Monday, February 23, 2015

Middle of the Road

Angela Farmer in Nepal, 1985: photo credit here.

Angela Farmer has done it again.  A yoga teacher who focuses on the feminine aspects of darkness, mystery, and cycles in her work, Angela considers her classes to be not a workout but a "work-in." At least, this is
according to the luminous talk I listened to last week.  Maybe her bio says it better when she writes: "For me, Yoga is a journey each day down into my underworld - not knowing what I shall find..." 

She has a British accent, a Dutch husband, and lives in Greece.  I could listen to this woman for days.  See below for my crazed notes scribbled while her words piped into my headphones.

My first ever Sut Nam Bonsai post (!!) was inspired by Angela, so it is perhaps fitting to be returning to her now at a time when my life feels very full, sort of confusing, and ripe with cycles old and new: all true things about the period that birthed this blog.  The idea that every hour is actually new really resonates with me right now, and not just because my life is tied so closely to a young being who learns a new trick every day. 

I have this (totally not original) theory that people like children so much because they remind us of the children within ourselves; they bring us into the present in ways that by-pass years of therapy and meditation; they are still blazing in the gorgeous God/starlight that is within us all, but without the accumulated samskaras and dross that keep the rest of us from seeing that light sometimes.  It is also true, however, that such presence is available at all times, to everyone, and I am sort of fascinated by this truth right now.  My days wobble and contract and blossom so wildly lately, and what is true one day is not true the next.

I had to stop reading The First Wives Club because - speaking of dross - it started to suck.  Perhaps you already knew this, though.  Note to self: finish consuming creative work before wading into public discussion of it

I have picked up The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story, by Julia Reed after delighting in her 2014 effort, But Mama Always Put Vodka In Her Sangria!  This earlier book of Reed's is saving my mind, one hijinks-stuffed page at a time.  A columnist for Garden & Gun (a Southern lifestyle magazine that is more about the gardens than the guns, I swear), Reed's work is gossipy and glib, erudite and glitzy, and generally makes me feel closer to home.  She also wrote for Vogue and Newsweek, jobs that put her firmly in my mind with other writers who successfully bridge North-South culture divide; writers like Roy Blount, Jr., Jane Borden, my dad, etc., who feed me when I am underexposed to loveable, crazy people and the kind of everyday glamor that sometimes only people in the south can pull off.

Speaking of everyday glamor, my mom is coming to visit and it is my birthday this week!  I plan on bathing properly, eating well, and fitting in an exotic errand or two while we have trustworthy childcare close at hand.  I'll report back soon!  Unless it's all a disaster - then I'll just post a picture of Sam.

With love,

Friday, February 13, 2015

Into the Woods

It's almost Valentine's Day.  Yesterday was Sam's ten-month birthday and the only person who wished her a Happy Birthday was the lady in front of me in line at Meijer.  The woman had a two-month old at home and was remarkably cheerful.  She helped me unload my cart (bananas, lampshade, college-ruled notebooks - a variation on the time my friend Sumanth ran into Tim and I buying bananas, cheese, and donuts in grad school).

I wanted to say hello because I missed you guys and because February is one of my favorite months.  Is it childish to have a favorite month?  Don't answer that.

Also, now that we live in Michigan and can expect a more normal spring than ones in, say, Colorado, where it invariably snows in May, we are now closer to winter's thaw, so close I almost taste daffodils.

Where have I been, you may ask?  Besides at Meijer buying bananas?  Well, I've been painting our foyer, pouring over design books like some cliche of a house-wife, writing while Samantha naps - usually on my lap like a fleece-wrapped baby Jesus - and reading here and there. 

I'm currently in the middle of Olivia Goldsmith's The First Wives Club.  When Tim saw it on my nightstand, he says he thought to himself, "Oh, Kara's into beach reads now.  Okay."  I checked it out from the library on a whim, just to see what the story was all about.  I haven't seen the movie but it's always caught my eye, so here we are down the rabbit hole of my associative brain.  I ended up reading the first 100 pages of it in one sitting which sort of surprised me but won me over enough that I will probably finish it.  This piece calls Goldsmith an author of "pop-feminist novels."  What the heck is that?  The phrase leaves me uneasy.  Like, what would be the male equivalent of this category?  Anyway, I like this humongous book with its Manhattan setting.  Goldsmith's frosty-lipped Adele-like glamor shot on the back is excellent and makes me think there was once a glory day for novels (and authors in black sweaters).  It makes me imagine readers sinking their teeth into her book like a big piece of cake. 

