“The Great Book-Buying Fast” or “An Impossible Feat”

I was struck by an idea today, straight out of the bright blue spring sky: I wonder if I could go a year without buying books or clothing.

As far as clothing goes, I don’t really buy that many clothes to begin with. I have this delightful thing called a “capsule wardrobe” and I keep my clothing purchases to an intentional minimum. I’m anti-fast-fashion and committed to only buying things that fit well, mostly are produced by people who are paid fairly for their work, and that make sense as a part of the whole of my wardrobe. But, still. I don’t need any new things, so I might as well tack clothes onto the book-buying fast idea.

Books, on the other hand…I buy books like it’s my job. No, really, I should work for a bookstore. If something strikes my fancy, I find a way to get a hold of it. Lots of books are available via the public library, sure, but I’m building my own personal library and some (most) books that are worth reading are also worth owning. Growing my own library gives me a sense of hope. It’s exhilarating to add to the potential of my knowledge in such a tangible way. I love reading and I love acquiring new books. Perhaps it sounds like an exaggeration, but books are life-giving for me.

That being said, I definitely have enough to last me for a while. I have an entire room of my house filled with boxes of nothing but books, waiting for shelves to be built so they can be unpacked and displayed in all their pristine-spined glory. I really don’t need to buy any books.

I’m not doing this solely for budget reasons, nor because I think buying lots of books is a problem. I’m not really sure what is the “reason” I’m doing it, other than the fact that I think it’s worth it to try. So, here I am. This is my published contractual obligation to fast book-buying (and clothes-buying) for a whole, entire, full year. I wonder how it will go.

Just Stir the Chili

I’m pacing around the kitchen, feeling antsy. He hasn’t heard from the tech company about the job yet. God, how good would it feel to just finish something? I actually can’t remember that sense of accomplishment. It’s like having a panic attack, it’s a feeling that so indelibly anchors your body to the present and yet spreads your brains across the space-time continuum so that you’ll never be able to remember what it feels like in the moment. Yeah, I’m a wreck these days. It’s been like this for a while. I can tell it’s not depression this time, though, because I’m still getting normal life shit done. The kids are screaming about something. It’s happy. They’re toting stuffies  and getting shoes on, clambering out the backdoor in a frenzy of exclamation and giggles. Oh and there’s the smell of the coconut oil, hot in the pot on the stove. I dump in the red onion, the diced carrots. I’m making my signature pumpkin chili—thick, rich, aromatic, delicious—not because it’s cold outside (it’s not) or even because it’s fall, but because it’s something I can do well from start to finish—emphasis on the finish, here.

Stir the softening vegetables, adjust the heat. Girls are happily playing outside now. I think that gives me approximately five minutes of peace before they start fighting or return indoors hot, sticky, and covered in mosquito bites. I really don’t know why we still live here. It is certainly not by choice. Mind wandering, meandering, strolling along again. It’s fine until it turns to panic. But maybe that won’t happen tonight. And if it does, there’s always my daily allotment of a glass of wine. It’s a glamorous life I lead.

The onions are translucent now. Time to add the 100% organic grass-fed, sustainably raised ground beef. I wonder what it was like to live in a time in which one didn’t have to worry about such bullshit as, well, bull shit. Like, what was it like to just buy meat that somebody raised and support their livelihood in the process? Nope, this digression is not sanctioned. Back to the zen of cooking. God, but I do love the sound of that sizzle. Start browning and breaking up the beef, then chop some more veg. The trick to this chili is to layer the flavors. It’s all about timing and I love that because I have a sense for it. I don’t have to think about it much, I just do it and it happens and it’s magical and fills the house with the sounds and smells of good food.

I take care in cooking. I keep everything clean. I make a little pile of compost scraps on the counter that he later sweeps into the bin. I leave it out, not because I mind cleaning it up, but because it’s the proof of my care and labor in creating the meal. I didn’t just pull something out of the freezer and pop it in the oven. I wash the zucchini under cold water. The skin has hints of prickles. It reminds me of being a kid at Memommy’s old, white house in the Georgia summer, gorging on blueberries and eating homegrown produce for dinner from Shirley & JT’s garden. I’ve never since been able to replicate the Memommy summer tomato sandwich. It was a thing of beauty and delight, the likes of which I don’t think I’ve known since.

Now the mushrooms: gentle caresses to wipe away dirt, a cold trickle from the faucet, a few dabs with a paper towel. The brown that they leave behind on the towel is luscious and living. The zucchini sweats where I had to peel away a portion of the skin. Cut it lengthwise, then in long wedges, then dice it. This knife is sharp and weighted beautifully. It’s the type of knife that, as my father-in-law would conclude, I had no business buying. But it has changed my life, having a good knife. Just because I only cook for my family doesn’t mean I don’t deserve a good knife. EVERYONE deserves a good knife. I’ll email Oprah later.

