Category Archives: books

to submit to something

Last week, a PBS News Hour interviewer asked our new poet laureate, Tracy K. Smith, why she wrote poetry. Her answer? ‘Because it forces you to submit to something’.

The evocative phrase has lingered.

What do you submit to and why — and if enduring something is different from submitting to it, is there a way to convert one to the other? Maybe reverence is involved. Silence? I might cleverly suggest that karma dictates what we endure, while our gifts and aspirations determine places of submission, but that seems facile. Oversimplification is not what’s called for here.

An examination of distractions, might be, though.

TV-viewing habits are ‘up’ right now, starting with a disastrous re-boot about a week ago, after which I was left with sound but no picture (well, and another entry in the annals called, “Only When K is in China”).  I submitted (wrong word!) to watching a little local, live TV in the kitchen now and then. There was a mood of nostalgia and curious forbearance. I read more.

Next came a four or five hour power outage, leaving me with no TV whatsoever. It wasn’t like I was dying to watch local news or catch up on reruns of ‘Get Smart’, but if the reboot was a nudge, the subsequent power outage was a kick in the shins. I wanted to read the synchronicity for the fullness of its message — to submit to it.

The power outage was precipitated by a dramatic shorting wire out front. It was a real emergency.  After hearing a loud crackle and seeing a lightening-like flash, I went to investigate, thinking I’d be reassuring myself that it wasn’t electrical.

reddressblur_deemallon - CopyInstead, I was greeted by a series of violent flashes up in my neighbor’s maple tree. Ill-positioned wires had heated up the bark, igniting it in two places. I dashed in to take shelter behind my neighbor’s front door while she called 911. Children and nanny clustered ’round. “It might’ve used me to go to ground,” I said in slight panic.

Soon, the zapping melted the wires, leaving one end dangling from the pole nearest our driveway and draping the other along the road like a venomous snake playing dead. A teen-aged boy emerged from across the street. I quipped, “You can tell E. is home alone,” but then as he approached stuck my head out to holler, “Stay back! That wire might be live!”I could tell my neighbor thought me a little hysterical. Perhaps because I cussed out her landscaper last week? No matter. Thanks to my electrical engineer father’s pragmatic warnings about current and conductivity over the course of my entire childhood, I knew mine was not an overwrought assessment of the danger.

Firemen arrived, police set up yellow tape, etc.

Once the wires were severed, it was safe to return home and await the restoration of power. Then, two thunderstorms rolled through.

As if it wasn’t enough for the elements to cut off my power, the first storm filled the house with a preternatural dark. I donned a ‘miner’s lamp’ and carefully climbed the garage-attic ladder to fetch our camping lantern, although I’m not sure why, since my last solo attempt at lighting it nearly set the Sangre de Cristo mountains on fire. I wasn’t likely to give it another try.

I gathered a few candles for later and made myself a tasty chicken salad. I wondered if our hot water heater held enough hot water for a bath (it does). Soon sun flooded the back room again and I read Smith’s memoir “Ordinary Light.”*

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Not long after, the canopy out back set up a noisy rattle, signaling imminent rain. The display made me wonder: when had I stopped submitting myself to summer storms?

The metaphors swirl, still — restoration of power, providing ground, a live wire, electrical storms rolling through, sudden, zapping current.

The repair guy arrived at the height of it. Seeing him up in his metal bucket, head in the trees and handling electrical wires was unnerving, but I had to assume he knew all the safety precautions. As the sky pulsed with lightening, the power came back on in three waves. The fridge resumed its humming. I padded about, resetting the digital clocks, glad to be capable of that at least.

 

*I’ll refrain from commenting until I’m done. How my opinion of Plum Johnson changed between when posting and finishing her memoir!

 

Score and a Heart

After weeks and weeks of missing, I flung the poop bag right into the pot! Blam!

It’s a tough shot — not so much because of the distance (from where picture was taken) or the small target, but because the missile has a tail (we use long, plastic newspaper bags) and the ballast is weighted unevenly. You can’t throw overhand or at least, I don’t, and hence you have very little control. How satisfying to nail it!
Was my aim improved by an hour long walk through sunny, summery, quiet neighborhoods? Three-quarters of the way along a sour knot in my gut disappeared. Just by walking. In the sun. With my dog.

We saw lavender blooming on Ripley Street, two Chinese brothers heading to the T in matching pj’s and yellow caps on Braeland with their dad, people out jogging, cycling and walking their dogs. Closer to home, the lavender has yet to blossom, but on Walter Street we were treated to sun-illumined rust-vermillion Japanese maple leaves and a morning dove perched up on a cable backed by blue sky.