I also revisited Meghan Daum's squirrely, bubbling works after listening to her interview on The Other People podcast.  You might remember her early-aughts collection of essays, My Misspent Youth, with its turquoise, blurry cover.  (What you might not remember is pouncing on that book in St. Marks Bookshop one snowy night, but you might have, like I did.)  Daum has a new book out called The Unspeakable which tackles among other things her decision not to have children.  She says our country is still not ready for women who make this decision.  I haven't read the book so I can't be in conversation with her ideas fully, but I've been contemplating this statement a lot. 

At first, I disagreed, or thought I ran in privileged circles because I never felt that I had to have children.  But just because something isn't true for me doesn't make it untrue.  Also, the fact that I wanted to have a child perhaps disqualifies me from weighing in heavily on the subject.

In the interview, Daum says that a society with a variety of roles for women is best for everyone.  This, I definitely agree with.  I remember a friend with a small child once saying that she enjoyed my company because she honestly didn't care for other people's children that much.  She didn't mean it rudely and she didn't want to sound like a snob.  Now that I am a mom, I keep thinking of this woman.  I adore other children but am up to my eyeballs in my own responsibilities.  I just don't have much energy left for anyone else right now.  To hang out with other moms feels like a mirror I can't handle: I know my life is chock full of chaos.  I know my hair is on end.  I don't need someone to show that to me.  I need someone to rescue me from it.

Being a mom gives new meaning to the phrase, Dig deep, which I always equated with pithy high school sports moments or pseudo crises of faith.  Not so now.  Being a parent gives me the, er, constant opportunity to assess my priorities.  The most helpful practice I know came, I believe, from Miranda July in an interview I can't find now, and it is to several times a day, just give up.  Surrender completely to the fact that my life is out of control. 

That's not a very cheerful place to land but it helps me see what matters.  It helps me see what's in front of my face which is usually a pajama-footed being with a halo of strawberry-blonde hair and a pile of books she is plowing through like a digger truck on steroids.  Giving up helps me understand that my dream for this moment may not be what this moment holds but when I let go of that dream, the air can come back into my lungs. 

What else can I tell you?  I liked this article about choosing a narrative voice, by one of our most peculiarly named writers, Dinty W. Moore.

That, and I love you, truly.  May your February be full of Valentines, even if you have to send them to yourself.  In my experience, some years, those are the best ones.



Saturday, January 17, 2015

Little Eskimos

Dear friends

Happy New Year!  I hope you had wonder-filled holidays, even if your wonder was of the "what the hell happened to my life?" variety.  It's cold here and Lake Michigan keeps dumping its wares on us, something Tim warned me would happen.  I don't mind.  It's fulfilling my fantasy about living in an igloo.  My current igloo is multi-storied and has a big rug inside.

I've been reading Ruth Reichl's book, Comfort Me With Apples, which is delicious on every level (and was introduced to me by Kat, of the equally entertaining Eggton blog).  It was Tim's birthday last week, which meant chocolate cake, donuts, and ho-made chicken curry. 

In other news, I watched Valentino: The Last Emperor while Samantha napped.  Talk about an indulgence!  The film is fun, pretty, thoughtful, and kind, though it did put a damper on all those donuts.  Models plus haute couture do not an appetite make.

I love the fabrics in the film, the glamor of fashion itself, but what I really appreciate is the film's exploration of Valentino's "empire", which is nothing short of a portrait of work.  It focuses on Valentino's longtime partnership with Giancarlo Giametti and goes behind the scenes to the seamstresses, set builders, and event designers who make up Valentino's world.  It reminded me of two things: 1) Joshua Wolf Shenk's book Powers of Two, which debunks the myth of the lone genius in our creativity-confused culture, and is the whole reason I heard about Valentino: The Last Emperor to begin with, and 2) How nothing made me happier at my last job than doing behind the scene work so my boss could shine.

