Library trippin’

Those trips to the library on Sunday. Oh, ah, yes. I always come prepared with a list. Jump onto one of those old clunky computers and scroll through the online portal. Most of the ones I want are either at another location or are checked out. 5 copies of “Hillbilly Elegy” gone. Jeeze. Share with me, ya book hogs.

Yes, I know Kindles and Amazon exist, but I prefer to get lost, you know? I’m not one of those people who dims the lights and masturbates to my favorite Smell of Old Books candle; I have limitations, and I’d like to think I’m a sentimentalist for the right reasons. But I do like books that have I trek for and find myself. Tis a noble quest in my opinion.

This haul was not pre-established whatsoever. These are things I ran into, and here you will find my justifications:

  • “Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules,” edited and introduced by David Sedaris. This was my audiobook selection. I drive an hour to and from work every day, so I find it helpful to pop in a good read to prevent me from causing a rage-induced collision on Touhy Ave. I prefer things that make me laugh. I’ve been through all of David Sedaris’ books, which are especially funny in audiobook format because he reads his own material, and therefore knows exactly how to hit the high humor notes. This compilation is not Sedaris’ work, but they are some of his favorite writers who he deems to be essential to the short story canon. I am not an absolutist, but I trust his judgement that all of them will be good.
  • “Little Labors” poetry by Rivka Galchen. Saw this in the new poetry section. No real reason why I picked it up. Maybe because the cover was orange? I don’t know. From what I found out about Rivka is she’s from Canada, and she won the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. I’ve never heard of this award, but it sounds legit enough.
  • “The Virginia Woolf Writer’s Workshop: Seven Lessons to Inspire Great Writing” by Danell Jones. I wanted Virginia Woolf’s “Flush,” but I settled for a text that was written with her in mind. You know, it’s amazing that the library owns text after text of literary criticism for some folks, but not all of the texts that these folks actually wrote. Like Jesus, if you are going to have 40 books about Virginia Woolf, you should probably also house every single book she ever wrote. Just saying. I miss being in a writing group, so writing group exercises inspired by the dark lady sounds good to me.
  • “The Happiness Effect: How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost” by Donna Freitas. I saw this on my way to the checkout counter. Seems relevant. And I’ve been spending way too much time on social media and feeling sorry for myself and the world while doing so, so I thought I’d read a book about why I might be so compelled to do so. I’ve already read the first chapter, and I’m already comforted by it. Social media is changing the cultural landscape as we speak, and it’s happening so fast that people don’t necessarily know how to process. In the meantime we’re building our usual weird human norms around it–what we can and cannot say, how much stock we put into our image, etc.
  • “Writing from Within: A Guide to Creativity and Life Story Writing” by Bernard Selling. Creative nonfiction is my jam, but lately, I’ve been feeling this constant distancing. And also my psychotic, helicopter parent of an internal critic won’t let me say anything. I need some written reassurance that I can write about things that hurt. It gives plenty of tips and encouragement that I’m looking for right now.
  • “People I want to Punch in the Throat” by Jen Mann. This was one of those judge-a-book-by-its-cover finds. I started cackling in the 800s the second my brain registered the title. Like who says that? A man standing a few feet away from me quietly scooted over to the next aisle. I just had to have this book. What a title. And it hasn’t disappointed me. Such a sassafras of writer. I sat down for about an hour to read this book. I tried not to disturb the girl sitting at the table in front of me who was doing her chemistry homework or something. I don’t know if it was chemistry; I saw a lot of numbers and my eyes glazed over. She had red hair and spaces between her teeth, which I could see every time she stopped working on her equations to smile while reading a text on her phone underneath the table.

Welp, there you have it. Another Sunday in the books. It’s kind of sad really, the sight of me waddling up to the checkout line with a teetering pile of books. I will fully read maybe two of them. It’s 2017, and I have good intentions.

