A/C and trying not to drink too many frozen Cokes.  Scott Spenser said a novelist is someone who sits around the house all day in his underwear, trying not to smoke.  Now that smoking is so out of vogue, the definition is probably closer to someone who sits around in her Lululemon pants all day, trying to do six minutes of yoga. 
Speaking of yoga, Samantha is practicing standing in the middle of the room on her own.  She crouches, pre-Crow pose, and inches up slowly.  If she makes it all the way up, she laughs hysterically.  If she falls on her butt, she takes it like a champ and starts all over.  It reminds me of learning new poses: the elation when I get it, the obsession to try again when I fall out of it, the taste of it like a memory in my muscles, a form trying to express itself, a fire starting in my cells.

I think, if you can get past some the shame or the guilt or the plain inexperience that keeps you from embracing the unknown, life can be kinda sweet sometimes.  What do you think?  Do you agree?  If so, tweet it!

More on beach trips here:

With a baby
With an Eric Vithalani poem
With a coupla self-esteem tips

As a friend of mine would say: You're welcome!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Wilds of Narrative: Emily Fox Gordon On Marriage, Writing, and Therapy

There's nothing like catching a cold in June to make you feel silly about yourself, but I did and I do, and I've basically been recovering from life for half a month now. 

We had visitors over Memorial Day.  We showed them all our favorite spots; basically, we did nothing but shove sugar and/or dairy in their mouths for days.  Now the rains have come to Michigan, ushering in luscious, bee-heavy greenery, making it apparent to everyone in the neighborhood how little education I have in horticulture.

The people who lived in our house before us had extraordinarily green thumbs - not to be confused with Sissy Hankshaw's extraordinarily large thumb, a la Tom Robbins' exquisitely titled Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.  They left behind hydrangeas, hostas, peonies, roses, and a bunch of other beautiful things I'm too ignorant to know the names of.  In fact, I call these plants no names at all as I swing in the hammock and ponder just who is going to pull up the flowering vines that send alarmingly assertive shoots every which way around our fecund property.  It sure isn't going to be me. 

Whenever I get sick and/or stressed, I can usually trace my unhappiness back to a lack of quality narrative.  Either it's been too long since I've watched a good movie or I'm reading too many books at once and can't find a foothold in one.  Worst of all is when I realize I'm not reading anything at all, not even back issues of favorite magazines I keep around, issues Sam has somehow not discovered yet because they hide behind the stroller in the living room - so far, so good. 

This May, I suffered a fit of reading starts.  Nothing quite stuck and I was out of sorts until I got my hands on Book of Days, a collection of personal essays by the divinely registered Emily Fox Gordon. 

Where to begin?  Gordon is a marvel.  I heard her speak on a panel at AWP this year, and I pretty much fell in love on the spot.  As her fellow panelists spoke - including John T. Price who moved half the room to tears - Gordon looked down at the table.  She drummed it occasionally, as if rapping out a rhyme.  Was she okay?  She might have been rehearsing what she had to say, but I couldn't be sure.  I was actually a little nervous for her.  Was she prone to forgetfulness?  Hadn't she prepared?  Would she pull off what she needed to say when it was her time to speak? 

I needn't have worried.  When she spoke on the topic of creating secondary characters in non-fiction, she was candid and full of such fascinating phraseology, I see now why her writing astounds.  What appeared to cause much effort on the part of her brain, her drumming and pondering while waiting to speak, I want to believe may just have been her way.  We all want our artists to be charmingly eccentric, don't we?  Or is that just my wish, my Southerness showing? 

In any case, I wanted to take her home with me. 

Instead I did the far more socially appropriate thing and checked out her book from the library.  The essays in Book of Days spear and turn around the fact that Gordon was institutionalized as a teenager for behavior that was, in essence, symptomatic of deeper rifts happening at home.  Her account of the psychiatric hospital in the Berkshires where she spent several years of her youth is sober and forgiving, wicked and artistic, forthcoming and tactful.  In short: so damn good. 

From an essay called "My Last Therapist":
"My therapeutic education did me harm.  It swallowed up years when I might have been learning, gathering competence and undergoing the toughening by degree that engagement in the world makes possible...I acquired the habit of the analysand, the ruthless stripping away of defenses.  But in my case not much self had yet developed, and surely none of it was expendable...I stayed for three years, years that I would otherwise have spent in college."