I guess the look behind Valentino's curtain reminded me of one other thing, too, the moment in Comfort Me With Apples when five famous American chefs including Alice Waters are to cook a dinner for hundreds in Barcelona and are given nothing but a tiny kitchen and two pans.  Reichl can't help but point out, in addition, that the chefs usually have all kinds of minions to prep and chop their food ahead of time, that they essentially haven't chopped an onion for themselves in a decade.

I love restaurants.  Or, I love them when going out is a luxury.  (When it's a necessity, I just feel lazy, wasteful, and nervous about salt intake.)  I love white plates and sparkling goblets, cloth napkins and beams of proper lighting.  All the same, I have a hard time getting behind the whole chef-as-artist thing.  I guess because I love nothing more than hearty, simple food. In fact, I am still a little embarrassed that once, when visiting Amelia Morris, when asked what my favorite food is, I answered apples and salad.  (See also: what could I do with haute couture if I were taller and ate fewer donuts?)  But it's a little weird that I can't wrap my head around chefs as artists because that is my main motivation for being in the kitchen: to create. 

I appreciate Reichl's writing because she makes food sound so easy and full of love.  And while I would never ever call myself a cook or even a foodie, I can't deny the fact that I fell headlong into Molly Wizenberg's first book, A Homemade Life, and have a hard time looking away whenever I come across Luisa Weiss's book, My Berlin Kitchen.

So I guess this post is all leading up to what my life is leading up to a lot these days: memoirs and, in this case, food memoirs.  I stayed up reading an advanced copy of Amelia's book this week and guess what?  It's beautiful.  I zoomed through its pages like a Dyson vacuum and was tingling when I finished it in the early morning.  I was a bit of a grouch the next day but it was worth it, especially since I didn't have to growl at Tim anymore whenever he picks it up. 

I know I've mentioned this book a lot, and it's true, I'm excited about it.  I had the privilege of reading a few of its pages early on, and have been dying to get back to those pages ever since.  Now those pages and the stories they contain are all growsed up.  The fact that I can live inside Amelia's Going To California tale whenever I want now is just so fun. 

If you want to check out Amelia's story, here is a link to the book's trailer.  In the meantime, be well and be sexy, no matter how much butter you use! 

With love,


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Lynda Barry & (Bonus!) Gift Guide

My friend sent me Lynda Barry's new book, Syllabus.  I suppose it's disingenuous to call her my friend.  I studied with her in graduate school and have been the recipient of so many books from her throughout the years, my definition of what a book can be has been whacked over the head - in a great way - many times.  It is a testament to her skill as an instructor, her aplomb as a mentor, that she is instilled so cozily in my brain I sometimes forget to credit her the years (and books) she has ahead of me. 

Appropriately enough, Syllabus is a collection of notes from and stories about Barry's years teaching the link between images, imagination, and the physical practice of writing and drawing.  I'm only a little ways in right now but already love it.  By happy accident, my husband recently brought home a different Barry book, One Hundred Demons, and I have (greedily) profited from its beauty as well. 

One Hundred Demons started as a project for, so parts of it can be still be viewed online.  This one is pretty great and gets at both the magical wonder that is the world of newspapers (in its mention of "Hints From Heloise") and at something Barry does particularly well, which is honor her outsider experience in the art world while roasting both her own weirdness and the uptight strictures from which she was excluded.  She's the kind of artist who makes me feel all right in the world, like maybe it's okay if I'm not perfect (of course that's true) and maybe it's just important to treat dogs nicely and eat food every once in awhile and maybe, whenever possible, put pen to paper because that's where love can be found.

Christmas is usually my favorite time of the year but something about travel and Tim's work and chasing a little baby around this year make me feel old.  While Samantha practices crawling, backing little white-socked feet into every corner of the house, I, truthfully, feel a little lost. 

I have always loved Brene Brown's observation that vulnerability is the first thing we look for in another person and the last thing we want to reveal about ourselves but I don't often write about emotions I'm struggling with here (other than those about Jonathan Franzen - but who isn't struggling with him every day of the year?) because I have to figure out my own problems.  Among friends and family members, I'm somewhat notorious for this.  Too Much Input = Unhappy Kara, so it doesn't do any good to air thoughts until I am ready to talk about them.  Generally, when I offer stories here, they are meant as gifts, pre-digested snippets for your happy consumption.  But I can't really hide from the fact that I am not even close to tackling Christmas this year. 