Good intentions lead to late fees. The second I stepped up to check out my books, the squirrely man behind the counter told me there was a hold on my account because I owed them 28 dollars and I had lost a book. I told the woman at the other counter that I knew for sure that I had returned Margaret Atwood’s “True Stories,” though I could imagine myself stealing the book because I liked it so much and footing the “lost item” fee of 5 dollars. The woman looked a little too relieved when I told her I’d go check the shelves myself for the book, and sure enough I found it.

I told the squirrely, shy guy behind the counter that I would be better this time. I would bring my books back when they are due, I assured him. I’m sure he could care less about this information.

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Annie Dillard in present time: Thoughts on “The Abundance”

I started reading “The Abundance,” a compilation of some of Annie Dillard’s best, most badass, or as editor Geoff Dyer puts it, “genre-resistant” essays.

Overall, I like to write about traveling, so I find this work inspiring and stimulating so far. I appreciate Dillard’s tendency to sidetrack, to run away with something, and turn an observation on its head.

The first story is about Annie’s travels to Yakima, Washington to watch a total eclipse with her husband.

The first sentence that punched me in the gut was about how when we see something in nature so stupefyingly beautiful, we don’t know how to speak up for ourselves. It’s like those questions we get when we’re in the midst of kissing someone we’re beyond excited to kiss: what am I supposed to do with my hands? Oh yeah, and which way to Earth?

I remember driving through Sequoia National Park with Sean. Climbing and climbing and all those hairpin turns. The green valley sinking beneath the weight of mountains. Mountains shrouded in clouds. I shivered, taking them in. But I couldn’t for the life of me come up with a damn thing to say. I was practically drooling. A dog with her head out the window, overwhelmed by the blur of smell and sight. Dillard described this failing of words as something quite endearingly foolish. She also breaks down the “I could hardly breathe” cliché to illustrate the experience we have when we are overcome by awe.

“I watched the landscape innocently, like a fool, like a diver in the rapture of the deep who plays on the bottom while his air runs out.”

It’s interesting that the beginning of the story starts out in a hotel, where Dillard is preparing herself for her adventure in the sky. She sees a creepy painting of a clown hanging on the wall in the hotel lobby. Only, the clown’s features are made up of vegetables.

“The crinkled shadows around his eyes were string beans. His eyebrows were parsley. Each of his ears was a broad bean. His thin, joyful lips were red chili peppers; between his lips were wet rows of human teeth and a suggestion of real tongue. The clown print was framed in gilt and glassed.”

This is obviously not a usual way to depict a clown, which is perhaps why it sticks in her memory so clearly. We’ve seen them depicted the same way for so long; we don’t question the red nose, the frazzled, rainbow wig, the chalky face paint. What about a clown made of vegetables? Is funnier? Is it sadder? Is it a more pronounced distortion of meaning? It is those unruly and juxtaposed things in nature that stick with us, maybe even change us. It is up to us to describe the indescribable. This is what Dillard seems to say when we encounter something that is beyond the confines of language.

When Dillard actually sees the eclipse, she describes its alien-like appearance, its fleeting definition. She and a bunch of other observers who have gathered to watch don’t know how to take it. They scream. She screams. It’s terrifying because it doesn’t make sense to see the world in this way.

“From all the hills came screams. A piece of sky beside the crescent sun was detaching, a loosened circle of evening sky, suddenly lighted from the back. It was an abrupt black body out of nowhere; it was a flat disk; it was almost over the sun. That’s when the screams began.”

It’s suddenly dark, like the sky closed a lid. It’s soundless and unsettling. Like there’s nothing, “no world at all.” It feels like death; like they’re all dead and floating, Dillard describes.

“Abruptly it was a dark night, on the land and in the sky. In the night sky was a tiny ring of light. For the hole where the sun belongs is very small. Just a thin ring of light marked its place. There was no sound. The eyes dried, the arteries drained, the lungs hushed. There was no world. We were the world’s dead people rotating and orbiting around and around, embedded in the planet’s crust, while the earth tolled down.”