Throughout the book, Gordon speaks of the self-identity and self-esteem she finally found in her life through her irascible relationship to her husband, a philosophy professor.  (Her own father was an acclaimed academic, a topic she writes about with a kind of frank restraint in the essay "Faculty Brat," then with her ferocious intelligence in "Faculty Wife.")  She pirouettes through issues of feminism and analyzes the aggression that teemed in her personality for much of her life, aggression that didn't find its proper expression until she started writing after her daughter was born. 

I would never call my marriage irascible, nor use a phrase like "the vehemence of his anxiety" to describe anything about my husband, but I relate wholeheartedly to Gordon's understanding of marriage as an arena for journeying alongside not just another person but - because of that person's particular code of being, and how the two of you relate to each other - a place for discovering your own self, too.  (One of my favorite lines in the book, which of course I can't locate right now, went something like: I wasn't passive-aggressive.  I was passive and aggressive.)  Without dragging you through my own therapeutic garbage, let's just say, I appreciate this aspect of marriage.  I was able to commit to Tim because of the quality of his being, but on an elemental level the alchemy of marriage itself, some days, gives my breath back to me.

Gordon also puts into words the primal healing that occurred for her when she started to write seriously:

"In the years since I left Dr. B's office I've begun to write in earnest, and writing has allowed me - as nothing else, even the wisdom of [revered psychologist] Dr. Farber, ever has or could - to escape the coils of therapy.  I don't mean that writing has been therapeutic, though sometimes it has been.  The kind of writing I do now is associative and self-exploratory - much like the process of therapy, except that the therapist is absent and I've given up all ambition to get well."

She concludes this section about her final therapist with the words: "He was more than competent; he was really good at what he did, and got better as he went along.  Eventually he became a kind of adept.  He learned to vaporize at will like the Cheshire cat, leaving nothing behind but a glow of unconditional positive regard, allowing me spacious arena in which to perform my dance of self.  In resisting his impulse to lure me back into the charted territory of psychoanalytic explanation, he granted me my wish to be released into the wilds of narrative."   

I love that quick leap, in her prose, from the therapist's couch to the "wilds of narrative," and feel it gets at what I'm basically always trying to say: The practice of art is itself a kind of wilderness.  The link between the natural world and creativity is so strong in my life, I become lost without either of them.

I might have first written about this idea in a post I wrote four years ago.  I remember the night I wrote it fondly because my relatives were visiting and were teaching me how to use Facebook (!!).  Four years is not that long ago, in the span of Facebook, so it shows you how slow I was to that game. 

It's also important for me to link to that post because ever since I read this essay by Justin Hocking, I have felt a strange sense of gratitude and schooling, a humbling in the face of what Hocking says about Ken Kesey.  I just re-read the essay to cull some lines, but the language, while brilliant, is maybe stronger than some Sut Nam'ers might prefer.  (My inner Presbyterian is showing herself right now!)  The part I'm talking about, for which I was exceedingly grateful when I first read it, begins: "I don’t think I would have particularly liked Ken Kesey in the 60’s, or any decade, for that matter."  I've written about Kesey a couple of times on this blog, and I want to come clean and say, maybe I should have done a little more research before metaphorically running into the arms of his socio-literary-drinking-the-koolaid circles. 

All right lovelies, we've reached the end.  Check out Emily Fox Gordon and go for a hike, a walk, a seduction of mosquitoes.  And if you're in Michigan anytime soon, please come do my gardening for me. 


Monday, May 11, 2015


Last night, Annie Leibovitz's book, Pilgrimage, fell off the shelf in our living room.  Samantha was asleep, Tim and I were upstairs in his office.  We heard the clatter and looked at each other, puzzled.  Tim hesitated, wondering if someone was downstairs, but it had sounded so much like a picture falling off the wall, it was more reflex than actual consideration.  He headed down.  I waited before joining him.  We couldn't find the source of the noise.  Finally, I saw it, the big Niagara Falls cover on the floor by the sofa, tucked beneath its arm. 

Maybe our guests had been thumbing through the book before heading home yesterday.  Maybe it had a message for us, since we visited the Falls last week.  Maybe it was just time for me to return to this marvelous book, whose commanding, ascetic prose leaves me breathless every time. 