Finn had a Training Victory on our walk, too — a trifecta. Some other time.

Given the TV’s current state, I’m plowing through a memoir called, “They Left Us Everything” — a book recommended by a blog reader a couple of weeks ago. This was Plum Johnson’s debut effort and it came at age 68. Sixty-eight!

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The book won an RBC Taylor prize, an award for literary non-fiction that “best combines a superb command of the English language, an elegance of style, and a subtlety of thought and perception.”

The memoir is interesting and well-written. Doesn’t hold a candle to “H is for Hawk”, but then, very few memoirs do (that’s like comparing debut historic fiction to “Wolf Hall” by Hillary Mantel — it just isn’t fair — but I think it’s the last memoir I’ve read?)

Johnson crafts nuanced portraits of complicated parents, not just their late, declining years, but their more vibrant youth as well. Both of her parents led interesting lives — informed by tragedy, travel and unusual circumstances. Johnson gets at the essential unknowability of parents by their children, something made plain as she sorts through their belongings.

Her mother was a piece of work and her father over-reliant on military experience as a benchmark for parenting. And yet, whatever wounds linger they scarcely show up on the page. Whether this is a testament to Johnson’s person or her writing style is hard to judge. It does strike me that building a narrative around the objects of her parents’ lives may have kept a certain kind of self-reflection at bay.

I like memoirs that get down and dirty too, but the absence of grudges, whining, or blame is notable.

I don’t know nearly as much about my parents’ courtship or their early work lives as Plum Johnson does about hers.

On our second walk, Finn and I rounded the corner to find a huge heart-shaped cloud, like a blousy kiss from the sky.

Perhaps it was meant to compensate for today’s crossword puzzles? Or the personal torment of the last couple of weeks? KISS!

And now it’s gonna rain again — no wonder I’m ecstatic about puffy white clouds and doves backed by blue sky. Man! Meanwhile, the catalpa blossoms that seemed celebratory days ago now clump in wilting piles of rot, four inches deep in places. Sweep. Sweep. Sweep. And grab. Good thing I’m totally into sweeping these days (seriously into sweeping). And good thing this old bod can still squat with ease.

Civil War not Watergate

I was pawing through boxes of historic fiction at the Schenectady Library book sale not long ago, when one of the volunteers sidled up to me and said, “This one’s really good.”  Of course I bought it.

(Don’t you love volunteers? Better yet, volunteers that read? I suppose I don’t need to tell you that she was grey-haired, shorter than me, and about ten years older?)

“My Name is Mary Sutter” by Robin Oliveira* tracks the experiences of a headstrong midwife from Albany who volunteers as a nurse in Washington during the Civil War. Not only was it a good read (a downright page turner, in fact), the novel also offered a provocative model for my own writing.

Oliveira manages to include tons of vivid historic detail without ever letting the story falter. I learned so much about medical training/procedures of the era, the war, the physical state of the capital at that time, and the limiting expectations foisted upon women in the mid-nineteenth century. Even so, the story and the characters drove the narrative, start to finish. I couldn’t put it down.

Hospital wards for the wounded are a grim landscape, of course, and Oliveira does not spare us. There are descriptions of grotesque amputations, filth, fever, and the suffering caused by inadequate supplies and staff. The sense of national loss is overwhelming. Personally, Mary Sutter suffers one loss after another herself and is tormented by the notion that she has her ambition to blame.

Though unrelentingly dark, the themes of forgiveness and redemption also run through these pages. It’s a tale of striving, grief, and resilience — on both personal and national levels.

I didn’t expect to find relevant political wisdom within, but did.


These words take my breath away. Not surprisingly, they describe Lincoln’s sense of urgency in a moment of crisis — his awareness of how much was at stake.

“A country’s imminent failure should
rouse even the stars to fainting.”

Wow.  They have stayed with me for days.

I’d like to tattoo them on Nancy Pelosi’s forehead. Or, email them to the Newton City Council, which seems poised to shoot down a House Resolution on Impeachment at a hearing tomorrow for various lame reasons.

The quote wakes me up to the fact that the Civil War is a far better historic reference for our current catastrophic government than Watergate. Then as now, it is not at all clear that we will survive as a nation.

Enough!

 

Afternotes: 
More about the local impeachment resolution on my Tumblr blog here.

*The author describes the fascinating genesis of the novel and her research here.