My friend called me Saturday morning and said, "Don't even try to pretend that winter in Michigan is fine because I know it's not.  I just know."  I died laughing because she grew up in Indiana, so she knows all about the Midwest winter, and besides that, she's right.  The grayness is getting to me.  I realized it on a walk last week, arrested by the sight of a glowing nativity scene.  There is a different one in my neighborhood, an old tacky one I still love, where the lamb's nose has rubbed off and Mary's turquoise robe clashes with the red trim of the camel's blanket.  The nativity that caught my eye is in the fancier neighborhood near mine, and I slowed when I saw it, entranced by its white glow in the cold afternoon.  The figures seemed to be floating on their bed of pine needles.  Something about this softness invited me in and I realized then I was starving for beauty.

I am constantly drafting an essay in my head about the importance of symbols in daily life, how an image works on the heart and mind at once, knitting them together in a glossy twine that frees both.  In Syllabus and other books, Lynda Barry tells the story of her teacher in art school who once asked, "What is an image?"  Barry seems to suggest that her whole life as an artist has been spent pursuing - pondering - this question.  I know it's not a new idea, this question of imagery, but I wonder if others have such a strong impulse to defend image.  Also, what is the difference between an image and a symbol?  I am truly interested in letting symbols speak continuously, in layers that unfold over years.

I may be tipping my hand about my religious upbringing here, but I'm really concerned with letting objects speak throughout the day: in written work, in the house, in glowing nativity scenes around the 'hood.  Looking around our house in Colorado, a friend of mine once said something to the effect of: wow, if this stuff were in anyone else's house, it would look crazy!  She meant it as a compliment, and I took it as one because I knew exactly what she meant.  I often worry how many crocheted deer samplers I will continue to purchase from thrift stores, how many wooden coasters tooled by shaky Alaskan hands I will fit into my life.  But like with friendship, I don't want to close the door on what calls to me, no matter how much it feels I have.  It's not about materials, it's about voice.  I don't ever want to be so complete that I won't listen to a new voice, some intrusion or interruption in my thoughts helping me loosen my grip, some friendly reminder that life is beautiful, that I am safe, that grace exists. 

So there.  I did not set out to write about nativity scenes and, in fact, spend a lot of energy in my life trying not to talk about stuff like that.  In my childhood, religion was a seriously love-filled affair.  My family went to a beautiful church packed with intelligent, funny people.  The pews were strong and shiny and the women had eyes that sparkled.  The men were strange in their sea of dark blazers but who cared?  There was craft glue in the Sunday school rooms.  The older I get, the more I understand how rare my experience was, how poisoned so many of my peers have felt in the hands of religion.  Or maybe enough people are not talking about how it affected them in the way it was perhaps always meant to: as an offer of sanctity, as a hand of peace.  Perhaps sordid tales will always make better stories.  In Jim Harrison's novella Legends of the Fall, there is a season of respite for the main character whose life is generally in turmoil and it is for this happy season that the writer has little to say.  Happiness sometimes makes a bad story, unless perhaps you are willing to detail how you came to that happiness?

Anyway, here we are.  Friday my baby was eight months old.  I think of this fact rather as Eight! Months! Old! (a la One Hundred Demon's exclamation-laden cover).  I'd like to write that I'm a mess, but I don't know if that is true or if I just want to think of my days as worth a story to tell.  I want to say I'm ready for winter hibernation, for a well of quiet to envelop and gather me in, but I think I also need to just crank the stereo.  Off I go to decide which, piling folk art upon folk art, leaning in to find my own.

To your season, whirring and dark and everything at once,

P.S. A Very Merry Sut Nam Gift Guide

I wanted to do an image-rich guide to my favorite things this year but December ran away with my brain.  If your life is anything like mine, you are 15% done with your holiday shopping and totally fine with that.  If your life isn't anything like mine, I commend you!  That must feel good. 