She grabs for a definition, but realizes that it isn’t within the common vocab of the human experience. Those especially who lack an understanding of astronomy, she says, will not be able to understand its magnitude in these more tangible terms. But then she goes on to point out scientific theory fallibility, which can’t account for all the sheer wonder found within a firsthand account, an unknowing eyewitness. You don’t have to know numbers and figures to experience the fullness of such a phenomenon. The knowledge you have may actually get in the way, or “blind you” to experiencing something in a new light. With any given experience we have to make sure that we ourselves don’t become eclipsed, she seems to say here.

“What you see in a total eclipse is entirely different from what you know. It is especially different for those of us whose grasp of astronomy is so frail that, given a flashlight, a grapefruit, two oranges, and fifteen years, we still could not figure out which way to set the clocks for daylight saving time. Usually it is a bit of a trick to keep your knowledge from blinding you. But during an eclipse it is easy. What you see is much more convincing than any wild-eyed theory you may know.”

I also just read “The Deer at Providencia,” which is about Dillard’s travels through the village of Providencia in Ecuador. This section focuses on one overarching image — a deer that has been captured and tied to a tree. It desperately tries to escape, cutting itself on the ropes. It’s a violent scene that made me want to stop reading.

“Its neck was no thicker than my wrist; it had been rubbed open on the rope, and gashed. Trying to get itself free of the rope, the deer had cut its own neck with its hooves. The raw underside of its neck showed red stripes and some bruises bleeding inside the skin. Now three of its feet were hooked in the rope under its jaw.”

She watches the deer tire itself. It goes on for 15 minutes. During this time, Dillard’s unfazed expression at the flailing deer is also noted.

Dillard’s travel companions, who were all from big cities, were taken aback by her detachment of the scene of suffering they all witnessed.

She asks them, “Gentleman of the city, what surprises you? That there is suffering here, or that I know of it?”

One man explains, “If it had been my wife … she wouldn’t have cared what was going on; she would have dropped everything right at that moment and gone in the village from here to there, she would not have stopped until that animal was out of its suffering one way or another. She couldn’t bear to see a creature in agony like that.”

Later when Dillard arrives home, she looks in her mirror. Taped to the corner of her mirror, is a newspaper clipping of a severely burned man, someone who had experienced devastating burn not for the first, but for the second time in his life. Every day, the clipping explains, he lies awake in pain wanting to die. Dillard reads this same story every day so she knows that pain like his exists.

“I read the whole clipping again every morning. This is the Big Time here, every minute of it. Will someone please explain to Alan McDonald in his dignity, to the deer at Providencia in his dignity, what is going on? And copy me on it.”

It’s an interesting take on suffering that I think a lot of people disagree with. Is it enough to know? Is it enough to read the newspaper? Shouldn’t we alleviate? Many of us would argue, yes. A lot of us (especially women, as the city gentleman seems to hint) would go running toward the deer or at least squirm in anguish at the sight of something so horrific and sad.

But I think Dillard makes an interesting statement that not a lot of us can accept for some reason or the other. Suffering happens, and the majority of it goes on with our input or non-input. She seems to say no being (animal or non-animal) has more or less dignity than the next, but also seems to remind us that their suffering is a part of nature. That there is no full-proof explanation for why one suffers and why one does not.

The world is never entirely cured of some things. This is the way it functions. Mothers suffer from autoimmune diseases. People are burned in accidents. Deer die in sad ways. Etc. This is a difficult concept to face. Dillard argues that we need to face it, be present, and understand it the best we can.