The B&W photo is mine from Climate Science March, Boston, 2017

Prose and soup

“Read at the level at which you want to write.” Jennifer Egan (brainpickings.org)

I couldn’t read Roth until I was older and now he is one of my favorite writers. I hope he never dies! I may have read this Zuckerman novel before (or maybe it just seems familiar because it takes place in the Berkshires where I was born and lived a good many years?) No matter, it’s worth a re-read.

Here’s a sentence: “My guess was that it would take even the fiercest Hun the better part of a winter to cross the glacial waterfalls and wind-blasted woods of those mountain wilds before he was able to reach the open edge of Lonoff’s hayfields, rush the rear storm door of the house, crash through the study, and, with spiked bludgeon wheeling high in the air above the little Olivetti, cry out in a roaring voice to the writer tapping out his twenty-seventh draft, ‘You must change your life!'”

Swoon.


Beef with barley soup for lunch after another frigid walk with the dog. And since K won’t be here for dinner, I’m not even cooking: a bowl of fruit, yogurt and sunflower seeds topped with honey from Charleston.


*thank you Mo for link on FB to the article.


The edges, the sustenance

The windowsill lined with beloved rocks. I take comfort in their solidity as I listen to recorded news. At the moment, more references to the oft-repeated lie about voting fraud and a call for an investigation by DJT. This trips (yet another) sickening thought: will we actually fund the study of delusions — with my tax dollars, your tax dollars? We are so far past the NPR story that I woke to earlier about their journalistic choice (fortunately not shared universally) to avoid the word “lie” (I could write about that for days). “This is where we are,” is a thing I say to myself now — like how to name falsehoods uttered by our president. The speed of destruction in the last four days ALONE makes my head spin. Can it be the same day? Did we pass through some portal and no one thought to tell me?

Carnage, indeed.

It’s darkening out the windows and past time to rouse myself to make dinner, but let me first share some gifts and stories. Not because I am succumbing to the thrumming call to “get on with it” or “be positive”. Oh no, you know me better than that! Just to keep track and who knows, perhaps turn you onto one of them. Kevin Young is a poet whom I heard read this past summer at Sam Durant’s “Meetinghouse” at The Old Manse in Concord.

Young’s poems in this volume are structured on musical forms. Interesting. Uplifting. And it was a gift within a gift because I mentioned it in passing, but K took note and ordered it!

Also for Christmas, I gave myself one of Grace’s quilts (at last!). It may not stay on this wall, but for now I love the hand reaching for the face of time. There’s something at once mysterious and aspirational about it. Plus, we all know the pleasure of having handiwork on our walls, especially when made by someone whose life means something to you. I love it!


This movie about the Nat Turner uprising played in Boston for about ten minutes. I felt funny buying a DVD (and by ‘funny’, I mean ‘old’), but the more I thought about it, the more sane the purchase seemed. For one thing, it would have cost more to park in Cambridge and buy two tickets. For another, by not streaming the film my dollars support the director, Nate Parker, who also starred in the movie and received some harsh criticism (I could write about that for days, too). It was important to see for my research and also I very much wanted to be able to measure the criticisms for myself (I ended up thinking that the personal criticisms were raised at a shitty and suspect time having more to do with challenging a strong black man (director and slave rebel, both) than with the decades old charges. The plot/character criticisms were just off.)

This documentary by Ava DuVernay is heartbreaking and for that reason I haven’t finished watching it yet. When a friend and I recently debated what educational intervention we believed would most correct our miserable course, she said, “studying the Constitution.” I said, “studying slavery.” Later, I realized that we were in agreement, for you cannot study the Constitution without studying slavery. And it’s not just the 13th Amendment. It’s the 14th and the 15th and the Preamble and the debates and case law associated with them.

What K and I did watch in its entirety was DuVernay’s acclaimed film “Selma”. We watched it on MLK Day. It was very fine to see the outstanding moral courage of John Lewis come to life at the very moment that DJT was tweeting his outrageous criticisms.

Carnage, indeed.

Now it’s REALLY time to throw some dinner together.

But first, anyone else watching “This is Us”? It’s on Tuesdays nights on NBC, I think. I’m kinda loving it. Definitely hooked.

Also? Don’t bother with “Victoria” if you enjoyed “The Crown”. I don’t know how I would have tolerated the weak script writing and acting in the former had I not just watched the latter (a very good mini-series about Queen Elizabeth), but I do know that to watch “Victoria” after “The Crown” is a thing I cannot do.