It was my first time visiting Niagara Falls and I can hardly wait to go back.  We were celebrating our five-year wedding anniversary.  This time we had a little munchkin in tow.

Comfort Inn restroom sign, keeping it real.

Meanwhile, the Westin's restroom is for skinny bitches only?


Tim rocking one national landmark T-shirt at a different one (and S. rocking some pjs).


On a different part of the art spectrum, I read a book called Graduates in Wonderland and really enjoyed it.  It's a memoir, of sorts, that originated in emails two grads wrote each other about their lives in various cities after school.  It reminded me of those years in my own life, how daunting and exhilarating they were.  I felt for those girls making their way through the world, parsing job interviews, grad school applications, douche-bag after douche-bag, New York, Paris, Beijing.  I recognized a little of myself in them.  It was also a relief to be on the other side of that life, to look at their quandaries with the assurance of a matron, thinking, Girls, you must ask more for yourselves! Especially when facing love.  It felt nice to have a bit of a clue. 

Not that the authors were ever far from understanding.  It was also a relief to see two young women take their lives so seriously.  Sometimes too seriously.  Sometimes they didn't seem to realize their enormous privileges and you could almost trace the amount of suffering they were experiencing at any given moment to this lack of awareness, which I find interesting.  Entitlement is not just unattractive, it is also a disease that eats away at happiness.

Well!  With that preachy little soapbox, I wish you a belated and happy Mother's Day.  Spring is here and I am soaking in all this rain.  Green grass, insects, hammocks, moss creeping across patio bricks. 

To all that nourishes you, mysterious and flowing, and free,

P.S. I have more to say about Niagara Falls but it's all swirling inside.  It was a holy place for me - too white and water-filled to hammer into form here.  Let's just say, I went quiet for a few days, soaking everything in, a dog with her nose to the wind.  You know those places?  Where is yours?

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Sut Nam 101 - Don't Drive Into the Lake

How To Find A Poem

Wake with a dream-filled head.
Stumble out into the morning,
barely aware of how the sun
is laying down strips of silver
after three days' rain,
of how the puddles
are singing with green.
Look up, startled
at the crackle of something large
moving through the underbrush.
Your pulse jumping,
gaze into its beautiful face.
The wary doe's body,
the soft flames of ears.
As it bounds away,
listen to the rhythm
of your own heart's disquiet.
Burn into memory
the white flag of its parting.
Before you return
to house and habit,
cast your eyes into the shadows,
where others stand waiting
on delicate hooves.

"We are so conditioned to believe we must become something before we can be happy.  This concept of always striving and becoming keeps us from being happy." (Yogic advice)

The poem above is from a new book called What the Heart Knows: Chants, Charms, & Blessings, by Joyce Sidman paired with illustrations by Pamela Zagarenski.  I'm pretty sure it's supposed to be a children's book but what does that really mean?  I mean, we're all children inside.  When I forget that I become lost.

I've been writing this post for weeks in my head.  Like everything else there, it shifts from beast to beast by the hour.  Did you know my last post, the one about Alexandra Fuller, was Sut Nam Bonsai's 100th? It seemed an impossibly low number when I put it all together but then, when I thought about how many tens make up a hundred, I felt a little better about myself.  Okay, I've done something.  What a sad response to a milestone!  Did I do enough? 

I was going to write about finally reading Jonathan Franzen's essay about David Foster Wallace's suicide, Farther Away, in the book of the same title, but I just got back from AWP (a big writing conference, for you non-writer peeps) and feel like it might be tragic to discuss something so unfairly obvious as two white male narcissists, er, writers!, at a time when issues of diversity are being so elegantly raised by others.  For instance, this New York Times piece on Toni Morrison poked me in the side, peeling back just one shade of my ignorance as a writer and human being, and this analysis of systematic racism and what we can do as individuals to get better was helpful to me.

Instead of discussing Franzen, I will just tell you a few things:

1) Samantha turned one year old this week. 

2) Writers are kind of a neurotic lot.  We took Samantha with us to the conference and it was wonderfully grounding to have built-in breaks between panels and readings.  As difficult as it can be to be present with another being's needs all day long, there is something great, too, about getting my head out of my bum and into the world again.  I prefer when there is a mix of the two, though, both intellectual activity and baby-wrangling, and find myself most fulfilled as a mother when I am around other people who can entertain my social child, and I get to just be around.  I know this isn't the definition of motherhood: just show up every now and then!  No no no no.  But it does happen like that sometimes, and when it does, I am happy.