The kids are back inside. They’re both talking to me, but my mind is in another universe.

Stir. Chop the mushrooms. Stir. Add the zucchini and mushrooms. Turn down the heat. Mix up the spice blend. Stir, stir, stir. Add the pumpkin. Stir. Add the tomatoes and the broth. Stir. Let it simmer. That’s it. Back to pacing and musing.

The kids are pouting, lounging on the couch. They don’t have TV to entertain them/rot their brains. I think of how much more I could have accomplished by now in my life if television hadn’t been a part of my childhood. Perhaps I would have faced more boredom, but I know damn well that I would have created something meaningful by now. The kids are fighting. I’m pacing again, facing regret. Maybe it’s time for that glass of wine. Just one. I pop, pour, sip. I take it slowly, but not too slowly. That hum of peace that washes down my esophagus and flattens itself against the inside of me. What a feeling. It’s almost a tomato sandwich feeling. Almost.

The chili simmers. It fills the house with its nuanced fragrance. Each room takes on the scent of a different layer. In the bathroom, it’s always the garlic layer. I slide my back down the smooth face of the cabinet, sit on the kitchen floor and sip, thinking still, but not ever able to tune out the tensions rising between the kids. I’ll parent; I’ll help them figure this out. I won’t yell this time. But even so, I feel the tightening in my gut, the frustration throbbing against my temples. I get up. I put down the wine glass. I stir the chili.

Relatable and Real: Review of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital and All My Puny Sorrows

I’ve been reading a lot of just-barely-fiction lately that I’ve really enjoyed. By that, I mean a book that rings so true to real-life experience (and often to what I know of the author’s personal bio) that I feel like I’m living it. For me, the transportive/relatable element is not enough, though. There needs to be some layering of lovely sentences and unexpected observations. There needs to be an underlying wisdom or a veneer of sharp accuracy.

Two books that I’ve read in 2017 have had all of the above and then some. They moved me and awakened me and left me reeling, but they also gave me a sense of ease. Sometimes, when bad things happen in books or in real life, it’s jarring and unforgiving. But in each of these poignant stories, there is so much of the protagonist’s barely separated observation intermingled with her wholehearted investment that experiencing life through her eyes is more like bobbing in a choppy lake than being overtaken by a barreling ocean wave.

In Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, the narrator is a woman who is almost exactly the same age as my mom. She wanders back and forth between her coming-of-age years in the early 1970’s in upstate New York and her current life with her husband on an extended vacation in Paris. Setting and even timeline are not of great importance in the story, though. Lorrie Moore makes observations that are astute and unexpected, layered in between metaphors that may not even make sense at first, but sound so beautiful you don’t really notice.

Passing cafés and restaurants, I walk through the bright glance of men in love, who, looking briefly away from the lover across from them in order to more perfectly form a sentence, unwittingly cast their gaze across my path like a light. And so, momentarily, to have accidentally caught their desire, swimming across the current of it like that, passing through, I feel loved, in a warm and random way, wandering through it, as if it were a rainbow, that old trick of light, or a place in a pool where someone has peed. There is a sweet, silent rot to it.

This is a short book, but it’s one that doesn’t need any excess words to fill it up. I felt instantly and powerfully connected to the story. It’s a story like a sparkler, it burns bright until the very end, when, even as it fizzles out, you are left with an afterimage of its shining brilliance.

Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows practically contains the weight of its beauty in the title. That alone is an impressive accomplishment, but it’s only the beginning of a work of storytelling that is equal parts lovely and honest. It’s been a few months since I read this book, but it has implanted itself in my mind like a perpetual impression. I’m often brought back viscerally to particular scenes, as if they were genuine memories from my life.

When I listened to her play I felt I should not be there in the same room with her. There were hundreds of people but nobody left. It was a private pain. By private I mean to say unknowable. Only the music knew and it held secrets so that her playing was a puzzle, a whisper, and people afterward stood in the bar and drank and said nothing because they were complicit. There were no words.

Toews is a master of transition and she makes run-on sentences bend to her will. Her style is simple, effortless, and richly descriptive.

Living with my mother is like living with Winnie the Pooh. She has many adventures, getting herself into and out of trouble guilelessly, and all of these adventures are accompanied by a few lines of gentle philosophy. There’s always a little bit more to learn every time you get your head stuck in a honey pot if you’re my mother.

When I read this book, I went into it without any idea of what to expect, and I think that is the very best way to experience this one. It hit very close to home for me, but it didn’t make me sad. I think reading it built something up inside of me that I didn’t know needed to be assembled. As simply as I can describe it, it is a beautiful, remarkable, painful book and I recommend it unequivocally.

An honorable mention for this first person female protagonist story, written with unique and striking prose category is: Chemistry by Weike Wang. This book made an impression on me personally, but I know that it was a subjective one given how much I related to the main character’s voice and experiences. Still, I really enjoyed it and it’s another brief book, so I want to recommend it for its fresh perspective and Wang’s largely unprecedented spare, scientific, emotionally charged, paradoxical writing style.