Screen and page catch up

Image result for rachel mcadams and colin farrellTrue Detective, Season Two, received mixed reviews, but I found it pretty compelling. The plot gets dense, meaning I had to refer to the internet now and then, but I didn’t mind (thank god for the “Pause” button!). The characters are really great, with good back stories, and there’s plenty of corruption and suspense to go around, which I like.

And, I cannot stop raving about the show’s spectacular opener.

[Leonard Coen sings “Never mind” to a haunting array of double/triple images featuring the faces of the main characters and aerials of California].
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I’ve never seen Vince Vaughn in a role that I liked until now. Even though by the last couple of episodes the lack of inflection in his voice made me a little nuts, he was amazing. He plays a complicated and sympathetic Mafioso-type who is clever but not quite clever enough. There’s an erotic scene between Farrell and McAdams that starts when they are in hiding in a cheap hotel room. The way they DON’T look at each other is every bit as charged as how they DO look at each other. It was miles from that up-against-the-wall-standing-fuck so often dished up on film when two characters have held off acting on their mutual attraction.
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I can’t talk about Taylor Kitsch without totally embarrassing myself. Suffice it to say, I ate up “Friday Night Lights” a couple of summers ago. Image result

Finished the novel by Ben H. Winters called “Underground Airlines”. It was the kind of dystopian novel that describes a landscape that could be fifteen minutes from now (my favorite kind — think: Octavia Butler, “Parable of the Sower”).  The central conceit is that four states have maintained the institution of human bondage. The main character is a PB (‘person bonded’) who is ‘freed’ in order to capture runaways.

The scenes in Indiana of a black man negotiating white neighborhoods or encountering policemen read like today’s newspaper. The tracking chip inserted in the base of the protagonist’s skull could be tomorrow. It was a real page turner, with plenty of corruption and twists of plot, so I wasn’t surprised to see that the author has won both mystery and sci-fi writing prizes.

Like the evening news, the book forces a look at how the effects of slavery linger.

I heard the author, who is white, interviewed and could relate to the doubts engendered by inventing African American characters. The book was well-received, but nothing like the the more recently published “The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead. I heard Teri Gross interview Whitehead last week and look forward to reading the book soon. I felt a smidge of pain on Winters’ behalf when his novel was not mentioned in Teri’s list of recent books dealing with slavery.

Now, I’m reading J.D.Vance’s, Hillbilly Elegy. I’ll post some notes about it later.

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A catch up ramble

So much has happened. And now the fall is really here.

Son #1 completed his degree. Thought he did back in May? Well, surprise, surprise (it was to us) — he didn’t. But now he has. Maybe we’ll get around to celebrating, but right now there’s just this saggy relief. Son #2, in spite of a well-anchored plan to take a year off, changed his mind the night before classes started and we all jump-shifted.

The very same week, my sister’s Personal Care Assistant of eight months walked out saying, “I don’t need this.” My sister seems relieved, but I’m a little worried — after all, she’s essentially been bed-ridden since April.

I. Will not. Be. Picking up. The slack.

Thankfully, today she announced that in fact she would look for another person (last week is was a different story).

We had the tree work done, which is the good news. It’ll prolong the life of the roof and be safer when the snow comes. The bad news? My neighbor leaned over the fence and got the crew’s info and the very next day they showed up at her house and cut down two very tall, healthy oak trees right at the back lot line. I was sick for days. Talk about ‘unintended consequences’.

We lost a lot of natural screening. It was an icky feeling of not having any control. The noise was the least of it.

This picture is before the trees came down. I think it may be time to finally take down the play structure. Now that there is a lot of sun back there, we could plant some pines and they might actually thrive. Finn continues to keep me sane. We go to the lake and I wear him out as best I can. The watery play makes his coat so soft!   July was the hottest on record in Boston. August was both the hottest AND the driest on record in Boston. I still have an annoying rash to prove it. And we will have the water bill to prove it. I’ve watered most beds religiously, but the ferns have crisped up. We’ve never given a shit about our lawn. But those are minor matters in the face of climate change.

We’re watching “Transparent” (that’s Allie, above)(and yes, it’s as good as everyone says). I got tired of all the blood baths — lately, “Justified,” “Peaky Blinders” and “Game of Thrones”. Finally got back into reading, last week finishing Anne Enright’s “The Green Road”. It was really, really good. (I’ve read two others of hers: “The Wig My Father Wore” and “What Are You Like”). The mother figure in “The Green Road” — a real martyr-type that possibly could warrant a diagnosis in this day and age — was so, so familiar. It’s a type, I guess.

Happy September. Hope to be around more. I actually have some cloth pieces to show and tell!