I'm not saying I'm not happy at other times, but it takes a bit more spiritual Kung-fu-ery to get there at those times.  And yes, Kung-fu-ery is a word.

It's hard to believe what I'm about to tell you about originated when we only had a dog to take care of, but it's true, it did.  It happened a long time ago.  One day when Tim had been at work all day and I had been home writing, Bear had for some reason driven me bananas.  Maybe there was a thunderstorm - not his best time, zen-wise - or maybe he had not been satisfied by the amount of exercise I had given him.  Whatever it was, at the end of the day when Tim got home, he sat the dog down and told him that days like that were the reason moms drove station wagons full of children into lakes. 

Now that I have a child, even writing this down sounds impossibly morbid, like how could we joke about a thing?  It was hilarious at the time.  We used that joke a lot.  Being on the brink of a minor meltdown, like if we were simply hungry or the living room was unusually messy, we would say something like, I'm about to drive the station wagon into the lake!

We said those things when we only had ourselves to take care of, when we were really hungry but did not also have a baby pulling down the neck of our shirt, a baby who was also really hungry and being repeatedly vocal about that hunger while needing a diaper change, in public.  Now I get how some moms just drive the car into the lake.  I'm not saying I would, or that it sounds remotely like a solution to my life.  Does my life even need a solution right now?  (Where am I going with this?)  What I'm saying is, now I get how it's possible to get to the brink of terrible things.  The divide between being at the end of your rope and letting go of that rope is still, thankfully, wide enough to locate, but since becoming a parent, I've approached the end of that rope plenty of times.  The key, I think, is just to hang on?

Actually, I don't know what the key is, honestly.  That joke isn't as funny as it used to be.  We do not have a station wagon, though.  Phew!

I hate to say it, but this does link back to my original impulse to bring up Jonathan Franzen, or J. Fran as we call him in our house.  His essay about David Foster Wallace was a little controversial I guess - like everything else in that man's life.  I guess some people thought he was capitalizing on his friend's fame.  Maybe others were upset about the actual content in the essay.  I don't know have all the ins and outs, which is sloppy of me, I realize.  Without doing a whole research report on the thing, I just wanted to say that I appreciate how scathing the essay is at times, not because suicide needs to be judged harshly but because Wallace's decision affected the people who loved him in a very real way.

For those of you who haven't read Farther Away (that sounds more indicting than I mean it to! I hope you are reading books of children's poetry or The Hobbit or cd liner notes, whatever), Franzen goes on a trip to both watch birds and scatter some of Wallace's ashes, to mourn him appropriately and stop fleeing his own grief about his friend's suicide.  In the essay, he recalls how Wallace was not interested in what to Franzen had become an unexpected but life-saving passion, and that was birding. 

I have had this own experience, personally, where nature - or The Nature, as, I think it was Dave Barry, wrote - inevitably pulls me from whatever swirl of mental turmoil I have happened to cook up that day and pools my energy back in my feet, planting me back on the earth.  Wallace couldn't get there, had no interest in something as banal and spectacular as a bright little bird, and while this doesn't mean anything for you and me necessarily, I appreciated Franzen's willingness to point it out, and to be angry with his friend for what he essentially decides became an ego move: choosing Cobain-like artistic immortality over the broken, messy, and very real relationships in his life. 

That's all.  I wish I had more.  I heard some wonderful writers speak this week.  I saw old friends and wheeled my baby around Minneapolis, discovering once more how that girl adores wind.  It's like a long-lost friend.  She squeals and gasps and grins when it blows in her face.  I ate very little except peanut butter, apples, raisins, and coffee.  You can eat coffee, right?  Now that I'm home, I'm trying to correct that.  For instance, I'm eating ice cream right now.  I'm ready to sort through all the information I gathered and weed out some of the more intense and less helpful information that is inevitably offered when so many cranial-minded folks gather in one spot.  Buzz buzz buzz buzz. 

Working it out, kids!  One day at a time - no station wagons in sight.