What I like most about Dillard’s travel log style, is her presentness, and that she does not have a “conqueror” complex. She does not demand something of her environment. She lets it speak to her and through her. With both stories I’ve read so far, from her point of view, it is not in her interest to control the experience while she is experiencing it. Rather, she is there to simply experience and see where her presentness of the moment carries her later on the page. When there is a gap in memory or capability she injects her own special brand of wildness. These are the parts of her stories where the bottom suddenly drops out, where everything seems the same, yet inverted.

Early morning read

I set my clock early this morning so I could read. I slunk into my slippers, uncovered the bird and told her good morning. She squawked her annoyance, but then puffed up and settled into the warmth of her feathers.

I sat in Sean’s spot on the couch because it’s cozy and worn from his habitual video game play. My eyes still wore a foggy film of sleep residue, but I propped myself up and willed myself to be awake.

As my eyes began to hunt the text, I realized I didn’t have to look for mistakes and inconsistencies. I could just read. I burrowed into my book. It was lovely.

I edit things all day, so I spend a lot less time reading for sheer enjoyment than I ever have. It’s funny that when you have a job and want to do it well, you almost take on the persona. I am an editor, but I’m so much more. This sounds like a common sense statement, but it’s important for me to say it, for me to come back and read it over.

Lately, I’m hyper aware of betraying myself, of squashing my artist, of forgetting where I come from, of becoming all ego — personally and professionally. I think most people, especially young people, have an issue with this balance — how to believe in yourself but not fly too high. Some people think there are no limits, and I have never been one to believe this. We are filled with limitations. And that’s okay. That’s the beautiful part, right?

I received a mug as a birthday gift that said: “I’m silently correcting your grammar right now.” It’s actually my favorite mug because it has the perfect weight, coffee distribution, and lip to drink from, but that’s  besides the point. The point is, I don’t necessarily identify with the words on the cup.

I have a secret for you: I don’t cringe at the sight of bad grammar or misspellings. But yes, I absolutely notice them, especially if I’m the one making them. I have high standards, but I try my best not to glower, not to make others feel small.

Anyway, there are worse things to have than bad grammar. Like a rotten heart or a closed mind.

The book I started reading this morning is called “Awakening the Buddha Within” by Lama Surya Das. A friend recommended it to me. I’m about 40 pages in, and I’m already digging the simple-Jewish-man-travels-across-the-world-to-study-Buddhism vibe to it.

This book is a challenge for me. Though I would call myself a spiritual person, I don’t tend to take pragmatic advice on the soul or choose to read the equivalent of a car manual on spirituality (contradiction, anyone?). This text is far from that. I find it inviting, so much that I set my alarm to read it this morning. I will have more thoughts to share and quotes to pull from it eventually (or not, maybe I will read for the sake of reading), but this is what I have so far.

I’m glad I woke up today.

Poem of the Day by Marge Piercy

Okay, I lied, I have two poems. Because why should I only have to choose one? They are taken from “My Mother’s Body,” published in 1985 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

The first time I read Marge Piercy was during freshman year of high school in my advanced literary arts class. One of my teachers who smiled only when she meant it and rotated the same 6 outfits, tossed Piercy’s “Barbie Doll” face-up onto our desks. It wasn’t a pretty sight. After a quick scan, no one really wanted to read it aloud. I mean come on, in a mere two lines there were the words, “pee-pee.” Some beautified dead girl in a coffin — the societal error that we place so much value on a woman’s beauty during a time of life where everyone is being assessed and measured by everyone for mostly the wrong reasons is a startling image to start to class out with.

The poem certainly grabbed me by my throat, but it didn’t necessarily make me want to cannonball into her poetry. I read it for the class because that’s what good little students do. I gave the cut up dead girl a moment of silence and moved onto the next assignment.

Apparently it meant more to me than I realized. (I’m starting to notice this trend a lot more often lately).

It wasn’t until after I graduated college that I was able to look Marge back in the honest face. I know plenty of undercover feminists and plenty who are out in plain sight. I thought it was unfair that I had to give myself a disclaimer at all. A do not fuck with me card. A do not fuck me card. The common misconception, of course.