1) Remember my love for Justin Hocking?  His new memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld is about Moby Dick, relationship addiction and recovery, and surfing in NYC.  It is beautiful and Hocking sticks the landing of every one of his literary acrobatics.

2) Claire Dederer's memoir, Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, has some of the most riveting prose I've encountered in a while, especially around Dederer's Seattle childhood.

3) I came across Dederer by her essay in the birth story anthology Labor Day, which I wrote about here and which I cannot say enough good things about - both for the topics covered and its sampling of all kinds of wonderful writers. 

4) I will never stop recommending Laura Munson's outrageously sane memoir, This Is Not the Story You Think It Is: A Season Of Unlikely Happiness.  Munson's husband says he wants a divorce.  She calmly side-steps the blow.  They work through a summer of weirdness and she writes about it in real time.  I felt like I was curled up in her study with her, holding a mug of tea alongside her. 

5) At $12, All Creativelike's "We Are Creators" poster is cheaper than therapy.  I don't know about your sessions but it's probably prettier as well.

6) We should all be subscribing to the prolific, funny Other People podcast, a show that interviews a different author/writer every episode.  This gift could easily become an obsession for people who like to hear about how people arrive at their art.  Speaking of arriving, Amelia's upcoming book, Bon Appetempt: A Coming-of-Age Story (with Recipes!)  is available for pre-order, and so is Megan Mayhew Bergman's newest book, Almost Famous Women.

7) Finally why not give the gift of good food?  A CSA, egg, or milk share would be welcome in most homes I know.  Heck, getting biblical here, you could even give part of an animal, an ethically raised pig, chicken, etc.  There's no rule that says you have to wait for a wedding to give a goat!  Buy someone's artisinal cheese and wield that wheel like the bounty it is. 

Finally, be safe, be kind, and treat yourself well! 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Before There Were Owls, There Were Whales and Trolls (On Justin Hocking, David Sedaris, and Ann Patchett)

If you think I left the house last week, you'd be mistaken.  It snowed for days.  Our gutters dripped rich crystalline icicles.  (It must have looked great because the local news filmed our yard one morning).  I made soup and cinnamon rolls and one little sweet potato that my daughter devoured.  Then I did what I've been doing for months now: I went to church in the spines of my books. 

With that, I give you the program you've all been waiting for: Kara's Book Talk!  For this program it's best to picture me holding a microphone and a coffee cup, hair in an effortlessly chic, messy tumbles.  Whatever you do, absolutely do not pan down to the slippers on my feet or the snoozing child in the swing behind me.  

All right, let's get started.  Up first:

1. The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld

I cannot recommend enough Justin Hocking's glorious memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld. From its whale-laden cover (that shimmers in the glow of a headlamp if you read it in the dark) to its stories of geography, surfing, recovery, Moby Dick addiction, New York City, friendship, and everything in between, I was in heaven on almost every single page.  The writing is electric, the focus is roving, the narration both grounded and mystical.  Plus, parts of it take place in the place in Colorado from which we just moved.  What are the chances?!  Reading scenes in our previous Mexican restaurant was pretty fun - although it wasn't our preferred restaurant.  I would like to shake the hand of any writer who sets stories in our favorite Mexican place, as it was pretty authentic.  The Virgen de Guadalupe was draped in Christmas lights all year long, if you know what I mean. 

To which I say, yes please.  

2. Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls

I haven't actually read this David Sedaris book but we went to hear him read this fall, and by "we" I mean Samantha included, despite the aggressive disapproval of one troll-like usher who did everything she could to discourage us.  When, at the program's close, I unearthed a rosy-cheeked, milk-sated infant, everyone seated around us said, "A baby!  I had no idea..." 

Thank you, thank you very much!  For my next trick, I give you...actually, I haven't come up with my next baby trick yet.

All I could think as I listened to Mr. Sedaris and laughed until my face hurt was, What a freaking pro.  It was a treat, a treat!, to watch this man perform.  There was a petite awkward moment when he extolled the virtues of Ann Patchett's collection of essays This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage and dissected his favorite piece in the book.  On the other hand, it was fun to hear his thoughts as a writer, to hear his thoughts as a fan.  In fact, so much of his performance was an education in the choices a writer makes. 

3. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

Ann Patchett's book has been out for a year now and I liked it for all the reasons I like Ann Patchett: her discipline, her belief in art, her dogged commitment to writing.  In an interview I read online (it might be this one with Elizabeth McCracken? I read the interview long ago, when Samantha was weeks old.  I was probably on Percocet.  How could I possibly be asked to remember the source?), Ms. Patchett talked about how she is a plot-driven, not language-driven, writer and this is my main complaint with the book.  However, her ideas are large and she wrestles them with humor and self-deprecation.  She makes me envious - always a good sign - and I am still thinking about her essay about trying out for the LAPD, a year after reading it, which is no easy feat.  

In a case of I don't know what - it's not exactly life imitating art or maybe it is - Tim and I both checked out copies of This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage at the same time when it came out (library geeks!) and brought them on a weekend getaway when I was pregnant.  Gag me with a friggin spoon, we spent a night curled up reading our twin copies on a condo sofa, in between excursions into Rocky Mountain National Park for failed moose hunts.  (We hunt with binoculars, fyi, in case you were alarmed or suddenly felt you never knew me.)

Well, that's a wrap for Kara's Book Talk this month!  (Camera drifts to empty milk glass, tangle of modem cords next to sofa, a glaring yellow cover of The Real Mother Goose.)  Oh and, talk to me in Spring 2015 but I love all this snow.  If anyone has job connections in Alaska, please send them my way, as well as favorite recipes for brie.  I bought a little wheel on a whim this week and want to consume it festively.  In that case, maybe I'll just drape it in white lights and mount an effigy of it by our front door? 

Our Marge Simpson post
Finally, my friend Amelia Morris' book, Bon Appetempt: A Coming of Age Story (with Recipes), is available for pre-order.  I absolutely cannot wait for this book to come out!  I tested a couple of the recipes in it and gobbled up the results as well as some sample prose I had the utter privilege of previewing.
And my very talented friend Corinne Manning has launched a literary magazine called The James Franco Review.  Check it out!  I particularly recommend the FAQ page. While the logo does include a deliciously arch black mustache, the project is as real as can be.  If its mission calls to you, go for it and submit your very open-hearted best.   

Happy Thanksgiving!


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Grandmother, Spider

October is in full regalia here in Michigan.  Golden leaves blanket the yard.  Spiders web everything; I found one spinning on the shower wall today.  Reading seems to be the only thing I can "accomplish" lately, which feels sad on two levels.  1) It's sad I feel the need to accomplish anything when I've just moved across the country with a baby and can finally locate all my socks, all my baby's socks, my posters, pictures, jewelry, and last but not least, the kosher salt.  Hello, accomplishment!  2) It's sad that I put so many things in front of writing some days, then wake and think &%$!!! Where have time and all my good intentions gone? 

I do have answers to that question.  Or excuses - whatever you want to call them.  We went away for the weekend, to the lovely city of Madison, WI.  I've been walking, practicing yoga, and finding my stomach muscles again, then layering those muscles with healthy bits of homemade treats whenever possible.  Earlier this month, I took Samantha on a southbound train (Delta) to visit her grandparents, her great-grandmother, family friends, and one delighted neighbor for whom she did not stop snorting with laughter the whole twenty-minute visit.  This was also how she greeted my mother, like a long lost roommate.  Does she remember the first two weeks of her life when my mom heated my coffee first thing every morning while I nursed a ravenous baby?  How she cooked chickens and pasta, sang lullabyes on the porch swing with only one little baby nose poking out of a blanket, accompanied her to the pediatrician, and did approximately 1,873 loads of laundry in our humble abode in Colorado?  I read something today that said grandmothers are the link between the past and the future.  Yes, that's right, I thought, thinking of the circle between my mother, Samantha, and I. 

Alas, I put off writing this blog post because I read Jonathan Franzen's memoir, The Discomfort Zone, and loved it.  I don't want this to turn into a Franzen fan site, but I kind of do want to turn it into a book club some days.  If I do that, though, I'm going to have to talk about something other than J. Fran, or no one will come to my parties anymore.  

I also read a great book called Show Your Work by Austin Kleon and he has this advice that on your way to getting your work out in the world: you should talk about your process.  Well.  The thought of doing this makes me very nervous, which is a weird response from someone absolutely obsessed with process. 