Monday, March 23, 2015


We were at another lake this weekend, this time for the same reason every literary person goes on holiday: a basketball tournament.  That's right, I attended a March Madness gathering.  I was once invited to this gathering with the promise of movies and yoga but since the town we were in didn't even have a coffee shop, I wasn't holding out for any Bikram studios.  Not that I do Bikram!  I have attended two Bikram classes in my life.  During the middle of the first class the instructor answered his cellphone.  He stood in those strange underwear-pants Bikram instructors wear, in front of all those Jazzercise mirrors, and coached his wife through disconnecting their house alarm.  I returned the next morning because it was part of a free package and, also, because the instructor complimented my yoga skillz.  (I am not immune to compliments.)

I finished reading Alexandra Fuller's new book this week.  It's called Leaving Before the Rains Come and is about her divorce from the man she married as a young woman living on her family's farm in southern Africa.  If you haven't yet read Don't Let's Go To the Dogs Tonight, you must!  It is drenched in beauty.  It also has quite a bit of sadness, but if you can take it, it will honestly make your heart bigger.  Oh life!  Why so large and crushing sometimes?  Sighhhhhhhh.  

I really do love Don't Let's Go To the Dogs Tonight.  More importantly, as I rediscovered in the new book, I love Fuller's prose.  I found myself nibbling at Leaving Before the Rains Come like a delicate dessert, moving slowly, leafing back and forth between sections, wanting to taste every word.  The book moves between the progress of her marriage and some of her family's personal history in southern Africa.  The sections about her family were my favorite, a delightful reminder that no matter what genre I read, I hunger for character.  If you do it right, some family members make wonderful characters.  I'm thinking here of David Sedaris, obviously, who sort of takes the cake for this sort of trick.  On a different part of the memoir spectrum, the less beguiling Molly Wizenberg crafts a loving portrait of her larger-than-life dad in her first book.  And though Bill Bryson is, it seems, a bit of a controversial figure in both wilderness and literary circles, who can forget his outrageous send up of his longtime friend Katz in A Walk in the Woods

Some decisions are easier than others
If I'm being honest, I think the real reason I did not move quickly through Fuller's newest book was not just because I savored every word.  It was because I could feel the long slow car-crash of her marriage and was not ready for the bloody end.  The author herself took sweet time getting to her point and, in that slow, circling-in-on-itself way of the book, I knew I was in trouble.  There was not a huge story, or rather, there were plenty of dramatic events, but the way Fuller told them, I desired as much time to process the information as she herself had clearly been doing for decades.  No matter how resolved the writer tried to appear, I simply did not want to see one of my heroes go through the slaughter of divorce. 

Speaking of slaughter, we made the mistake of going to a brewery on St. Patty's Day.  I don't really go to bars, period, so to wade into one on an official drinking holiday, with a baby strapped to my back, was one of my dumber moves of 2015. But we were meeting new friends and I'm so glad we made it.  The conversation was lovely.  We discussed writing, reading, and how stressful a room full of drunk people is to all of us, not just to my young child.  Don't worry - no babies were harmed in the making of this celebration, only our vocal chords as we shouted over patrons arm-wrestling nearby.  For better or worse, our daughter is emerging as the social butterfly of the family and seems genuinely entertained by rooms full of buzzing activity. 

During barroom conversation, I was reminded of a novel I read in the fall.  One-third of the way through it, two of the main characters divorced.  I did not see it coming and it sort of undid me, as a reader.  I was Just So Sad.  I never really recovered.

Divorce is a super tender subject.  I haven't gone through it personally but something about it really slays me, and not for any of that silly judgmental religious business.  Obviously there are times when it is necessary and important, but it must be hard to find an example where it is not a heart-wrenching trial.  My response to it may be as simple as understanding what it means to lose your footing, your foundation, your trust in the world.  I could cry just thinking about people having to go through this in addition to all the other pain-in-the-rear things adults have to go through, and when kids are part of the mix, just hand me the whole box of Kleenex, please. 

Wading into Alexandra Fuller's account of her divorce was, I suppose, not too different from clasping a woman's hand you have known a long time, going to that difficult place with her when she unpacks bad news.  Even though she isn't really my longtime friend, what are books if not an opportunity to know another life, to sit with another being, watch them grow and change and reveal and share and dance themselves into being, out from sadness, into light, right in front of your eyes?

Tender.  All of it.  The story of loss, the grief of divorce, the pressures of life no matter who stays together and who doesn't.  All of us in this big stew at once maybe, just maybe, comforting one another through the darkness.