But here I am at 25 reading and finding her poetry comforting during a time in my life where I’m realizing that not only am I a loving and kind woman, I know how to kick some ass… that ass being my own ass to get the stuff that I want done — emotionally, professionally, physically, what have you. Remembering that during the mornings when I’m slouched over another Facebook post about the next person whisking off to get married or whatever, is especially pertinent. Or when I’m stewing in a personalized pile of pity, with my voice lodged in the back of my throat. I know that’s the bloody mouthed fear talking. The oozing leftover pain from lifetimes ago that sometimes feel like yesterday. Sometimes gaining self-awareness really is a bitch to deal with. Where’s the relief?

People with similar experiences who know how to reach you. Thanks for reaching me, Marge. I hear you loud and clear.

All of these poems are about being a woman who chooses a life of meaning, who isn’t afraid to hurt or offend. The meaning isn’t found in the grand, overdressed big ones, as you might expect, but in cleaning (or not) the house, list making, going through memories, sleeping next to someone, writing a will, caring for a litter of kittens, getting a pap smear, drinking a glass of wine. She can make a housefly come to life. She’s got quite a bite, but just smolders under certain lights. This writer has an extensive, astounding vocabulary. I enjoy the way she describes color and taste… Check out her poems about wine and see what she can do with RED.

I also connected to the way she described her mother and her relation to her mother’s life after death through her own coming to terms. That this collection is dedicated to her mother, shows her fierce need to understand and accept her for what she was and lacked. Only speaking truthfully about a parent will ever do this person and your relation to them justice. This collection gives me a fur ball (because Piercy REALLY loves cats) of hope.

Here are two poems that really resonated with me. One is about being in a relationship and truly knowing a person, which she argues isn’t the point of a relationship. The other is about being a being a fierce writer who captures “the goodness” in a world where the most established are the ones who get to decide what’s “good” work. Her version of goodness is beyond good.

Witnessing a wedding

Slowly and slower you have learned
to let yourselves grow while weaving
through each other in strong cloth.

It is not strangeness in the mate
you must fear, and not the fear
that loosens us so we lean back

chilly with a sudden draft on flesh
recently joined and taste again
the other sharp as tin in the mouth,

but familiarity we must mistrust,
the word based on the family
that fogs the sight and plugs the nose.

Fills the ears with the wax of possession.
Toughens the daily dead skin
callused against penetration.

Never think you know finally, or say
My husband likes, My wife is,
without balancing the coil of the inner ear

that no one is surely anything till dead.
Love without respect is cold as a boa
constrictor, its caresses as choking.

Celebrate your differences in bed.
Like species, couples die out or evolve.
Ah strange new beasties with strawberry hides,
velvet green antlers, undulant necks,
tentacles, wings and the sense of bees,
your own changing mosaic of face

and the face of the stranger you live with
and try to love, who enters your body
like water, like pain, like food.

The good go down

I build stories. They own
their own shapes, their rightful
power and impetus, plot
them however I try, but always
that shape is broadly just.

I want to believe in justice
inexorable as the decay
of an isotope; I want to plot
the orbit of justice, erratic
but inevitable as a comet’s return.

It is not blind chance I rail at,
the flood waters that carry off
one house and leave its neighbor
standing one foot above the high
water’s swirling grasp.

It is that the good go down
not easily, not gently,
not occasionally, not by random
deviation and the topple
of mischance, but almost always.

Here is something new and true.
No you are too different,
too raw, too spiced and gritty.
We want one like the last one.
We know how to sell that.

We want one that praises us,
we want one that puts down
the ones we squat on, no
aftertaste, no residue of fine
thought smeared on the eyes.

We want one just like all
the others, but with a designer
label and a clever logo.
We want the one we saw advertised
in the New York Times.

Are the controls working?
Is the doorman on duty?
Is the intercom connected?
Is the monitor functioning?
Is the incinerator on?