Maybe it's a case of not fully claiming who I am yet?  I.e. that person who one hundred percent likes to sit in circles, hold hands, and chant with strangers?  Transparency, openness, and all that?

One of my good friends regularly re-reads her journal and old letters.  If I did that, I would be paralyzed by the banality of all my former entries which read like co-worker chit-chat:  Should I make kale for dinner?  I feel bad I skipped yoga to watch old Arrested Development episodes, etc. etc.  In any case, you can read my old journals or you can take my word for it: I'm obsessed with process. 

With Austin Kleon in mind, therefore, I feel the need to come clean.  I'm working, okay?  By which I mean, I'm writing.  I just don't like to talk about it because 1) I'm superstitious.  Trotting out ideas before they are in the physical form of words feels almost the same as chucking them straight into the trash can.  2) I'm afraid I won't follow through.  If I don't follow through, I will feel like a jerk and a slob.  Since it's a fear of mine that I really am a jerk and a slob, I try to minimize the ways I discover this about myself.  I'd rather pretend I spent the whole day hanging with my baby and staring into trees than admit to my six crises around being productive enough.  And when I say productive enough, I mean as a writer.  Always.  I am never not working, even when I'm watching spiders in the shower.  In a way, I love this part about being an artist, because the job of an artist is simply to stay open, to take in the world around herself, make sense of it, see it for what it is, and someday give it back to itself in the form of a poem, a painting, pen to paper, or maybe just an honest conversation between two friends.

A couple years ago, when I took stock of the accomplishments in my life, I was delighted to find that my marriage topped the list.  I wasn't proud because I snagged a husband or anything weird like that (although being a married woman is a trip worth a collection of essays for sure).  I was proud because building a marriage is not unlike building a house, and keeping it straight and clean and safe against the elements is, to me, an honorable undertaking, and it is one I thoroughly enjoy.  

Without going down the righteous road of pride over a relationship (I recently joked that the first person to get a divorce is the person who writes a how-to book on marriage), what I'm trying to say is what I'm always trying to say: I am interested in the light on trees, the shape of my husband's front teeth, the pattern stamped on our living room rug, the pitch of my daughter's babbling voice, the way her face smells like cereal and pancakes even though she isn't eating "people food" yet.  I am interested in the moments that make up a day and how I feel about those moments as a human being.  My head is up my ass, for sure, but I like to believe that I'm also simply witnessing life sometimes and that some days, being witness to the day is enough.    

It's a fine balance, though, this yin and yang of being alive. I find myself exploring that balance all over again this season.  In September, I told my friend that plenty of my career's woes could have been solved if I had only kept on the paths I started down in my twenties.  Instead, in self-consciousness and fear, I dropped off a few dreams at the curb.  I'm circling back now to pick them up.  Maybe that is how it should be: is there any way to get to today's understandings, clear and true, without the long embarrassing road that leads us to them? 

Still, when I think ahead to the grandmother I want to be someday, the words I say to my still youngish self are: Keep Going.  You don't have to know what you are doing or how it is going to end.  You just have to keep going.  You can do it.  One foot in front of the other.  One word after the next.

And with that, like a baptism or an omen, I just spilled coffee all down my front.  Motherhood has made a klutz out of me.  Samantha sleeps across the room in her swing, a contraption I will keep until she turns eighteen, and still my hands cannot be trusted, as though they prepare me for our toddler days ahead, when the house will get wrecked and the one smashing dishes on the stone floor of the kitchen will be a blameless, toothless one. 

With ink on my hands and a heart on my sleeve,

Thursday, September 11, 2014


One morning last week I rose before everyone else.  Not wanting to stir Samantha in the bedroom, I sat in the comfy chair in the office, waiting for coffee to brew.   

In our (Tim's) new (variation of his old) office, this chair nestles close to a tall, packed bookcase.  We are discovering that this arrangement makes long-ignored books now impossible to ignore. 
Looking for something light to read, something easy to slip in and out of, I perused the books nearby.  I wanted a subject or style of book that wouldn't take me too far, psychologically, from the book I was already reading.  As soon as I could get back into the bedroom where it lay next to sleeping Samantha's head, I wanted to continue reading this book (the autobiography of a horse whisperer, obviously). 