9781400033829

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital

All My Puny Sorrows

All My Puny Sorrows

Chemistry

Chemistry

Ellie

I’m sitting across from Ellie at the table in my bedroom. It’s been raining almost non-stop for the past four days and today we’ve finally had a reprieve from the downpour. Ellie’s face reflects the consternation I feel. Her sweet mouth is stretched to a concentrating frown, her little chin active as she mouths words to herself, glancing periodically out the window in response to a noise or a glimpse of movement outside. There is so much going on behind those wide, blue eyes and that tucked lower lip. She catches my eye and gives me a coy grin. What is she thinking about? Her sweet feet dangle from the chair, almost a foot above the floor, toes flexing and relaxing in response to thoughts I can’t read. She has to reach those soft arms up an inch or two to rest them on the table and scoot the puzzle pieces around. What amazes me most about this fae-child is how long she can sit in companionable silence. And when she does speak, it’s not necessarily to me, though I’m facing her in my own chair.

She catches my eye, then breaks the quiet suspended between us: “I think muggles should be called humans because…” Her vocalized thought becomes inaudible as she climbs down from the chair, picks a wedgie, and wanders out of the room. She thinks before she speaks. Every idea or notion receives due process in that brilliant imagination factory of hers. Her impossible eyelashes cast up to the sky as she peers blurringly into the front yard. I can see so much of me in her, but only insofar as someone gave us each some identical genes and we ran off with them in different directions.

She grabbed a book to read to me. That expressive face is in full bloom now, reacting and concocting a story beyond the page. She never just reads, she illustrates and performs with her tone and her words and her careful formation of those syllables. She’s working it all out as she goes and she never falters from the characters she’s concocted. Every now and then, she feels my eyes so intently observing and glances up with hints of suspicion and satisfaction. Oh, she knows how cute she is, that’s for sure. But it doesn’t make her mean or resentful, it makes her Ellie—sweet, candid, unashamed. It’s beautiful. She is beautiful, my fearless Elliott Jane.

Golden-Bronze Longing

I love the way the sun’s last light seems to leak out on everything—molten gold.

It’s the same here, even as it is on the West Coast. For some reason, it gives me a twinge of hope. That coating of light on the world makes the promise of night with its elusive freedom.

The Ancient Greeks knew of this mysterious power in sunlight. In my dreams, I long to be draped in white, bronzed by daylight, and ravaged by starlit night.

But, instead, I look out the window from my comfortable seat to a world made ugly by violence and heat. That gilded sheen is only a façade for a life in the prisons we make for ourselves. My prison is fear, panic, sadness, duty.

I want to push out into the darkened night, fearless and feeling, unhindered, my prison doors unhinged. I want to move and sway in the rhythms of the night, sandals sticky with golden residue, laughing at the illusion of it all.

Writing My Way Through Inauguration Day

img_3897Welp, it’s Inauguration Day. Tomorrow, women and men are taking to the streets of Washington, D.C. across the country in passive resistance, in solidarity to boycott oppression and promote compassion in a country that is divided by hatred and misguided loyalties. It’s time to come together for the cause of peace. It breaks my heart to think that a man as terrible and tiresome as Donald Trump was even taken seriously long enough to gain footing in the presidential race, much less to actually be elected as President of the United States.

My thoughts on it are underdeveloped because I feel like I still just haven’t read enough. I just don’t know enough. I don’t understand yet. But, maybe I never will.

My own problems and frustrations shrink and grow behind my weary eyelids, like the images in fever dreams. Yes, I need to keep moving forward. Yes, I need to be strong. Yes, I need to care for myself. But, no, it won’t be enough to change things—not really. I’m fighting the fatalistic reality that confronts me on a day like today. I’m fighting it because even though I won’t be marching tomorrow and even though I’m just sitting at my computer, in my comfortable house, I’m making a difference, too. Even in just educating myself and my two young daughters, even in feeding my family well and extending compassion and donations and whatever else I can to those in need, those who are working, I’m contributing something to the world. Even my small corner of this earth is a part of the whole.

Writing is not just a personal catharsis, but a productive act. Writing puts words and ideas down that other people might not think on their own. Writing brings another voice to prominence, adding to the harmony of the collective sound of humanity. Writing begets strength. It recharges the writer and refreshes the reader. It makes sense of the puzzle of reality, even if the words themselves are enigmatic or abstract. The imagination is proof that there is something worth fighting for. Writing proves that there is worth in humanity.

Heavy Strings

Oh, darling, I don’t know

Do you ever feel like we’re just wasting time here?

How about a new thing?
Maybe something that’s not so heavy to hold
Maybe more than just weeds and strings this time

I’m trying hard not to cry
I’m keeping it together for you…For me?
I’m trying so hard not to cry now