It goes without saying:
The brie shall be perfectly
ripe, the wine shall be a second
cru Bordeaux from a decent year,
there shall be one guest

with a recent certified success
and we shall pass around plates
of grated contempt for those
who lack this much, of sugared
envy for those who have more.

For the young not facile enough
to imitate the powerful, not skilled
enough liars to pretend sucking them
is ecstasy, they erect a massive
wall, the Himalayas of exclusion.

For the old who speak too much
of pain, they have a special
Greenland of exile. Old Birnbaum.
Nobody reads her anymore.
I thought she was dead.

Once she is, and her cat
starves, she will become a growth
industry. Only kill yourself
and you can be consumed too,
an incense-proffered icon.

It is the slow mean defeat
of the good that I rail against,
the small pallid contempt of the well
placed for those who do no lack
the imaginative power to try,

the good who are warped by passion
as granite is twisted into mountains
and metamorphosed by fire into marble;
who speak too loud in vulgar tongues
because they have something to say;

who mean what they make down to their
bones; who commit the uncouth error
of feeling, of saying what they feel,
of making others feel. Their reward
is to be made to feel worthless.

Goodness is not dangerous enough.
I want goodness like a Nike armed
with the warhead of rightful anger.
I want goodness that can live on sand
and stones and wring wine from burrs,

goodness that can put forth fruit,
manured with the sewage of hatred.
The good must cultivate their anger
like fields of wheat that must feed
them, if they are ever to win.

Poem of the day- Take 2

I subscribe to the Poetry Foundation’s “Poem a Day” email. I enjoy this routine because I’m always hungry to read more poetry, and having one shoved directly under my nose everyday is quite convenient. Otherwise, I would just get stuck in one book of poetry for weeks and weeks, and rationalize that with the “lack of time” disclaimer that stops us all from reading (and writing!) all the time.

Needless to say, I have time for one measly poem a day. Come on self, I can do this.

I received this poem on Saturday. I really like it, though I can’t always get on board with blatant political poetry. But my reaction to it interested me. It made me uncomfortable because of the level of honesty and relevance that it has in our society in terms of freedom– speech, marriage, religious beliefs, etc. — and because of the sharp note it hits on our current state of world events.

Also, I related to it. I am the person who laughs and tells people I love them when conflicting opinions (especially political) arise.

I posted this on my Facebook, and it wasn’t received well. I chickened out and deleted the post. So basically, in an unintentional social experiment, my defeat and fear to offend proved one of the points of this poem.

BUT… I still would like to share it. That’s what blogging is for right?

I was also curious about the writer. At one point in her career she taught incarcerated students. She writes a lot of probing things on being American. I have yet to read her other works, but I’m interested.

Poem of the Day: Three a.m.

BY JILL MCDONOUGH
Our cabdriver tells us how Somalia is better
than here because in Islam we execute murderers.
So, fewer murders. But isn’t there civil war
there now? Aren’t there a lot of murders?
Yes, but in general it’s better. Not
now, but most of the time. He tells us about how
smart the system is, how it’s hard to bear
false witness. We nod. We’re learning a lot.
I say—once we are close to the house—I say, What
about us? Two women, married to each other.
Don’t be offended, he says, gravely. But a man
with a man, a woman with a woman: it would be
a public execution. We nod. A little silence along
the Southeast Corridor. Then I say, Yeah,
I love my country. This makes him laugh; we all laugh.
We aren’t offended, says Josey. We love you. Sometimes
I feel like we’re proselytizing, spreading the Word of Gay.
The cab is shaking with laughter, the poor man
relieved we’re not mad he sort of wants us dead.
The two of us soothing him, wanting him comfortable,
wanting him to laugh. We love our country,
we tell him. And Josey tips him. She tips him well.
Jill McDonough, “Three a.m.” from Where You Live. Copyright © 2012 by Jill McDonough.