You know what I grab, when I'm looking for an easy read?  Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. 

When Tim rose and saw what I was up to, his eyes lit up.  "I've been waiting for someone to discuss that book with!"  What can I say, I know how to turn on a man.  I was hooked the minute I read the blurbs on the back which, ironically or not, turned out to be about The Corrections.  I started reading Freedom even though I swore I'd never read another Franzen novel after I finished The Corrections.  What's more, in the first three pages of Freedom, I only had one urge to throw the book across the room.  Ditto the thought, "He's not very nice, is he?" 

The truth is, I like Jonathan Franzen.  I like to hate him sometimes, but that's just me being petty, envious, and on alert to sexism, of which I saw plenty that morning.  Or was it just that no one is safe in the world of JF?  I told myself I had five-hundred-some pages to test out my theory, but at the end of that book, I was no closer to my decision than when I began.  I'm pretty sure no one is safe from the shredding wit of this somewhat impeccable novelist, and yet women's bodies seemed to get a lot more descriptive gaze than the male characters in the book.

The following passage sums up what I've come to think of as this book's sneaky sexism, invisible possibly even to the author himself:

"Myriad were the things that Walter hated about modernity in general and car culture in particular, but the confidence of young women drivers, the autonomy they'd achieved in the last hundred years, was not among them.  Gender equality, as expressed in the pressure of Lalitha's neat foot on the gas pedal, made him glad to be alive in the twenty-first century."

Even when the male protagonist, Walter, admires a woman, it comes off as condescending.  The mention of that "neat foot on the gas pedal" pretty much undoes whatever gender equality for which the narration might be reaching. 

Could I Google a hundred cranky analyses of this point?  Probs.  Instead I'm writing you about it.  Over on Grizzly and Golden, I write about recently reading Roxane Gay's book of essays.  I feel on high alert after reading it and my clunky analysis of Freedom reminds me, a little bit, of the responsibility and burden of critical lenses: how it can strip the light from soft-focus living, and sometimes the fun from consuming art.  It is better to be awake, for sure. 

I mean, I think it's better to be awake?  I keep thinking to myself, It's good to be aware: of racism, sexism, and the lack of basic civil rights for everyone, rights I'm not sure how to go about ensuring for everyone, at least in my daily life. 

It's good to be aware, just as, when I listen to a country song that sentimentally croons a line akin to "wasn't it great how Daddy sat around drinking all day?," I'm not buying into a myth that casual, harmless alcoholism exists.  All the same, I know what songs with lines like that are trying to say and the fact remains, I'm sometimes game for what they are trying to say.  (Country music stations are essentially selling feelings, as many of their schlockier songs make all too apparent.  This said, I am in no way game for racism, sexism, or a denial of basic civil rights under any circumstances.)  I guess I'm talking about symbolism, then, allusions and words that radiate once they've been uttered, like a rangy, modern Sanskrit with seed syllables, where whiskey means home, and certain guitars, to me, mean freedom.

Over Labor Day, we visited a tourist town that was absolutely off the hook.  We deserve a medal for not succumbing to a single trance-music-blaring shop.  A car parked by the ice cream shop played "The Humpty Dance," you know? 

In some comical reductionist version of ourselves, I bought a bundle of sage while Tim took our daughter on walkabout, searching for postcards. 

We are addicted to this lake, y'all.  It is wondrous.  I once disparaged it, long ago, on my first road trip with Tim to the Midwest.  (I mean, I was living at the ocean!  At least, that's my excuse.)  That trip was filled with first-time family visits, the newness of our life together, humble, open appetite.  I was also reading The Corrections
on that trip.  Returning to Franzen now when I'm returning to Lake Michigan, with Tim and a new round of hopes for our life together - could this be coincidence?  A sign?  Some subconscious homage to America?  I really don't know.  I liked Franzen's latest book, though, I really did.  His attention, his care, his dedication and ambition are undeniable.

I hope you had a lovely Labor Day, one perhaps full of unnecessary Americana (and maybe one in which your whole family accidentally wore white T-shirts, like ours did?). 

May friendly fall cozy your way soon! 

With love,